Mothers Doing the Extraordinary: Peter Hedges on Ben is Back

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There is something beautiful about a filmmaker as openly emotional as Peter Hedges. He’s not reluctant to let his tears flow, either in the presence of his cast and crew or when discussing his work in public. It’s clear that his characters have a deeply personal meaning for him, going all the way back to his first screenplay, which he adapted from his own novel. Lasse Hallström’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” a marvelous family drama celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, kicked off Hedges’ career in film, exploring themes of fractured human bonds that have resonated throughout his career. The tagline, “Life is a terrible thing to sleep through,” could easily apply to the Oscar-nominated script Hedges co-authored with directors Chris and Paul Weitz for their great Hugh Grant comedy, “About a Boy.” A year after that film’s release, Hedges directed his first feature, “Pieces of April,” a sublime Thanksgiving-set vignette that led Patricia Clarkson to earn an Academy Award nod for her portrayal of a cancer-stricken matriarch. 

Hedges’ latest picture, “Ben is Back,” also centers around a family reunion during the holidays, as the titular young man (played by the director’s son, Lucas Hedges, an Oscar nominee for “Manchester by the Sea”) unexpectedly returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve, much to the joy of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts). Though Ben’s stepdad (Courtney B. Vance) and sister (Kathryn Newton) voice their concern over whether he will be able to avoid falling prey to the temptation of backsliding on his path toward sobriety, Holly does everything in her power to ensure that her son remains clean over the next 24 hours. What are the odds that one year after “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Hedges and Newton would once again find themselves playing the children of a kick-ass, F-bomb dropping mother bound for awards season recognition? 

A day after the film screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, Hedges spoke with RogerEbert.com about collaborating with his son, his approach to writing dialogue and his love of fierce maternal figures. 

Last night, I revisited “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and it is every bit as powerful today as when it was released in December 1993. 

I’m delighted that the film is still relevant and talked about after all these years. Of course, we had the good fortune of casting Johnny Depp as Gilbert and Leonardo DiCaprio as his brother, Arnie, but even in the small parts, there’s people like John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover … 

Darlene Cates, who plays Bonnie, Gilbert’s mom … 

Oh she was amazing. I’m really thrilled that it has a life with audiences. I recently did a Q&A at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and when I came onstage, people were like, “Who is this guy?” But at some point, the man interviewing me mentioned “Gilbert Grape,” and the audience gasped. Before then, they were like, “Why do we have to listen to Lucas Hedges’ father talking?”, which is how it is now. [laughs]

Your work is so perceptive at portraying the struggle of family members when taking on a caregiver role, whether it’s Gilbert caring for his mentally disabled brother, or the son looking after his suicidal mother in “About a Boy,” or in this case, a mother helping her son conquer an addiction. What gives you insight into this dynamic? 

My formative years were all shaped by a mother who was very sad and had a drinking problem, while my father was lonely and angry. He was an Episcopal priest and raised four kids on his own. Both of my parents finished their lives very strong and healthy, and they proved to be quite helpful and useful to other people. My dad ministered for 58 years, and once my mom got sober, she spent the last 22 years of her life devoting her time to helping other people get sober. I grew up in a very loving but very broken family, and I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to telling stories about well-intentioned people who are doing their best—but are not always successful—in figuring out how to maneuver through this complicated, bumpy and broken world. 

Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp in Lasse Hallström’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“Gilbert Grape” resonated in a whole new way for me this time around, now that my mother has Multiple Sclerosis and my father serves as her primary caregiver. I could tell that your story had somehow been informed by having lived it. 

That’s definitely the case. It’s also why certain movies penetrate us more than others. For me, some of those films would be “Tender Mercies,” “Big,” “Tootsie,” Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” the cinema of Hal Ashby—even “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There are so many films I lean on and look toward and return to that give me some guidance on how to keep moving in the world, and that’s what film does, at its best. 

I was surprised when Courtney B. Vance mentioned at the film’s premiere in Toronto that he wasn’t aware during production that you and Lucas were father and son. To what degree did your relationship serve as a benefit or a challenge while collaborating? 

Lucas was discovered in a seventh grade play by a casting director. My wife didn’t even want him to audition for a movie because she felt that kids shouldn’t be in movies. I was out of town trying to find kids for my previous film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” and I said, “Why don’t you ask him what he wants to do?” When she told Lucas about the casting director, his response was, “I just have one question: is dad directing the movie?” She said, “No,” and he said, “Well, then I’m interested.” He didn’t want to be like the baseball player who gets to pitch because his dad’s the coach. But after “Manchester,” “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards” and all the other films that he had done before, he’d shown that he was doing fine on his own. So when considering the role of Ben in my film, it was a question not only of, “Do I want to work with my dad?” but also, “Do people think I am getting this part just because he’s my dad or I’m his son?” At the time I cast him, he was the only actor under 29 years of age walking on the planet who had been nominated for an Academy Award. Now there’s Timothée Chalamet, but he had just done “Beautiful Boy,” so I couldn’t ask him to play another drug addict. 

