BEN IS BACK
About The Production
Oscar-nominated writer and director Peter Hedges has made a career of telling
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
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
time span 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
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
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
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,
powerhouse Nina Jacobson. Formerly the president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures
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.'"
Julia Roberts, meet Holly Burns
Over the summer, Jacobson's team sent Hedges' script to Oscar winner Julia
gauge her interest in the role of Holly. Roberts responded immediately to the
material. "The story
was very touching," says the actress, who received her fourth Academy Award
nomination in 2014
for her supporting role in the domestic drama August: Osage County. "Peter's
script really spoke to the
myriad ways addiction can impact a family."
Roberts took time out of a family vacation to meet with Hedges at her home in
had a great meeting," says the Brooklyn-based filmmaker. "Julia really connected
with Holly as this
mother who will not give up on her child no matter what. But it's a big deal for
Julia to be away from
her kids, so she wanted to discuss the movie with her family before making a
A few weeks later, Hedges received a text from Roberts saying she had
accepted the role.
"My heart was pounding I was so excited," Hedges recalls. "First of all, Julia
Roberts has been my
favorite movie star for my entire adult life. She's incredibly smart and
passionate, and as I would
learn later, she's also the most prepared actor I've ever worked with. One of my
hopes is that this
film reaches as many people as possible, and Julia Roberts is an actor whom so
many people root for.
And this part gives her an opportunity to go places emotionally, physically and
dramatically as she
tries to save her son. So it was an amazing day when she said yes."
Hedges & Hedges
Roberts didn't ask for any changes to the Ben Is Back screenplay, but she did
request regarding the film's casting: Impressed by Peter Hedges' son Lucas'
performance as a newly orphaned teenager in Manchester by the Sea, she urged the
cast him in the title role.
There was just one problem: "For my entire life, I've always made it clear to
my dad that I
would never act in a movie of his," says Lucas. "The thought of doing it has
always made me really
uncomfortable because it just seemed awkward and weird. I knew my dad was making
this movie but
I didn't even know there was a part for a person my age - although he later told
me he wrote it for
The actor's reticence evaporated, however, once he learned that Roberts had
him for the role. "When I found out that Julia Roberts wanted me to play Ben in
this movie, it was
crazy," says Lucas. "She seemed like somebody from a far-off land. The fact that
she wanted me to
act with her was incredibly flattering. Then I read the script and I was really
blown away by it."
In case Lucas needed further persuading, Roberts sent his father a photo of
herself with her
oldest son, a redhead. "The note said something along the lines of, 'I just want
Lucas to know that
handsome red-headed men feel comfortable around me,'" recalls the ginger-haired
actor. "Julia took
the pressure off my fear that if I did this movie it would be all about me and
my dad. While my
relationship with any director is obviously important, an even bigger part of it
for this movie was my
character's relationship with his mother."
Once he agreed to take on the role, Lucas threw himself into learning about
that drives his character. "I tried to get as much information as I could about
what it's like to get to
the point where you do these really harmful things to yourself just so you can
get high," he says.
Lucas also found inspiration closer to home. "Some of my best friends from high
have been living Ben's life: going in and out of rehab, struggling" he says.
"When I was growing up, a
lot of kids were being prescribed Adderall and other drugs that they had no
business taking on a daily
basis. So I already knew drug use among teenagers was a huge thing in Brooklyn.
What I didn't
realize was that it is just as prevalent, if not more, in suburban and rural
parts of America."
Completing the Family
With the film's two central roles filled, Peter Hedges cast Kathryn Newton as
sister Ivy. For her audition video, Newton chose a desperate phone-call between
Ivy and her mother,
which takes place late in the movie. "It broke my heart," says the filmmaker of
the young actress'
performance. "I was completely shattered because it was very important that Ivy
not just be the
bratty perfect sister. She's disappointed in Ben but at the same time she loves
her brother and cares
deeply about him. That was the core of their relationship and Kathryn brought it
to her performance
in every way."
Newton and Lucas had already struck up a friendship from their time acting
together in Lady
Bird and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri - in which they also
played sister and brother -
but neither had worked with Roberts before. During pre-production on Ben Is
Back, director and
cast gathered at Roberts' home to rehearse and get acquainted. "We spent three
or four days
working, eating meals together and talking," says Peter. "It was a great way for
everybody to get
comfortable with one other."
