You can’t miss newspaper articles, books, and even movies which depict the harrowing experiences of drug abuse in our world today. This year, two standout films tell an emotionally raw story not just about addiction, but of a young adult’s attempts to regain his life. “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back” both create these stories, but with Peter Hedges film, “Ben Is Back,” starring his own son Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts, he utilizes pieces of his own life as well as others’, to give us a sincere and poignant tale of a mother and son struggling for survival.
Peter Hedges was recently in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival where his film screened. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting this soft-spoken yet engaging, award winning writer and director to talk about making “Ben Is Back.”
Pamela Powell (PP): I understand that “Ben Is Back” is reflective of your own life in many ways.
Peter Hedges (PH): I grew up in a family that was decimated and then ultimately elevated because of addiction. My mom was an active alcoholic until I was 15 and then she left home when I was 7. I didn’t really know her full and majestic self —she was a remarkable woman—until she got sober when I was 15. The last 22 years of her life she devoted to helping other people and saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. …I saw from a family perspective what happens when a loved member of the family is engulfed by the disease of addiction. And so as I got older … I noticed that I was burying more and more friends and more and more people that I knew were at risk. A close family member nearly died and another family member did die and so I just wanted to create or tell a story that I felt could be a big part of a conversation that we need to have.
PP: You have a uniquely accurate way of creating a mother’s voice in your characters, especially with Julia Robert’s character of “Holly.” How do you do this?
PH: I had a remarkable mother and I’m married to a remarkable mother. My sister’s a remarkable mother. Most of my favorite actors are remarkable women of a certain age. Holly was not hard for [me to write]. … From the minute I started writing the mother in “Gilbert Grape” to the mother I wrote in “Pieces of April,” I like writing moms. I don’t know why, … nothing comes super easy for me, but they do. I think it’s my respect and awe and love for moms and mothers and women in my life. And my life has helped make that possible. … I was struck in reading Walt Whitman’s journals. When soldiers were dying in the war repeatedly, …. they never called out for their fathers. They never called out for their loved ones. They always called out for their mothers. I wanted to write a great love story. … I thought who would really go anywhere and will go everywhere for their child?
PP: Julia and Lucas have such a genuine connection. Tell me about their relationship and developing it to give such authentic performances.
PH: It’s a testament to both of them. They really like each other! … I mean what does one say about Julia Roberts? She’s the perfect actor to play Holly. She’s that mom. She loves her kids so much and she’ll do anything for them. What makes the movie so powerful to me is that Holly’s trying so hard to protect her child and Lucas is Ben is trying so hard to make up for his mistakes and I find that very moving that I’m going to beat this. And the fact that it’s that hard to beat is why the film’s important is because that’s what so many people are facing and some of us don’t realize how difficult it is. Someone that we sit next to at work, at school and they’re living everyday in this peril that Holly and Ben lives on this day.
PP: And what about working with your own son?
PH: He never called me dad. I mean one time he did. He came knocking on my door, he needed some money. (Laughs) But he stayed down the hall and I never went to his room. He came to my room a couple of times but I really tried to just keep the distance and give him his space.
PP: As a mother, I felt that I was Holly, walking in her shoes even though I, thankfully, have not gone through this experience directly. I had such compassion for her character.
PH: That’s the great danger of the time that we’re living in is that everything is “an other.” … when we lose our capacity to feel compassion for other people and we lose our ability or interest in understand other points of view, then we are descending toward more of a savage world, a cruel world. I think art at its best expands our capacity for compassion and maybe we’ll look a little differently at the people we’ve been writing off.
PP: Do you feel that this film is in some ways a healing process for you and your past?
PH: It is in some respects very much that. I think my mother and father who are no longer here in the physical sense and I know how much they would love this film and that makes me proud that that’s an extension of the work they were doing. And this is my attempt to be a part of something much bigger and more important. It’s definitely healing. It makes me want to keep moving in the direction of making urgent and necessary films.
PP: This topic touches so many lives directly, including my friend who lost her son. What have you seen so far of the impact of this film?
PH: The trailer came out and trailers always scare me and I was looking on the “Ben Is Back” Facebook page, and thousands of people are commenting about the trailer, but a number of [were] people saying, I don’t know if I can see this movie, I lived it, and then someone would say, this is a picture of my son that I lost and then there would be 14 comments from people all over the world saying I’m so sorry that that happened. He looked like such a great kid. … Somebody came up to me yesterday after the movie and said, I didn’t know what I put my mother through until I saw this movie and said, ‘I’m going to go call my mom.’ YES! … That’s the hard thing about the disease that you’re so caught up in it that you lose your capacity to understand that you’re hurting the people that you most love. When my mother got sober, she had to live with the fact that all the hurting she did when she was drinking. If she hadn’t have been drinking she would never have done those things. She would never have walked out on 4 children. She had to be drunk to do that. I understand there’s accountability … but they’re not themselves. And this friend of yours who lost her son, he wasn’t himself.
Film Rating 4/4 Stars