When Jeff Bauman set out to cheer on his fiancée at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on the morning of April 15, 2013, he couldn’t have imagined the way his life would change when he was caught up in the terrorist attacks that day. When the bombs exploded he lost both his legs in the blast and was captured in a striking photograph being evacuated from the scene. That photograph, and Bauman’s relentless road to recovery, came to typify the “Boston Strong” attitude in the wake of the attacks. For Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Bauman in David Gordon Green’s Stronger could not have been more meaningful a role.
How did you hear about this story?
I only knew about him from a photograph. From that photograph. I didn’t even really know his name very well. The story had been brought to my attention. I was sent a very early draft, and I just loved the character. Somehow, Jeff’s spirit just came through, and there were a lot of qualities to him that I didn’t expect. I called up Eric Feig at Lionsgate and said, “Hey, I would love to do this.” He found David Gordon Green, and David came back to me and said, “I’d love you to do it.” It’s been a long journey from there; I brought the film to Bold Films, who finances my production company, and all of a sudden we were producing it too. So I haven’t slept for two years. I’m reading this story, then meeting Jeff, and wanting to be involved on a really core, rudimentary level. It has become this child of mine.
Jeff’s story is so remarkable, it can’t be hard to find reasons to persist in setting it up.
It doesn’t stop. Any time there’s a moment where it feels like you’ve pushed as hard as you can and there’s nowhere left to go, you keep pushing. I think it pushed itself, and it continues to. It’s a story I care so much about, and when I see people’s reactions to it, it makes it worth it. If I could hold a cardboard sign outside and say, “See this movie,” I would.
And a lot of that has to do with Jeff, giving me shit and telling me how absurd my job is, but at the same time also showing me that you have to fight for the things you believe in.
How involved was he?
He was involved in the pre-production process and in much of the early stages, and he was always there and reachable and communicative throughout shooting. But when we started to shoot, he really wasn’t there that much. He did the first day, and then after that, not much at all. David and I, and Todd Lieberman and Riva Marker, were all in contact with him through it. Getting information from him, talking to his family. We were all pretty close. So it never felt like he wasn’t involved. It just felt like he was giving us the creative space.
It must be odd for him to see the darker sides of his journey re-enacted.
It’s a strange thing to process, and it was for us too. This event wasn’t a decade away, it was only a couple of years away. When he first saw the movie, all I got from him was a sense that he was like, “Good job.” And then I didn’t really hear from him for over a week. And he told me that he went home and he just was so overwhelmed that he fell asleep. And then he woke up the next day reeling about it, and I think what we sensed was it was him reeling about all of the things he had done in ignoring his emotional pain and not listening to advice, or not wanting to listen to advice.
I think his struggle to try and hold on to the old Jeff, and not face the loss—which I feel like any of us can understand in many different forms—was really what he was trying to figure out.
He watched the movie again at Toronto, this time with an enormous audience.
I was so nervous about that screening, because I hadn’t seen the film with him yet. You are faced with your own fraudulence, you know? And you’re faced with all the caring that you put into something, hoping that somehow it would live up to expectations. The moment for me that I will never forget my entire life is at the end of the movie, the spotlight came up on Jeff, and he turned to me and said, “What do I do?” And I was like, “Stand up!” He stood up, and just the act of him standing up, and then 2,800 people realizing how much effort it took for him to stand up, and then them all standing up with him… I feel like that’s why you make movies. There have been so many moments like that along the way for him.
And in the end, the thing that makes him so wonderful is that it’s really not what he cares about. He really does care about people seeing the movie, and he cares about the story, but ultimately, all he cares about is his daughter and his friends, and he’s a good friend. And I think you can feel that when you’re with him.
I’ll bet he jokes that he wishes someone better looking had played him.
That’s a joke he always says. You know, I think the most interesting thing about all of this is the essence of a human being. What do they carry? I know I would never get that haircut of his in a million years [laughs].
The movie is also very honest about the struggle Jeff had with the “Boston Strong” label, when in moments he didn’t feel he had the strength.
The process of the making of the movie was always that question. Always the question of how much is this moment full of hope, how much is this moment painful? What was really happening here? What do we wish the moment to have been and what was the moment really?
I accredit that to the primary group of filmmakers, with David Gordon Green being at the head of that, and then Todd Lieberman and Riva Marker producing the movie in that way. The production companies that joined up to make this movie, I think we all approached the movie in that way. I think we struck that balance, always, even as we fought for different scenes that would do that. The scene, for example, of the sutures coming off, and the pain involved, David and I fought for that moment, because we believed in showing the pain of it. And for Todd Lieberman, the reunion with Carlos, who helped Jeff on the day of the bombing, that was a keystone scene for him.
