Jake Gyllenhaal is already earning rave reviews for his portrayal of Jeff Bauman in Stronger. The film, which will be shown as part of the London Film Festival on 5th October, tells the inspiring story of the man who became the accidental face of Boston Strong when he lost both his legs in the 2013 marathon bombing while waiting for his girlfriend at the finish line.
But if Gyllenhaal is the public face of Stronger, producing partner Riva Marker is the woman behind the scenes.
The two started their company, Nine Stories Productions in 2015, in an effort to work with visionary storytellers in all mediums. Marker, who previously worked on acclaimed independent films like Beasts Of No Nation, and The Kids Are Alright, describes their mission as "very much in line with the body of work that Jake has built himself as an actor, where you’re never expecting the move that he might make next, but always going after the next incredible voice." In fact, Gyllenhaal had actually been attached to Stronger as an actor, but when financing fell through, he and Marker decided to make it their very first project as a team, backed by Bold Films.
True to Nine Stories' original mission, the film movingly tackles Bauman's journey towards recovery and acceptance, while paying special attention to the women who helped him get there: Erin, Baumann's then-girlfriend (now wife) played by Tatiana Maslany, and his mother Patti, played by Miranda Richardson. It's the nuances in their relationships with Bauman that often have the most powerful impact.
Refinery29 spoke to Marker about the importance of fleshing out these female characters, the Hollywood wage gap, and what she hopes viewers will take away from Stronger.
Refinery29: One thing I loved about this movie is that all the female characters felt like real people. Erin is not just the supportive girlfriend. She’s supportive, but you can feel how hard this is for her. Did you have any discussions around that?
Riva Marker: "I think one of the incredible marks of this film is, because it is a true story and because we’re telling a story about people who were with us on set almost every day — they’re trusting us to handle with care. There was a lot of time spent on how these people were going to be portrayed. And I think one of the things we’re most proud of in the movie, is how authentic and honest the portrayals are. So, there was never a one dimensional character in Erin or Patty. Erin and Patty are the life’s blood of this story. They’re heroes as much as Jeff is a hero. Without them he never would have been able to make it or to pull through, he talks about that. So, there were certainly conversations around it, but the conversations were about how do we pull them out so we can more deeply understand the intention and the psychology of what it must have been like to be this woman who stayed."
Jake Gyllenhaal has said that one of his priorities is to promote projects with female leads. Is that also one of your priorities?
"As a woman, and as a woman who’s married to another woman, I feel very strongly about women in front of the camera, women behind the camera. One of the first films that I cut my teeth on personally as a producer was Lisa Cholodenko's film The Kids Are Alright, and it was the first film that I actively raised and procured financing on, and became an executive producer on, so I feel like challenging and looking for material that feels bold and distinct and is particularly told by a specific point of view, often a woman, is something I’ve always championed. One of the things I loved when me and Jake even first sat down is that is something that he absolutely champions, and that’s not necessarily a common thing that you would find. So, yes, it’s something we look for in stories that we’re telling, and it’s certainly something we’re looking for in filmmakers that we sit down with."
Are there any female filmmakers that you would like to work with?
"Oh my god, yes! So, there’s an incredible woman named Dee Rees, who has her film Mudbound at Toronto right now. She’s someone we’ve been talking to about a couple of things, she’s incredible. I mean, we’re working with Courtney Hoffman, who is someone that you guys sponsored in your Shatterbox series. I would kill to work with Kathryn Bigelow, I would kill to work with Ava DuVernay. We would be honoured to work with Susanna Bier — Jake was in the adaptation of her film, Brothers. She’s an unbelievable artist. Jane Campion. There’s an incredible Australian female filmmaker named Jennifer Kent, who made a really interesting horror film a couple of years ago called The Babadook, and she has a movie called The Nightingale that’ll come out soon. These are women who we would be thrilled to be in business with."
How has the landscape changed for women in Hollywood since you’ve been in the business?
"I can’t say that I think the landscape has changed all that much. I think that the thing that has changed is that it is in the forefront of people’s minds right now that women have so often had to take seven-year gaps between making badass films to when they get their next gig. It’s become very obvious. Our production company is in the independent space, the lists that we put together are always diverse, from gender to colour. That’s just the way that we think. But what’s wonderful is hearing that studios are putting together their lists now and actually making an effort that they have both people of colour and women, that it’s not just lists that include ten of the top white men working in Hollywood. So, that has changed. I think it takes time for there to be a number of women in each room or on each film, that’s still very male top-heavy, but the awareness of the lack of women at the table is something that people are thinking about. It’s on their minds, and it’s something that they’re trying to address. And also the idea that when women are in those rooms — in a 20-person board room maybe there’s one, maybe there’s two women agents — that speaking earnestly and with confidence and with support in this room, is not an easy thing to do when you’re the odd woman out."
Last week, Patty Jenkins became the highest-paid female director in Hollywood. Do you think that’s a double-edged sword a certain extent? Are you worried that people could say, ‘Oh there’s no more wage gap in Hollywood, look at Patty Jenkins”?
"I think that’s just the nature of the world that we live in. It’s a 24-hour news cycle and everybody’s trying to fill a headline. I think there should just be parity. It should be based on merit, and it should be based on success. So, yes, I think it’s naturally a double-edged sword, but I think it’s awesome for Patty Jenkins, and I think it does pave the way for many more talented filmmakers like her to actually get their shot."
What advice would you have for young women struggling to make their mark on the industry?
"I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this. I was lucky enough to mentor with a woman who was so generous and so kind, so I would say surround yourself by people who challenge you but who also support you. And for myself personally, it’s very important to feel supported, to have voice in whatever field you are. Stay focused, and create real authentic relationships with people, and be loyal. I think loyalty always wins and shines through in the end. Be loyal and have a group of people around you who you trust, and whose artistry you admire. Have your squad, whether it’s men, women, whatever. Have your squad, and have confidence."
What do you hope people take away from the film?
"I hope people take away that no matter what life throws at you, because none of us know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, that inside of every single one of us is the opportunity to be stronger and be more powerful, and be more resilient than I think we ever expect to be. And I think that knowing Jeff, going on this journey and seeing what he’s been through, we all have stuff that we’re dealing with whether it’s a father that died of cancer or a friend who’s dealing with a divorce, we all have things that we are trying to overcome and feel deeply put upon by. If people can feel like ‘I can do it, no matter what it is,’ whether it’s ‘I can get out of bed,’ or ‘I can make that phone call,” or ‘I can be the first female CEO of this company,’ whatever it is, that power does really reside inside all of us if we believe in ourselves enough."
Stronger premieres at the London Film Festival on 5th October
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