For the role of Ben's level-headed stepfather, Neal, who has two young
children with Holly,
the writer-director turned to Courtney B. Vance, winner of a 2016 Emmy for his
attorney Johnnie Cochran in "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson."
only a great actor," says Hedges. "He's also a devoted father, a great husband,
an amazing son - and
he's thoughtful about the work he chooses to put into the world. All of those
qualities emanate from
him. His character sees what's going on in this family with the most clarity,
and Courtney felt solid
and unwavering so I was thrilled when he said yes to the role."
Vance describes his character as "very salt of the earth," adding, "He loves
his wife and
loves his family, so the question becomes: Is tough love the best solution? Are
we enabling Ben, or
protecting him, or saving him? We have to make some very tough calls."
For Lucas, playing the two-time Tony Award nominee's stepson was a thrill. "I
drama school for a year and we studied the play 'Fences,' in which Courtney
originated the role of
Cory, and James Earl Jones played his father," he says. "We used to watch a clip
of this one amazing
scene over and over again. So it was such a beautiful moment for me that I got
to work with
somebody I'd admired for a long time in a similar capacity."
An Upstate New York State of Mind
With principal casting completed, the project moved forward swiftly after
Pictures President & CEO Teddy Schwarzman read Hedges' script at the 2017
Film Festival. "We were incredibly enamored with Ben Is Back and I made an offer
the next day," says
the producer, who earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game.
"Sitting with Peter,
I understood this wasn't about, 'How do you put two movie stars in a film and
generate interest?' It
was about telling a story that would resonate for any parent who's trying to do
the right thing for a
For all its topicality, Ben is Back also succeeds as sheer entertainment,
producer Jane Evans. "It's a thriller with lots of twists and turns, lots of
surprises, lots of gasping.
Above all, Ben Is Back is a really good yarn and very moving."
With the goal of getting cameras rolling by December, Schwarzman and Evans
the pre-production process. "We moved really quickly to line up financing, close
get the budget down and firm up the film so we could go make it," Schwarzman
says. "As the
creative producers, Color Force looked to us to oversee logistics and brass
tacks. That led to Black
Bear and Color Force linking arms to co-produce this film, because we all felt
Ben Is Back was too
important to risk not being made."
On December 5, 2017 - a little more than six months after Hedges started
screenplay - filming began in upstate New York with Oscar-nominated director of
Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) behind the camera. "Stuart and I talked a lot about
a shooting style that
would be loose enough to give the actors some freedom but would also be
beautifully lit," Hedges
says. "Younger DPs sometimes do interesting camera work but they don't know how
to light. Stuart
can do it all."
Dryburgh, who'd handled additional photography on Hedges' 2012 movie The Odd
Timothy Green, convinced Hedges to shoot Ben Is Back in widescreen anamorphic.
"I'd never shot in
the 2:39:1 format, but Stuart made the case that we'd actually feel closer to
the characters using
widescreen," Hedges says. "Anamorphic gives you a narrow depth of field, which
means the focus puller
needs to be spot-on, but by softening the focus behind the characters, the
scenes feel very
filmic and rich."
Production designer Ford Wheeler was brought in to craft settings that ranged
Burnses' gracious upper-middle-class suburban home to a drug dealer's warehouse
lair. "Ford is one
of the most interesting people I've ever met," says Hedges. "He has exquisite
taste and a quirky eye
for details. In the Burns house, he's not just dropping in generic furniture.
Every piece of art he puts
on the wall has a story that he's worked out in his head."
Wheeler, whose credits include the Showtime drama "The Affair" and Rachel
enjoyed playing up the contrast between Ben's wholesome family life and the
gritty subculture in
which much of the film's third act takes place. "As a designer," Wheeler says,
"it was a good story
because you have these nice all-American family sets, and then you also get to
create a homeless tent
Melissa Toth's costume design helped reinforce the film's naturalistic
aesthetic. "Melissa had
already done Manchester by the Sea with Lucas as well as Three Billboards,"
Hedges says. "One of her
signatures is that her costumes never feel like costumes. It just feels like
people wearing clothes. She
was on my wish list and fortunately turned out to be available."
