EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance ’08 documentary competition filmmaker Christopher Bell‘s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” explores America’s win-at-all-cost philosophy by examining the way his two brothers became members of the steroid subculture in an effoert to realize their American dream. Bell re-counts heroes of the 1980s including Rambo, Conan and Hulk Hogan and how these personalities led him and his brothers into power lifting and dreams of becoming all-star wrestlers. Those dreams, however, were shattered after realizing success required use of performance-enhancing drugs… Sundance’s Trevor Groth describes the doc as combining “crisp editing of hilarious archival footage with priceless family revelations as well as interviews with congressman, professional athletes, medical experts and everyday gym rats… Bell stays away from preconceptions and stereotypes and digs deeper to find the truth and concoct a fascinating, humorous and poignant profile of one of the side effects of being American.”
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”
Director: Christopher Bell
Screenwriters: Christopher Bell, Alexander Buono, Tamsin Rawady
Executive Producers: Terrance J. Aarnio, Richard Schiffrin, Robert Weiser
Producers: Alexander Buono, Tamsin Rawady, Jim Czarnecki
Editor: Brian Singbiel
U.S., 2007, 105 minutes, color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Christopher Bell. I just turned 35 years old. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York and moved to California in 1993 to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television. Going to film school is one thing, but trying to direct your own film in Los Angeles is a whole different ball game. I grew up lifting weights and powerlifting, and over the past ten years trying to make films. I put my time in the gym to good use to make ends meet. I have worked for a fitness equipment moving company, ironically with one of my good friends, WWE Heavyweight Champ John Cena. I’ve worked as a bouncer and have been in many bar clearing brawls at Sharkeez in Hermosa Beach. I’ve also sold memberships at the world famous Gold’s Gym, Venice, [California], the place where Arnold [Schwarzenegger] began his rise to fame.
What attracted you to filmmaking? Do you have other creative outlets aside from film?
I grew up in the ’80s, enamored when Arnold Schwazenegger “crushed the enemy” in “Conan,” and when Rocky cried “Yo Adrian, I did it!,” and when Hulk Hogan dropped a big leg on The Iron Sheik and won the WWF Title. It was the time of “The A-Team,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “He-Man” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I grew up with real American heroes and I wanted to be like them. I’d spend hours drawing huge musclemen and writing up my next work out instead of taking notes in class. My notebooks looked like a handwritten Muscle & Fitness Magazine.
It wasn’t until after I graduated high school that I got a knack for filmmaking. I was at a community college and had to pick something to focus on. I was terrible at math, not interested in science, but communications and media arts sounded like a good place to hide from any real hard work. Well it wasn’t. I ended up getting so involved in making projects that it consumed all of my time. I made a music video for some friends of mine, and my instructor encouraged me to send it to this contest being held by AFI/Sony. So I sent in the tape and my music video won out of like 800 entries. I was whisked away to LA for the awards ceremony, and I later found out that the festival was judged by Francis Ford Coppola and Kathleen Kennedy. Wow, this was the real start of my filmmaking journey.
One of my first stops in LA was to check out Gold’s Gym in Venice because I had always read about it in the magazines. My second stop was at USC to check out the Heisman Trophies, and I eventually found out that George Lucas learned how to make movies there. I was really excited about the prospect of attending USC, but everyone told me that it’s impossible to get into the film school. I just focused on writing samples, essays, and letters of recommendation, and I got into the film school and shortly thereafter met one of the producers on “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” Alex Buono. Alex was the DP of my first 35mm short “Billy Jones,” which won the Filmmaker of The Future Award at the 2000 Yahoo! Film Festival in Hollywood.
As far as other creative outlets, well let’s just say I can’t sing and I sure can’t dance. I can’t draw to save my life, but I love to write. I try to write something everyday, even if it’s just to change one line of a script. Anything you write will only make your storytelling skills better. I also use a more active approach to filmmaking — I tell stories everyday to everyone I meet. I tell stories because that’s what makes good films. If you can tell good stories with your vocal cords, it’s much easier to do it with your camera.
