Stronger than before

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (both above) at the Stronger movie premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (both above) at the Stronger movie premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and actor Jake Gyllenhaal celebrate the triumph in ordinary moments in their movie, Stronger

WASHINGTON • It is the kind of game many people have played - who would play you in the movie version of your life?

Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman got Jake Gyllenhaal.

He is still asked the question a lot these days, as he and the Oscar-nominated actor do press interviews ahead of the release of his biopic Stronger, about Bauman's life in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

"We get Aaron Rodgers a lot," Gyllenhaal answers.

"He cannot act - well, I guess he does the (State Farm) commercials," Bauman adds.

"Yeah, he's pretty good," says Gyllenhaal.

Um, is not that quite the leap, an NFL star in 30-second advertisements to the lead in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Nightcrawler (2014)? "It's not as far as you'd think," Gyllenhaal quips.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (both above) at the Stronger movie premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (both above) at the Stronger movie premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE–PRESSE

Bauman adds quickly: "There are a lot of good editors out there."

Gyllenhaal bursts into laughter.

Throughout making and promoting Stronger, Bauman and Gyllenhaal have become the kind of friends who text each other about championship fights, talk over the telephone about personal problems and bust each other's chops.

The movie follows Bauman after the bombing, when a photo of him being rushed away in a wheelchair, bloodied and clutching his thigh, became the iconic image of the attack.

Bauman, who would go on to have both his legs amputated, had been near the finish line to cheer for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley, played by Tatiana Maslany.

Stronger does not dwell on the horrific moments following the bombing or the intense manhunt for the perpetrators. The movie spends more time with the subtleties of recovery and the physical pain of losing a leg than even Bauman's role in helping to identify one of the bombers.

Based on Bauman's memoir, the film shows his good-naturedness and humour, but does not shy away from his lowest moments and the flip side of hero worship, as he tries to navigate the giant spotlight cast on him.

In the movie, Gyllenhaal's character is often bewildered or overwhelmed by the chants of "Boston strong!" yelled his way.

For the most part, Bauman is not bothered that his highs and lows are on the big screen. "I guess I lived it, so I don't really care if people see it."

As shown in the movie, before the bombing, he worked at a Costco deli counter and could be flaky.

Now, the real-life Bauman studies engineering and helps raise his three-year-old daughter, Nora. He and Hurley announced their split in February.

While initially sceptical of a movie adaptation of his life, he became very involved in the script and grew close with the screenwriter, John Pollono, who is from the same area.

As for Gyllenhaal, an actor known for intense preparation, "I learnt more from this movie than any movie I've made".

His company produced Stronger and he was heavily involved before and after filming.

He spent about 11/2 years developing the script and observing Bauman and his family and friends, peppering him with a lot of questions.

He and director David Gordon Green also met the medical staff who worked on Bauman. "Then we thought, wouldn't it be interesting if they came in and played those actual people?"

The film featured the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Bauman was treated. Dr Jeffrey Kalish, Bauman's surgeon, and Paul and Greg Martino, of United Prosthetics, all play themselves. Bauman's first intensive care nurse, Ms Odessa Boykins, shows up in a scene removing Gyllenhaal's breathing tube.

As for showing Gyllenhaal without legs, it was not just special effects. He credits the props department, the make-up artists, the cinematographer and the editor in getting those shots right.

Sometimes, Gyllenhaal's legs would be in holes in the floor or in green socks. Other times, a special prosthesis helped create the effect.

Gyllenhaal particularly valued watching Bauman in moments when he was not wearing prosthetics and "seeing the weight distribution and how it changes when you don't have the other part, you don't have your below-the-knee", he said.

"Getting that, specifically, for all of us in this process, was probably the most important thing."

It was not just the physicality of the movements they were trying to capture. Bauman's friend Will, who lost his arms and legs, served as an extra in the film and was on set while Gyllenhaal filmed the scene where he takes his first few steps using the parallel bars.

When he finished, Will told him, "'You got that right. The pain, you got that right. No one gets that right,'" Gyllenhaal recalled.

"Generally, we think about the physicality of a hero - somebody who runs into a fire or battle - but I don't think we always think of it as someone in stillness, moving a few inches or a few feet," the actor said.

"We always said the movie was about a guy who learnt how to walk and take a few steps. That was the triumph. And it's hard to make a movie where you make a few steps such an extraordinary thing."

Relating to one another's pain and the triumph in ordinary moments are key takeaways of the movie and something Bauman sees as he watches the audience experience his life unfold during movie screenings.

"They're crying, they're upset, then they look at me and they start to realise, he's right there," he said. "This is the ending. Our press circuit is the ending and people can see me and see that I'm okay and living life to the fullest."

He switches to a heavy Boston accent to add: "Hanging out with A-listahs."

"Oh my God," Gyllenhaal said, laughing.

WASHINGTON POST

•Stronger is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Stronger than before'. Print Edition | Subscribe