Locations play a key role in establishing the suburban backdrop for Ben Is
mainly in Westchester and Rockland Counties, the picturesque upstate New York
by location manager Rob Streim, included such small towns as Haverstraw,
Garnerville and Mamaroneck, where the Burns family home was filmed. Those sites
members to immerse themselves in the world of their characters. "Just being on
location and seeing
our house, I immediately got into the vibe of the family and what it would be
like to live near a small
town," says Newton. "That really helped me get into the story."
Bomb Cyclones and Sub-Zero Temperatures
Setting Ben Is Back on Christmas Eve provided the film with a rich
framework, but the wintry holiday backdrop also required cast and crew to endure
conditions. "Exterior. Night. Winter. Those are three words I may never type
again in succession,"
Hedges laughs. "Honestly, it got very hard. The nights were long and very cold,
which starts to do a
number on your psyche. And it's not like we were doing playful banter or comedy.
scene was very intense."
Schwarzman remembers soldiering through a "bomb cyclone" winter storm that
all roads in New York City as well as Yonkers, where filmmakers had scheduled a
scene. "It was a
very tough shoot because of all this freezing-cold weather," recalls the
Roberts, who lived in New York for 18 years, says she had never experienced
an East Coast
winter like the one that befell the Ben Is Back production. "This was like a
whole new level -
minus 30 degrees in January," says the actress. "It was hilarious to find
ourselves in the Arctic Circle
- aka Westchester - because truly, there were times where I thought, 'It's so
cold I can't go on
another second out here.' But one does. And getting to spend time in all these
helped balance it out."
A Mother and Son Bond
Despite the frigid conditions, Lucas Hedges and Roberts developed a warm
rapport on set.
"Julia was just amazing," says Lucas. "She's so maternal and caring and humble.
I was really shocked
that somebody who has spent decades in superstardom could be so grounded and
lovely. She was
there for me in all of the off-camera moments as well as the on-camera moments."
Roberts cherishes the professional and personal bond the pair formed on set.
"Lucas is very
special and we grew very close," says the actress. "He's just so talented, and
such a beautiful available
person. There were some challenging scenes, so it was our good fortune to have
Most of the daylight scenes in Ben Is Back were filmed before the production
broke for the
holidays. In January, filmmakers shot night scenes as the darkness sets in to
the storyline, both
literally and figuratively. Peter Hedges observes that his stars exercised great
sensitivity in portraying
the increasingly intense mother-son conflict. "There's so much emotion in the
movie, the question
becomes, where's the levity? Where's the breath? Julia and Lucas can't be
sobbing and screaming in
every scene. They both had really smart instincts about when to crack open and
when to hold it
So looking back, what did Lucas think about having his father as a director?
having him around really helped, and sometimes it was annoying," says the actor,
who turned 21
during the shoot. "But even when it was annoying that helped too, because
there's a lot of frustration
in the characters' circumstances. So whether he was giving me a great note or
doing something that
triggered me just because he's my dad, it was always something I could use.
Don't get me wrong, he
did an amazing job. It's just natural that sometimes I still feel like a grumpy
teenage boy around
Don't Give Up
Combining Hollywood star power with a tightly scripted and profoundly
Ben Is Back forces audiences to put themselves in the position of a parent who
would do anything
to help their child, but doesn't know how - or if - they can. "There are a
narratives for every family," says Roberts. "But the one concept we're trying to
put across in this
movie is just to not give up on each other."
Her co-star Lucas Hedges sees Ben Is Back as a non-judgmental portrait of
are each suffering from a disease that's often perceived as a moral failing.
"There is a stigma around
people who struggle with addiction," he says. "Hopefully we can create some
sense of understanding
around how hard it is to be dealt that hand. I hope people who see the film
might walk away with a
greater sense of compassion."
Rather than offering simplistic answers, Ben Is Back aims for a nuanced look
at how well meaning
people often respond imperfectly to situations beyond their control. "I'm the
son of a
minister so I know the job of a sermon is to tell people how to live," Peter
Hedges says. "I don't
think that's the job of the filmmaker. My favorite film experiences leave me
feeling like I've gone on
a great ride, that I've felt a whole series of emotions run through me, not
because I was being
manipulated but because I was told a story that felt true. The kind of movie
where when you leave
the theater, you feel more alive and more open to other people's experiences and
you're reminded of
the fragility and beauty of life. That's the kind of story we tried to tell in
Ben Is Back."
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2019 86®, All Rights Reserved.