A Marathon, Not a Sprint: John Pollono’s “Stronger” Journey

Stronger screenwriter John Pollono.

Four and a half years ago, Boston was under siege when unknown assailants detonated two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A manhunt ensued, and the country watched coverage deep into the night as local, state and federal authorities played a cat-and-mouse chase with the two alleged terrorists, later identified as Chechen-American brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The explosion killed three civilians and injured several hundred others. One of those injured was Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs following the attack. Based on Bauman’s book of the same title, the film Stronger — the second major feature inspired by the bombing (Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day was released in December 2016) — stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman and opens in theaters Sept. 22. Accomplished actor and writer John Pollono penned the screenplay.

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I was grateful to catch up with John to discuss his career path and what it was like not only to write his first major motion picture, but one that will surely have a deep, emotional impact.

Robin Rothstein: How did you get into acting and writing?

John Pollono: I wrote stories for as long as I can remember, and really became obsessed with being a writer when I was about 14. I didn’t get into acting until my 20s, when I took classes under the pretense of improving my writing. But I loved acting so much, and it really clicked with me, that I got deeper and deeper into that. The two really complement each other immensely. I feel like the writer is the coach and the actor is the player. Different muscles.

RR: I first became acquainted with you through Rogue Machine Theatre when you acted in my short play Keeping Pace. Tell me about your history with the company and are you still involved?

JP: I loved that one-act play! That was the first time Andrew Block used Sweet Child of Mine by Guns N’ Roses — we used it for Small Engine Repair, too. I am still part of RMT but have been less involved because of other career pursuits. I love theater, and always come back to it.

I love fighters.

RR: I’ve seen a number of your plays: Lost and Found, Small Engine Repair, Lost Girls, to name a few, as well as your short play Illuminati. What are the recurring themes at the heart of your stories and characters?

JP: Most of my characters are raw and real, and walk the line between tragedy and comedy. I am drawn to smart characters with limited ability to express themselves emotionally. And I love stories that deal with the consequences of hiding the truth. I love fighters, and characters who struggle and bust balls. I’m always seeking the truth in my work, and I try to write for an audience that will enjoy the story while getting something deeper. I want stories that work on both levels. I loathe pretension.

RR: How did you transition from playwriting to screenwriting? And what are some of the biggest differences for you between writing plays and screenplays?

JP: I wrote a bunch of shitty screenplays, then got deeper into acting and studied theater and started writing plays. Playwriting and playwrights inspired me to find my voice as a writer and get that immediate audience feedback. The audience taught me more about writing than anything else. I had some well-received plays that opened doors for me, got a very hungry agent who got me into rooms and then made the transition.

You write a screenplay and don’t see it with an audience for years. Theater is much quicker and more collaborative. Film reaches a larger audience and can zoom in on stories. Theater is more communal. They each have their challenges and their strengths. I love language and theater devours the word; film wants more specificity and imagery. I enjoy shitty pulp movies sometimes, but I can’t stand a shitty play.

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RR: How did the gig for Stronger come about — and is this your first produced screenplay?

JP: I went on a “water bottle tour” after my agent sent my plays out and development people wanted to meet. You go from production company to production company and meet with folks, they get to know you while you drink a bottle of water. In the case of Stronger, I had a few meetings with a really cool exec at Mandeville named Alex Young. He read my stuff, got to know me and asked if I wanted to read the book sample. I was hooked and read the whole thing, and knew I’d have a strong voice and a take on it. The producers took a chance on me.

It’s about hope and healing.

RR: How much research did you need to write the script? What methods did you employ to get into the minds of all the different characters?

JP: I spent a lot of time with Jeff and his family. The book he wrote was really just a launching pad to do a ton of investigation with the family through interviews and spending time with everyone. They eventually opened up and shared a great deal. I grew up about a half hour away from the town Jeff grew up in, so I was very familiar with his environment. I grew up with similar people, root for the same sports teams and all that. They trusted me because I’m one of them. I’ve written a lot of plays from these types of neighborhoods and have the voices in my head. The producers, in particular Scott Silver (a very accomplished screenwriter), really helped me through the whole process, utilizing their experience to guide me.

RR: How much were you involved during shooting? Do you also act in the film?

JP: I became very close to the director, David Gordon Green — one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. It’s not always the case that the writer is pulled into the fold like that, but David and I really clicked and he invited me to be there as much as I could be. He’s one of the least pretentious people I’ve ever met, and he loves to collaborate. I was on set for about three-quarters of the shoot and beyond. It was an incredible experience and I learned a ton.

I did have a cameo part which was great, but cut from the final film! My wife (also an actor) made the cut though, which seems fair.

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RR: Given the violence at the root of the film — coming at a time when we are seeing an increase in violence and hate in this country — in which ways does the message of the film support a more positive narrative?

JP: The film is about hope and healing, and doesn’t flinch at the violent moments, but there’s a reason — the graphic moments show how difficult Jeff’s journey was. How much he had to overcome. We don’t flinch from things, and what you see is a tiny speck compared to what the survivors went through. But the story is one of fighting to heal and confront not just one’s own pain, but the pain of others. It’s very heartfelt and uplifting, but only after it takes you on a very intense and difficult journey. The story isn’t about the terrorists — it’s about a survivor.

RR: As an artist who has worked for years at building a writing and acting career, what important skills or habits have helped you stay the course and succeed?

JP: Persistence. Keep working, working, working. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Live life, love hard, stay healthy, be cool — and don’t be an asshole. Nobody wants to work with assholes.