If you think you know everything there is to know about the performance-enhancing steroids that have been all over the news for the past few years, then you may be surprised by what you can learn from Christopher Bell’s debut documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. (The asterisk is intended to represent the famous ones next to recent baseball home run records, although this one leads to the film’s appropriate subtitle, “*The Side Effects of Being American”)
A former power lifter from a family of wrestlers, Bell started looking into the truths behind steroids when he learned that both of his brothers were using them regularly, and what he discovered will probably be surprising to anyone who thinks they know everything about steroids from what is said about them on the news. Bell was very thorough in his research, talking to as many people as he could, as he looks at the influx of performance-enhancing drugs into the world of sports, but he’s created an extremely entertaining movie from the results, one that’s highly informative but also a lot of fun.
ComingSoon.net sat down for a pleasant breakfast in New York with Bell, joined by his co-producer and co-writer Alex Buono, to talk about the movie and their intentions that went into making such an intensive film about a very controversial subject matter.
ComingSoon.net: Where do you even begin with a documentary like this? Do you start by talking to your brothers or do you do some of your own research first?
Christopher Bell: The first step was really figuring out what you’re doing and what kind of film do you want to make? Initially, it was something that had been on my mind for a long, long time. I was always a power-lifter and always against steroids and would train naturally. There was never really a climate to make a movie about steroids, but as things started progressing on TV and in sports, we started seeing all these things going on and started talking with Alex at Gold’s Gym about all this stuff that was going on and then started talking to my brothers about it. My brothers were both up in arms because they were on steroids at the time. They were like “This is kind of ridiculous” and I’m saying, “Why is it ridiculous? Tell me.” It all just started to gel together, it’s kind of hard to even describe how it all came together. It was very organic and things just started falling in place. We definitely started out with Alex, Tamsin and I just sitting around brainstorming about this project and what the real defining points would be and who was interesting to interview. The list of people to interview was probably a couple hundred people that we were thinking about, and then you have to narrow that down to who can you actually have access to? How were you going to do it? How do they fit into the story?
CS: Did you have any sort of outline of what you needed to cover in order to get your point across?
Bell: Outlining but also like your magic tool… and this was basically taught to us by Jim Czarnecki and Kurt Engfehr who were producers on “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They came aboard our project kind of early on and they said basically, “Let’s start doing it like you do a screenplay. Get out a big bulletin board and get index cards and start throwing things on the wall.” I would take a card and write like “Lyle Alzedo” and stick it up on the wall, and Alex would be sitting at his desk and be like “Olympic Committee” and stick it on the wall, and we’d write any random thing that had some sort of connection to steroids, then we’d be like “How does that relate to the bigger picture?” So a lot of cards would come off the wall and go on this other board that was just ideas, because you don’t want to forget them. It’s definitely a process of organization before you get into shooting because if you just started shooting randomly, I think you’d be in a world of trouble.
Alex Buono: I have to say that from my perspective, there was a real turning point in discussing the film and developing it. We were talking a lot about steroids and a lot about the stuff that was going on in baseball, and the turning point was when Chris told Tamsin and I, “Well, you know both of my brothers actually do steroids right now, you knew that, right?” Very close to the beginning of the project and that was the point where both she and I looked at each other and said, “Oh, we didn’t know that. That’s amazing!” That’s when I felt the project went from being probably a really interesting TV show to being potentially a film, because here was this opportunity to take a subject that people are bantering about a lot but there’s no way to humanize it. It became an opportunity for us to tell the story of this American family that has first-hand experience and were uniquely willing to talk about it in a very honest way and that was the moment. That’s the story. That’s the hook of the whole movie is that we’ve got this opportunity, Chris’ family being willing to talk about something that everybody else is forcing to be shrouded in secrecy and mystery and what is it really? You have these two guys who were like, “Yes, I am doing it” and you got this other guy, Chris, who says, “I tried it once and I felt guilty. Why do I feel guilty? Why don’t they feel guilty?” The essence of it was that the moral and ethical issues surrounding the stuff, how can you put them in context of our culture so that somebody like me who’s not in the world of power-lifting, how can I relate to it?
