Stronger, the new film from screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green, is currently playing in cinemas and focuses on the life of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs below the knee on that tragic day in 2013. Played in a riveting and inspiring performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, Pollono’s beautifully written script charts the emotional and physical rigours of rehabilitation, with a strong focus on Bauman’s girlfriend, and Bauman’s friends and family. Back to the Movie’s Nick Clement spoke with Pollono about how he got the job of adapting Bauman’s book, the challenges of adaptations in general, what it was like spending time with Bauman and his family, and much more.
John, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. I thought Stronger was easily one of the best and most important films I’ve seen this year, so this is definitely a treat, and I’m very excited.
John: It’s my pleasure, and I’m so glad you loved the film. It’s gotten a great response from critics and from the people who have gotten a chance to see it.
So how did you get the job adapting Stronger? This is your first produced screenplay credit, correct?
John: Yes, it’s my first script that’s been produced. I’ve sold some other things, and I’ve written numerous plays, but this was the first script that saw the light of day, and it was sort of born out of working in the theatre world, and writing some really awful screenplays, and trying to developing my craft. I got put in touch with producer Scott Silver, who is fantastic, and he’s been in the business for a long time and knows how everything works. Being with him is like having the world’s best tutor. And people were sort of afraid of Jeff’s book, which I’d read, and found to be very intense, but it was written quickly, and I think it sort of acted as another form of therapy for him. Jeff is a stoic New Englander, and the book was an extension of his personality. And structurally it was a challenging book to adapt.
So I presume you spent an extended period of time with Jeff?
John: Yes, I spent about a year just getting to know him, and his family and friends. I’m from Massachusetts, so the story hits home for me in many ways even though I live in Los Angeles now. Jeff was still in a very dark place when I met him and was in a lot of mental and physical pain, which is what we tried to get across in the film. But spending time with him and being in his orbit and day to day life was integral in getting the realistic qualities we were striving for up on screen. And it was important to surround myself with the people who helped Jeff get through this terrible ordeal because all of them had their own stories to tell.
I loved how the film placed a great deal of emphasis on Jeff’s girlfriend Erin (played by the fantastic Tatiana Maslany), who feels like a fully fleshed out character. Which in films like this, where the lead character is so big, can be difficult to achieve, whether it’s timing or just lack of focus by the filmmakers.
John: Thanks, and yes, it was always about creating a full picture of a complicated caregiver. Erin’s another person who was in a lot of pain when I first met her, and she was feeling intense amounts of guilt, which weighs on a person. And I think that what appealed to me about this story is that these are tough people, facing extremely tough obstacles in their life. During my research process, they had their baby, which created an entirely new dynamic. I wanted the film to feel truthful to the characters as well as to the city of Boston.
How hard was it getting to know Jeff’s family, who clearly were all profoundly affected by these events?
John: They love Jeff. They were supportive up to a point with the project, and I think they had enough trust in me to get it correct. That family is real-deal New England. Everything is played very close to the vest. And listen, I understand all about this way of life. I never knew enough about my own mother, and she led a complicated life. And things just weren’t discussed. I’ve met strangers who have told me more about their lives than some of my own family members have told me, and when I was with Jeff’s family, it was about maintaining a level of respect for them as human beings, while still being truthful to the situation. And things got very rough for a lot of the people in Jeff’s life, and likely still are.
What was your reaction when you heard that David Gordon Green was going to direct the film? I’m a huge fan of his work, and I think this is one of the best, most focused films he’s ever made, which of course is due in no small part to your efforts.
John: Thank you. Yeah, I’m a big fan of David’s films, he’s so eclectic and he’s got a lot of interests, and you can’t pin him down. I’m always sensitive about the stuff I write, because sometimes, the writer ends up getting all the blame if the project goes south, or not enough credit if it’s a success. And I knew that if I messed this film up I’d never hear the end of it from a lot of people. So I was excited when I heard David was going to do it, because I knew we’d be in good hands. We met a few times and started to develop the script even further, and immediately, my love affair with David Gordon Green started. This wasn’t a big budget movie but I ended up working on it every day and it was an incredibly rewarding artistic collaboration.
Where were you when you first learned of the bombing at the Boston Marathon?
John: I was in Los Angeles at the time, but the day before, I was on Boylston Street in downtown Boston with my daughter. Literally, just the day before. On the day of the bombing, I was working in a PR office as a freelancer as I was still working multiple jobs. And everyone just stared at the TV’s in the office in disbelief. And then I had this paranoid feeling that my sister was running in the race, because she’s a runner, but thankfully she didn’t run in the Marathon that year.
What did you think when you heard that Jake Gyllenhaal would be playing Jeff?
