David Gordon Green’s “Stronger” Takes on a Personal True Story with Jake Gyllenhaal

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Filmmaker has established himself as somewhat of a chameleon, switching from genre to genre with ease, whether he’s making smaller indies or directing studio films.

He first got attention with early indies George Washington and All the Real Girls, and after a few more movies, Green was hired by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg to direct their action-comedy Pineapple Express, which brought Green’s long-time collaborator Danny McBride into the Apatow-Rogen fold.

Green recently returned to indies with 2013’s Prince Avalanche and Joe, but he’s generally been bouncing between directing indies, larger studio movies, and television shows like HBO’s Vice Principals with McBride. He’s similarly working with McBride to create a new version of Halloween that includes original creator John Carpenter as a contributor.

Green’s new movie Stronger is another transformative film, as he takes on the true story of Jeff Bauman, as played by .  Bauman was one of the people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, who had both his legs blown off by the terrorist-planted explosives, and the movie follows his journey to recovery with the help of his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black).

It’s an incredibly moving but surprisingly entertaining film with a script by John Pollono based on Bauman’s own book of the same name.

The Tracking Board sat down with Green at the Toronto International Film Festival last week for the following interview.

This is your first time taking on a movie about a real incident and one that’s still fairly recent where the subjects still alive. What led you to the decision to go this route?

Yes, first true story. I mean, I’m always up for a challenge and something that scares me also invites me. I think I’m just a curious weirdo. If I hear a monster in a closet, I want to go open the door. I’m not gonna run under the bed, you know? So it’s that, but I’m also a huge film lover, and I look at film as a way to explore that curiosity of character and location that I have. When I read the script that John Pollono wrote, I just really fell in love with a very complicated situation, and this was not a movie about the concept or the event that it might seem. It was a movie about characters struggling with themselves and each other in the aftermath of a headline event and normal people being thrust into the spotlight amidst these physical and emotional difficulties.

I love the complexities of that character and when I talked to about it — and certainly, his body of work has proven him to be a committed, dedicated, skilled actor — but hearing where we committed to each other to go, I was like, “That’s a journey I’ve never taken and I’d like to go there.

Patriot’s Day came out a few months ago, but it’s such a different movie. One major difference with Stronger is that neither you nor Jake are from the Boston area, so how did you guys get acclimated to that aspect of the story? It seems like you’d want to get that part of the story right for anyone from Boston that watches the movie.

Oh, for sure. I have to say that on top of it being the first real-life story — that’s kind of an easy box to check for my — but also, it was the first movie where I had two very prominent considerations every day: the fact that I’m trying to honor and respect specific people, the subjects that the movie’s about. In addition to that, my ambition was to make a movie that was going to invite a large international audience to see a movie and open up a conversation about this type of situation. I usually just think, “Is this a movie that I can go make and do I feel like it’s something I’m enthusiastic about doing right now?” It’s all very self-centered and this was something that, not only do I want this scene to achieve my own self-indulgent enjoyment, I want this to be something that honors the family and invites an audience. Those are tricky things when you’re dealing with vulnerability, some very dark and difficult circumstances, balance of humor that may or may not seem inappropriate to some people. It was a lot going on in my ethical mind during the production and post-production of this film.

Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions

Tone may be the hardest aspect of making any movie, especially a movie like this, which deals with serious personal issues. You need to include some lighter moments to keep an audience entertained, but not too much that they’re put off.

I was trying to make the event that launches our story at the beginning, I wanted that to be almost as anonymous as anything, to make it really relatable. Although we’re making something very specific that is Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley in this situation and their trials, I wanted this to be something that anybody dealing with any personal or public event and struggling with physicality and emotional frustration, disability, can watch this and understand the beauty of supporting and identifying with people. The thing I thought was really profound about Jeff’s story is that he resists his superpower for a long time, and then, he recognized that people just want to … In his mind, he’s nothing extraordinary. He’s a guy that roasts chickens and drinks beer and watches baseball. What makes him extraordinary is his ordinariness. People started responding to his story, because it’s an ordinary guy with this situation and that’s a lot more common than your average superstar dealing with it, and he didn’t like that. I think he now realizes and finds that empowerment in that ability to connect with people and the beauty of that.

How much did you know about Jeff Bauman and his journey before you read the script?

I knew the photo. I did not know the story at all, and then, read the script. There’s a simple surface, and then there are beautiful complex layers underneath that I just was excited to explore.

How long before or after reading did you want to meet Jeff or Erin or both and how much did you want them to be involved once you got started?

Immediately, and it was just very valuable to me to have their support, their participation, and they helped invite the community to support. We got a lot of real people involved in the movie. As a technical consult, I reached out to Dr. Kayla, she was the surgeon that amputated his legs, and I said, “Why don’t you just play yourself in the movie?” The woman that’s pulling the tubes out is the woman that intubated him in the hospital, Odessa, and she was the one talking through the procedure of that. And the Martino brothers at United Prosthetics that took the molds of his legs to be fitted for prosthetics, they play themselves in the movie. It was kind of that tour where I’m educating myself where I just started saying, “That’s your real physical therapist. Let’s have her in the scene here.” A lot of that became very valuable just in terms of people seeing that we weren’t there to manipulate. I mean, it’s a Hollywood story that takes it’s liberties, and it has to run an efficient running time and it has to exist in a two-hour framework. But I think people saw very quickly that we were there, curious to make this authentic and honor this event

Because doing something like this is so different from other movies like “Prince Avalanche,” how did you get into the proper headspace to make this movie?

