I talked with director David Gordon Green and writer John Pollono separately about their film Stronger which is based on Jeff Bauman’s New York Times bestselling memoir. Stronger is the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope. Jeff, a 27-year-old working-class Bostonian, was at the Boston marathon to try and win back his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Waiting for her at the finish line when the blast occurs, he loses both his legs in the attack. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, Jeff is able to help law enforcement identify one of the bombers, but his own battle has just begun. He tackles months of physical and emotional rehabilitation with the unwavering support of Erin and his family.

I talked with David Gordon Green first. The director is known for a wide array of projects like Pineapple Express, Joe and Eastbound & Down. I asked him how much of Jeff Bauman’s story he was familiar with prior to being involved with Stronger. David Gordon Green, “I wasn’t familiar with the story at all. I remember the photograph. The opening script was a whole world I had no familiarity with. It got me thinking about how often we read headlines and how rarely we follow-up on them. I think it’s one of the things that drew me to this particular project. It isn’t about the immediate event as much as it is about the aftershocks. Weekly, daily, we see these headlines from man-made, natural disasters, frustrations, hardships and struggles we all go through and it’s easy for when we aren’t involved to move on to the next one. But there’s always, think about anything that’s happened in our lifetimes, there’s echos that change people’s lives. In my effort, from that perspective, was to make a portrait of Jeff Bauman and his community that was relatable and universal to anyone, anywhere that has hardships and hopes and needs a little healing.”

He talked about the difficulties trying to do that. “It was ethically complex to know I had to make a movie that was going to be approximately 2 hours, that was going to have characters of a manageable number that needed arcs and storytelling devices and Hollywood technicalities to encourage someone to buy a ticket, but yet the most important consideration was making something that was respectful of my wonderful and vulnerable subjects. It was the first film I ever deeply considered an audience and subject matter equally. If you make something devastatingly depressive, no one is going to go, no lessons learned. If you can structure it correctly and execute it respectfully in a way that makes the story appealing, when you hear based on a true story, inspiring tale, your warning lights start going off, oh Hollywood came to town. I think what helped was not having a ‘Hollywood’ director, just some Texas director that worked on Eastbound & Down. My resume immediately takes the piss out of me. I don’t show up on a pedestal with my beret and megaphone. That’s helpful in getting trust and relatability to subjects that I want to trust me.”

I asked him if he was worried about any backlash about portrayals of people in the film. “We showed the family and they were all encouraged by it and seemed supportive of it. I was with Jeff all week when we were premiering it in Toronto and it’s not exactly a flattering portrait of everybody, every time. We’re all imperfect and we open up a conversation with his family and friends. It’s been a difficult journey and if we don’t show those difficulties, then what are we really trying to do? I don’t want to gloss over anything, but again everybody has their own difficult journey. One character loses his legs, but each character has a substantial obstacle they are facing.”

David Gordon Green talked about what he took away from this whole experience. “I took away the fact that you can do anything. One of the things I love about Jeff as a guy, this sounds weird, but he’s a normal guy. He’s just a dude that likes to watch baseball and drink beers with his friends. I find that in my own profession you meet these directors and you’re like ‘That guy’s a director’, but with me I have to go mow my lawn. I don’t feel like I have that kind of thing. It’s great when you meet extraordinary, normal guys. When I meet someone like Jeff you realize he doesn’t have any superpower, he’s not coming with any greater box of tools, he has a loving and supportive family. He’s just like everybody else. He’s a good days, bad days sort of guy. Then the fact that he could be greeted with such a bizarre and baffling, wrong place/wrong time type of experience that changes his life and come out to be a guy who I spent the last week with and love him and we laugh a lot and send funny texts and enjoys life and how weird this all is. It’s just reassuring that if I get hit with the next one, Jeff is the first phone call I make.”

I thought comedian Lenny Clarke stole the film and he’s my Best Supporting Actor nominee for the year. I asked David how he got that performance from him. “I love Lenny. We talked last week about what we could do again. He’s just such a beautiful, vulnerable, funny voice. He’s so natural. You give him a script and he can go for days. I think the story meant a lot to him. He was very passionate being involved with it. I remember I first Skyped him and he just gave me the pitch. It was really great. Then we met up in Boston and told him he had to be in this. There’s a line you don’t really catch, but there’s the scene where (Jeff’s) boss from Costco comes in and the family is in the hospital waiting room. The boss is giving them insurance papers and it’s very chaotic. The last line of the scene is Lenny asking what kind of muffins you got there. It’s just what you need in a scene like that. For me personally I can’t deal with something heavy all the time. For Lenny, he’s not joking, he just wants a muffin.”