John: I was extremely excited. I’m a big fan of Jake’s and his performance in Nightcrawler is one of the best I’ve ever seen. A lot of big name actors wanted this part, so when Jake came in, I was pumped. There were a lot of days of me and David and Jake just sitting in a room and talking about the film and our approach, and we worked very hard to create something that would feel authentic. And Scott Silver really helped, because he brought his 25 years of expertise to the table, and the team at Mandeville who produced the film, they were incredibly supportive during the entire process.
You’re also an actor, correct?
John: Yes, I did a lot of small stuff when I first moved out to Los Angeles. I was spinning a lot of plates, going on auditions and writing scripts. I’m happiest when I can fully utilize my full creative repertoire. Last year I did a six episode arc on NBC’s This Is Us, and that was a great experience.
Was the “Micronesia” reference in Stronger a shout-out to Zoolander? Whenever I hear Micronesia, I think of Zoolander, and also the fact that it’s one of Terrene Malick’s favourite films.
John: Ha! Really, Malick’s a Zoolander fan? I didn’t know that. Yeah, I don’t think I made a conscious in-joke to Zoolander, but now I’m going to have to go back and watch that movie!
What are some of your favourite films?
John: Wow, there are so many. Just recently, Moonlight destroyed me. I thought it was brilliant. I’m not a gay black drug dealer but I felt his pain, and I really connected to that film. I love Casablanca and Raiders of the Los Ark. Once is a beautiful film, and You Can Count on Me by Kenneth Lonergan is superb. I’m a big fan of Tarantino as I love the zest he has for language. I also thought The Fighter was great, and I’m a big admirer of Scorsese, especially Raging Bull.
Tell me about that scene with the bar fight. Did it go down like that in real life? I can’t stand these moronic conspiracy theorists, these people who pretend that Sandy Hook and 9/11 and the Boston Marathon tragedies were staged. It’s disgusting to me.
John: You know, when you’re adapting material, you’re always looking for ways to retain the meaning and essence of your theme and the story being told. In this instance, during my research, I’d heard about an incident where Jeff was cornered by some guys who were boasting about how he was a paid actor, and how the bombing was all a lie. And I also knew of a time when Jeff had gotten into an altercation at a bar after the bombing, so it made contextual sense to me to create an amalgam out of his experiences. It’s a cinematic moment which is what we’re always looking for. And I’m with you, I can’t stand this nonsense about the Boston Marathon bombing being a hoax, so that was my way of putting a personal point on the matter, too.
What was your reaction when you saw the completed film for the first time?
John: Well, I had the chance to see it completed during the editing phase, and I can’t count how many times I started to cry. There were a couple of scenes, in particular, that I was weeping over, and while certain aspects of my script changed from the page to the screen, I was so pleased to see that the film was inhabited by a level of sensitivity that really made the film resonate even further. Editor Dylan Tichenor is so talented, and he gave the film a sense of grace with how it’s paced. There’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you’re finished with, and this was a tremendously rewarding experience and I absolutely loved the process.
What are your expectations for the film? I think it’s a shame how audiences have really been shunning many of these topical films that explore real events from the world we live in.
John: My only hope is that people see and love the film. I think that a big part of audience disinterest has to do with the climate we’re all living in and many people want to go to the movies and just “tune out.” If you open yourself up to the story, then I think it will undoubtedly connect with you. But with all of the craziness going on, it takes a lot to get people into the theatre to see a movie like Stronger.
Especially since you didn’t sugarcoat anything. This doesn’t feel like your traditional “inspirational Hollywood film.”
John: And that’s by design. As the writer, I’m seeking the emotional truthfulness of each scene. And yes, events are compressed, and poetic license is granted, because you’re making a movie, and telling a story that you want to feel universal. But it’s always about the bigger picture and how honest you’re being in each moment.
Who are some of your creative inspirations?
John: I’m a big fan of Martin McDonagh, he did In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and has his new film coming out this fall [Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri]. I love his style and tone. I’m always looking to be raw and truthful and real in my own work, so that’s typically what I respond to with other people’s material. I love strong characters and I’m a big fan of different genres, so there is a lot out there I’m interested in. And because I’m also an actor, when I write dialogue, I try to think about it and react to it in the way an actor might approach seeing the words on paper.
What’s coming up for you? Are there any new projects you can discuss?
John: Yeah, there are a few things I’m working on, as I’m always trying to stay busy. I recently sold a pitch to Millennium Films, with Scott Silver, and that’s based on a 15-minute ESPN piece called Losing to Win. I’m adapting my play, Small Engine Repair, with actor Joe Bernthal, whom I’m close friends with. He’s a terrific creative partner and I’m very excited about getting into that project. And I’ve got a thriller called Riff Raff which I’m developing and really pumped about.