While growing up in Iowa, Peter Hedges was involved in a long-distance romance that required repeated drives up Interstate 35 from West Des Moines. The object of his affection: the Guthrie Theater.
“I was already interested in theater when our [high school] theater club took a field trip to Minneapolis, but that cemented it,” said Hedges, whose latest movie, “Ben Is Back,” co-starring Julia Roberts and his son, Lucas, opens Friday.
He not only vividly recalls the two shows he saw on that trip — “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — but he can list half a dozen more he saw over the next few years and even recite the names of the leading cast members.
“It was one of the seminal theater experiences of my youth,” he said. “It’s why I wanted to make plays.”
Hedges launched his career as a playwright before making the segue to movies with his script for 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”
Nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 2002 for “About a Boy,” he added directing to his portfolio the next year when he oversaw production of his script for “Pieces of April,” a story about a young woman (played by Katie Holmes) who invites her estranged family for Thanksgiving dinner after learning that her mother is dying.
His newest project also takes a look at a family struggling with discord during a holiday. “Ben Is Back” is about a teenage drug addict who makes a surprise visit home on Christmas Eve.
The impetus for the movie, Hedges said, “was an ache.”
“I had a close relative who nearly died from opioid addiction,” he said. “I’d seen friends relapse, and some of them — like Philip Seymour Hoffman — die. I started asking myself: Why is this happening to people I love? Why is this happening to millions of people across America?”
He also had to ask himself: Was he ready to tackle a project that, because of its subject matter and tone, would never draw the kind of financial backing he had with his previous projects, Steve Carell’s “Dan in Real Life” and Jennifer Garner’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”? His answer was an emphatic “yes.”
“I wanted to get back to the kind of movie where I don’t worry about income and only worry about what I’m saying,” he said. “I wanted to write something personal. I knew I was going to direct it, and I knew I was going to make it whether anyone else got on board or not.
“I kept saying I wanted to make another movie like ‘Pieces of April’ — one with that spirit, that raw, bare-bones approach. I wanted to make another movie with a story I have to tell, one that I’m willing to make Herculean efforts to tell, one that I’ll do whatever I have to do — legally — to make happen.”
He eventually scraped up $13 million, about enough to cover the catering budget on a superhero blockbuster. But he had an ace up his sleeve — a script that attracted Roberts, who, according to Forbes magazine, typically charges $12 million a movie but was willing to waive that in this case.
It turned out that she wanted something in return. She wanted the filmmaker’s son to play the 19-year-old addict. The request certainly made sense — since his Oscar nomination for “Manchester by the Sea,” Lucas Hedges has racked up an impressive résumé with highly lauded performances in “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Boy Erased” and “Mid90s.”
Neither the father nor son had even considered the idea.
“As I was writing it, I never imagined that he’d be in it,” Hedges said of his son. “He’s never been much interested in being in a film of mine. He’d always told me, ‘I want you as my dad, not as my director.’ ”
Initially, they both told Roberts that it wasn’t going to happen. But the more they pondered it, the more the idea grew on them. They ended up making a deal: They would not bring their father-son relationship onto the set and would never take the director-actor connection home with them.
Besides, it wasn’t so much what they were talking about as what they — finally — weren’t talking about.
“I got tired of hearing what a great writer Kenneth Lonergan [of ‘Manchester by the Sea’] is and what a great writer Joel Edgerton [‘Boy Erased’] is and what a great writer Greta Gerwig [‘Lady Bird’] is,” Hedges said with a laugh.
“As his father, I’m happy that he’s had experience working with great filmmakers, but I do have a little pride.”