Stronger: An interview with director David Gordon Green
The latest movie from versatile filmmaker David Gordon Green, Stronger explores the true story of Jeff Bauman – a deli-counter assistant who lost both his legs during the 2013 Boston Bombings. The film chronicles the history of his recovery as well as his reticence about being labelled a “hero”. Jeff, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, struggles with the fame and subsequently becomes a symbol for the “Boston Strong”.
We spoke with David Gordon Green ahead of the film’s UK release – discussing the early reactions, the pursuit of realism, and Green’s progress on the upcoming Halloween movie.
David Gordon Green, it’s great to be speaking with you. Congratulations on the film. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Were you elated by the early positivity from critics about the film?
Yeah. I don’t read reviews or use that as a gauge on what I’ve made, but you could really feel the wave of positivity as people responded to it. It’s nice for a movie that, by its own genetic make-up, is challenging – it doesn’t have the obvious appeal of the huge, popular popcorn movies. But it’s nice when who you’re trying to connect with, you do connect with. I can’t say that’s not important because, with a movie like this, if you don’t have those types of reactions it goes nowhere.
You don’t delve into drama very often. You usually prefer comedy like Pineapple Express or, more recently, TV shows like Vice Principals. What was the thing about Stronger that made you want to approach it?
I was in production on Vice Principals when I got the script. I was having such a good time making that show that I was looking to do something really comedic and thought, “While I’m in this groove, let’s go have some fun”. But there was something about the perspective of this story… it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I hope that audiences find the same thing, that the movie isn’t what they think it’s going to be. The story is the aftermath and insight of an event, and not about the event itself. I thought that was a really interesting take on it. I didn’t feel like it was overly graphic or exploitative, it felt very personal. And a big factor in the appeal to me was that there was a sense of humour and lightness and life to these characters on top of the dramatic intensity. I was laughing out loud reading the script. John Pollono [screenwriter] is an authentic voice of that region and knows these people and spent a lot of time with them. It added that much more of a realism and naturalism to the script.
It’s interesting that you talk about realism because it’s clear that you strove to preserve a sense of realism, even reaching standards expected of documentaries. Was the realism difficult to preserve? What lengths did you go to preserve it?
It wasn’t difficult because the city of Boston and the people that were the subjects of this film understood what we were trying to do and were supportive of what we were trying to do. For example, getting Doctor Kalish – the surgeon that amputated Jeff’s leg – to play himself in the movie to get the authenticity of his voice and vernacular. Or the Martino brothers who make the prosthetic legs. To get people with such specificity… you can’t really cast them. I auditioned people for all those parts and I didn’t believe anyone in an audition – even the most talented actors who were walking in the room. I was thinking, “The only people who can play any of these parts are the people themselves”. I was just really lucky that they said yes.
How involved was the real Jeff Bauman in the production of Stronger?
Everyone learned about his mindset and his physical process, how he utilised his prosthetic legs, and [he showed us] anything we were curious about. We became very good friends. We were texting last night about our holiday plans. There’s such a heart to him and his struggles. His sense of humour is really quick-witted and you go in there as a pretentious filmmaker – scratching your chin and taking notes – and by the end you’re having beers and a lot of laughs. For someone like me, it’s great to find a way so that nobody’s walking on eggshells. Everybody’s very comfortable with each other. The most important thing in getting this movie made is the trust of these subjects and the beauty of these personalities. I loved working with him. He didn’t read the screenplay, but he would come to set. He wouldn’t watch Jake [Gyllenhaal] playing him, but he joined us for lunch. He didn’t see anything until we showed him the completed movie because it was at a very raw time for him. He’s been very supportive and it’s been great seeing him and Jake become so close and doing a lot of press for the film. Couldn’t be a better guy.
And what did he think of the film?
That’s a question for him. He’s disgusted, he has some really interesting perspectives on it (laughs). But no, he’s really supportive of it and he’s been travelling around with Jake and they’ve been going to film festivals while I’m prepping another movie. It means the world that he responded to it. I did a private showing for him and his family and couldn’t have felt more gratitude. It’s an inevitably difficult and strange thing to watch yourself and your family and your friends be portrayed through the most vulnerable chapter of your life.
As well as giving a beautiful performance, Jake also signed on as a producer. What was it like to have that support from him?
It was always very valuable to have somebody that not only is there turning on their talent in front of the camera, but, when we need more time or more money or there’s a creative consideration, he is full of ideas. It’s fun to have a collaborator as crazy as I am.
Finally, you’re working on the new Halloween movie – the first in a while to feature Jamie Lee Curtis. How’s the production going? Is it a dream come true?
Right now we’re just prepping the movie, we haven’t started shooting yet. I think today is Jamie Lee’s birthday, I need to call her (laughs). I’ll rephrase what you said: it’s a nightmare come true. This was literally the movie that scared the shit out of me as a kid and haunted me. Now I get to play with my demons and my darkness. I’ve never done this before, never made a horror film. I’ve always had the dream to reach into the archives of my nightmares and it’s a really exciting place to play. I was on the phone last night with our make-up artist, going through the ideas of how these death sequences are going to happen. It’s phenomenal. I’m having a blast.
Stronger is released nationwide on 8th December 2017, read our review here.
Watch the trailer for Stronger here: