Bigger Stronger Faster, a documentary that examines anabolic steroids in sports and popular culture, is one of the best-reviewed movies of 2008.
It deserves all the praise it's gotten. No other film has shown both sides of the steroid debate, or even acknowledged that there's more than one side. It allows the viewer decide who's right. Ironically, the media outlets that raved about BSF are the same ones that made it necessary. If they hadn't created so many myths about performance-enhancing drugs, with news reports presenting steroids as the universal villain in a global morality play, Bell wouldn't have had anything to debunk.
As I watched BSF on DVD, I knew I wanted to interview its director, Chris Bell. If anybody could talk about steroids with knowledge and without judgment, it's Bell, who at 36 is a rare combination of film-school graduate and lifelong musclehead.
Turns out, Bell is also a fan of Testosterone Muscle. (His brother Mark, who's featured prominently in BSF, posts as "Jackass" on the T-Nation forums; he got the handle from Dave Tate at EliteFTS.) Bell was eager to talk to us about his groundbreaking documentary, and we were just as eager to hear what he had to say.
T Nation: You received your degree from USC film school in 1997. What were you doing between then and Bigger Stronger Faster?
My first short film took three years to finish after I graduated, so I had to find a way to pay the bills. I had a few interesting odd jobs, from selling gym memberships to lifting heavy stuff. Back in 2000, my brother, John Cena, and I all worked for a company that moved fitness equipment into gyms.
T Nation: John Cena the wrestler?
Yeah. Back in the day, when my brothers and I really got into mainstream wrestling, we brought John into it and we'd all hang out. And now look at him! Anyway, after that I took a position at Gold's selling gym memberships. Then, in 2003, I got a call from the WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment], who wanted to hire me as a writer.
So I went up to Connecticut to work with them. But even though I was good friends with John and The Rock, I was tossed under the bus a lot. At the time, the WWE had a lot of revolving writers, so it was only a matter of time before I was fired. When it happened, I went back to California, started working at Sony as a production coordinator, and came up with the idea for Bigger Stronger Faster*.
T Nation: So why make a movie about anabolic steroids?
It's just something that's always been on my mind. My older brother used steroids when he went to college to play football. It was the only way he could compete. He embraced them, while I was completely against them.
Initially, I wanted to do an anti-steroid feature film that revolved around two brothers who go off to college and one decides to take steroids and the other doesn't. But looking back, it would've been the cheesiest thing – like the media's portrayal of steroids now. I believed all the hype.
Then I started to open my eyes and look at the facts. I came up with the idea for a documentary that didn't necessarily endorse or shun steroid use. It was a unique vision that no one else had done yet.
But presenting the facts was only part of the idea. We had to find another way to connect with the audience. My producer went to USC Film School with me, and his girlfriend is a documentary filmmaker. So as we talked more and more about my idea, it always came back to my family. She thought I should include them in the movie, but I didn't think anyone would really care. I remember saying something like, "Well, I guess it's interesting that both of my brothers are on steroids right now," and their eyes just lit up. "Why the hell didn't you tell us that before?"
So we worked on the treatment, defined the direction we wanted to go, sat down with some guys and pitched the movie. Within five minutes two of the producers were on board.
T Nation: If I recall correctly, those producers are the same guys who produced two of Michael Moore's films, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. Did you worry that people would put you into that extremely liberal category and not take you seriously?
It's both a blessing and a curse. Some people cringe and some people pop up and are really into it. We had to gauge what kind of audience would be responsive to it.
For instance, when we were doing our theatrical ads for television, we made sure to put "from the producers of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11" because we knew people would recognize those names. But when we went to film festivals, we omitted that line. We didn't want anyone to be biased toward the movie before seeing it first.
I got a chance to talk with Michael at his film festival in Michigan a couple of months ago, and basically told him that if it weren't for him, I never would have made the movie. He showed me that documentaries could be cool, funny, and deliver a point.
T Nation: What were you trying to accomplish with BSF?
I really just wanted to present the facts, make it interesting, and let the audience decide what they thought about steroids afterwards. I had women in their 60s coming up to me and telling me that the movie changed their minds.
I even got a call from the pastor of my parents' church, who said that while he didn't condone the use of steroids, he thought that we could use them for people who are dying of AIDS in Africa and other muscle-wasting diseases here in the U.S.
For these people to open their minds to something so demonized by the media is pretty amazing to me.
T Nation: A lot of critics said you did a great job of presenting both sides of the argument. But I noticed that John Romano and Rick Collins are listed as consultants on your movie. John is an editor at Muscular Development and a pretty well known steroid advocate. Rick is a lawyer who specializes in steroid cases. Doesn't that tip your hand, in terms of your movie's point of view?
I'll just tell you this straight. It was a definite concern for us. But I don't think it influenced my view. When we started making the film, we approached everybody on both sides. We went to Gary Wadler, who's totally Mr. Anti-Steroids. We went to congressman Henry Waxman. We went to Donald Hooton, who claims his son committed suicide because of steroids. And we went to guys at bodybuilding magazines, anti-aging doctors, pro-steroid lawyers, and researchers.
But it was the guys at the magazines, or who were pro-steroid, who really wanted to get on board. When I say they were "consultants," I mean they were there whenever we had questions.
Rick Collins is an attorney and thus has to watch everything he says. And he needs to back it up with facts. So while he had his own opinions on things, there were a lot of times when he'd say, "Chris, here's what I think, and here's what the truth is."
I think it was really noble of him and others to not be so one-sided. And guys like Romano love to spout off about hypocrisy. He's just like any other blogger out there. But every time John would tell us something, we would back it up with facts.
T Nation: Is there anything you regret putting in the movie?
Not really. But there are a few things I regret not putting in, things I fought tooth and nail for. But as a director you lose the battle every now and then. The main battle I lost was getting Jay Cutler and more of the bodybuilders in the picture, instead of [relegating them to] the bonus features.
But that raises another concern: We didn't realize that the film was going to cause so much controversy. It was fucking crazy. Christian Boeving, a fitness model we interviewed, was actually fired from [a well-known supplement company] for saying that he uses steroids, whereas Jay Cutler admitted the same thing and didn't even get a slap on the wrist [from the same company]. I look at that and think, "Oh shit! We have two guys working for the same company, and one gets fired." But would they have fired Jay if he was in the main feature? Probably not.
According to Christian, [the supplement company] called him and essentially told him that while they knew he had taken steroids, they didn't condone their use. That's fucked up. That same company actually sponsors the largest bodybuilding contest, which isn't drug-tested. So to say they don't support steroids is ridiculous.
T Nation: Damn, that's messed up. Speaking of supplement companies, there's a fairly disturbing section of the movie where you hire some illegal immigrant workers to make supplements in your kitchen. Tell us about that.
I had a friend who tried to sell me supplements out of the back of his car at Gold's. I came to find out he made them in his garage. He was just buying stuff, mixing it up, packaging it, and selling it.
We had an office in Santa Monica for three years while we made the film, and every day I'd drive by these immigrant day workers. When I brought the idea of hiring them to make supplements to my producers, they looked at me like I was insane. But they went along with it, and I think it was an eye-opening part of the movie.
Chris and the BSF team did before-and-after pictures for this fake ad on the same day.
T Nation: You went to Congress and talked to some of the people who were responsible for criminalizing steroids. Did anything surprise you about these interviews?
You'd think these guys would have a handle on what's going on. I didn't expect them to know the difference between D-bol and Anavar, but I did expect some knowledge and competence. I rarely got either.
When I went in to interview California congressman Henry Waxman, I was nervous as hell. My palms were all sweaty and I was shaking. I thought, "Shit, man, I'm just a guy from Poughkeepsie who likes to lift weights, and here I am about to interview a U.S. congressman." It was nerve-wracking because I thought he was just going to bury me and kill me with facts.
But when I started asking him basic stuff and he couldn't answer, I got kind of embarrassed for him. He had no idea where the $15 million President Bush allocated to steroid education went. He didn't know anything about steroids. Hell, he didn't even know the fucking drinking age in the U.S.! He was just stumped and looked at his assistant for the answers. It was like we were on a game show and he was asking to use a lifeline.
There was actually a great piece of bonus material that never ended up in the final cut where I was walking out of the Congressional building after the interview and my producer asked me how I felt.
