'Ben Is Back' Director Peter Hedges On Working With His Son And Casting Julia Roberts [Interview]

Peter Hedges' career as a screenwriter began by writing his first novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which he then adapted into a screenplay for the 1993 film. In the years that followed, Hedges wrote more books, plays and the occasional screenplay, including the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Nick Hornby's About A Boy. In 2003, he took his first crack at being a writer/director with Pieces of April, followed four years later with Dan In Real Life. and The Odd Life of Timothy Green in 2012.

His latest work, Ben Is Back, is particularly important to Hedges for a couple of reasons. First, he gets to work with his son, Lucas Hedges, one of the busiest young actors working today (Ben Is Back marks his third film in the last two months, after Mid90s and Boy Erased), for the first time since Lucas was a youngster. And second, he finally gets to work with his all-time favorite actress, Julia Roberts, who plays Holly Burns, the mother of Ben, a drug-addicted teen who returns home from rehab unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, setting off a series of events that put both mother and son in great danger. The entire film takes place is 24 hours and tests the patience and resolve of everyone involved, including Holly's new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and Holly's daughter/Ben's sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton). Part family drama/part thriller, Ben Is Back gives the elder Hedges a chance to work his creative muscles in ways he hasn't as a filmmaker to this point in his career.

/Film sat down with Hedges at the recent Chicago International Film Festival to talk about working with his wildly talented son for the first time as an adult actor, the importance of being able to cast his favorite working actress in the lead role, and the thrill of turning a simple mother-and-son story into something of a chase movie. The film is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and is set to open wide on Friday, December 14.

There have been many films about addiction over the years. How did you want to distinguish yours from some of the others and speak to just how prominent the problem is today?

Peter: I haven't seen many film that deal directly with the heroine/opioid epidemic of this moment, so there was that. Also, I feel like there have been films that are about people who are using, and are they going to stop using? Those are very important. But I haven't seen a movie where someone had the beginnings of some recovery and returned home and was going to have that recovery tested in a particular way. I felt like really telling a story where a mother is willing to go anywhere and goes everywhere on behalf of her kid. For me, it was about looking at someone who had had some recovery and whose past was going to be tested and rise up in front of him and all of the attendant temptations and triggers would accompany one if they came back to where they had make their mistakes. Also, I don't know if I'd ever seen a story that explored one family over one day. That felt like it made it different.

There was just recently another film [Beautiful Boy] about addiction, but it's a father-son story, told over many years.

Peter: But with many things in common, yes.

Do you see any inherent differences between the two relationships portrayed?

Peter: It's no so much what's different. The Orpheus myth is my favorite myth, and the prodigal son is my favorite parable. Both of them came into play here, except Orpheus was a man who went back to find his love in the underworld. As I was thinking about this, I was thinking about a mother's love and how nobody loves you like your mom, and she's not going to give up on her kid. I don't know if a mother's love and a father's love is that different. I've read both books that Beautiful Boy is based on, and I can't wait to see that film. I root for that film. I did know of it and I knew that it was going to cover a part of this story that I didn't need to cover in Ben Is Back. I felt like we could look at some other aspects. This is bigger than any one movie.

In my family, if something were to have happened with one of my kids, I think my wife would be the tougher one. One of the things I love about Julia in this film is that she is fragile in spots but so ferocious at other times. One of the things I tried to do is find organic ways she could brush up against the doctor who over-prescribed the meds and the pharmaceutical industry that misled us about the addictive aspect of the drugs they gave us for pain. Even try to find someway to talk about the imbalance about why weren't arresting all the young black men and not arresting the young white men and women—the statistics are staggering. But this is a story about one family over one day.

You have included little moments that do deal with these bigger-picture ideas and tucked them into what feels like a very personal, intimate story. This isn't based on one particular person's experience, and that makes it more of a cautionary tale.

Peter: It's not, but it is based on several. I lost a very good friend and almost lost a very close family member, and we lost our greatest actor to drugs.

Are you talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Peter: Phil Hoffman, yes. And we also lost Heath Ledger, Prince, Tom Petty, Carrie Fisher, Michael Jackson—the list of people we've lost is unreal. And for every famous person, important, bold-faced name we've lost, we've also lost hundreds of thousands of other people. I wanted to find a way to organically address the size of the problem. There are many, many factors contributing to this untenable situation.

This is a film with only a few characters, but every one of them places a crucial part, especially every person in the family. Courtney B. Vance's character is one of the most interesting because he's not Ben's father—which is not to say he doesn't care about and love him—so he's seeing things more clearly than his wife is, and that's important. Often times when it's your real father and mother, their judgment is clouded by love.

Peter: I think so. Courtney and his sister have a clearer-eyed look at what's going on, and it's not that Holly isn't worried about her so; she just believes that any of the real challenges that they might face over this 24-hour period, she can handle.

Kathryn's character, Ivy, when she's on the screen, I don't care about anything else. She is speaking the truth, saying what we're all thinking. She's a remarkable actress. Talk about that role in the family where you are the constant cynic, but she still cares very much.

