Stronger director portrays intimate details of life as a disabled person

Gyllenhaal plays Bauman in Stronger (centre).
Gyllenhaal plays Bauman in Stronger (centre).PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

In the movie Stronger, the relatives of 2013 Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman make for an unusual movie family.

The Baumans are an abrasive bunch - those who do not have hair-trigger tempers or swear at the top of their voices are oblivious to the bombing victim's inner trauma.

Director David Gordon Green does not want it any other way. What is more, he had the family's full support in making the film.

"Getting a sense of that family dynamic was really important," Green tells The Straits Times on the telephone from the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.

The biopic of Bauman, who lost both his legs in the blast, opens tomorrow.

"Like all families, there are all types of people. We tried to do as realistic a portrait as possible," says Green, 42, who is known for stoner comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011).


Jake Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bauman (both above), who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Gyllenhaal plays Bauman in Stronger. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bauman's family was consulted for the screenplay, which is based on the survivor's 2014 biography of the same title.

Green's pledge to stay authentic extended to the medical crew. Nurses, doctors and physical therapists played themselves, he says.

For Jake Gyllenhaal, who portrays Bauman, a supermarket chicken roaster who, at one stroke, becomes disabled and an overnight celebrity, Green's instructions were "go hang out with Jeff". Green's team also provided the actor with 600 pages of research. The director said: "It had everything - facts about the bombing, the history of Boston, interviews with Jeff."

The city itself is a character in the film - its blue-collar bars, sports teams and their fiercely loyal fans and, most of all, its unique patterns of speech are represented. The cast, which includes actresses Tatiana Maslany from Canada (playing Jeff's girlfriend, Erin) and Miranda Richardson from England (playing Jeff's mother, Patty) and Gyllenhaal, who comes from California, received lessons from a dialect coach.

In addition to speaking like a working-class Bostonian, Gyllenhaal also had to embody Bauman as a person adapting to a life with prosthetic legs. "There would be times when Jake is on the hotel lobby floor watching how Jeff puts his legs on or how he gets up from his wheelchair and onto a couch," Green says.

He made it a point to not gloss over another truth: the day-to-day habits that able-bodied people take for granted that people with disabilities cannot accomplish.

He wanted to portray the mundane details of Bauman's existence and the survivor accommodated.

"He showed us the realities of what he goes through every morning, like how to take a shower, go to the bathroom, wipe your a**. These are intimate details of his life and he brought us in there, exposing himself in a way that was so raw and vulnerable."

•Stronger opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Intimate details of life as a disabled person'. Print Edition | Subscribe