For Jeff Bauman, authenticity was key. The movie about his life could show the triumph, as long as it also depicted the pain from adjusting to life as a double amputee after surviving the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the scene in Stronger that most resonated with Bauman was one in the hospital, during which he had his bandages changed for the first time after both of his legs were surgically removed above the knee.
“Just hearing them talk him through it brought me back to that moment,” Bauman said of the movie’s Oscar-nominated star, Jake Gyllenhaal. “I really enjoyed the authenticity of everything about it. You can see the pain on his face. That’s the best part. He got it.”
After auditioning actors for the roles of the doctor and his support staff, the filmmakers decided to film the sequence using the voice of Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, who was Bauman’s real-life vascular surgeon at Boston Medical Center. A few of his actual nurses appear in the background.
“We wanted to feel that it takes a team, and that same team that saved Jeff’s life initially and helped him heal and grow stronger — we wanted them in the movie,” Gyllenhaal said during a recent stop in Dallas. “I want to interact with the reality of what’s there. I want it to be as close to the real thing as possible. We didn’t have a scene that communicated a certain type of pain.”
The film digs beneath the headlines in its portrayal of Bauman, a Costco employee who was at the marathon that day to support his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). After he was dragged from the carnage after the explosion, Jeff reluctantly became a hero after helping to identify the perpetrators from his hospital bed. During his arduous rehab that followed, he tries to cope with his overbearing mother (Miranda Richardson) while dealing with the exploitative nature of celebrity in a culture of trite hashtags and soundbites.
Rookie screenwriter John Pollono (who played a recurring role last season on the television series “This Is Us”) adapted Bauman’s book. Richardson native David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) signed on to direct.
“I just trusted everybody. I didn’t think of it as a burden,” said Bauman, who now has two prosthetic legs. “I just wanted to help out and get the story as accurate as possible.”
In order to understand both the physical demands and the psychological trauma in the role, Gyllenhaal said his research was significant even prior to meeting Jeff and his family, with whom he visited on and off for almost a year prior to filming.
“Movies by their very nature bring us together. We all want to be moved and feel like it’s great to be alive,” Gyllenhaal said. “That’s what I felt when I read Jeff’s story. He made me laugh and cry along the way. We’re taking a beautiful story and just bringing it to a few more people.”
Gyllenhaal, who also is a producer of the film, hopes the finished product resonates with audiences the same way that portraying Jeff had an impact on him.
“People don’t want to make movies like this anymore as much — stories where the spectacle is the inner strength it takes to get through something,” he said. “A lot of people ask me if I want to play a superhero. I tell them that I already have.”