After making an award winning short film just after graduating from USC's School of Cinematic Arts, Chris Bell makes his feature directorial debut with the documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*." As one might imagine, the characteristics of the steroids subculture are imbedded in a few pieces of the American pie, given the country's cultural emphasis on the size and strength of men. "Stronger," which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, examines this, focusing on Bell's two brothers and how they became involved in that world. The film opens Friday via Magnolia Films in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Growing up watching Conan the Barbarian crush his enemies, Rambo free the POW's, and Hulk Hogan pin the Iron Sheik, I knew that I wanted to be involved in the entertainment business. Although at the time I always pictured myself in front of camera, not as a director. At age 19, I made a music video for some friends and on a whim entered it into a contest sponsored by AFI. I came in first place and found out that Francis Ford Coppola was one of the judges. That inspired me to attend USC's School of Cinematic Arts, and I graduated from there in 1997. It was at USC that I met "Bigger, Faster, Stronger*" producer Alex Buono, and we produced the award winning short "Billy Jones."
What was the inspiration for "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*?"
I grew up in the 80s - Reagan was president and America was all about kicking ass. I was inspired by the Terminator, Rocky vs. Ivan Drago, Hulkamania, He-man, the Incredible Hulk, the A-team, not to mention the athletes at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. When I found out later that a lot of my heroes were on steroids, that really affected me. I eventually tried steroids for a brief period, and both of my brothers had long histories of using them. A few years ago, I watched Senator Joseph Biden pound his fists and call steroid use in baseball "un-American" at the Congressional baseball hearings, and that really got me thinking... are steroids really "un-American?" Are my brothers and my heroes from the 80s? Or is doing whatever it takes to be number one the most American thing there is? That question is what inspired this film.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film...
Making this film was a great experience. At USC Film School, I was primarily interested in narratives, both with my screenwriting and directing. I loved Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock, but I never thought I had anything important to say. But when Steroids began popping up in the news, I felt that I had a unique insight that could really add something to the national dialogue on the issue. I talked with my producer Alex Buono and we began working on a treatment. Within a few weeks we attached producer Tamsin Rawady, and she really pushed us to focus on the personal elements of my story.
"Patton" is a favorite film of mine (a clip from it appears in my movie), and my approach to being a director is a lot like being a General. You assemble the best team and let them do what they do best. If you want to sum up the making of "Bigger, Faster, Stronger*," I'd have to say it all boils down to teamwork.
I've got to say that if you are a narrative filmmaker, and really want to learn how little you actually know about filmmaking, go make a documentary. There is no script, no fool-proof game plan, and no way of telling how it's going to turn out. Then, after you shoot it, you still have to sit down and write it into a movie.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The hardest part about making a documentary about steroids is that nobody on them wants to talk to you about the illegal drugs they're injecting. Which makes sense. That's why I turned to my family to find the truth, to find out what drove my brothers to think steroids are the answer. I tried to speak with Victor Conte, Jose Canseco, Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon and even my own Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger... Arnold's office told us to get press passes and we were welcome to ask him anything. I guess they didn't think that we'd do it because when we showed up to the Reagan Library we were escorted out by a very angry armed guard.
This also brings up the issue of fair use and the first amendment. Major League Baseball, The NFL, The US Olympic Committee, and WWE would not license us footage for use in the film, which presents some real hurdles when you're trying to make a doc about steroids. Fortunately there are some very interesting and underused fair use laws that protect documentary filmmakers, and allow them to tell their stories without being completely restrained by corporate America.