Peter Hedges loves to tell stories about unconventional families.
The longtime screenwriter/director wrote the screenplay for "About a Boy," a 2002 romantic-comedy where Hugh Grant pretends to have a 2-year-old son so he can join a single-parents group and meet women. Hedges also wrote and directed "Dan in Real Life," a 2007 comedy-drama where Steve Carell falls in love with his brother's girlfriend. And long before all that, he wrote the screenplay of his own novel, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."
"I love to write about family," Hedges told the Deseret News. "I like making people feel happy, and feel good, and hopeful."
Hedges' latest film continues his tradition of exploring family dynamics, but for the director, the painfully personal movie also marks an important step outside his comfort zone. "Ben is Back" is a fictional story about an opiate addict who joins his family on Christmas Eve during a 24-hour furlough from his rehabilitation clinic — a visit that proves to be more problematic than the typical holiday reunion.
When it came to getting ideas for the film, which draws an R rating for its harrowing subject matter, Hedges didn't have to look far. His own childhood was affected by alcoholism, and his love of biblical parables — in this case, the prodigal son — was a big inspiration. Hedges also drew from the startling number of friends and family members he observed who were struggling with drug addiction, including his favorite actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an overdose in 2014.
As Hedges looked further into the problem, he found an issue that stretched across communities, ages and races. He wanted to respond to the epidemic in a meaningful way.
"The more I researched, the more I realized that this is one of the most important issues facing us today," he said. "I wanted to make an important film. I wanted to see … if we could put something in the world that would be part of a bigger conversation."
So Hedges set aside all his current projects and cranked out a script in six weeks. With that in hand, the director was surprised at how quickly actress Julia Roberts agreed to sign on as Ben's mother, Holly.
"She signed on right away and I couldn't believe it," he said.
The shocks kept on coming. Once on board, Roberts insisted Hedges' own son, actor Lucas Hedges, play Ben. The director was initially hesitant and assumed his son wouldn't be interested in working with his dad. He even checked with his other son — who works in private equity — to see if it would bother him to do a film with his brother (it didn't). But in time, father and son worked things out.
One conversation in particular got them over the professional hump.
"We had a conversation about at least three questions he had (and) that meeting went wonderfully," Hedges said. "We were two people. He became less my son and became much more an actor I was working with. … That conversation was one of my favorites I've ever had with any actor."
Working so closely with his son and Roberts — who Hedges described as "the most prepared actor (he's) ever worked with" — added a personal dynamic to an effort the director hopes will give a voice to families affected by drug addiction.
"I wanted people who have been through it to feel like they've been seen," he said, noting that what we see Roberts' character dealing with for 24 hours may represent years of struggle for audience members.
It was also important to Hedges to capture his characters at a specific point in the recovery process. Because of the people he'd witnessed who were "suddenly gone" after appearing to be on the road to recovery, he said he was determined "to explore a person who has enough recovery that they're starting to feel hopeful, but not enough recovery that they feel they have any business feeling confident."
In "Ben is Back," that exploration is enhanced by the relationship between Ben and his mother, and Hedges was thrilled to see the chemistry between his son and Roberts.
"They developed a very remarkable rapport that you can't act," Hedges said. "It's fun to direct when two actors love each other and love working with each other."
Hedges already knows "Ben is Back," which comes to Broadway Centre Cinemas Dec. 21, will hold a special place in his memory. When asked what he'll remember about the experience in years to come, he said, "I got to make my favorite thing I've ever written with one of my favorite people on the planet — I got to work with my son."
Pretty appropriate reaction for a guy who loves making movies about families.