"I feel like a complete failure and like that was a complete waste of time," I said. "We came all the way to Washington D.C. to ask these guys about steroids, and I didn't get any answers. These are the people making the laws and nobody can answer me on any of these real issues. Why are they illegal? Why are they 'dangerous'? Where is it proven? Show me that it kills more people than smoking or drinking or prescription pills. Just show me something."
I really thought we weren't going to be able to use it in the movie.
But when we went back to our hotel and watched the Waxman interview, we were laughing the entire time. We took it back to our editor in California and he said, "Do you guys even realize what you have here? This is gold."
T Nation: Was that your only negative experience with the government?
Not at all. I should say that some of the congressmen had some intelligent things to say. But for the most part when it came to steroids, they were all ignorant and wouldn't listen to any argument. Congressman John Sweeney even told me that he banned Andro because he found out it was a steroid precursor and that his son was taking it.
I asked him if they did any research to see if Andro was bad for you, and he flat-out told me no. They banned it because it was a steroid precursor. He told me we had to set a good example for the kids.
This is the same guy, by the way, who about a year ago got caught speeding down the highway with a 24-year-old prostitute on his lap. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. What kind of message does that send to the kids? [Sweeney was voted out of office in 2006; the DWI incident occurred a year later.]
I just hate the hypocrisy in government.
T Nation: Switching topics, Gregg Valentino is a recurring character in the film. But you never touched on his Synthol use, which some would say is misleading. Why didn't you bring it up?
Well, we did touch on that. The thing is that without any proof, you can't make statements. Gregg claimed that he never used Synthol. He stated that he used anabolic steroids and did site injections. It's interesting to note that he sells Synthol [billed as "body part enhancement oil"] on his website.
T Nation: What do you think about steroids in bodybuilding?
I see no problem with it. I mean, who cares? People just have to remember that it's an extreme sport. People come to see the freak show.
I'd love to see natural bodybuilding and powerlifting in the Olympics. But in all reality, it would be going backwards. You'd have guys who aren't as big, aren't as cut, aren't as ripped. I asked Louie Simmons from Westside Barbell what he thought of powerlifting in the Olympics. He thought it'd be horrible. All the records, he said, would be hundreds of pounds less.
T Nation: You had a conversation with a world-renowned anti-doping expert. He told you that more than 2,000 American athletes failed their drug tests, but were still allowed to compete. You specifically highlighted the '88 Olympics in Seoul and the race between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson. Can you tell us about that?
Everyone knows that Ben Johnson used steroids for the Olympics in '88. He won first place, but was stripped of his title the day after when he tested positive. His gold medal was given to the second-place finisher, Carl Lewis.
But what most people don't know is that Carl Lewis failed a drug test for different types of amphetamines a couple of months back, before an Olympic qualifying meet. Technically speaking, if you fail a drug test in any qualifying meet, you're banned from competing in the Olympics. But it wasn't the case this time. What happened is that some time ago, the Olympic Committee came up with a term called "inadvertent use," which says that an athlete used the drug without the intention of gaining an advantage.
"Oops! I slipped and fell on a syringe."
Anyway, Carl had tested positive for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, things that make a significant difference when sprinters are only separated by tenths of a second.
I talked with Don Catlin from the UCLA pharmacology department. He was the head of drug testing for years for the Olympics and the NCAA. I was told by a reliable source that if Don were to ever open up his files, the entire sports world would crumble. He knows who failed drug tests and got away with it. When I asked him about it, he just kind of laughed and shunned the question.
I think there are a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets when it comes to drug testing and sports.
T Nation: In the film you compared steroids in baseball to things like laser eye surgery in golf, and cortisone shots in a variety of sports. Do you think that's a fair comparison, or even on the same level?
Absolutely. If you're supposed to play with what God gave you, I think it's cheating to do any type of enhancement. I mean, if we're going to paint anabolic steroids into the picture, why not other stuff?
I'm five-foot-seven – that's my handicap. So, if I'm going to play basketball against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or anyone else who can't see without glasses, I think that should be his handicap. Why the hell are we giving him goggles?
T Nation: Don't you think that's a bit ridiculous?
Look, the cream is always going to rise to the top. The best athletes are going to be the best athletes. I certainly don't condone steroids in sports because most professional sports actually have rules against performance-enhancing drugs.
