TIFF 2017: Behind the Scenes of Stronger
In the aftermath of the most appalling acts of terrorism, you’ll always find stories of inspiring acts of heroism that bring families and communities together. That’s certainly the message director David Gordon Green wants to express with his new film, Stronger, which tells the story of Jeff Bauman, a Bostonian everyman who lost his legs in the 2013 Marathon bombing and became a symbol of “Boston Strong.”
Stronger, which debuted at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff and Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley, his ex-girlfriend who’s competing in the Marathon. Jeff plans to win her back by surprising her at the finish line with a handmade sign—then two bombs go off. He wakes up later at a nearby hospital with both legs amputated above the knee. The film goes on to depict Jeff’s difficult rehabilitation, his reluctance at being portrayed as a national hero, and his complicated relationship with Erin.
“Jeff was really just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there were people out there looking for hope, looking for meaning and looking for context,” says Green. “The world wants to find a reason for why terrible things happen.”
Stronger‘s screenwriter, John Pollono, lived in the same working-class Boston neighbourhood as the real-life Jeff. With the exception of a brief scene in which Jeff tells the FBI he witnessed one of the suspects, as well glimpses of news footage, Stronger puts very little focus on the ensuing manhunt.
“We put the bombing and the bombers all the way in the background and just decided to get to the truth of the story,” Pollono said. “[After terror attacks happen], the feeling of revenge is over really quickly, and then you’re not sure what to do; that’s what the movie was always about.”
Remembering the Boston Marathon Bombing
Both Green and Pollono remember where they were when the Boston Marathon bombing took place: Pollono was in Los Angeles attempting to call his sister, who had trained for the Marathon; he and his daughter were walking on Boylston Street—the site of the attack—just the day before. Green, coincidentally, was visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum when he learned of the bombing.
After Bauman’s memoir was published in 2014, Pollono began spending time with him and his family to gather research for his script. According to Green, Jake Gyllenhaal was the first and only actor approached about the role of Jeff.
Tatiana Maslany, best known for her Emmy-winning work on the series Orphan Black, was cast by Green because of her versatility. As in real life, the film version of Erin felt an incredible amount of guilt over the fact that Jeff had attended the Marathon to see her run.
“[Erin] is trying to do the best she can with no resources—she desperately wants to be Jeff’s partner and caregiver but also wants to have freedom of her own and move on with her life,” Maslany says. “It was a very human conflict that I related to deeply.”
Do you remember where you were when the Boston Marathon bombing took place? Check out 2013’s most defining moments, as told by Canadians.
Maintaining a Sense of Realism in Stronger
Miranda Richardson was cast in the role of Patty, Jeff’s loving but often overbearing mother. “At first, it seems like [Jeff and Patty] have a sort of codependent relationship because he’s essentially a grown-up boy living in the same place as his mother,” Richardson says. “But that’s really her version of looking out for him.”
To maintain realism, both Gyllenhaal and Maslany had frequent contact with their real-life counterparts, asking them questions about events and motivations. Green even hired many of the actual people involved in Jeff’s rehab process to play themselves in the film, including the surgeon who amputated his legs, his physical therapist, and the brothers who built his prosthetic legs.
According to Green, one of Stronger‘s most important scenes—Jeff’s perspective of the bombing—almost didn’t make it into the movie.
“If you show the harsh brutality of that sequence four minutes in, the effect would just carry you through the movie,” said Green. “Whereas, if we see the bombing through Erin, and revisit it when Jeff is on his downward spiral, there’s a better understanding of what he’s going through.”
Check out our Ultimate Guide to the Toronto International Film Festival!