TORONTO — The creative team behind “Stronger” doesn’t think of the film as a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing.
To its directors and stars, it’s a much smaller story that follows one survivor, Jeff Bauman, as he tries to make sense of his life after the tragedy.
For that reason, the group hopes the movie winds up being something bigger.
“For me, it’s a movie about healing,” said David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express,” “Our Brand Is Crisis”). “Ideally, if I can be so bold and ambitious, I’d like to think that people can relate it to their lives.”
“Stronger,” is based on the 2014 memoir by Bauman, who attended the 2013 Boston Marathon to see his on-and-off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley, run the race. He lost both legs in the bombing that day and later helped identify the suspects from his bed at Boston Medical Center.
Bauman, who was 27 at the time, quickly became a public face of recovery for the city. Just weeks after the bombing, he was brought onto the ice at a Bruins game at the TD Garden, waving a Boston Strong flag as thousands screamed the city’s new catch phrase for hope. Within months, he was walking on prosthetic legs in front of photographers.
But Bauman wasn’t up for it. He hadn’t signed on to be the person who made everybody else feel better. That’s the story “Stronger” aims to tell.
“He was thrust into this situation that he had no choice in. To use his words, he was sucker-punched into it,” said actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Bauman in the film. “Then, in trying to recalibrate his life in a very short period of time, he was made into a symbol in a way, and I think reconciling those two things simultaneously for someone who never had any idea they’d be in that position is what the movie is about really.”
Bauman — who joined the cast for the world premiere of “Stronger” at the Toronto International Film Festival — said that he had reservations about what a movie about his life might become. He didn’t want to be part of a two-dimensional tale that glamorized what it was like to lose his legs. As a prideful Chelmsford guy, he also didn’t want it to seem like he’d “gone Hollywood.”
But when he met screenwriter John Pollono, an actor, playwright, and product of Londonderry, N.H., he felt better about what it could become. Pollono spent time with Bauman’s family and didn’t seem to judge them. The writer made it clear he wanted to portray them realistically, flaws and all, but with love.
“New Englanders have a dark sense of humor. We take the piss out of stuff,” Pollono said, of writing Bauman’s relatives, who struggled as caretakers after the bombing.
Once Gyllenhaal came aboard and Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) signed on to play Hurley, Bauman said he could breathe even easier about the project. Gyllenhaal could goof around with him, and seemed more concerned about Bauman’s state of mind than he was about the film.
“He kept asking me how I was doing,” Bauman said. “He said, stop being so hard on yourself. And I said, ‘Maybe I am a little hard on myself sometimes.’ ”
Maslany understood that while Hurley was supportive of the project, she needed privacy. In the four-plus years since the bombing, Hurley had helped Bauman recover, married him, and had a daughter with him. In February, The Hollywood Reporter and other trade publications announced that the couple planned to divorce. Maslany said she wanted to portray Hurley, but also to honor boundaries.
‘Sitting next to him . . . watching the movie for the first time, I don’t think I’ve been nervous like that in a very long time.’
“She has her daughter to think about and to take care of,” Maslany said. “I respect her fierceness with her family.”
Hurley was not in Toronto but attended Tuesday’s local premiere of the film at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, where Bauman was treated. During an interview that day, she said she’s done her best to remain private, but that she’s seen how the movie has helped Bauman process his experiences.
“It’s not about me, it’s about Jeff,” she said. “I’m not like Jeff, who’s literally wearing his injury.”
She added, “I love Jeff. . . . He gave me Nora. People go through things and they love each other.”
As co-parents and longtime friends, their relationship is still evolving.
That, Pollono admits, was one of the challenges of “Stronger.” The film is about a man forced to process his loss too quickly, and yet the movie was already in progress as Bauman was still figuring out how to make it work.
All involved acknowledge the conflict. They say it’s why the film doesn’t end with tidy answers.
Gyllenhaal said all he hopes is that Bauman likes it. The actor said it was nerve-wracking to see it with him for the first time in Toronto.
“All I’ve thought about over the past year is: What is Jeff going to think when he sees the movie,” Gyllenhaal said. “To be sitting next to him the other night watching the movie for the first time, I don’t think I’ve been nervous like that in a very long time.”
Bauman said, laughing, “I noticed it. I’ve never seen him shaken up. He was asking for Skittles. He was like, ‘I need some Skittles. I can’t believe I don’t have my wallet.’ He was trying to stall from going into the theater so bad.”
Bauman admitted that when the movie was screened for him locally in June, with Hurley by his side, he was nervous, too.
“I just thought about Erin,” Bauman said, considering his first reaction to the film. “I just thought about her — and about what we went through together.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.