Peter Hedges, Writer-Director of Ben Is Back came to the Chicago International Film Festival to talk about the film that features his son, Lucas Hedges, as a recovering drug addict. This was the third film I’ve seen at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival about drug addiction, with “Beautiful Boy” and “Diane” the other two.
Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve morning from the rehab facility where he is being treated. Ben’s mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is welcoming, but wary of her son staying clean. [The first thing I wondered about, given the fact that Holly (Julia Roberts) hides all her jewelry and is so skeptical of Ben at one point that she asks him to take a drug test, why didn’t she check with the sponsor who supposedly cleared the trip home? That plot point seems to have been missed.] The film very quickly became a movie about a search for a missing dog, which is a plot device I won’t explain further.
Writer/Director Peter Hedges of Ben Is Back in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).
The senior Hedges is no stranger to movie-making, as he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of “About A Boy” (Hugh Grant) 13 years before his son, Lucas, was nominated for an Oscar for playing Patrick Chandler in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016). Peter, who was born in West Des Moines, Iowa, and attended Valley West High School, wrote or directed “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993), “About A Boy” (2002) and “Pieces of April” (2003). Both his father and grandfather were ministers, so the scenes in church (where Lucas is at his best, I thought) came fairly naturally. There’s a nice circularity to the opening church stained glass window shot, the scenes in church, and the final scene, also, which is, no doubt, a tribute to Peter Hedges’ screenwriting background.
Lucas Hedges appeared in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, “Lady Bird” (2017), and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,Missouri (2017). Peter is 56; Lucas was born in 1996. All of these film choices of Lucas’ were Oscar-nominated. His father, however, says he is in no way responsible for Lucas’ film decisions saying, “I probably had a bigger influence on his baseball playing than on his acting.” Said his proud father, “Lucas is so smart with his choices. I’m impressed by how he prepared for this role.” He also noted that when Lucas acts, “He’s just so good. He makes choices that are very nuanced for someone his age. He doesn’t act like he’s acting.”
Following the showing of Ben Is Back Writer/Director Hedges spoke with us about the making of the film. It was really a fluke that Lucas ended up in his father’s film. He had what his father described as “a bad experience” in the elder Hedges’ film “Dan in Real Life.” From then on, “We said we weren’t going to do that again.” However, a play that Lucas was set to do fell through, making him available to star in this film, (just as he is also being seen in “Boy Erased” with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe). One gets the feeling that this is going to be Lucas Hedges’ year, just as it was Timothee Chalamet’s last year.
Patrick Hedges said, “Never let your kids be in your movies. He’s been working with so many amazing people. It’s not me at all. He asked me, ‘Is Dad going to direct the movie?’ and when the answer was ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Then I don’t want to be in the movie.’” (Laughter)
So, how did it come to pass that Lucas ended up playing the lead?
“Julia Roberts said Lucas should do this movie.” The elder Hedges shared that he began writing the script on May 23, 2017 and had a script 6 weeks later. Julia Roberts signed on to play the mother on September 8, 2018 and began sending pictures of one of her own sons, with similar reddish-brown hair, and really lobbying for Lucas to play the teenaged lead. Lucas was flattered and finally agreed. The two Hedges men agreed that Lucas would not call Peter “Dad” while they were filming.
Said Peter, “I definitely made a choice that this adventure took place over a day. Ben owed this drug dealer guy and he had to do a run. He’s trying to stop the drug dealer from going after his family.” He remarked, “The second half of this film was difficult for me. It’s a place I don’t normally go.” He laughingly added, “I was aware that I’d written a Christmas movie that you’d probably only want to watch once.” He then added, “Probably not a very good business decision.”
Writer/Director Peter Hedges of Ben Is Back and Chicago Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche at the Q&A after Ben Is Back at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo by Connie Wilson).
Asked by Chicago International Film Festival Artistic Director “How do you want people to be affected?” the writer/director of the film said, “I hope this expands your understanding. Maybe an addict will come and see Julia Roberts’ portrayal and realize what they’re doing to their mother.” He added, “I wanted to write a love story, and that’s the love I wanted to tell, a mother’s for her son.” He said, “This is a story that’s happening too often in too many families. This is a huge, huge issue and this is my small attempt to be part of the solution.”
Starring alongside Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges is Courtney Vance as Julia’s husband, Kathryn Newton as Ivy Burns (Ben’s sister), and David Zaldivar as Spencer “Spider” Webbs.