The inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become the symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Veteran producer Todd Lieberman of Mandeville Films was looking for a new script, and wanted to find something inspirational as well as entertaining. “Stories that fill audiences with a sense of exultation were hard to come by,” Lieberman says. “Then I heard about Jeff. It was exactly what I was looking for.”
Standing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, Jeff Bauman had no intention of becoming a hero. But when a pair of improvised bombs exploded next to him, his life changed instantly. A passing photographer snapped a photo of the horrifying moment Jeff was rushed off the street. His lower right leg was gone. His lower left leg was stripped to the bone. That image went viral and Jeff suddenly became the face of a horrendous tragedy for people all over the world.
One man becomes a symbol of hope and determination for a wounded city in Stronger, a deeply personal account of the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Based on Jeff Bauman’s New York Times bestselling memoir, the film celebrates his unrelenting courage against unimaginable odds
Stronger is the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become the symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, directed by David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express), from a screenplay by Boston local John Pollono (Small Engine Repair, Lost Girls) based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter.
Lieberman first heard Jeff’s story from a colleague who urged the young man to write a memoir. But at the time, Bauman was still at the beginning of his recovery and was understandably reluctant to revisit the ordeal he was working so hard to get past.
When they spoke, Lieberman was honest about what making a movie would entail. “I told him that his entire life was going to be opened up,” he says. “All the vulnerability and pain would be exposed. I wouldn’t do a whitewashed version. It had to be authentic and honest about the trauma, the emotion and the challenges he had to face. If he was willing to go there, I wanted to go with him. If not, I would understand.”
Eventually, Bauman decided to write his book, also titled Stronger, and agreed to option the film rights to Lieberman’s company. The producer already had a writer in mind to turn the memoir into a compelling screenplay: John Pollono. A successful playwright, Pollono’s screenwriting acumen was still largely untested, but he comes from the same corner of New England as Bauman. Raised in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Pollono had experienced the physical, cultural and emotional terrain of Jeff’s world firsthand and written about life there with gritty sensitivity and ironic humor in his plays.
John Pollono is an award-winning actor, playwright and screenwriter from New England (he graduated from the University of New Hampshire) who currently lives in Los Angeles. His plays have won the awards of L.A. Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Garland and LA Weekly and his last two New York productions, Small Engine Repair and Lost Girls, enjoyed successful, extended runs Off Broadway. Pollono’s latest play, Rules of Seconds, was a critical hit in downtown Los Angeles.
Pollono immediately connected with the material, and with Jeff and his family. “I know them,” he explains. “They’re like my family. I don’t know how anyone who didn’t come from that kind of neighborhood could have written this story. I felt a strong obligation to get this right. It was heart wrenching, but I had to do it.”
As he prepared his pitch for the film, Pollono discovered there was far more to Jeff’s story than what was in his book. Family dynamics, fundamental beliefs about what makes a man a man, and an unwavering sense of loyalty were essential to understanding him and his world. “The book had so much beautiful stuff in it,” Pollono says. “The more I dug into the story, the more tidbits I learned that filled it out as a movie. I loved that it was the story of an everyman who worked in the deli department at Costco. . He wasn’t an athlete. Jeff Bauman happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suddenly, he had to literally and figuratively get back on his feet. It made me ask myself how I would have dealt with this if it had happened to me.
After reading Pollono’s first draft, Lieberman knew he had made the right choice. “John delivered a script that was exceptional,” he says. “The dialogue was so authentic and so beautiful. It was beyond what we expected. He had found a way to seamlessly intertwine the tragedy and Jeff’s ability to find humor in his situation. And that’s exactly what we wanted. It ended up being No. 2 on the Hollywood Blacklist that year.”
Pollono continued to polish his screenplay for months, speaking with Bauman as often as possible. Hours on the phone helped break down Bauman’s natural reserve as the writer learned more about his life, before and after the bombing. “I also spent a lot of time speaking to the people around him,” says the writer. “He was still in the middle of all this at the time. Jeff’s come a long way, but he suffers from PTSD. He was still deep in that struggle, but he’s turned the corner now.”
Pollono is quick to point out that this is not a film about terrorism. It is the story of one man and what he has to overcome to get his life back on track. “We had to figure out how page 5 of 31 someone finds purpose in the middle of that without making it all dark and depressing,” he explains. “There’s a tendency toward gallows humor that runs deep in Boston and all over New England. We’re fighters and proud of it, so it had to have the kind of raw humor typical of the area.”
Pulling Together the Team
Finding a director who could make the most of the screenplay’s delicate balance of hope and despair was the next considerable hurdle. “That was challenging,” says Lieberman. “It’s an extremely dramatic story, but we had to build in release valves along the way so it isn’t overwhelming. That required someone who understood that sometimes the best way to get through tragedy is with humor. That’s very authentic to the way Jeff and his friends and family deal with each other. There’s lots of wisecracking to get through trying times.”
Director David Gordon Green has a reputation for unparalleled versatility, turning out films ranging from the outrageous stoner comedy Pineapple Express to the award-winning teen drama George Washington. Lieberman thought he would be perfect for this project.
But after working on a string of movies that dealt with serious subject matter, Green was hoping to turn his attention back to comedy. “I was looking to let loose a little bit,” he remembers. “Then I got a copy of this script. I was immediately swept away by the characters and the circumstances. I could see how the tension combined with the humorous aspects of John’s script would take it beyond the headlines.”
