STRONGER: An Interview With Jake Gyllenhaal
[Published at Film Inquiry] Stronger is the first film backed by Nine Stories Productions, Jake Gyllenhaal’s new production company named after JD Salinger’s eponymous 1953 collection of short stories. Nine Stories aims to produce modest budget independent films incorporating unflinching, gritty stories with the kind of edgy rolls that Gyllenhaal has become accustomed to. Gyllenhaal has three main goals: foster emerging young filmmaking talent and provide avenues of opportunity for creative voices that are broken down by Hollywood’s infamous barriers to entry, produce more films incorporating women’s voices, and find films that he can either star or be an active participant in behind the camera.
SFFilm, the organization responsible for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest running film festival in the Americas, held a private screening of Stronger for its members at the legendary San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) with the help of sponsor, The New York Times. In attendance was the film’s producer and star, Gyllenhaal, who spoke with SFFilm Executive Director Noah Cowan in depth about the making of Stronger, his relationship to Jeff Bauman, whom he plays in the film, and the launch of his new production company and what is in store for him in the future as an artist.
Noah Cowan: Hello! You know him as an actor in other roles such as October Sky, Donnie Darko, magnificent performances in Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain, and some notable accomplishments recently, in particular, Nightcrawler, a film which he’s also a producer. This actor explores the darkest places in us as human beings, but does so with an unexpected humor and with a trademark, knowing grin. It is a real pleasure to bring out on stage Jake Gyllenhaal. Welcome to San Francisco, congratulations on this incredible film.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Thank you for having me and I didn’t know I had a trademark, knowing grin, but I’m glad that I had fooled you.
Noah Cowan: We can sort that later. I want to start by asking you a little bit about your relationship with Jeff, the film’s subject. I saw an interview where you said that he helped you let go of the cynic inside, sort of as part of the process to making this movie. I’d love you to talk about that a little bit.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well, the cynic is not fully gone. But, you, I think Jeff reads pretty much everything with humor and even through moments where he himself is afraid or he himself is struggling, he’s always with a sense of humor. I think, for me, just generally being in my profession, I tend to take myself pretty seriously in the absurd job that I find myself doing, and he just tears me up for it. I also see him just – the action of getting up and walking and just doing that, how much strength it takes. I’m amazed by him. In earnest, I’m so moved by just sort of what he is and what he does – all that cynicism does sort of go away.
Noah Cowan: I think I saw that you’ve been working with him for maybe two, two and a half years on the film. One of the things that’s so remarkable in the movie is the physicality of your performance and sort of the command of this very specific kind of pain and anger that seems to come with this affliction. I just want to actually ask you about that like how you developed those tools and whether Jeff was a partner with you on that?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Yes, as soon as I was involved in this project, it was me and Jeff, and I spent a lot of time with him. I’m the type of person who needs a long runway. I like time. I enjoy the preparation; it’s my favorite part of the process, and also just producing the project too, overtime. You know, you’re in pre-production and you’re spending ton of time and a lot of different aspects of the film. But with Jeff, I watched him, I spent time with all of his caretakers, all the medical staff, all the people that helped him initially get through it and then all people post – [the] outpatient[s]s who helped him learn to walk.
I spent time with him and his family and his friends, and there’s a huge community around Jeff, an incredible community of people. Physically, one of the first times that I ever met him, we took off his legs and he showed me how they work and he showed me how he got around without his legs. We went around his house, and we actually first met in this sort of hotel, weird ballroom and he first walked around, showed me the leg and then he took them off.
Noah Cowan: Just you guys alone and some creepy big ballroom?
Jake Gyllenhaal: No, no, no, no. It was me and David Gordon Green and Todd Lieberman, our other producer, and our visual effects team, who are extraordinary. I watched him a lot – that was basically it, and I think the body does extraordinary things, particularly [with Jeff] – he lost both legs above the knee and I had never seen any injury like that. I just spent a lot of time, and over enough time you can observe, and it sinks in and all of a sudden if you’re an actor, I think you start to feel it in your heart and your body.
Noah Cowan: Did it require some sort of physical practice? In some of the scenes when you are crawling in the parking lot, it’s like, are so – almost difficult to watch because of the strength required to actually do it.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well I think your center of gravity completely changes already, and that’s one of the things with Jeff that he realizes that in the midst of this event and all things he was going through, he’s also recalibrating his own physical world, his own mental world or emotional world, but really a physically world first. His center of gravity is different. He is essentially also just sitting in a chair; your point of view of the world is different.
