Director Peter Hedges on new film Ben Is Back

The screenwriter behind About a Boy and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape returns to the cinema as the writer/director of Ben Is Back, starring his son Lucas Hedges as a recovering opioid-addict. He shares his process with Creative Review

“Film is at its most exciting when events unfold over a short period of time,” says director and screenwriter Peter Hedges. “The best experience as a filmgoer, in my opinion, is when you don’t feel like you’re watching a film – you instead feel like you’re watching real people.”

But getting an audience to a place where they can feel like real life is unfolding before their eyes takes a lot of work behind the scenes, starting with the initial screenplay, he says.

“It requires deft dramaturgy,” Hedges says. “You have to create a dramatic framework, and then figure out a way of exploring how much could believably happen in a scenario over a short period of time.”

Ben Is Back uses some rather classical stories as a dramatic framework. As he developed the screenplay, Hedges revisited the Greek myth of Orpheus, who travelled to the Underworld, pleaded with Hades and Persephone, and brought his lover Eurydice back to earth – as long as he walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. “It’s a story about a man doing unthinkable things in order to keep love alive,” Hedges says.

The other story Hedges used as inspiration was the Biblical parable the prodigal son, about the boy who returns home after wasting the family fortune, but is still welcomed out of love by his father. “It makes you think of the power of forgiveness and unconditionality,” he says.

For Ben Is Back, Hedges contextualised these familiar, resonant narratives within a very contemporary setting – the spread of addiction caused by prescription drugs like Oxycontin in modern American life. He says: “As I did research into the opioid epidemic – something that has resulted in the loss of friends and relatives in my own life – I came to realise that the magnitude of it was so massive that it felt unrepresentable in a film. It only became manageable and possible when I decided to narrow the scope to one family, over the course of one day.”