CS: Assuming that it took you over a year to get the interviews and assemble them, there’s so much happening in the world of sports with a new story about steroids appearing every week. Did what was happening while you were making the movie force you to modify the movie to include it?
Bell: Yeah, absolutely. I think that things change all the time, and we definitely got to a point where we had to say “Enough” and it’s funny because after we finished the film, people were like, “Oh, you have to throw Roger Clemens in there” and I made a distinct decision in the film, was that even before Barry Bonds broke the record, we had a spot in the movie, a window where Barry Bonds’ record home run is going to go and this is the defining moment and that’s it, that’s where we stop. Barry Bonds hitting that home run for us was the end of the movie, which actually is the beginning of the intellectual steroid debate. So far, we’ve been having a really bizarro uninformed steroid debate where everybody is just like, “I’m going to argue about steroids without knowing the facts” and we’re saying, “No, we’re going to present the facts… and now, we want you to argue about that all you want.” It still is an ethical issue. It is something that can be argued, but it’s something that can be argued very intelligently from both sides to figure out where this is going to end up. Technology is always moving forward, things are always getting better. We’re constantly getting bigger, stronger, faster in every other aspect of society, and we’re like, “Why is it that athletes are being told that they’re not allowed to engage in this same practice that everybody else is?” (There’s) all these different performance enhancements and every little gadget we have to do with our life that makes us better or makes us live longer or makes us happier. I think the one thing about sports that really is interesting to me is that it feels like the public and the media both combined have this feeling that the one thing… God, we live in a world where we’re involved in a crazy war, the gas prices are up, and everything is unfair and society is just decaying. Things are just not going our way and it’s not like the good old days, but there’s this one thing called sports… that’s the good old days, that’s the last bastion of hope, this idea of sports and they should be clean, and if you cheat in sports, then you’re kicked out.
CS: That’s the two things the movie brings up: There’s the competitive sports issue and trying to be fair and not cheat, but there’s also the health issues that are causing such anti-steroids sentiment and you actually dispel a lot of that stuff. So is there really a health issue or is it just about the sake of fair competition? Why is everyone so against steroids if they’re not really bad for you?
Bell: I think that’s why we made the movie, is because it’s so intriguing to all of us. If it was to be just as intriguing to Alex and Tamsin as it is to me, as it is to you, we’re sitting here debating it: Is it good or is it bad? Well, you’re like, “Okay, it’s cheating” and you’re like “It’s cheating in sports. Is it cheating in society to look better?” Say you’re like, “Okay, I have nothing to do with sports,” but let’s say you want to drop 20 pounds and feel better about yourself and we put you on human growth hormones and other hormones, are you cheating anybody? No, you’re just taking a drug to get a desired effect. Is that cheating? I don’t know. A big theme of our movie is just trying to define cheating overall. What the hell is cheating? Barry Bonds says “I cheat because I’m my Daddy’s son, that’s how I cheat.” And that’s an interesting concept. Was that cheating that he was born into a great family? Is it cheating that our president was born into the family he was born into? You can argue it all day either way. That’s what makes this so interesting. Arguing in sports that you’re only allowed to play with what God gave you and you look at a guy wearing eyeglasses. Well, God didn’t make those.
CS: You don’t see many guys playing baseball wearing glasses though.
Bell: Well, they wear contacts or they have Lasik eye surgery. Tiger Woods had Lasik eye surgery, so now his vision is better than perfect, it’s 20/15, so is that sending a wrong message, saying to everybody, “If you’re vision is not better than perfect, you better go get Lasik eye surgery.” Go in and have a surgical procedure done which is legal because your vision is not as good. You’re not going to be able to compete with Tiger, because he can see better than you. It sounds almost like the obscure argument where you’re trying to stretch it but if you really conceptualize it and think it, you think that someone is probably not going to do that because of Tiger Woods, but you can see where the argument lies. If somebody is doing something that makes them better or the best, would you follow them? It happens a lot, so it’s definitely an interesting thing to define what cheating is.
