In Bigger, Stronger, Faster, a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, documentarian Christopher Bell takes a hard look at steroid culture and the bad rap it gets from mainstream America, tackling the Western obsession with body image. Clocking in just under two hours, Bell's sprawling overview deals with the impact of 1980's pop culture icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, then dives into the gritty details of steroid usage in sports and the recent congressional hearings where baseball players were reprimanded on national television.
Bell doesn't view the issue in black-and-white terms: His own brothers, featured in the film, continually use steroids to enhance their bodybuilding careers. Contrasting the personal with the political, Bigger, Stronger, Faster diagnoses a distinctly American malady. Cinematical spoke with Bell last week in New York, where Bigger, Stronger, Faster has been screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie opens May 30.
Cinematical: The movie tackles a major issue that many Americans have strong opinions about, but it also has a personal component because of your family's story. What's it been like facing the growing public awareness of the film?
Christopher Bell: It's so rewarding to hear, "Hey, you made a good movie. Thanks for telling the truth." We haven't really been criticized or attacked by anybody. There was one woman at Sundance who really upset about 'roid rage, saying that we glossed over it. I think we actually explained it pretty well.
She turned it around on me and said I was the purveyor of wrong information. I just said, "Look, anytime something is abused, it's a said thing. We should look into why that happened." Showing it to an audience is interesting, because you are up to that scrutiny. You should expect to get hammered on your research and check all your facts.
We worked a lot with Jim Czarnecki and Kurt Engfehr, co-producers on Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. They were amazing in helping us understand how to tell a story, get your facts straight, what you can say, what you can't say. I wanted to make a movie that was more straight down the middle. It's funny that we ended up selling the movie to Magnolia Pictures, because Capturing the Friedmans was a movie that was very much an influence on this film.
Cinematical: How so?
CB: What I got out of it was the fact that you let people speak. If I did a movie about the presidential race right now, and I slanted it one way, it would just be a propaganda movie. That's the way a lot of documentaries are. They could still be great movies, but I wanted to tell the truth about something, as told by the experts, the people doing it, everybody involved.
I think we've accomplished that by letting people speak. Some guys are saying steroids will kill you and others say they'll make live longer. Who's telling the truth? We tried to study the truth so that, as an audience member, you can draw your own conclusions.
Cinematical: How does the bodybuilder community feel about the movie?
CB: People are starting to know about it. I have a lot of friends in bodybuilding, power lifting, all sorts of different arenas. Steroids are around. I think people are happy that someone is coming out and telling the truth. It's almost like an eye-opener for the general public, but also for the people who are doing it. Henry Waxman is a good example of a congressman who is telling us something but doesn't understand what he's talking about.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is somebody telling us one thing on one TV show, and another thing on another TV show. He says we should crack down on steroids, but then he's at his bodybuilding show, saying, "Look how ripped these guys are, I'm so proud of them," and it's like ten guys on stage, all on steroids. They don't drug test for steroids, but there hasn't been a professional bodybuilder competition in years where every guy hasn't been on steroids. I mean, you might find one or two natural guys, but you'd be hard pressed to find a natural bodybuilder in a pro-show.
Cinematical: You weren't able to get Schwarzenegger to do a sit-down interview in the film. If you had, what would you have asked him?
CB: I really wanted to ask Arnold, "Why do you say you want to crack down on steroids and then you don't test your own guys?" He's been asked that by other people and they let it slide. He says, "Look, I can't test them. They'd sue me. They're not suing major league baseball. Players aren't suing NFL." They're not going to sue him. There's no union for bodybuilders. But do we just want to accept that?
Bodybuilding is an extreme sport. We allow people to ski straight down a mountain, dive off a cliff, bungee jump, hang glide -- all these competitive sports where you could basically die. In bodybuilding, people are taking drugs to get bigger and going to doctors to get prescriptions. They're not breaking any laws. What's the big deal? Should there be rules in bodybuilding? The one question I really wanted to ask Schwarzenegger was, "In the GOP convention, you said 'If you work hard and play by the rules, you can achieve anything.' Are you a guy who really played by the rules and never took a short cut?" It's so ridiculous to hear a politician say something that's so contrary to what we know of him. Here's the problem with America: You have nothing to gain by telling the truth. So I can understand Arnold.
Cinematical: In the film, you briefly mention your own experience with steroids.
CB: People ask me about it. They love to find out about it. I tell the truth. I tried steroids for two months. I find it interesting that that's what they want to pin you down on, when there's so much more than that. I'd like to think that the movie's not about my own personal steroid use and it's about everyone else's idea that they have to better than they are.
Cinematical: Still, the personal component you bring to the movie is pretty important. How does your family feel about being included in the story you decided to tell? How much did your parents learn about their sons' lives from the film?
CB: They didn't know that I took steroids. They knew that my older brother did, but not my younger brother. I think the most important thing is being honest. I always wanted to say to my mom, "Hey, mom, look, I told the truth." At one point, my mom said she was feeling like a failure as a mother and really wanted to talk to me about this. I said, "Okay, why don't you come over to my house and we'll talk about it?" She came over, and I politely asked her if I could shoot it. She said she really just wanted to talk to me, but I said I think we should film it, because this is probably one of the most important things that's happened so far. She said fine. My mom was great. She acts like the camera's not even there.
Cinematical: It was interesting watching Roger Clemens testify before Congress on CNN, because Henry Waxman, a major character in your movie, questioned him.
CB: In the movie, [New York congressman] John E. Sweeney says one of the most retarded things I've heard. He says that Donald Whooten, whose son Taylor committed suicide and they blamed steroids, was more important than statistics or any of that stuff. As a congressman, how can you be more concerned with emotions than statistics? If you were going to go to war based on emotions, that would be insane. We're kinda in that situation right now.