He always talks about his parents and how they sort of made him into a child again. He felt very infantile in so many ways, and so I felt like you hold your body, and you see Jeff protecting his heart, and that was a big thing for me that I saw. He has this huge heart. I did a lot of not only physically but a lot of speech work with Tim Monich, an amazing dialect coach. He said to me, “It’s not a dialect, this is an idiolect.”
Noah Cowan: What does that mean?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I’m not really sure. It sounds good so I use it in Q&As. (Laughs) What it really means is that I think the way in which he speaks his rhythm, his intonation, we study that, we – each one of us obviously speaks in a different way, some of us, and when we are in a different situation we are more inviting or less inviting. Jeff will use two things: he’ll say ‘yeah’ or he’ll be like ‘yep.’ Those two choices, as you hear them over hundreds of interviews – his inviting nature here, and then he’ll just cut off the conversation with. ‘Yep.’ That’s the end of that, you know?
He has it all over his speech and I noticed, though, the overarching theme of Jeff is that he is always inviting, he’s always loving, and some of that makes him very childish and some of that just is what he’s protecting with his body and what he had left of it, or what he felt he had left with at the time. So, there’s a lot in him that he kind of recalibrating and dealing with, and trying to do what he does with legs was very difficult, I would say, to try and figure it out. Seeing him going down the stairs…it’s…odd.
Noah Cowan: Right. It’s different. I mean, I think you’re talking about in terms of the heart of the film and the kind of emotional connections that are created between different people and vulnerabilities and frailties you see. One of the things I really love about the movie is that, while Boston Stronger is kind of a catch phrase, there’s so many different ideas about what might make people stronger that can come through the movie. I just assumed that there’s realizations that you all probably had making the movie between you and David and the other cast, as you sort of went through the story and interacted with the family. What made you stronger in all of this? What made your cast and your colleagues stronger?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I have to say being with Jeff and a lot of the people around Jeff – I believe that it is your vulnerability that makes you strong, your ability to share where you are weak. One example is Jeff, for a long time, didn’t use a cane and when I first met him, he had his legs but he could walk half a block and get winded and sit down. At the time he was drinking still. He has been 15 months sober and struggled with a lot of different things.
He’s now in therapy three times a week and he’s, very proudly, and I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t say himself or I haven’t heard him say hundreds of times. He’s 15 months sober. He came to see me. I had this show this winter in New York and he came to see me and he had a cane. I said to him – I was like, “You seem stronger than I’ve ever seen you,” and he was like, “Oh thanks,” and denies it, “It’s because of the cane.” Then he was like “oh, no” (brushing off the compliment), and I feel that.
I feel that so often I put on a sense of maybe confidence or certain things in so many places where I feel so unsure and so insecure. Jeff shows me that and has showed me that it’s okay to show those things. I think that’s what we’ve all learned. To be honest, David Gordon Green, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, and particularly me and Tatiana went through some really interesting rough moments in the process of making this movie and those scenes yeah. That scene where she’s screaming at me like, “You don’t scare me Jeff,” that wasn’t written, that was us, we were going at each other in those scenes and she’s not afraid, but she showed me all this about herself and I her, and I think that vulnerability makes us stronger together.
Noah Cowan: It’s so interesting – it’s such a strong script that it didn’t occur to me that there was a lot of improvisational work in it.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Not a lot, admittedly. I don’t want to take away from John Pollono and his incredible screenplay. He is the guy who wrote, ‘If Oprah’s your lifeline, then you’ve got a lot of more struggles, Patty.’ (Laughs) That’s a great line. So, I don’t want to say we improvised this whole movie.
Noah Cowan: That’s really funny. It’s interesting that there’s an intensity of those moments that’s very hard to capture without being able to let loose. Tell me about it a little bit. When did you give yourselves permission to go there?
Jake Gyllenhaal: You know, it happened over time, but Tatiana in particular is incredibly devoted.
Noah Cowan: She’s fantastic in the movie.
Jake Gyllenhaal: She’s fantastic, and much like Erin, she’s the rock of the whole thing and her strength is so clear. It took us time. I keep saying time because that’s what we had, we had time. David creates a space where – for instance, for that scene – there are a number of scenes where we shot over the long takes. We just spent a lot of time either repeating the tape or just being with each other rolling.
