Ben Is Back
by writer/director Peter Hedges
It was almost six years ago that I learned a relative of mine was using heroin and in a bad way. With the high probability that this relative would be dead soon, my family and I hired an interventionist. Fortunately, this relative agreed to go to a long term rehab facility. The financial cost was staggering, but my then-dying father, a retired minister, pledged to empty his life savings if necessary, anything to save one of his family members.
Part of the recovery process involved a family therapy component. For six months, my father, my brothers, my sister, and I met telephonically with a therapist for 90 minutes each week. Not only was the present situation discussed, but we processed our earlier life as a family.
I am the son of an alcoholic. My mother left home when I was 7, and I didn’t know her sober until I was 15. The disease—and it is a disease—of alcoholism ravaged my family, nearly destroyed us. But on July 14, 1977, my mother took her last drink and for the remaining 22 ½ years of her life, she stayed sober. Even better, she spent nearly every waking hour devoted to helping other people like her get well.
At the end of our six months, we all decided to continue our family work for another six months. During that time, our relative made major strides and left the facility drug-free
Around that time, my favorite actor ever, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of an overdose.
In an effort to make some meaning out of such an untenable loss, I decided to write about the heroin/opioid epidemic. But I didn’t know what story to tell.
So I began a long process of intense research. I became consumed with article reading and documentary watching and—morbid as it sounds—obituary collecting. The number of overdoses due to heroin/opioid abuse has been skyrocketing. (Over 70,000 people will die in the U.S. this year!) Increasingly families are bravely filling the obituaries with the truth. A beloved family member was vibrant and special but when heroin/opioids took control, he or she became unrecognizable. Most striking were the numerous accounts of people who had been doing well. A loved one would string together six months or two years or sometimes even over a decade of recovery and then, in an inexplicable moment of weakness, use heroin or opioids one last fatal time.
I was surprised to learn that many heroin users’ gateway drug was prescription pain pills. I was horrified to learn that Big Pharma had misled the public by denying the addictive properties in their pain medicine. I was shocked to learn of “pill mills” and doctors, knowingly and unknowingly, over-prescribing these pills.
Still I didn’t know what to write.
What I did know was that there was a tremendous difference between the person and the disease.
When I got to know my mother sober, she knocked me out. Funny, smart, curious, kind. She became a rock star in the recovery community. I frequently went to AA meetings with her and on many occasions, she was the speaker. Typically, the speaker at an AA meeting will tell her story, sharing her “experience, strength, and hope.” But whenever I attended a meeting where my mother was the speaker, she would say, “You all have heard my story plenty of times, so instead I’d like to share with you some of the history of AA.” My mom had extensive knowledge of the early days of AA. People loved those shares. And I was the proud non-drinking son usually sitting in the first row.
A few years after her death, in the middle of the night, I woke up with a sudden realization—my mother never told her story because she didn’t want me to know it. In the throes of the disease, she had done unthinkable, horrible things—and maybe she was protecting me—and herself. For whatever reasons, she did not want me to know what she’d done in her darkest moments.
When I first conceived of Ben Is Back, a mother-son-love-addiction story, I wondered—was there an organic way in which those stories that we don’t want to tell have to be told? Was there a way—over the course one unremarkable remarkable day—that Ben, a recovering user of heroin, might have to tell the person he loved most, his mother, his darkest truths?
With that question in mind, in the Spring of 2017, I decided to give myself a six-week window. I quit all other projects, bolted from any and all social media platforms, and hunkered down. Actors generously came by my house every week or so and read pages with the ink still wet. Emboldened by their excitement, I wrote much faster than I ever have before. I had that rarefied feeling that at times I wasn’t even writing—rather I was being written.
In my mind, I’d already begun to make the film. I knew it would shoot that winter and I was willing to sell my house to finance it. Fortunately, a producer friend read it and she and her partner joined me and soon we had Julia Roberts interested, and Julia wanted my son, Lucas Hedges, to play Ben. He read the script and said “Yes” because the importance of the story outweighed his understandable reluctance to work with me. With our financing quickly secured, we started shooting last December.
I once heard about a mother who was driving a car when it flipped, throwing her to the side of the road but trapping her baby inside. With no one to help, this mother lifted the car and pulled her baby to safety.
Surely that’s not physically possible.
Or maybe it is.
Maybe the key is to love someone (or something) so much that you find uncommon strength. So, in the end, it’s all about who and what you love.
And it’s in that spirit we made Ben Is Back.