The Aftermath of the Big Headline: Stronger

David Gordon Green talks about the unlucky bystander to history

During the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, Stronger made its world premiere. The biographical drama tells the story of Jeff Bauman, whose lower legs were blown off in the bomb blast that tore through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Stronger is based on the book by Bauman and Brett Witter. John Pollono wrote the screenplay and David Gordon Green is the director. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Bauman, who was there to prove to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) that he was indeed reliable and could be counted on to show up – an ongoing source of discord in their relationship.

In other hands, Stronger could have so easily become nothing more than a sentimental tearjerker. That the writer, director, and cast manage to maintain the story’s sharp edge is exactly what makes it so unusual. Stronger is not a story about victims overcoming adversity but, rather, a story about what happens to ordinary people in the wake of extraordinary circumstances. Bauman is no angel, before or after the loss of his legs, and his mother (played by Miranda Richardson, in a performance that should be remembered come Oscar time) is a real piece of work. Heroism is foisted upon these individuals who don’t necessarily feel worthy of the honor. Jeff mostly regards himself as an unfortunate bystander to history.

As I entered the interview suite of the designated Toronto hotel, I greeted David Gordon Green by shaking his hand and commenting that our paths had never crossed during his time living in Austin. The former inductee into the Texas Film Hall of Fame replied something to the effect that it was good we met now because he had just recently moved from Austin to Charleston, S.C., and then muttered something about better state incentives for filmmaking and time for a change. I suspect we’ll be soon hearing about a new artistic enclave springing up in that Eastern seaboard community because I also heard actor Danny McBride, a regular collaborator of Green’s and fellow alum of the North Carolina School of the Arts, mention on a recent talk show that he also bought a house in Charleston. Austin’s loss is now Charleston’s gain.

What follows are edited selections from my conversation with David Gordon Green.

Austin Chronicle: Stronger is a true story. Let's start there. That's something different for you to tackle. What were the challenges in doing this?

“I wanted to make a movie that was aggressive in its authenticity, but not repulsive in its entertainment.”

David Gordon Green: It's my first true story. In every way, it was different. For me, it was really challenging, and not in a bad way. But rather than just make a movie and have your vision, and then create it with your comrades, it was more a matter of gaining the trust of the subject matter, honoring them, and inviting an audience into that experience. I've never had to deal with any of those monumental tasks before, so I was really lucky that the screenwriter [John Pollono] had already made those connections and developed the script so he could introduce me. Then it was up to me to not screw it up, you know.

It is very important in a story like this to respect the difficult journey that people have had. They are exposing a lot of their vulnerabilities to me, and opening the doors of their somewhat fractured lives. And so, as a sensitive person myself, I just think: I don't want them to hate me. I want them to love the intentions of this project. And my intentions were to bring a universal story about something very specific and personal to the screen. Beyond those type of ethical considerations, on a personal-ambition level, I wanted to make a movie that a lot of audiences would see: a very intimate study of relationships in the aftermath of the big headline. I wanted to make a movie that was aggressive in its authenticity, but not repulsive in its entertainment.

AC: It would have been so easy to sentimentalize this story and make it about nothing but overcoming adversity. You very wisely stay away from that and keep the emphasis on human beings and their relationships.

DGG: Well, you get to know Jeff, and you fall in love with him. But you also are really frustrated by him. And I think that was important for Jake [Gyllenhaal] to be able to have the layers of the character to play. It’s not a hero's journey in a mythological sense, it's just a normal guy that wasn't asking for this disability. And then on top of that spotlight, add that he just wants to drink beer and watch baseball with his buds, and it becomes extraordinary to see how that unambitious mindset can embrace a responsibility he wasn't looking for.

AC: We live in an era now that's so focused on hero worship that we’ve lost some of the impact of the term.

DGG: Right. Last week I did a Sprite commercial with LeBron James (I've done a couple with him), and he's just this normal dude that just happens to be absolutely incredible at basketball. We watched the eclipse together. We were just goofing around and talking about what's for lunch. But then you tell people who you're with, and the absurdity of what happens when I meet somebody like that can take over. I had him sign a baseball for me, you know, just to kind of take the piss out of a hero. That's where I go.

AC: I can't imagine having heroism foisted on you when you're just trying to get your girlfriend to like you again.

DGG: When people ask me what drew me to the story, I think that’s it: trying to get the girl back. And then everything changes. And the sense of obligation, and the sense of “I want to be there for someone that I care about, but I don't want to mislead what my intentions are,” and the complexity of when someone really needs you.

AC: I also I like the fact that most of your movies have a really strong sense of place about them. And Stronger has such a strong Boston sense of place. I think all of your films are set in a lot of different places, except for maybe the early North Carolina things. But on these last two (Our Brand Is Crisis and Stronger), you’ve gone from Bolivia to Boston.

DGG: I’m a gypsy. I love to travel. I've spent my life in Arkansas, and Texas, and Louisiana, and North Carolina. So you know I definitely consider myself a Southerner. But I love stories that take me around the world, and movie experiences that take me into genres that I haven't worked in. I'm just a devilishly curious individual. I think what scares me is what invites me in in a lot of ways. I don't have a comfort zone. I don't stay indoors. I wake up at five in the morning and I get out, and I start getting into it. Every day you're looking to friends and a supportive community and things like that because you never know what is going to go this way or that way. I don't have a signature move as a filmmaker, and I don't have a special type of thing that I do. Actually Rick [Linklater]’s been really inspiring just in terms of the diversity of subject matter that he approaches and techniques that he utilizes.

AC: I’d say that your very eclecticism is one of your signatures.

DGG: I'm prepping to start shooting a horror movie in a few weeks.

AC: Right, Halloween.

DGG: I’ve never done that, so I try to keep it interesting.

AC: Many of my favorite directors like Linklater and Steven Soderbergh are people who have done a gamut of things throughout their careers, which makes their work especially interesting.

DGG: We're all just kind of nosy. Like, what's this all about over there?

AC: You began making films with your friends in North Carolina. In recent years, you’ve been living in Austin, and now you’ve moved to South Carolina. What are the advantages of working outside of the film centers of New York and L.A.?

DGG: The conversations, you know. They were a beautiful part of my Austin experience. An accountant lived on one side of me and a security guard at Camp Mabry lived on the other side. So you're pulling groceries out of the back of the car, and you have great conversations that aren’t about what you do or what movies you saw. If I'm going to work as much as I do and be as obsessed with my industry as I am, the best thing that can feed that machine is anonymity and surrounding myself with people that don't necessarily think that way every day.

AC: What activities do you have that aren’t related to movies?

DGG: Real estate. I've got twin 6-year-old boys, which keeps me running around. Occasionally, I like to go fishing and crabbing with them now that I'm living near the beach. And then on the side of the real estate, I do it because I love developing properties, fixing up old houses, and that kind of stuff.

See Film Listings for Stronger review and showtimes.

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David Gordon Green, Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Toronto International Film Festival

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