Yeah, it’s a lot of ethical considerations. It’s not just being an artist or a director or this would be fun to do. It’s thinking, “If I make a false step, I’m going to upset someone specific that’s important to me, and if I make another false step, I’m going to upset a community or a city that’s important to me and to get this message across, I need to have that trust. They need to trust me, I need to trust them.” And so, just a little bit of a different psychology to the often self-indulgent world that I live in.

Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions

In the past couple years, Jake has become this actor who’s really conscious of the projects he takes while also delivering some astounding performances. What was it like having someone like that as a partner?

Yeah, he doesn’t stop. Just as an example, it’s not a big budget film. We have limited time, limited money. I’d be hearing from producers we need to finish up the scene, wrap up the day or whatever. And then, we’d be shooting a scene and I’d say, “Okay, we got it.” And then, he’d walk up to me like, “Did we get it? Are you satisfied? Or are you just saying that because everybody’s looking at the clock?” I’m like, “Well, I’m just saying it ’cause we could do … We’re fine. We can find it in the editing room.” He’d be like, “Well, then we’re not done. Let’s go get it.” And so, it was nice to have someone that really had the communicating, he’s a producer as well on the film, and have that kind of communication and confidence with the financiers and the powers that be to help a movie like this actually exist. And as a creative collaborator that won’t stop because he’s in front of the camera and he wants it to be done as best as we know it can be done, and then, we can move on.

Similarly, Tatiana is such an integral part of this movie. I’ve never seen Orphan Black, and I didn’t even know who the actress was playing Erin until later. I was very impressed by her.

Yeah, lovely and playful and brings music to set and a real … I love Orphan Black and I always was wondering which one was the real Tatiana, and then, you realize that none of them are. She’s that good, and really disappears into the roles and connected with Erin Hurley, so it was great to have someone that wasn’t just there to show up and read the lines, but was there to be a part of the very special ceremony of what we were trying to achieve.

I guess Vice Principals is starting up soon, so are you directing an episode of the new season?

I did the whole season, it starts next week. Danny does one episode, I did eight of them

Going back and doing comedy with Danny and then going on to direct a new Halloween, how are you able to switch gears so fast?

Well, we just moved down the street from each other in South Carolina. He moved from LA and I moved from Austin, so now we’re neighbors, so it’s a lot more efficient to be making some weird stuff, but switching gears is just the way we … We’re huge movie nerds and we love to watch films, talk about films, and make them. So when we have a weird idea, it’s great to have a resource, a community that we can turn to and say, “Let’s do more than talk about it. Let’s go start putting it together and have the audacity to take some chances and challenge people with what we’re doing as writers, directors, actors, producers.”

Are you trying to set up a film community in South Carolina as well or do you think you’ll go film elsewhere to keep that part of your life separate?

No, we’re trying, that’s why we all moved there. We had a great time shooting Vice Principals in Charleston, and then, when we wrapped, everybody went home, so we moved my company from LA to Charleston and we have a company called Rough House together, and we do a number of films a year. There’s a movie coming out next week called Dayveon — that’s an extraordinary movie that we produced. A movie that just came out a couple months ago called Donald Cried, which is an incredible, hilarious comedy we called Hunter, Gatherer this year. We have a movie coming out called Flower. We probably do four or five films that we support young artists and filmmakers who make some pretty audacious independent films, and then, we do our own TV series and movies. We’re building the collective, the community in Charleston and regionally there in that area.

You’ve already worked with other filmmakers like Jeff Nichols and Craig Zobel who have gone on to do some fantastic things themselves…

Zobel’s doing Westworld this week. I’m so excited. He called me from the set the other day. I’m so pumped to see what he’s doing with that.

HBO

How has it been working in the TV space with Vice Principals? Is that something you’ll continue to do?

I do an Amazon series called Red Oak, so we just finished our third season that I do with Steven Soderbergh. I do the first and last episode of the seasons. It’s really fun, it’s about a country club in New Jersey in the ‘80s with Paul Reiser and a really cool cast. Richard Kind’s one of my favorites. You gotta check the show out, it’s really fun. We do that, and I just did an ABC TV pilot, which was an interesting experience. I’ve never done that before. Oh, and I’ve got a new series coming out on Hulu that Paul Reiser wrote about the early days of The Tonight Show called There’s Johnny. It’s about behind the scenes of The Tonight Show 1971, so I think that will be out early next year. I did the first two of a seven-episode season.

What’s it been like developing a new Halloween movie where you have a number of movies beforehand and..

…an expectation.

Sure. Obviously, the recent hit It is changing the game where people are open to new takes on things even with expectations from the book and original mini-series.

What is that? I haven’t seen it yet. Is it just a really good movie? I’m really excited to see that. I’ll see that when I get back.

It’s just a bunch of kids, and the clown, and a director who had a passion for the material. What’s it like for you doing something like that?

It’s cool. I sat down with John Carpenter at his house a couple weeks ago and went through the script and got his notes. It’s really fun to collaborate with him on that level, and I think we’re talking about him doing the music for it.

Stronger opens in select cities on Friday, Sept. 22. 

  | East Coast Editor

 

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