The scene of the sutures is a take where the sutures are being removed and I think we did two takes, 20 minutes each, and that was the real Dr. Kalish, who was Jeff’s actual surgeon speaking to us and, his real nurses. One in particular, Odessa Boykins, who Jeff calls the Rottweiler. She’s the one who takes out my breathing tube at the beginning. I think that David surrounded the space with real people, the real people that surrounded Jeff.
Noah Cowan: I didn’t realize there were that many real people in the movie.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Oh yeah.
Noah Cowan: That must have been very weird for those doctors and nurses, because that day must have been incredibly traumatic for them as well.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well, yes, and I think also healing for everybody, in a way. If anything, what I’ve realized is that we made this movie for Jeff and for Jeff to see himself and to see who he is to people and to see what he’s been through, and to me that’s the proudest accomplishment of the whole thing. These are some extraordinarily brave people. These are people that I can’t even say how extraordinary they are. So, to be in a movie, Odessa in particular was like, ‘Where do I go? Okay, do that, okay cool.’ It was literally like that.
For Dr. Kalish, he was so open. Actually Dr. Kalish, the reason why it still happened was because David and I were talking with Dr. Kalish about something else, and David had auditioned a lot of actors saying the lines that the doctor says in the movie, and he just wasn’t finding anybody that he was satisfied with and so David turned to me and he was like, ‘Do you think Dr. Kalish should audition for this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great, that’s a cool idea.
Dr. Kalish came in the next day, super nervous, like wearing his white lab coat and he sucked, it was really bad. It was really bad. He was like ‘I…uh..blah blah.’ David then said, ‘Just scrap the script, just talk to me in a way you would talk to a patient or you talk to their parents,’ and he did and he was beautiful, and so that’s what he did.
Noah Cowan: That’s amazing. You’d mentioned that you’d made the movie for Jeff. Did he see early cuts or did he see the finished film, and what was his reaction to that?
Jake Gyllenhaal: He didn’t see early cuts. He’s very savvy with cinema. He knows movies and he sort of instinctively understands the creative process. I really don’t understand how he does, it but he was very involved in pre-production throughout the preparation, and then we started shooting and he said, ‘You guys do your thing.’ I would text him still, we call each other but he was never on set except for the first day.
Then really post-production the same thing, he was not really involved in that aspect. We first screened a movie for him and his family in June, July. Patty apparently left a few times to go smoke cigarettes, and then she – when asked if she liked it, she was like, ‘My apartment’s not that dirty.’ (Laughs) Then when I ask Jeff, because I was shooting in Spain, and I changed the date a few times so I couldn’t get to Boston. I texted him, ‘So, what do you think?’ Afterwards he was like, ‘Good job,’ and then I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I was like okay, cool – like one of those [moments] where you just texted a girl to see if you can hangout again and…nothing. (Laughs) Nothing from him until two days later, and then he was able to verbalize how he felt.
I think it was very overwhelming for everyone. I think it was probably odd and overwhelming. But then Jeff and I saw it when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, a week or so ago, and we sat together and saw the movie first time. I’ve never been so nervous for almost anything in my life. We sat there, we laughed, we cried together, and at the end, the spotlight came up on him and he was like, ‘What do I do?’ I go, ‘Get up,’ and he got up and everybody got up with him and it was like – I think everybody knew, maybe like you guys know from seeing this, the journey he went through to just stand, and it was incredible.
Noah Cowan: Has the movie screened in Boston? [If so,] how did it go?
Jake Gyllenhaal: They all agreed that Patty’s apartment is too dirty. There were some complaints about Southie accents even though the actors with the Southie accents are from Southie, but that’s a whole other thing. It was incredible. We premiered the movie, the US premier, at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, which is where Jeff-
Noah Cowan: Which is in the movie, right?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Yep, which is in the movie, which is an incredible facility, just incredible. It’s full of light and love and huge spaces and healing, and with all the people who are extras, amputees, people who were some of the survivors of the marathon bombing, and the doctors and nurses. It was extraordinary. And it was the first time I had seen Jeff in pants. Full pants, so it had to have been special for him.
