'Stronger' Team on Crafting an Authentic "Portrait of Struggle"

Courtesy of TIFF

Stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany and director David Gordon Green reveal the work they did with the real-life inspirations for the latest film about the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing.

Stronger isn't the first movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but the film, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as survivor Jeff Bauman, focuses more on Bauman and his family's effort to overcome a tragedy and move forward in the months after a traumatic event.

"I think it goes beyond the headlines," Tatiana Maslany, who plays Bauman's on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley in the movie, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of a recent screening. "Jeff was sort of touted as this hero and that was something that was uncomfortable for him to carry, and really it's about these individual people struggling through this traumatic event and trying to forge a new life together and sort of understanding where they were going from here, so it's really very personal and very relatable. I think we can all watch it and see a part of ourselves in it in terms of the struggle of dealing with someone who is sick or injured and people in our lives who are dealing with something like this, so it really takes it out of that headline territory and into the more personal."

Producer Todd Lieberman added that the movie, "expands beyond that single event."

"What was important to me about Stronger and has always been, from the very, very beginning, that we're telling a story about people and this is an intimate portrayal of a family going through unheard of tragedy and then figuring out how to push through that, how to get to the other side of that with hope and joy," he said. "Bad things happen every day, whether it's by mother nature or an unfortunate act of terrorism or a car accident; bad things happen all of the time. This is a movie about one particular family in one particular instance that's able to figure out a way through that tragedy. I hope that transcends one specific incident."

Bauman lost both of his legs in the bombing after showing up at the Boston Marathon finish line to cheer on Hurley. The film focuses on his recovery from his injury and the discomfort he felt being called a hero as well as his relationship with Hurley.

Director David Gordon Green said he hopes people watching the film see "the portrait of struggle that comes with hope, that comes with healing and opportunity and inspiration."

And exploring the "layers of [Bauman's] story that exist in the shadows and echoes of a major American headline" was what attracted the helmer to the project as he read the script, by John Pollono, and Bauman's memoir, on which the film was based.

"I just really love the idea of peeling it back and seeing beyond the perception of what that event had to say and get into the humanity and the intimacy of it," Green told THR.

Throughout production on the film in Boston, Lieberman and Gordon explained that they endeavored to make the movie as authentic as possible, involving Bauman's family from the early stages and even casting some of the real people who participated in Bauman's recovery.

"The surgeon that amputated Jeff's legs plays himself in the movie, the nurse who took care of him plays herself in the movie, the Martino brothers of United Prosthetics who helped fit him for the legs that he would ultimately walk again in [are in the film]," Green said. "Trying to bring people that had real voices that spoke in the technical language that was going to make our film feel real surround us every day and we had access to the subjects, which is another really wonderful thing to have the trust and resources of the characters you're there trying to portray."

Bauman and Gyllenhaal, who've been making the media rounds together promoting the film, appear to have developed a close relationship through their work on the project. And Bauman, who attended the film's New York screening with Gyllenhaal, said he was "proud" of Stronger and that the movie provides, "to a tee," an authentic representation of what he went through.

"They couldn't have picked a better guy to do it," Bauman said.

Maslany explained that to get into character she spent time with the real Hurley and began running.

"I met with Erin a few times and just got a kind of sense of her essence just hanging out with her, asked her questions obviously but also got to know her a bit as a person and talked about life together," the actress said. "When I got the part I immediately started running. That was a really important part for me to get in terms of her stamina and strength as an athlete, and then I thought it kind of translated into this emotional stamina that she shows throughout the film. And John Pollono, who had written the script, had done such great work sitting with the family and kind of fleshing out all of these dynamics so a lot of the research was there already."

Gyllenhaal said that he was "intimidated" going into the project but that he and Bauman bonded over their "similar weight of doubt."

"I think I was intimidated because of the situation and because of who Jeff is and what he went through and trying to do service to it and I thought maybe he would doubt me and I was nervous about that," Gyllenhaal said. "But then I realized that we share a similar weight of doubt and that's something that the two of us bonded over and we became friends really quickly, just easily."

The actor, who also produced the film under his Nine Stories banner, said he felt enormous pressure to get Bauman's story right, in a way that he can't even put into words.

"I cannot explain the weight of responsibility that I feel. You can never fully capture what actually happened; you can never really fully understand. I've thought about Jeff from the moment I decided to play this role," he said. "It's an honor and I'm really grateful for it. It's an honor to have a group of people believe that I can play him because what he went through is something that I don't think that I would be able to survive. Every moment, every choice, all of the detail and specificity of the movie and trying to get him right as a character, trying to honor him and his heart and his journey is an inexplicable responsibility."