David Gordon Green mentioned he used a lot of real doctors and medical people in Jeff’s life. The doctors that performed the real life operation play themselves in the film as does his physical therapist. In real life Jeff also threw out a pitch at Fenway Park and waved a flag at a Boston Bruins playoff game. I asked how easy it was to get the actual footage of the real Red Sox and Bruins games. “I have to say, beyond my expectations. TD Garden and the Bruins, the Red Sox and Fenway, Pedro Martinez, people were just so supportive of Jeff and his story. Our approach was very un-Hollywood I guess. It’s stressful in making a movie that way because the last thing you want is a city pissed at you. It’s one thing to be making Pineapple Express and holding up traffic in LA, I don’t give a shit, but when it’s something you care so deeply about and you’ve grown to connect to human beings, it can transcend Hollywood, it can transcend an industry. This morning I was sitting in the park, I got a coffee and listened to a guy play the violin and I was just thankful to be here.”

Up next is John Pollono, best known as an actor, Stronger is his first feature-length script to be made. He talked about how he got involved with the project. “You get to know producers and I knew a producer. He was familiar with my work. I started out as a playwright. I had written a bunch of plays usually about where I grew up, Massachusetts, New Hampshire. One of the executive producers had seen one and knew the area I was from. There’s Jeff’s book and I had read it and was like ‘I grew up a half hour from there’ and had an emotional response to the bombing. I was compelled by it and there was a lot of promise there. Jeff had written it real quick and I knew there was a lot more there I could tell between the cracks. I said here’s what I’d like to do and they said cool. We came up with a pitch and pitched it around and got lucky we found someone to make it. I met Jeff and talked in prep and then I took a deep dive over the next year getting to know everybody.”

I asked John if there was anything in the book he felt was too personal for the film. “It was actually kind of the opposite. He wrote the book real quick and it had some uplifting moments, but he was still in the middle of it (his experiences after the bombing). I’m blown away he wrote it when he wrote it. Most of my work was getting everybody to trust me and open up. He had his baby while I was there. He was in a transition and it was sort of weird pushing him so much because it was so fresh for him. Eventually everyone opened up and the story came out. The book was a very important period in his life, but most of the movie is based more on the raw, personal stories I would hear.”

John continued about handling the psychology of these personal stories. “You write a lot of movies about a lot of stuff so you ask ‘Why this?’. He wanted to do it and I certainly felt it was a very worthwhile story. As much pain as he was in, he felt people could get a lot of it. I really dug Jeff and Erin and his whole family. I grew up near there so I sort of know that neighborhood so I wasn’t judging it or trying to make caricatures. What I really liked was that Jeff is a really normal guy. It was super real. I felt like and he felt like, let’s tell this story. It felt like it had a real reason to exist.”

Just like with David, I asked John if he was worried about any backlash about the portrayal of real people. “I got to know them for so long that I just wanted to make something they would feel was truthful. I think we really did that. ‘Hey I’m going to make a movie about the worst four months of your life’, that’s hard. Jeff got it, but it was so painful and raw for him at the time, I would just ask him a bunch of questions and he would say ‘You’re the professional, I trust you’. Some of the other family members I did interview and I did get to know, but they were more orbiting around so that was hard. They are human beings and people they know will see it. I had to lean more on what was truthful about them. I can imagine seeing a movie about yourself is very difficult, you can’t prepare for that. We don’t pull any punches for Jeff and how hard it was for him. I feel that would be a disservice. I got to know and interview a ton of amputees and they would say movies never get things right. So I was like ‘What do they never get right?’ I had one guy tell me that when he lost his legs, ‘First time when I took a shit at home without nurses, it was like climbing Mt. Everest.’ He told me the details and we put that scene in the movie. I asked Jeff about it and he was like ‘Yeah that’s right’. I did it so amputees who see the movie will be like ‘That’s real’. It’s not flinching from how awful it was.”

I knew John from acting on Mob City with Edward Burns. I asked John if he could see himself having a career like Ed’s, doing a studio film, then a personal project. “Absolutely. I love it. David Gordon Green is a hero in a sense, like Ed Burns, who zigs and zags. I love writing. I love acting. I had a play off-Broadway that I was in and Ed and his wife came and he was like ‘That’s awesome, keep doing your thing’. This was an incredible experience with Stronger, working with amazing people. You learn so much. Life is about balance and doing stuff like that.”

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