Noah Cowan: You produced a few movies before this including Nightcrawler, which you were one of the producers on. This is the first film for your new company [Nine Stories Productions], and, way to guard the gate. Is this kind of an idea of the next phase of Jake’s career or is this the kind of movie you want to make? What can we expect from this company?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well hopefully a lot of good things. Yeah, I think it is, I think you get to a point…I’m so grateful to be an actor, but I love making films and I love giving filmmakers the opportunity and helping filmmakers to tell their stories. There’s nothing I love more. The immediate thing I love more than that is watching an actor across from me doing incredible work. Those are probably my top two.
So, I think what you can expect from us is, we have been very ambitious over the past few years, and I have to say that the company that finances the company saved this movie, and they paid for this movie when other people were almost letting it slide. They believed in it and they are amazing. We have a lot of different projects. My partner and I, who’s an amazing woman named Riva Marker.
Noah Cowan: Great producer.
Jake Gyllenhaal: She’s a great producer. She produced Beasts of No Nation and a number of movies. But what can you expect from us? Stuff like this (Stronger) I guess. Films I think we’re very focused on: an equal amount of films being made by both men and women, starring both men and women.
Noah Cowan: Congratulations.
Jake Gyllenhaal: I think that’s very important for us. (Applause) Or my mom would really kick my ass. (Laughs) No. That sort of agreement we had is how we really bonded I think. I can’t really – I mean, I have a number of projects that aren’t totally ready.
Noah Cowan: Fantastic. Before I turn to the audience, I want to talk about this relationship – there’s just been an extraordinary number of roles, and I feel like there has been a really interesting interplay in some of your best work between people who have a lot of darkness in them. But there is this sort of humor and there is – from the very beginning through the line – that attraction to those roles interests me, but also how Jeff compares for you in your head to those other touchdowns in our career so far.
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well, I mean, I believe we all have darkness; I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think as scary as it can be, I don’t think we should shy from it because I think it can be illuminating. So, I believe in the other characters and I believe that – I always find it fun to delve into that space. What was the second part of the question?
Noah Cowan: The relationship to the characters you’ve played over the years, where does Jeff land?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Where’s Jeff?
Noah Cowan: Yeah.
Jake Gyllenhaal: I am so grateful that Jeff came into my life. I have no idea how it happened. When I first saw that photograph of him and no idea that our lives would intersect, that the universe would bring the two of us together. I had an acting teacher who died a year and a half ago, an extraordinary woman who always said that the target drives forth the arrow. I believe that about roles and I believe that about so many things in life.
All I can say is that I believe that somehow this thing drew me towards it and I am so grateful, because I feel very differently actually about darkness, and about creation of character, and about looking at the world. I think positivity is everything, but not shying away from pain and the mess and the complexity that makes everything so great between all of us – that has always been important, but I think the positivity throughout it, regardless, is also equally important. And I can see that in Jeff.
I don’t know her Herman Melville quote by heart, but in theory, and I’m paraphrasing badly, in that sermon, when you think of the mast of the ship, the lowest part – the highest part is twice, three times as high as the lowest. I just believe somewhere seeing Jeff and for all that pain that he’s been through, he knows joy unlike so many people in the world. That’s incredible and I cannot believe that I’ve been blessed to even be a little part of his life.
Noah Cowan: Fantastic. Who’s got something for Jake?
Female Speaker: I wondered about the scene in the bar where everybody was fighting and he (Jeff) was saying, ‘Somebody punch me.’ I just thought it was so profound, and I wondered if that was true or what was going on there?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Yeah, that was true. It’s also true that there were a number of people who came up to him, these conspiracy theorists, who said that to him, things like that, yeah, which is such a strange irony in the midst of that, that they hit him so hard with that, and then not actually hit him, but yes. I think there’s this general thing where [in] the physical world, people don’t want to interact in the physical world in that way, but they don’t really acknowledge how much they can hurt in the mental. That scene is pretty amazing ,as a result, that’s a John Pollono scene, the courage to write that too. When I read that I was like, ‘Whoa!’ And it’s true.
Noah Cowan: Beautifully staged, too. You just see this bodies flying around him.
Jake Gyllenhaal: That’s in Hong Kong, which is a place where they would all go; windowless Hong Kong, but you can get like literally all you can eat buffet. And when I say all you can eat, I’m serious. All you can eat for two bucks. Then all you can eat really does all come out. (Laughs) No, I’m kidding. But it’s not for the food.