CS: Much of the movie, especially when you’re talking about the health factors involved with taking steroids, almost makes it seem like the movie is pro-steroids, though it really isn’t. Are you afraid that people might see this as a movie that condones the use of steroids since you’re arguing against some of the negative statements made about them?
Bell: I hope people don’t see it as a pro-steroid movie, because it’s anything but that. It’s a movie that tells the truth about steroids, and if you come out of the movie thinking it’s a pro-steroids movie, you probably learned the truth about the actual drugs themselves. The drug itself is not the bad guy. Drugs are an inanimate object that sits there, but it’s how you use the drug. It’s almost like the superhero movies. You always see the one guy has the power and “if this falls into the wrong hands.” It’s all what your intention is. What’s your intention with this drug? Is it to cure a sickness, is it to help your daily functions to recover from surgery, to recover from a disease, or are you using it to cheat somebody else out of their career? That’s where it becomes an ethical debate.
Buono: It’s certainly like the point is not to be a pro-steroid movie or to advocate for steroids or excuse athletes for using steroids at all. A lot of people ask, “What’s the answer, Chris? You did all the research. Is it okay to use them? Is it cheating at sports?” And really, what we’re trying to tell people is the intention of the movie is not to answer the question, but it’s to ask the questions. You can actually start talking about it now because you actually know enough information to talk about it.
Bell: We’ve been having this really crazy debate that is not based in any sort of facts, so I went out and talked to all the experts, all the doctors, all the lawyers and all the people involved in the steroids scandals, congressmen, everything, and when you can talk to them and get all the information you can and tack it into a movie that’s under 2 hours and easy to understand and fun to watch, has a lot of heart to it… now we can talk about it intellectually, and it’ll be great to see what happens when the film comes out. I’d love to go around and talk all day about this with people. I actually don’t want to go out and talk. What I really want to do is go out and listen to what people have to say… so what do you think now? You saw it. Who cares what I think? You’ve listened to me ramble for 2 hours. What do you think now?
CS: I think your movie gives a more comprehensive look at the issue of steroid use than the media, who’s been focusing on what the government has said about them during the hearings.
Bell: (tries to turn the interview around) As a member of the media, how does that make you feel about your colleagues?
CS: I’m a movie critic, so I’m not exactly in the same group as those who do local TV news and the like. Your family’s story is such an important part of this movie, so how did you go to your brothers and say, “I want to talk about this seriously and get you on camera talking about how they’ve affected or not affected you”? What were those discussions like?
Bell: You mean, how did I get them involved? My brothers are really cool. We come from a really tight family. When you watch the movie, we’re in the basement hitting each other with steel chairs and dropping off the couch and dropping elbows on each other. I mean, we grew up in a pretty tight-knit family and we’ve always been really good friends. There was a period of time where we were basically all best friends and there was a period of time after my older brother went off to college and went through some really hard times, me and my younger brother thought we lost him as our brother. We didn’t even know this guy anymore. For a while, it actually got worse, and then it got a little bit better, and a little better and then it got really bad. It kind of got really bad while we were doing this movie, but when I asked my older brother, he was going through a lot of drug and alcohol dependency problems, and I think that this was almost like a way of “Let me try to talk myself out of this idea I have. Like why am I so depressed? Like why am I having all these issues?” I think for him it was very therapeutic to be able to go on camera and talk. For my younger brother, he’s this real purveyor of the truth and sick of people lying about stuff, and he’s like, “Look, I don’t make my money depending on how I perform in sports. I’m not getting paid specifically for how much I can lift. I train people and if they want to come to me, they come to me. It’s not really going to matter what I bench, they’ll still come to train me because they like me or whatever.” He’s just saying, “Look, I just want to tell the truth about this. I want people to know this.” My parents were a little different. It’s kind of like you go to your parents and say, “Well I gotta make this movie about this family secret that you guys don’t really know about.” How do you do that? My mom and dad had no idea what it was. It could have been anything. It’s weird because I had to preface it with, “It’s nothing weird or sexual or anything. It’s not that bad, but it’s bad.” How do you get your parents to talk?
CS: But I’d think there’d be some concern for your brothers going on the record, since this movie has a lot of stuff that most people wouldn’t want to have out in the open.