But I think the rules in America have become blurred. For instance, I recently had hip surgery and they gave me some Vicodin. When I'm on Vicodin, I feel like I can do anything. And there are a lot of football players who take Vicodin or Oxycotin every single week to enable them to play. Shouldn't that be cheating too?
While I don't condone steroid use in sports, I do think that guys should be able to use steroids and growth hormone as part of rehabilitation when they're on the injured-reserve list. But it always goes back to the media and the way they cast steroids.
Even if guys go to a doctor and get them prescribed, it's a bad deal.
If Heath Ledger had been found with steroids instead of prescription drugs, then the whole world would have turned upside down. But they found Xanax and other pills he'd accidentally overdosed on. You don't see anybody trying to ban those, you know? There just needs to be a reexamination of the issues. We need more studies on steroids.
T Nation: Do you think those studies will ever be done?
I'm not sure. You've got guys like Gary Wadler who serve on the World Anti-Doping Agency and say, "There are some characters who would like to see those studies done, and I assure you that they never will be done. It's a totally unethical study to do."
Well, what about all the other drugs that we've studied in our country? We've studied marijuana, cocaine, heroin. Why not steroids? People are going to do them anyway. The more we know, the more power we have.
Excuse my quick rant, but when Darryl Strawberry came back from a drug suspension, everyone clapped when he walked [onto the field]. But when somebody comes back from a steroid scandal, they're booed. We're in a weird judgment position where we want everybody to be the best, but we don't want them to cheat.
We're a country that was founded on cheating. Slavery and tobacco – that's where we made all our money in the beginning.
People need to get off their self-righteous soapbox and stop worrying about what everybody else is doing. Do what's good for you.
T Nation: You wanted to interview Governor Schwarzenegger, but were turned down. What did you want to ask him?
Not only were we turned down, we were escorted out of the Reagan Library by an armed guard. I guess they thought we were going to ambush the Governor, but that wasn't my intention at all. I still hold Arnold in high regard. He was one of my heroes growing up.
I think his position on steroids is a little bit weird in that, you know, he doesn't really have a position. In the same breath he'll say steroids are bad, and then announce his annual Arnold Classic, where he has a bodybuilding competition where they obviously use drugs.
The main question I wanted to ask was, "You have the greatest success story in the history of America, and part of the reason you got here was using steroids. So how can you say they're bad for you?"
T Nation: There's an underlying message in your movie about traditional family values and achieving the American dream. In the film, you said that your dad was never really your hero. Do you think there's anything wrong with kids looking up to sports figures or action-movie stars instead of their own parents?
In a way, yeah, I do. My dad went to work every single day in a suit and tie. He worked his ass off to provide for his kids. And looking back, I'd have to say that he is my hero. He was willing to lay it on the line, and I probably took him for granted. I could have learned a lot more from my father, instead of being off in La La Land watching Schwarzenegger movies.
But I also think that Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Hulk Hogan helped mold who I am. I looked up to them and wanted to be like them. I wanted to do all these things like eat healthy and be noble and go to the gym. I think it was both really healthy and unhealthy at the same time.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would do some things differently. But when you look up to someone and he's inspiring you to do good, I think it's fine to have him as a role model. I'd rather have a kid look up to a sports hero than some rock star doing illegal drugs all the time.
T Nation: Ha! That's pretty ironic. So what's next for you?
Right now, I'm working on a script for a half-hour comedy show. It's like Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Cheers meets Gold's Gym in Venice. It'll deal with some serious issues like body image and corporate America, as well as some fun, light-hearted stuff. We're working on getting that packaged and sold right now.
I was also just sent a screenplay for a Karate Kid remake with Will Smith's son, although I'm not sure if I'll take it.
I'm really looking forward to doing a feature film. That's what I went to school for. I loved doing the documentary, but I want to get back to my roots and see what happens.
T Nation: Very cool. All right, final question: Are you happy with the response Bigger Stronger Faster* has received?
Definitely. I wanted to make a movie that explored the issue, and really left no stone unturned. And the issue is something that's always going to be very close to me, because I battle with it every day. I think it's fucking crazy what you can do to your body with Botox and liposuction and all these things, but steroids are illegal because you want to look better on the beach.
Is taking steroids cheating? I don't know. The context matters, for sure. Many days, I'm still confused.
T Nation: Thanks for the interview, Chris!