Oscar-nominated writer and director Peter Hedges has made a career of telling compelling and complex stories about flawed families of all shapes and sizes and the unique struggles they face.
In films including the 1993 cult classic What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which he adapted from his own novel; his feature directorial debut, Pieces of April; and About a Boy, which he co-wrote based on Nick Hornby’s novel, Hedges has presented audiences with moving, often funny tales of imperfect families doing their best in an imperfect world. Hedges’ latest film, Ben Is Back, opens on a family that seems at first glance to have little in common with the ones populating his previous films. Affluent, attractive and loving, with their talented teenage daughter singing in the choir and their adorable younger children dressed up for a Christmas pageant, the Burnses evoke a modern version of a Norman Rockwell painting. But the deeply conflicted look on Holly Burns’ face when she arrives home to find her oldest son Ben on her doorstep makes it instantly clear that this family faces a profound challenge of its own — one that cuts across economic and social strata.
“I come from a family that has been deeply impacted by addiction, both alcohol and drugs,”says Hedges. “Some in my family recovered, some did not make it, and some family members are still struggling. So after I suffered the loss of someone close to me and watched another person I knew in recovery, I wanted to make a film that explores how one broken, hurting person can impact all the members of his family.”
As he looked for a way to effectively dramatize this ripple effect within the timespan of a feature film, Hedges decided to compress his story into a single 24-hour time frame. “I got the idea of starting the movie on Christmas Eve morning. I wondered what could happen in one day if a young man in recovery comes home when it’s probably too early for him to return,” explains the filmmaker. “The story became more compelling when I approached the issue from the point of view of one ordinary family on one extraordinary day.”
Hedges was excited at the opportunity to return to his indie filmmaking roots. “I felt an ache to get back to making the kind of films I made early in my career, something urgent and raw,” he says. “I’d spent a number of years helping other people realize their ideas. Now I wanted to shift back to doing something original. I wanted to see what happened if I took that old fearlessness I had and married it with whatever wisdom I’ve accrued over 35 year of being a writer.”After mulling over the idea for several years, Hedges sat down to write Ben Is Back in earnest in late May 2017. He surprised himself by finishing a draft in less than six weeks. “It didn’t feel like I was telling this story,” he recalls. “It was more like the story was telling me. I wrote it in a white heat, and that rarely happens for me. I just tried to get out of the way.”
One of the aspects of the script Hedges was proudest of was the role of Holly Burns. “I’ve written some pretty interesting mothers,” he says. “From Gilbert Grape to Pieces of April, but when Holly Burns emerged, I felt like she was the most complex, full and fierce mother I had ever imagined. That’s not to say that Holly does everything right. She makes a lot of questionable choices. But she never makes them with malicious intent. They always come from this aching hope to be a protector and a provider for her children.”
After a couple of revisions, Hedges sent the script to his friend, entertainment industry powerhouse Nina Jacobson. Formerly the president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, Jacobson has gone on to produce blockbusters including The Hunger Games and Crazy Rich Asians under her Color Force banner. “Nina is one of my favorite people in the film business,” Hedges says. “Although I felt Ben Is Back was too small for the kind of thing she does, I wanted her to see what I was up to before I went to other producers. Within 90 minutes of getting the script, Nina called me and said, ‘You wrote a real page-turner. I have to produce this.’”
Nineteen-year-old Ben Burns unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve. Ben’s mom, Holly, is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son’s drug addiction. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love gets put to the test as Holly does everything in her power to keep Ben clean.
Ben is Back is written and directed by Peter Hedges. The film also stars Lucan Hedges, Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton apart from Julia Roberts. The film will be released in India by PVR Pictures on December 14th, 2018