Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment release Ben is Back at Angelika Film Center and The Landmark at 57 West on December 7th, 2018.
NYC MOVIE GURU: When it comes to entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually, which of those three elements was most challenging to tweak in the editing room?
Peter Hedges: The second half of the film is a bit out of my wheelhouse. My producer, Nina Jacobson, calls this film an emotional thriller. When she read the script initially, she said that it's a page-turner. I've never aspired to write a page-turner. There was no intent to do that. I enjoy those films, though. I just wanted to render truthfully what might go on in a family dealing with these issues over the course of one day. What I came to know from my childhood and what I certainly know from all of my research is that there's peril at every moment. Even the smallest moment could mean something other than what it appears to mean. I don't know if I've ever written anything that makes people as uncomfortable as this film. I'm a person who likes to make people feel good. I like to make people laugh and to feel hopeful. While I think that there's a lot of love and humor in the film, at its core, it's about very good people who are broken and hurting. They're trying to write their lives. The balance was very important to me because I didn't want the film to be so painful that no one will come see it. The goal is to reach as many people as possible. I also know from films about hard subjects that have moved me that when they're made beautifully and exquisitely, there's an exhilarating feeling that I have when I leave the theater because I go, "I just saw something real and something true and that has something that I'm going to think and feel about for a long time." Those are the movies that matter the most to me. They don't always get the best box office, but they get enough box office. Over the duration of their lives, sometimes those films live long and important lives. Ultimately, I just wanted to tell a story that moved, excited, taught and changed me in the process of making it in the hopes that it would do that for the people who see it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you prefer the audience of Ben is Back to merely experience the characters or to experience them and judge them at the same time?
PH: What I hope happens if you were to see Ben is Back is that, if you've lived anything like this, you would recognize it: that wonderful feeling you have when you see something, even if it's a different culture or a different country, and you see it and go, "I know that essence of a family dynamic!" or "I know the essence of what that damage feels like!" So, it feels relatable. At the same time, if you say, "I've never seen that before! People are dealing with this every day? This is what it feels like to have to have someone in your family that's at risk that you worry about every moment?" There are lots of young people who don't have families yet who are only worried about themselves---that's not a judgement; it's one of the fun parts of being young. But I've already had it where people have seen the movie and one person said, "I've been clean for 6 years, but I've never realized until I saw this movie that I put my mother through." while tears ran down their face. I replied, "Where are you going?" and they said, "I'm sorry. I have to go call my mom." I was like, "Yeah!!! Okay!!!"
NYC MOVIE GURU: How much information about the plot of Ben is Back would you prefer the audience to know about before seeing it?
PH: I love it when no one knows anything before seeing the film. Unfortunately, if no one knows anything, then you may have no one seeing your film. I think the best way to see anything is to know nothing. I go to the theater quite a bit and don't read any reviews. I don't even look at the program until after. So, I walk into the theater---I sometimes know who's in it because I've seen an advertisement if it's someone's famous or a friend is in it---but I normally don't know when there's an intermission. Sometimes I'll ask for the running time because I want to scope out if I need to go to the restroom or not. The first time we showed the film in Toronto was special for me because I knew that it was the only time we had an audience that had no idea what was coming because, other than a tiny teaser which was the first moment of the film, there was nothing out and very little said. In this culture with Twitter, Instagram and everyone having an opinion, you don't get that for very long anymore. I think that I prefer that, but I also talked to people who knew and saw the trailer and have seen the movie. In a way, they had maybe a more powerful experience because they kind of knew what they were coming into. I certainly was surprised while writing the script. I thought that I knew where it was going and knew that it would take place over this short period of time, but it ended up going in lots of directions that I didn't imagine. I believe that if I'm surprised in writing it---not on my 10th draft, but on my 1st draft---and surprised by what the characters do, then there's a good chance that you'll be surprised, too. I try to court surprise.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Who do you think is ultimately responsible for opening the window into the heart, mind and soul of a character on-screen?
PH: First of all, the writer is the first one to open it. If you're lucky like me, you get someone like Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges and the other actors who open it. There are moments in this film where I wrote, "He has a packet of heroin and he looks at it." Lucas plays it and there are like twelve different things going on [inside of him]. Julie has this moment where I wrote something that was actable, but then she brought something else to it. So, what you get here is, hopefully, great support from the costume, set and the camerawork and editing, of course, because you want to pick the right takes. That's why I feel so vulnerable for all actors when they act in film. I can't show you what scenes with Julia and Lucas we had to leave on the editing room floor, but I can tell you that there are staggering moments that the world will never see because you can't play the moment ten times---you have to pick one version of it. Sometimes, there's a great moment that happens, but a train ran through the shot or the boom dropped in or somebody bumped the camera. So, there are things that are lost all of the time that the world will never know. Ultimately, it's a group effort, but it starts in the writing with a huge assist from these people who take the blueprint and help you to build the walls, paint the walls and decorate the house, so it becomes real once they breathe.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think would make for a great double feature with Ben is Back, like wine and cheese?
PH: If it were a film of mine, the hors d'oeuvre would be Pieces of April and Ben is Back would be the meal. They're both families named Burns---one's set in Thanksgiving, the other during Christmas. If I really wanted a walloping double-header, I'd put Ben is Back first and then I'd put my favorite film ever, The Celebration, by Thomas Vinterberg. It's a film that I'm chasing.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that Ben would ever forgive himself for what he put his mother through? Would his mother forgive him?
PH: I don't know if he would ever forgive himself. My mother didn't fully forgive herself for the damage that her alcoholism did to our family. she, at her best, tried to live what they call a "living amends" through her life and through her work with other people. She tried to take the mess that she had made while under the influence and tried to make as much good come from it as possible. I'd like to think that if Ben were to survive, and I don't know if he will, that he would do that. I suspect that his mother would forgive him before he would forgive himself. That's probably what would happen.