Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Writer-director Peter Hedges on making ‘Ben is Back’ (Podcast)
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Ben is Back’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Sunday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15/Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera house box office;aspenshowtix.com
More info: Sunday’s screening will be preceded by ‘Bathtubs Over Broadway’ at 3 p.m. and ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ at 5:15 p.m. Saturday’s Academy Screenings at Paepcke Auditorium include ‘Capernaum’ (12:15 p.m.), ‘Boy Erased’ (3 p.m.), ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (5:45 p.m.) and ‘Vox Lux (8:30 p.m.); aspenfilm.org
Filmmaker Peter Hedges wants only to make movies that matter — to tell stories that might improve lives, impact society and reveal new truths.
In the writer-director’s vital new film “Ben is Back,” which closes Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings on Sunday, he stares down the ongoing American opioid crisis and aims to place viewers in the anxious, panicked world of a family racked by an addiction.
The Oscar-nominated Hedges has been inspired by the darkness and seeming hopelessness of America in the early Donald Trump era to craft stories that feel necessary in this moment.
“I knew after the election that I wanted to commit the rest of my time to making the most impactful and meaningful work that I could,” he explained in a recent phone interview. “I knew that I wanted to make something useful that would not only help me navigate the world, but maybe help others do the same.”
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The result of this new mission is the harrowing “Ben is Back,” which takes place over an intense 24-hour period as the young addict Ben (Lucas Hedges) comes home from rehab for a surprise Christmas visit to his family’s home. They’re skeptical of him, his sobriety and whether he’s capable of being honest. The film plays out like a taut thriller, as Ben takes his mother (Julia Roberts) on a shocking tour of the wreckage of his past and the horrific underbelly of the drug world in their quiet suburban town.
“I wanted the film to feel real,” Hedges explained. “I wanted (it) to feel like you were peeking in on a life. … These families are experiencing concern, panic, nervousness, worry, fear every moment of the day. There’s no rest because every time the phone rings they may be getting bad news.”
The title role is played by Hedges’ son, the Oscar-nominated 22-year-old who has solidified his place as a generational talent in the past two yeas with revelatory turns in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (and the new “Boy Erased,” which plays Saturday at Academy Screenings and for which the young actor has been nominated for a Golden Globe).
The director did not expect to cast his son in the lead. The pair had resolved not to collaborate after Lucas had a small part as a boy in his dad’s 2007 film “Dan in Real Life.”
“I took him at his word when he said he didn’t want to do a film of mine,” Hedges recalled. “We would joke about it. But he would say, ‘I want you to be my dad.’”
But when Roberts got on board for the film, she pushed for Lucas to play Ben. He read the script and, eventually, signed on. They filmed in upstate New York, immediately after Lucas wrapped “Boy Erased.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to work together with one of the greatest movie stars of all time,” Peter Hedges said. “Because the story was so personal for me, because of my own upbringing and my relationship to addiction, that was very meaningful to me. He gave me a great gift by coming and doing the film. He certainly deserved a vacation.”
Hedges wanted to get back to the original storytelling as writer and director that made his name in Hollywood, from his landmark Oscar-nominated screenwriting debut “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to his Oscar-nominated directorial debut “Pieces of April” a decade later. After a bout of writer’s block, he sought to tap into what inspired him in those films to tell vital stories.
“At their core they are very human stories about broken families,” he said of “Gilbert Grape” and “Pieces.” “I like writing about broken families. … Hopefully, the work would be deeper and bolder because I’ve learned a lot in the intervening years.”
So he stared down the dire — and worsening — American opioid crisis, which had impacted him personally. He had lost a close friend to an overdose and had mourned his favorite actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. A niece had overdosed and nearly died. He’d grown up with an alcoholic mother, so he knew intimately the corrosive effect of addiction on a family. Out of his grief and powerlessness, he sought to make a film that would humanize families battling addiction and reflect their experiences back to them.
“You’d have to be head-deep in the sand not to know that we’re in the middle of an epidemic,” Hedges said, pointing to the estimated 70,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 and the expected rise in that number in the new year.
He knows that no movie will solve the crisis. But he believes art can make a difference.
“We have a lot of shame and secrecy about the epidemic,” he said. “One of the things that cinema can do better than most any art form is shine a light on areas in our lives that need light. So that’s what I tried to do.”
Roberts uses her thousand-watt star power to magnificent effect in the film. With all of her charm and grace, this iconic American movie star — as Holly — is desperate but unable to save her son. She rages against a doctor and a pharmacist, against dealers and addicts, against family members who’ve lost hope in Ben — at one point she literally curses a pain pill itself. In one heart-wrenching scene, Holly drags Ben to the local cemetery and pleads: “Just tell me, son, where you want me to bury you.” Audiences know and love Roberts and here she is an avatar for the frustration that millions of Americans are feeling right now as this epidemic spins out of control and wreaks havoc on communities and families.
Hedges was acutely aware of the unique power Roberts could bring to the role.
“Other actors cry and you’re watching an actor cry,” he said. “Julia Roberts cries and the world weeps. … It’s something about her, she is bigger than life in many ways and yet is so disarming. She is so ferocious, so fragile in this part, so complex and multi-layered and real.”
The performance has landed Roberts vocal support in the Best Actress Oscar race.
“If it can happen to Julia Roberts playing Holly Burns, then it can happen to all of us,” Hedges said. “So what kind of people are we going to be when it does happen? Are we going to be Holly Burns or are we going to be the person that gives up on our kid? I hope more of us are like Holly.”
Guiding his son through a performance as a tormented son with a tortured parental relationship translates onto the screen in an empathetic portrait of an unquestionably dangerous young man with an arguably pure heart, who appears possessed by the demon of addiction. But during the hard work of filmmaking, Hedges said, he could forget that this talented collaborator was his own flesh and blood.
“I was reminded in casual moments when I’d look up and go, ‘Oh, I’m his father,’” he recalled.
But everyone making the film was passionate about telling this story.
“It’s a very personal film and it was personal for everyone who was making it,” Hedges said. “Everyone with their own relationship to the epidemic or their families or their broken relationships that need to be healed.”
As Hedges navigates the media storm of awards season with “Ben Is Back,” he is nearing completion on a new script. He said it brings him to another timely social issue and continues his new mission as an artist.
“We need all hands on deck right now,” he said. “Teachers need to teach at the highest level, writers need to write at their highest level, reporters need to report at the highest level — we need to love as fully as we can and be active and activated as much as we can. I’m just trying to do that in my writing now. I’m not thinking about money or acclaim. I feel completely liberated. I just want to be a part of stories that feel necessary.”
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