Male Speaker: I don’t think many of the characters you’ve had a chance to play were actually human beings. I’ve often wondered with actors how much of the characters stays with them over time after they’ve finished playing the character. You’ve given the impression tonight that obviously this man stays with you in many ways. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Thanks. There were even funny moments where we were making the movie where Jeff was there during the filming where I felt Jeff was there with me, in me because some of the scenes were so true to what happened with him. I think afterwards I drove home actually with my pretty producer after I finished the movie, which was as beautiful as it was tough to make. I cried the whole way home, I mean literally the whole way home from Boston to New York. I was a block awat. Literally I walked four feet, I cried the whole time. So, it’s really tough. (Laughs)
I was surprised. I think we are all – you let those things go. Sometimes I have a very hard time understanding that, what this thing, this job I do does to people, and yeah, it takes a while. I think there’s things even when I’m with Jeff now, he does something, an expression or he’s moving and he’s like, ‘Oh yep,’ then I’m like, ‘Yep,’ You know, that happens a little bit and I love it too. It’s like you spend time with anybody and you just pick up their mannerisms, it’s the same thing with all of us. You are like, ‘Oh my God, I’m acting like my dad,’ the same kind of thing I think.
Female Speaker: I’m actually from Boston. I was there on the day of the bombing, so this was obviously a really emotional film. How did you work the city of Boston in keeping the authenticity? I’m sure there were some critique along the way about an event that was so recent. What do you think that he (Jeff) learned from you I guess and do you think he was ever worried about being on the spotlight because of the film?
Noah Cowan: There’s a couple of questions there. The first one was basically like how did you work with the city of Boston to preserve the authenticity and the face of criticism? Then the second part was, what did Jeff learn from you and was he nervous about being on the spotlight?
Jake Gyllenhaal: You know, David Gordon Green is the type of director that’s just, again, like Jeff, so openhearted – never created any tension and was always respectful. I think we were always in a movie that was about trying to just be open, and it was tough at times. We couldn’t shoot in Boston. There were a lot of places that were too sensitive. At a certain point we were going to try and maybe shoot the day before the marathon, like there’s still a lot of spectators, still a lot of stuff going on, and it seemed like we may be able to and then we couldn’t.
We constantly ran into sensitivity and the still-very-raw feelings that were there. And I think that’s what the movie is about. So, we understood. And so, we were like, okay, ‘Well where to shoot? Well they never ran a marathon there,’ and we literally had those conversations. We’d lose a location and we go, ‘Okay, what do we do?’ And we say well, how do we shoot that little sequence. For instance, the bombing sequence itself, additionally, in the earlier drafts, always happened at the beginning of the movie, but as we started to work with the city, and I believe this about movies – they show themselves to you.
We realized we didn’t have a location. Then one thing led to another and the discussion came about, well, this isn’t really about that at all, this is about loss. The big scene in the movie is when there’s a potential of losing the person who he (Jeff) loves the most and who got him through that situation, and what does that spark? And what that sparked, I think, for him is the loss of his legs and so much loss. And I think that connects to all of us, so it became bigger than just the city of Boston, bigger than that. It was a huge thing for the whole world.
It was very sensitive and we were always trying to understand it, and there was a whole other movie being shot at the same time, the movie Patriots Day, in which David said – there was a lot of sensitivities going around, he was like, ‘Okay, great, maybe we should just do it together, like you should play Jeff in their movie, and then Mark Wahlberg should run through.’ There was all this stuff about, ‘Oh, they’re making two,’ it’s like, ‘We’re not making the same movie.’ We knew we weren’t making the same movie, so there’s that. And, because I’ve talked so much I forgot the second question.
Noah Cowan: What did Jeff learn from you?
Jake Gyllenhaal: (Sarcastically) Well, Jeff learned from me the great skill of oration. (Laughs) No, I don’t know – I like to think that I’m somebody who is not as afraid to just say what they feel, that they’re hurt, or they’re scared, or they need somebody. I pride myself in the fact that Jeff calls me and he’s like, ‘I’m feeling like shit,’ or, ‘This really freaked me out,’ or whatever it is, and then I’m there and he knows that I’m not afraid. So, I think that – I feel like that’s what I do for my job a little bit; I try to the best I can. I think hopefully I can show him that a little bit.
Noah Cowan: Thank you so much Jake Gyllenhaal.
Stronger made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this year, and is currently playing in theaters in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Singapore. For all release dates, click here.