I think the movie balances itself out in that way, and I think it’s because all of us, all of the people involved in telling this story—and I think it’s why Jeff trusted us with it—are a little averse to bullshit, and yet hopeful in the world. David’s trademark is that he makes the process of making a movie so incredibly collaborative, and all of us were focused on not shying away from the harder aspects of Jeff’s journey. You can’t just paint the easier picture.
Luca Guadagnino describes filmmaking as alchemy—that filmmakers are charlatans and frauds essentially trying to magic an audience connection out of the mix that they make.
That’s why I’m working with Luca. We both know we’re charlatans and frauds. I’ve known him for a long time—almost a decade now. Over that decade we’ve been trying to work together, and I think I had to evolve my thinking a bit, into a place where I start to realize that filmmaking is truly about relationships. It’s taken me a couple of films to realize that the only way to do work that you’re proud of is when you have true intimacy with a filmmaker. I didn’t necessarily know that when we first met. His process, like mine, is very intimate and starts very early on. I always say I need a long runway.
To speak to what Luca said—and what Ang Lee said when I gave him an award a couple of years ago, he said, “we pretend to get closer to the truth”—I think those things are true, and it was something I had a hard time reconciling, particularly with this film. You are always aware that you’re creating a result. It’s not like being in a relationship, because in a relationship you’re not thinking of result, you’re connecting. On a film, you always know there’s a product to be made. That product will be seen and judged, and hopefully, it will move people. But I think a lot of what you’re doing is manipulating reality and manipulating the truth in order to find another way to the truth. I’ve heard filmmakers refer to films as their children…
Luca literally said Call Me by Your Name was a child out in the world now and it was out of his hands.
Right. I mean, I worked with Steven Sondheim, and when I realized he didn’t have children was when I realized his pieces were his children. In the show I did, Sundays in the Park, the last song is an exaltation to art and to creation; these children he has created. The experience of creating something and then sending it out into the world, they do bear a similarity. I speak from very little experience of having children, of course.
Art is important in that way. Art is life or death, as pretentious as that sounds.
Totally. I think the problem comes in when you add commerce. That’s when fraudulence comes into play. So, you can’t make big statements and say, “I owe my life to this thing,” and then make a certain story that you know will sell. Then people call you out, which I think is fine.
I think there’s something very important about being contradictory, too. We contradict ourselves constantly, and I think that is part of it, but I think there’s this whole movement—of actors particularly, because we don’t have a say so much in the filmmaking process—that tends to downplay the importance of storytelling. As if it’s an act of humility to say it like you say it. “What we do isn’t that important. We’re just here to create escapism, or we’re here to entertain,” which we are. But I said from a young age—and maybe it was what I was taught—that any story is political and any story has an influence.
That’s the thing with this film because all of a sudden it made me realize how important storytelling is, more than I had ever imagined, and at the same time I had Jeff joking with me, saying, “What you do is ridiculous.” I’m walking that line all the time.
Do you apply that philosophy, about the importance of art, to the films you want to produce? Because in an industry led by big, empty commerce, it seems like actors with your kind of profile are the ones who have the most influence to get stories like this told.
Yeah. And I don’t think I’ve ever dismissed the fact that this is a business as well, and we spent years building a foundation on this project to allow me to express myself with what I believe in. I think about it all the time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. The choices I’ve seen people make, and the choices I’ve made, have led me to be able to understand the stories I want to tell myself.
But I wouldn’t want to dismiss my financial partners, because I think oftentimes we dismiss the people who provide that support. A company like Bold—Michel Litvak and Gary Michael Walters—when we made Nightcrawler, they understood the way I saw films, and they saw them very similarly. They supported me. I am nothing without them, in a sense. They were the ones who, when I gave them Stronger, even as many people were scared of it, they were like, “Yes. We’re in.”
In my experience, what I see a lot now is people rushing into movies without understanding the structure of storytelling. I really do wish we spent more time in that process, because I think that’s what audiences respond to. Spectacle may sell cheaply and easily, but at least where I sit, I don’t have the resources to make huge spectacle. What I can do is grind and grind to make sure that there’s a spectacle in the structure of the story and the great characters.
I think you’re right when you say filmmaking is important, and it should be taken seriously. When I think about the things that have shaped me as a person, maybe there’ve been a couple of political speeches, but overall it’s been extraordinary stories about incredible human beings. That’s what made me change my perspective on life. So why do we dismiss the essential quality that storytelling demands?
People say appetites are changing, and people aren’t ready to move on and all this stuff. It’s sort of true and it’s also not true. I still like chasing those kinds of stories because those are the stories I love.