We didn’t discover if we could actually work together until Lucas asked to talk with me. So we went into a part of the house alone and he had three questions for me about the script. Our talk lasted for two hours, and within the first two minutes, it became a peer-based conversation. The questions he was asking were so smart, and they were all about the work. The conversation became so animated and alive, and only near the end of it did I go, “Wait a minute, I’m talking to my kid!” It really felt like we were working, and I think that gave him confidence. Yet what made him most eager to sign on was the idea of working with Julia, the fact he liked the character and his belief that the story was important. He has been very thoughtful about the kinds of projects he is a part of. He doesn’t agree to them because he thinks they will be acclaimed, but because he feels they are special stories that need to be told, which was also true of “Boy Erased,” “Mid90s,” “Lady Bird,” certainly “Manchester by the Sea.” All of these projects he gravitates toward because he feels that they will be useful in the world.

Once we started filming, it was about three days in that it hit me that this is a very dangerous thing that we had attempted, but my concern wasn’t so much about the work that we would do. I remember at the end of one shooting day, when I said goodbye to the actors and stayed with the crew in order to brainstorm about the next day, Lucas just got in the car and I thought, ‘He’s really put his trust in me.’ I feel that about every actor who works for me. I am so grateful that they are willing to come do the film and that they believe I can help tell the story. I think of Julia, who’s worked with Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh, Garry Marshall and all the greats—and then there she is, working with me. I felt the same sense of responsibility when working with Lucas. I hope I’m worthy of all the actors’ faith and trust. That level of expectation had a kind of double meaning when one of the stars of the film happened to be of family relation, but Lucas is such a pro. He was never in his trailer. He’s always sitting in his chair and reading, or talking with people, or in deep thought or deep prep. The whole cast did such a great job preparing and they came ready to play. The biggest issue for Lucas and I was the decision to actually work together, and then once we did, it felt natural.

Courtney mentioned that you and Lucas called each other by your first names, rather than “dad” or “son.”

I think at one point, he slipped. He called me “dad” and it made me happy. [laughs] But I also tried to give him his space. We were in the same hotel, and he was down the hall. I never saw his room, but he came to mine a couple of times. When the day was over, we’d say goodbye and I’d see him in the morning. It was probably more fun for me than it was for him. When you get to the age that he is, you don’t need your parent in the same way. I joke that this is the age where you want to fire your parents, and as a parent, you hope to get rehired as a consultant. That seems to be what has happened.

Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges in Peter Hedges’ “Ben is Back.” Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions.

You and Lucas both share a gift for saying a great deal with very few words. The advice Holly receives from Beth (Rachel Bay Jones), “Hold on tight,” reverberates throughout the rest of the picture, particularly at the end. 

The whole goal is to create a story that feels as real, as relatable and as raw as possible. So as a writer, it’s a constant process of asking yourself, “Are these movie lines, or are these things that people would actually say?” So much of writing is about what characters don’t say, and in the early drafts, sometimes things get overwritten. Then an actor will come along and tell you what needs to be changed. Julia was really smart about this. She’d say, “I get why this is here, but I don’t need that.” There were times when we took away some of what I had written. “Hold on tight” was certainly an important line, as was Ben’s reply of, “I’m not worth it,” and Holly’s affirmation, “I will never leave you.” When Beth says, “We can’t save them, but you hate yourself if you don’t try,” it tells you so much about what haunts her. The films that I love and that guide me, such as the ones I referenced earlier, ask the audience to do enough work, which is a bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to insult an audience, but at the same time, you want to give enough so that there is enough for them to hold onto. That sometimes comes down to taste or knocking on every piece of wood, hoping that what you’re doing is putting forth a story that doesn’t take shortcuts through the characters. 

What you get with actors like Julia or Lucas—or Courtney and Kathryn, too—are moments that I may have scripted or described, but what they do with them takes the film to a whole other level. I think of Lucas in the scene late in the film where he’s holding the dog and the heroin. He goes so many places in that moment. Julia goes to so many places when she’s outside the dressing room, as does Lucas in the scene right before then where he’s looking at himself in the mirror while she’s getting the clothes. When you watch actors cover so much ground in such a human way in terms of the text you’re describing, you just hope that you’re providing them with words that support those rich, internal lives. You hope that what you put forth as a story is so raw, real and relatable that it will earn the sort of responses it received from audience members at last night’s Q&A. A number of people in attendance told me, “I saw myself in your characters. I saw my life.” One person who was there last night was twenty years clean, but he said, “Those first 77 days are such a fragile period, and you took me back to that place.” Lucas had worked so hard working with people who have substance use disorder, so I was very touched when that man at the screening said, “Please tell your son that he nailed it.” I can’t wait to tell Lucas.

When Holly confronts the man in the mall who gave her son drugs, I couldn’t help being reminded of Cindy (Jennifer Garner) standing up to Ms. Crudstaff (Dianne Wiest) in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” another instance of a mother allowing her pent-up emotions to come tumbling out. 

You’re right! No one has ever referenced that exchange between Ms. Crudstaff and Cindy Green in an interview before. [laughs] Those scenes remind me of the moment in “Gilbert Grape” that still wrecks me to this day, when Bonnie arrives at the jail to get Arnie. She goes over to the sheriff and says, “C’mon, Jerry. Give me my son.” [tears flow] So yeah, you’ve busted me. There is a repeated motif in my work of mothers doing the extraordinary on behalf of their kids. You came ready, my friend. I appreciate it. 

I know “Timothy Green” is a film Roger Ebert appreciated very much.

He was such a supporter, and he wrote some really nice things about “Pieces of April” too. I miss him. 

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