Did you direct many shorts before undertaking “Bigger, Stronger, Faster?”
I kind of rambled on in my last answer, but yes I have made a few films. Not as many as I would like. This is my first feature film and by far the most exciting time in my entire life. I bought a camera a few years ago and just started playing around making spec commercials and stuff. I think it’s important to just keep shooting projects to keep your creativity sharp.
What prompted the idea for “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” and how did it evolve?
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is an exploration of America’s win at all cost culture told through the issue of steroid use in sports, and more importantly, steroid use in my own family. The idea was sparked in 2004, when Senator Joseph Biden testified at a Congressional hearing on steroids in sports, and he pounded his fist on his podium and stated: “There is something simply un-American about this!” I thought: Is it really un-American to use steroids? Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be number one? We are, after all, a country that defines itself in the superlative: we are the biggest, strongest, fastest nation in the world — the last super power.
I also have a strong personal connection to this issue — both of my brothers use steroids, and I have wrestled over the question of whether to use or not my whole life. I had to find out why three kids from Poughkeepsie all grew up feeling like we weren’t good enough. Why do my brothers feel that steroids are the answer for them? I was concerned for my brothers’ health, and I also wanted to know why do I have a moral problem with steroids and my brothers don’t? I dug as deeply as I could to find the answers and I hope that parents and kids will watch this film knowing that they are getting the unbiased truth about anabolic steroids.
This film actually was born in Gold’s Gym, Venice. My producer Alex Buono had recently moved back to Venice in 2004, and we started chatting at the gym. I think I actually sold him his membership. He was off shooting movies as both a DP and producer and there I was stuck behind the counter selling the corporate idea of health and fitness. Not exactly what I pictured after USC film school. Anyway, I got a script to Alex to see if he wanted to produce it. He loved the script and decided to option it, and then began working on a rewrite and in the meantime would go back and forth chatting about all of the characters at Gold’s. You know, the guy who trains in polyester pants and a button up shirt, or the 80 year-old woman in spandex with triple-F boobs and high heels. As we’d share laughs about things going on in “The Mecca of Bodybuilding,” we also began talking about the recent steroid scandals in sports. A few weeks later, after talking to my brothers and our other producer, Tamsin Rawady (who has a strong documentary background), we decided it was time to tell the truth about steroids — to lay it all out so people could understand this seemingly seedy subculture. I wanted to take an issue that nobody in America wanted to talk about and get it on the table and explore it in an intelligent way.
Alex, Tamsin, and I formed a three-way partnership. They would produce the film and I would direct it, but since it’s such a personal story, I needed some help telling it so Alex and Tamsin became co-writers. I would throw out ten stories and maybe three would make “The Board,” and then we’d narrow it down to one idea. We started by writing a treatment, and soon it found its way into the hands of Jim Czarnecki, who produced “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Jim saw the big picture right away — the concept of doing whatever it takes to be the best and how my family’s story could have an impact on audiences. Jim’s support gave us the confidence to make the film, and he also brought his huge experience and resources like introducing us to Kurt Engfehr, who edited and co-produced both “Columbine” and “Fahrenheit.” Kurt came on as a co-producer, and he brought in a budding young apprentice editor named Brian Singbiel, who became our editor. Brian and Kurt worked closely with us to structure the film. This issue is so complex that it took about two years to come up with a structure that closely resembles the final cut. We started shooting in 2005 and shot for 105 days. It’s been a long journey, but I think we all agree it was well worth it.
I’m a just a guy from Poughkeepsie who likes to lift weights and make movies. I guess you can say that in the steroid era, maybe I’m just being the right guy in the right place at the right time.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film including your influences or early inspiration with regard to the casting,technique and approach to the filmmaking.
