Academy Award nominee Todd Lieberman (C’95) is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood. As the co-founder of Mandeville Films and Television, he has produced various critically acclaimed films such as The Fighter and the recent live action version of Beauty and the Beast. His new film Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is released this Friday. It tells the powerful true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Street reviewed the movie, and we also met up with Lieberman before the screening to discuss his time at Penn, his career, and his new film.
Street: How did your time at Penn influence your career?
Todd Lieberman: Even though growing up in Cleveland I wrote, acted, directed and produced plays, I have always been a movie fan. When I got to Penn, there was this great creative community outlet to exercise those desires. Sometime during my freshman year, I saw a Mask and Wig performance and was kind of blown away by it. I think in a way those fours years of extreme camaraderie that I experienced with those guys certainly aided the idea of what it means to mount a production. I can probably draw a direct parallel to that and what it means to produce.
Street: What do you look for in a good story?
TL: I directly respond to things that emotionally move me, where I feel like I am taken on a journey, relating to people or characters and then in the end feeling compelled to do something. That doesn't necessarily mean specifically to do something, like go out and run a race, but I like the idea of when a movie is done that I feel better than I did when I went into it. Before I think about who the audience is or how commercial it[a film] might be, I am thinking about is it emotionally touching me. Do I feel that I benefited somehow from reading this script? That is what initially compelled me to want to do Stronger.
Street: How did you find the idea for Stronger?
TL: I heard a one liner, frankly. I was sitting down with an agent and he said that there is a guy that I am about to work with who is thinking about writing a book about his experience of healing both physically and psychologically from the Boston Marathon bombing after losing both of his legs. So figuratively and literally, it is about a guy who learns to get back up on two feet again. That to me sounded really compelling. It just so happened that when I started investigating the story and talking to Jeff [Bauman], he is an incredible person and there were so many more layers to this story than I could have even imagined.
Street: How did you strike a balance between making sure Stronger was a film that was emotional without being sappy?
TL: I think with this movie in particular, the subject matter is so heavy and the real people involved are so unique that my goal and then all of our collective filmmaking groups’ goal from the very beginning was to just be as absolutely authentic as possible. From there we would find the truth. So we didn't schmaltz it up, we did not “Hollywood” it up to use a cliche term. There is also a sense of humor that Jeff [Bauman] has and so there is this tight rope of a balancing act that David Gordon Green, the director, and we all accomplish which I think manages to avoid those cliche traps of a conventional inspirational tale, while still getting the inspiration.
Street: How do you consolidate what you like and what you think an audience will enjoy?
TL: I stick to my taste and what inspires me. That is really regardless of genre. I was making a joke earlier today about when I first moved to L.A. You are a 22–year–old kid and your experience is basically everything before 22 years. You come out to L.A., and you want to make movies and you think, “you know what would be a great idea for a TV show, four guys who move to L.A. and live in a house and they all want to be in the movie business.” Well, that’s your experience, that's what you know up to that point, but maybe not everyone else will want that. My taste has evolved, certainly. But again whether it's a comedy, drama, action, I am always looking for character at the center of it. I will always sacrifice plot moves for emotion and character. Stronger is really a character journey. The plot to me was always secondary to the authenticity of this guy’s real inner workings and emotional experience of going through this trauma.
Street: How do you deal with portraying such a specific and horrific historical moment like the Boston Marathon bombing?
TL: Obviously it is a very sensitive subject. It was very important to me from the very beginning to make sure that the real people, Jeff, his family and also the city of Boston itself were comfortable with the idea of even making a movie and then making a movie in such a way where it portrayed the realism of all the struggles that this particular gentleman went through. I sat with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, I sat with the head of the Boston Athletics Association who runs the marathon, I sat with high level city officials, hung out and spent an extraordinary amount of time with Jeff and his family. I basically [told them] my intention for the film. I [told them] that I want[ed] to make a movie about uplift and show to other people how going through pain, which we all experience in one way or another and your’s is extraordinary, how you are able to push through that and get to the other side and find the light. It was essential to me that we shoot it in Boston and we hire locals and real people. That was first and foremost. The second part of it was that the film had always been from the very beginning about a family. The event was the launching pad in a way for a family in struggle. At some point every one of us will deal or has dealt with some kind of pain, some kind of tragedy. There is bad stuff that happens and we can’t control that, but what we can control is the way we deal with it. This movie has always been about that to me, less so about the specific event that happened and more the aftermath of how one deals with it.