Peter Hedges wrote and directed Ben is Back,”with his son Lucas Hedges in the title role of a recovering addict who unexpectedly comes home for Christmas. His mother, played by Julia Roberts, welcomes him with joy but immediately hides all of the medicine and jewelry in the house. The mingled emotions of love, apprehension, panic, and anger play out as Ben’s past comes back to haunt him and the whole family.
In an interview before he presented the film at the Middleburg Film Festival, Hedges talked about his own experiences with family members and friends struggling with addiction and why this movie is told differently from most stories of addiction.
Nell Minow: Julia Roberts is terrific in the film. How did you work with her to create this character?
Peter Hedges: She had read the script and I had heard through her agent that she responded and that she could meet me in a few weeks but I was impatient because I wanted the film out this fall. I wanted it out as soon as it could be made without rushing. So I said, “I’ll go anywhere she is in the world but I need to see her in the next two days.” and that was my one demonstrative act of, “No, you need to talk to me now.”
So I flew immediately to Malibu where we met for what was to be an hour but it turned out to be three hours. She’s so smart; she is incredibly prepared. I would set up a shot while we were filming and it didn’t feel very special and then Julia would arrive and we would rehearse and I would look at the same shot and it was some of the greatest I’ve ever seen. I would think, “That’s an amazing shot,” and after a few days someone working with me said, “Yeah, because she’s in it,” and it is. What was particularly thrilling about this film with her was, to my surprise, she was so interested in Lucas playing the part. I didn’t know if an actor would mind the director directing his or her child, but she really wanted him to do the film and they developed a rapport, a connection and a chemistry that was so beyond what I could have hoped for in terms of this being a love story between a mother and a son who are broken. I think they’re probably some other people who might be talented but to the diminishment of the others around them but she lifted us all.
NM: The mother character in this movie seems to be performing or shaping reality — all the times she lies to her family about what’s going on. How does having an addict in the family create that kind of dynamic?
PH: It’s interesting because in many ways some people find Holly heroic and I think her intentions are heroic but her methods are very suspect. For Julia, in order for her to play Holly, she had to believe that Holly was doing everything right or that Holly thought she was. But I did not think so.
I knew the movie was going to be mostly through Holly’s eyes and some through Ben’s. There was a time when I thought I should just go only through Holly’s eyes but I felt like there is an opportunity to expand people’s understanding of addiction because people think that it’s a choice. People think that drug addicts choose to be drug addicts. It’s just not true; they do not choose it. So it was important that I build on how he got started and how he’s tried to stop and how he’s trying not to use. He’s there with the dealer saying, “Just give me the dog, give me the dog,” but then he slides the packet to him. I was surprised when I talked to the woman who advised me, who is 35 years clean. I said, “I’m worried about this moment when he’s handed the heroin, like why would he use?” And she said, “If you put a pack of heroin in my hand right now, and I’m 35 years clean, I’d shoot it up in two minutes,” and I said, “You’re kidding.” She said, “No, no, no; I just know not to get it in my hand, the difference between me and Ben is I know not to get it in my hand.”
NM: I thought you did something narratively that was really surprising and brilliant in this movie. We’ve all seen so many stories of people struggling with substance abuse and they always have those same beats of hitting bottom and hope and then then hitting bottom again. You did something different in coming up with a storyline where Ben basically goes through his life backwards with his mother in order to solve a problem, and that presents the issue of addiction and family in a very compelling way.
PH: For me it started in my own life, in my relationship with addicts. I have known and loved many. It can be so infuriating because it’s so reciprocal. I also felt that I have seen stories and I appreciate those stories where I have seen someone who’s on the skids and they start to put it together. But I hadn’t seen a story about someone who had some recovery (like they were on the path) and then that path is tested. And I had not seen one that took place over a very contained period of time.
In my experience with addiction and recovery, there is this concept of one day at a time but I knew in doing that, that a couple of things I was going to cut out, I was going to cut out for the heroin opioid addict the dope sick part of the disease which is, for people who don’t know anything about addiction, you have to understand that people who are addicted are at some point just using to try to prevent themselves feeling that enormous pain and discomfort. So that I was sorry to lose that but then I found a way through Ben’s childhood friend to tell something about that part of the story. But the main thing that happened for me was that one of the things I wanted to understand was why someone who was starting to do well might relapse. In all the research I kept doing, and I’ve read so many obituaries where you see it, the number of times it was he had a month, he had 6 years, he had 10 years, she had 5 months, she had 5 years, she was doing so well, she came home, we went shopping, we came home from shopping, she said I’m going to take a nap and the number of people who are seemingly doing well but then start using again, I wanted to see that.
The other idea was I really loved the Orpheus myth, one of my favorite myths, and I love the prodigal son as a parable. I loved the idea of a mother going into the underworld. Originally I thought he was going to just disappear in the whole second half of the movie and she was going to be trying to find him. But when I realized that there could be a period of time where they were together, it just organically flowed that in order for him to get the information that he needed to try to solve the problem she would be exposed to his past and to things that she has not wanted to know or that she didn’t know.
I knew from my own mother’s addiction how addicts keep secrets. My mother was an alcoholic and she got sober when I was 15 and I would go to many meetings with her, a ton of AA meetings, where she was the speaker. In those meetings you traditionally tell your story and she never told her story. I realized years later, after she had died, I woke up in the middle of the night and I’m like, “Oh, she didn’t want me to know.”
So I thought, “What if he has a story that he doesn’t want to tell his mom but in order for them to solve the problem that’s at hand he has to?” And I thought about how hard it is to be forgiven and how hard it is to forgive yourself. I’m happy you responded to that. Some people find the second half of the movie is too big of a tonal shift for them and I’m not reading what anybody is writing because this movie is so personal for me and I did the best I could. But I’m so proud it and most of the scenes I really needed to have in the movie happened in the second half of the movie and they don’t happen if the dog isn’t taken. And I found three instances of people who had used drugs where their dogs had been stolen so it’s like this really happens. I didn’t just make it up. People will take a dog because they’re trying to leverage them into doing the kinds of things they ask Ben to do which is to get back in.
NM: You make it clear in the film that it was not a choice for Ben when we see Holly confront the doctor who prescribed opiates for Ben when he was still a kid.
PH: After Philip Seymour Hoffman died and a friend died and a relative of mine nearly died I started going, “What is going on?” Heath Ledger, Prince and on and on. You poke around and ask questions and you find out how often the death of a young person is related to drugs. Then I started really looking at it and understanding; I had an experience, myself. I had a double hernia operation and they gave me something and I took it. I’m the person who is awake during a surgery because I don’t want to be on drugs. I took this pill. It was so astonishing the peace I felt, the calm I felt; I’d never felt this in my life. I felt so settled and so calm. I couldn’t walk at the time and I crawled out of bed and I crawled across the bathroom and I dumped all the pills in the toilet because I thought, “If I take one more of these I’m going to take them the rest of my life.” That’s how afraid I was but that’s because I’m the child of an alcoholic and that’s because that’s how afraid I am and that is what I want people to understand.