Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese of Watertown Police never expected to find himself on a Hollywood film set alongside Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon and director Peter Berg. And yet, having played a crucial role in the apprehension of the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston bombing, Sgt Pugliese is a key figure in Berg’s upcoming blockbuster Patriots Day, that portrays the attack and the ensuing investigation. He sat down with Candid to discuss bravery, Boston and JK Simmons.
When did you first find out the events of the Boston Marathon bombing were going to be made into a movie, which ended up being Patriots Day?
How it started was the chief of police called me and asked me to meet him at the location of the shootout in Watertown. He introduced me to half a dozen people, and I had no idea who they were. They asked me to talk them through what happened that day, so I did; for all I knew they were FBI agents conducting an investigation! I had met a couple of other groups down there before, different federal agencies and the like, and a couple of weeks later I was contacted, and they told me they weren’t law enforcement and that they were movie people. Well I said ‘that’s nice’ and Peter Berg, the director, introduced himself and I had to tell him ‘Gee, I’m sorry to say but I don’t know who you are!’ He then pitched me the idea of the movie.
Did you have any concerns over how everything would be portrayed in the film, and how faithful it would be to the true events?
Well, I’m thinking to myself that this is Hollywood, they’re going to create something that didn’t happen. I was very reluctant at first, but Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg and Michael Radutzky (one of the producers) talked to me and they showed me the script. They told me that they weren’t interested in portraying this as something it wasn’t, that they weren’t making a documentary but that they wanted to stick to the story and the facts. A lot of people were saying that it was too soon to make it into a movie, but they waited three years. When is the right time to make it, do you wait six years, ten years? After their reassurances, and after reading the script I agreed they could use my character and that I would join the film as a consultant.
How did you enjoy your experience on set, working alongside the cast and crew?
I can tell you, they were fantastic. You don’t realise when you watch a movie just how many people are there on set, it’s incredible. Peter would shoot a scene and he’d call me over and ask me ‘What do you think?’ and I’d have to say to him ‘Jeez Peter, it really didn’t happen like that, it happened like this, this and this’ and I’d explain it and he’d just throw away an hour’s work! Now that’s a lot of money to be throwing away, but they said they wanted to keep it true to life and as a result he was happy to do it. There was a guy there who was the money man who was trying to keep them on budget, and you could just see him pulling his hair out!
What was your reaction after you had agreed to have your character portrayed, when you were told that you would be played by JK Simmons?
Y’know what I said when they told me? I said ‘JK who?’ He’s such a great character actor and you see his face everywhere but I didn’t know his name! They told me that he was an Oscar winner for Whiplash and I was like ‘Well, I didn’t see that movie’ and then they told me that he played the psychiatrist on Law & Order and I thought ‘I know exactly who he is!’ He’s such a great guy though, we probably spent sixty or eighty hours together, he rode along in the police car with me, tape recording my voice to get my accent down. I taught him how to shoot, taught him some police tactics and how I would approach certain situations. I think he got me pretty much down, because I was on set with my wife and we were watching him in a scene, and my wife nudges me and says ‘He even stands like you!’
A large portion of screen time is dedicated to depicting the perpetrators of the bombing, the Tsarnaevs. How do you think the film handled its depiction of these terrorists as fleshed-out characters?
I think that they did spend a lot of time on the brothers, and that this was to show their mentality and how ruthless they were going to be, rather than just have the bombs go off and have the whole movie revolve around the investigation. It shows their situation and their resentment towards the American people but also that Dzhokhar (the younger brother) went to a prestigious public school and college in the Boston area. There is a contradiction that the movie shows. I think there was definitely dysfunction there and the movie does a good job of getting that across.
It seems that, amidst a great deal of heroism and bravery, the film identifies the people of Boston as its true heroes. Is that a fair assessment to you?
I’ve said many times that the police officers with me in Watertown, we’re just a bunch of ordinary guys and we were thrown into an extraordinary circumstance and we acted extraordinarily. That’s the only way that I can describe it, everything just came together for us. And that’s the same with the people of Boston, in the movie there’s a scene where we’re in the middle of a shootout and a guy threw us a sledgehammer to help us out. After the incident one man came out onto his flat roof and started flashing his flashlight around to help us out and suddenly every officer there swings round, and they’re pointing their weapons at him and there’s red dots all over this guy! And we knew the guy and had to tell them ‘Whoa! Whoa! Don’t shoot him! He lives there!’. But honestly, the reaction of the people was amazing. I’ve been in law enforcement over 40 years, and you always encounter people, concerned citizens, who want to help the police. The police can only do their job fully with the public’s cooperation, but this was just overwhelming. It’s in the movie that you had people coming up to police officers and offering their cell phones because they took pictures at the marathon and they thought it might help. They didn’t know when they’d get them back, and for people nowadays losing your cell phone is like losing your arm! It was unbelievable. At the end of the movie too, there is actual real footage of citizens applauding the police and cheering as we drove our cars through the city. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Words by Fraser Kay