The final details fell into place when a call came out of the blue from Jake Gyllenhaal, saying he was interested in playing Bauman. He was also interested in producing the film, which would become the first release from his newly formed production company, Nine Stories Productions.
“I really loved the character and I was deeply moved by the script,” says the acclaimed actor. “It felt important to champion it. I wanted to make sure the movie got made. I was struck by Jeff’s journey and the fact that this isn’t a story about the bombing. It is a story about one human being moving through tragedy to hope.”
With their star in place, the filmmakers all headed to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, to get to know Bauman and his world better. An unpretentious hamlet with a population of about 34,000, Chelmsford is the kind of former factory town that once served as New England’s economic backbone.
“We went out for pizza and beer with a large group of people,” says Green. “We tried to keep it low key and down to earth. It helped us build real relationships with the people who knew the story best. We got mai tais with Jeff’s real-life best friends Big D and Sully at the Hong Kong, page 6 of 31 the restaurant in the movie. We were trying to get the flavor of their life. I was amazed by how open and welcoming they were, considering that a bunch of strangers knocked on their doors and said, hey, tell me everything.”
Green recalls being on hand for a particularly moving and personal moment in the Baumans’ life. “We were with Jeff’s daughter when she was taking her first steps,” says the director. “It was touching seeing this guy who is still learning to walk himself and here he is with his kid taking her first steps.”
Once filming was underway, Bauman continued to be a major resource for the production. Although he declined to visit the set, he was always available to provide personal insights and he received regular updates from the filmmakers, according to Lieberman. “John was always trying to add more of the life and authenticity of Jeff and his family,” says the producer. “Jeff liked the idea of his story getting out, but he didn’t want to relive it. I can’t imagine how difficult this has been for all of them.”
Finding Jeff Bauman
For Jake Gyllenhaal, finding the essence of his character turned out to be a lengthy and meticulous process. The actor was determined to pay tribute to Bauman’s extraordinary perseverance without losing his humanity and vulnerability, but Bauman’s innate stoicism sometimes made that difficult. “There’s definitely an attitude among Bostonians, particularly the men, to hold things close to the vest,” says Gyllenhaal. “To try and get Jeff to talk about his feelings was difficult. It wasn’t like he was hiding anything. It is just his natural state. So I had to find nonverbal clues in his rhythms or his approach to certain problems.”
The two met a number of times before and during production. “I spent a lot of time talking with him beforehand,” Gyllenhaal explains. “Once we began shooting, I still texted with him and talked with him, just not on set. There’s a part of him that is very boyish still. That’s why it’s so easy to fall for him. We all did. He’s not only charismatic but he’s so loving. He has a childlike sense of play. And, then at the same time, there’s a deep darkness underneath.”
Throughout much of the movie, Bauman is relearning to walk, but by the time Gyllenhaal met him, he was completely mobile thanks to the sophisticated prosthetic legs that were fabricated for him. “I found great clues to who Jeff is in his physicality,” the actor says. “Some psychological aspects of Jeff seem connected to his rhythms, his approach to his sentences and how he approaches people. His body language and particularly the sense of humor, which I think he depends on even in his darkest times, were very helpful.”
Gyllenhaal deftly captures all of Bauman’s contradictions without ever resorting to mimicry, according to Lieberman. “Jake is one of the most versatile actors of his generation,” says the producer. “He’s lovable and vulnerable, but also capable of going to dark places. As Jake plays Jeff, he is a little bit life of the party, a little bit arrested development. He not only shifts easily between happiness and sadness, but he came to understand what it meant to have lost two legs above the knee. He spent an extraordinary amount of time with Jeff and other double amputees learning how to move realistically. Jake was 100 percent there at all times.”
Gyllenhaal’s enthusiasm and commitment set the tone for everyone on set. He never backed away from anything, no matter how difficult it was. Jake really got into the head of someone who went through a heart-breaking experience. The pain Jeff was experiencing is brought out in a nuanced performance by Jake who found it through his eyes and his facial expressions. It was pretty amazing.”
The actor says he often found himself wondering what he would have done in Jeff’s situation. “No matter how hard I tried to understand what he went through, I sometimes felt I was hitting a wall. I literally don’t think I would have survived what he has gone through.”
Watching Gyllenhaal, Green and the other dig into the film was incredibly satisfying for Marker. Her partner was constantly aware of his responsibilities as both star and producer, she says. “Jake was always thinking of the best way to tell this story. Even when he was in a scene, he was thinking about what lens was being used. Was the angle correct? Is there another shot we need or a way to make this more dynamic? And David is incredibly generous and open. “What has made this collaboration so remarkable is that everyone has always been aware that this story is bigger than all of us. We have a responsibility to get it right.”
Lieberman believes that part of the reason Bauman’s story captured the world’s imagination is that he is a normal guy who was thrust into devastating circumstances. “One of the central questions of the movie — and something Jeff asked himself — is why did he become a symbol for so many people?” he says. “What does it mean to be a hero? Do you have to do something ‘heroic’? Or can you simply inspire others to reach deep and do things they might not think they are capable of?”
Although Jeff Bauman’s story is extreme, Green believes there is something universal in his experience. “The challenge of this movie for me was to make something that feels absolutely real and raw. It stays respectful to the truth, but is not a re-enactment. I want audiences to feel like they’ve dropped into these characters’ lives and to fall in love with them. I think people will be inspired by Jeff’s complex journey and the incredible love and support he received from Erin, his family and friends, and the people of Boston. And if they look at it and realize that they can turn to the people who care about them when tragedy, or even disappointment, strikes in their lives, that will make me happy.”