It’s funny because this question seems like it’s for narrative filmmakers, but casting for this documentary was a major part of planning our film. In a documentary you have to find interesting real life characters, and people that look great on paper: experts and doctors, don’t always deliver the material in the most entertaining way. Some people stutter, some people are slow talkers, and we even had a guy who was so thirsty that I think he drank 20 glasses of water while I was interviewing him and he kept smacking his lips. So to find real life characters that worked in the film was just a matter of trial and error. We shot every expert and person with an interesting point of view on steroids that we could find. We shot many interviews that didn’t make the film, but turned the film in a better direction. It’s hard making a doc because the people you interview constantly want to know if they made the final cut of the film. It was also a huge challenge to turn the camera on my family. Many families battle with alcoholism, depression, drug abuse… My family’s battle happens to be with steroids.
I am an avid reader of bodybuilding magazines and I have to say that reading John Romano’s articles in Muscular Development Magazine really opened my eyes as to where this film could go. Also talking to my brother’s strength coach Louis Simmons was a big help. Louis has been on steroids for thirty six years. He knows everyone in the game and helped point out some fascinating and complicated issues that we decided to pursue in the film. I think the beauty of making a doc is the pinball effect. You interview one subject and shoot off into a different direction only to be bounced off in yet another direction, and sometimes the ball goes right down the hole. I had one of my best friends, who I used to live with, lie to me about taking steroids on camera after he agreed to do the interview.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The most difficult part about making a film about steroids is that, like the Congressional hearings and [former Senator] George Mitchell‘s recent report proves: not many people want to fess up to taking steroids. They feel it compromises their integrity. I decided that by focusing on people that wanted to tell the truth, like my brothers, I could explore the complexities of performance enhancing drugs much more honestly.
As a side note, George Mitchell’s investigation into steroids in baseball cost twenty million dollars to name names of pro athletes. If you spend just a few bucks to come see our movie you’ll understand “why” athletes are taking performance enhancing drugs. Pointing fingers does not point to a solution.
I feel that we were able to overcome many challenges and pitfalls by just being nice to everyone, and I gained the access that I wanted in almost every case. I was always upfront and honest about what the film was, and if someone side-stepped us, we’d find another person willing to talk.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
I’m a powerlifter, so this is weird for me because Sundance is the first competition I can’t train for. I’m not going to lie, I want to win the Audience Award. In the immortal words of The Hulkster we put our “blood, sweat, and tears on the line brother!” Regardless of whether we win any awards, I really just want to hear the reactions of an everyday audience and talk to them about how the film has affected them.
Of course it would be great to sell the film, to have agents wanting to talk to me, to go to parties… But in the end, Sundance is a celebration of awesome kick ass intelligent filmmaking, so to be a part of this is huge for me. I weigh about 225 and bench press over 500 lbs, and I’ve been fighting this meathead stereotype ever since I picked up a camera, so one of my goals for Sundance is to let everyone know that meatheads are people too! Seriously though, I just hope people take me seriously because there is a lot more that I have to say.
What are some of your recent favorite and all-time favorite films?
Well my favorite movie of all time is “Rocky.” It’s a true underdog story and pretty much the story of my life. Besides watching Arnold and Stallone movies, I do have a serious appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick. I’m also a huge fan of comedy, so I love some pretty mindless movies that just make me laugh. I write a lot of comedy, and it’s pretty common for me to sit home on a Saturday night with the remote in hand examining “Dumb and Dumber.”
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Well, getting my first film into Sundance is one definition of success. Knowing myself though, I always want more. It’s the same with lifting weights: if you bench 500 you want to hit 600 the next year. I’ll never be satisfied. I can’t define success for filmmakers in general, because it’s all a personal thing. I have a friend who has a fitness show on YouTube and he’s happy as can be. So it’s all relative to the person.
My immediate goals are to get my career going by lining up another film and other media projects. I also would like to teach in the future. The professors at USC and Dutchess Community College in NY really gave me their heart and soul, and I’d love to be able to give that back to someone else. I’d also like to start a production company to help young new filmmakers get started.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Hmmm, this is kind of tough. When I set out to make “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” I never really intended to become a documentary filmmaker. Now that I’ve made one, I’d love to make another documentary. I’ve also written a few scripts that I’d like to make in the near future. I guess it all depends on the aftermath of Sundance.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.