Peter: She's cares a great deal about him. It was really important to find that balance, because otherwise she's just this bratty, annoying teenage sister. If she went too far in one direction, I tried to right it in a balanced way. When she auditioned, I hadn't even seen Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri], and I didn't know she was also in Lady Bird. I didn't know who she was when I saw the audition tape; I wasn't even at her audition. I was about to cast this other actress when I saw her tape, and she broke my heart and I loved her so much. The story is primarily told from Holly's point of view and often times through Ben's point of view, but there are moments when we really need to see this family through Ivy and Neal's points of view. Those roles are not as fully fleshed out, so I really needed actors who could bring a whole range of complexity to the parts, and Kathryn and Courtney both did that.

How did Julia get involved in this?

Peter: By the 20th of August last year, I had a draft I thought I could send to an actor. We sent it to Julia's agent, who read it and said they were going to recommend that Julia read it, which was a big deal. And it went off to Julia, and we heard back pretty quickly that she responded to it, and I quickly got on a plane and went to Malibu to talk to her, and we spent a wonderful afternoon together. She said she needed to talk about it with her kids and her husband, because she would have to leave them in the middle of the school year and she doesn't usually work or go away from them during the school year. On the morning of September 11, she texted me saying that she wanted to do the film.

The film has certain beats that are familiar to films about addicts, but at about the halfway point, you take this almost-thriller turn, where she's with her son part of the time and trying to locate him part of the time. I get excited about films that do something unexpected like that.

Peter: I wasn't expecting it as I was writing it. In fact, it wasn't until I sent it to one of our producers, who called me after she read it and said, "It's a page-turner." There was no intention and I didn't set out to switch genres. Hopefully, each step is one that only happened because a certain series of events happens. If he hadn't come home, this movie wouldn't have happened. If he'd gone back when he was supposed to, this movie wouldn't have happened. If they hadn't gone to the mall, this wouldn't have happened. If they hadn't gone to the meeting...the idea was that at every point, there's this opportunity to make a different choice, and they make these choices and it spirals out of control. I felt like that was thrilling to me. The second half of the movie is not as much in my wheelhouse from the kinds of movies I've made or stories I tell, but what I liked about it was that I knew, because I had this 24-hour window, how far this could go.

If Lucas wasn't your son, what he's been doing for the last couple of years would have put him at the top of the list to be in this film anyway. By the time I saw this film, I'd already seen him in two other films that week.

Peter: At the point we cast him, he was the only Academy Award-nominated actor under 29 years of age alive on the planet. And the other actor who was buzzing in the same space—well, there are a number of wonderful young actors, but the other obvious way to go was with the actor who just shot Beautiful Boy [Timothée Chalamet]. Lucas and Timothée happen to be very good friends. I came armed to my meeting with Julia with a list of actors, many of them are very prominent, who had raised their hand and said "We'd like to be considered for the part." And when I sat down, Julia asked "What about Lucas?" She was all Lucas [laughs]. And I said, "I don't know if he really wants to work with me," and for understandable reasons. She actually sent a picture of one of her sons who has red hair and said, "See how good I am with red-haired boys?"

I had heard somewhere that you and Lucas had agreed that he wouldn't call you Dad on set.

Peter: Yes, my wife suggested it to him. The hard part was Lucas making the decision to do the movie. For me, it got hard early on because I realized what a risky thing it was do be doing. He's been in so many remarkable movies and I thought "What if I'm making a dud? What if I fail him." That was my biggest fear. But once we were working together, because of the way I direct—I give actors a lot of room and space to work from their instincts—he and Julia together were bonded, from the moment they met. And the same with Courtney and Kathryn when they came into the family. It was well cast, and these are really exceptional artists. We had a hard job; we had 30 days to shoot this, and it could have benefitted from 40, but we had 30 days. We just kept our head down and kept moving. I had a wonderful time working with him, and he appears to have had a pretty good time.

Are there times when you watch him, either while making this, or in anything he's been in recently and ask "Where did that come from?"

Peter: First of all, when we were watching Manchester [by the Sea] for the first time at Sundance, I wanted to stand up in the theater and say, "I do no know this young man!" It wasn't until  he started flirting with Anna Baryshnikov that I recognized Lucas. But I didn't recognize him in Mid90s either. I haven't seen Boy Erased yet, but I can't wait to see it.

There's this backstory here about the death of this character named Maggie, and for the longest time, I was wondering what it was so important. You could have made the film without that story, but then when Rachel Bay Jones [who plays Maggie's mother] has that line "You can't save them, but you'll hate yourself if you don't try," then I realized that's why this subplot is there, for that moment. That's the movie in a nutshell.

Peter: Yeah, I thought about that line. I certainly don't want to say we can't save people, because I don't want to give up on people, but there are some real strong feelings in certain circles that you can't save someone else.

I feel like most of us know that, it's just tough for most of us to admit and accept it.

Peter: I think there are people who are saved because they have opportunity or they have family support. My mother, before going into her third rehab, came out of a coma, and my 18-year-old sister said, "I will go through rehab with you." I don't think my mother would have made it if my sister hadn't gone through it with her. I've wondered about the actual phrasing of the line, because I do think there are people who make it because they are loved. It's just a question of what's the loving thing to do. Sometimes the loving thing is the tough thing. There aren't easy answers.

I also need for Holly to see what could happen to Ben, and I also love the idea that the move has a father that is still angry and drinking and is violent [about his daughter's death] and a mother who is able to forgive and tries to counsel Holly. I found it really quite moving. It's important that Holly see what might be her future, and that's what the Beth character was.

It was a real pleasure to meet you. Best of luck with this.

Peter: Thank you so much.