Bell: I suspect for my brother it’s actually interesting, because I think for him coming out and talking about it and doing what he’s doing, a lot of people really respect that. The one thing we really didn’t do is go into talking about wrestling that has a lot of these issues. We could have gone and talked about that, but it wasn’t my goal to bury Vince McMahon and the WWE or bury the NFL or bury Major League Baseball or bury the Olympics. My whole goal was to just get it out in the open and talk about it. I think we all understand there’s steroids in wrestling, football, baseball and the Olympics. I don’t think our film needed to enforce that and that’s maybe why people like it. It’s not sitting there condemning everybody. We’re actually pointing the fingers at the people who are hypocritical about the issues, not about the actual drug itself. That’s why I think it’s really important for people to see this film because it’s important to realize what you’re being told and what’s really going on.
CS: For someone like me who’s a layman and knows little about steroids, all I’m hearing in the media are about how bad they are and about who is getting busted: Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens. All I hear is the negative stuff.
Bell: Well, it is negative if it’s sending the wrong message to kids, it is negative in that respect. If kids think that they need steroids to achieve success, then it is negative, but when you go and turn on the news and they say, “Steroids have deadly health effects.” You kind of have to question it. “Prove it.”
CS: Did you actually try and talk to anybody at the WWE?
Bell: Yeah, absolutely. I used to work for a short time at the WWE as a writer, so I’m pretty friendly with Shane McMahon, and Vince McMahon knows who I am. I have a lot of friends like John Cena wrestles for the WWE and he’s a really good friend of our family’s. I tried to talk to all those guys, and any of those guys, it’s like John would talk to me about those issues, and a lot of those guys would talk to me, but they’re not allowed to without the permission of the WWE. So rather than asking the guys individually, because they’re all my friends and I know they would talk to me, but the WWE does not actually allow them to talk about performance enhancement drugs to the media. It’s actually bizarre because when this whole Chris Benoit thing happened, they then let them talk to the media. But when we asked after that, they still said “No” because I think they know they have no choice about making a statement on CNN and these shows, but I didn’t think they wanted to get involved with a film. They really know that I know too much. I used to be in the locker room with them. I think that Vince is great and I think a lot of the stuff they’ve been doing in trying to police it within his business is good, and I hope that it’s not for the mere fact that the media and the congress is coming down on them. There are some issues with his wellness policy that he’s instituted, and that is actually what I wanted to talk to him about. I didn’t want to ask if he was on steroids or point the finger at WWE, I wanted to say, “Well you guys instituted a wellness policy but there’s all these flaws in it. Let’s discuss those.” I think that’s the same policyit’s not just Vince McMahon, it’s everybody. It’s Major League Baseball and all these others, they have these policies, but these policies have flaws. Somebody comes around pointing out those flaws, Congress doesn’t know any better. Congress doesn’t know enough about steroids. They don’t have a steroid expert in Congress to be able to say, “This actually makes no sense.”
CS: Have you had a chance to show your movie to anyone in the government yet as a way of informing them on some of the facts?
Bell: I think they’ll see it soon.
Buono: Actually, we have a screening in Washington, D.C. on Monday.
Bell: So if we get out of there…
Buono: We’re definitely inviting Congressional aides and Washington press, and I think we are inviting a few Congress people and hopefully they will show up. We’re definitely inviting Waxman.
CS: Is he the Congressman in the movie? I was cracking up where he was being interviewed and didn’t seem to know what was going on.
Buono: What’s funny is that about five minutes after we left his office, we got a call from his staff. “The Congressman thought that was great. So good that he’d love for you guys to come back tomorrow and do it again!” He wanted to do a total redo. Exactly. “That went terribly…”
CS: What kind of rating did you get for the movie? This seems like a movie that you’d want high school kids to see, since it’s such an important subject.
Buono: It’s an ongoing process. It’s still in the hands of the MPAA.
Bell: It’s funny because we basically submitted it and there are some swear words in there…
Buono: I think technically, there’s a few too many swear words, like two or three to many, but it’s really up to the discretion of the MPAA whether or not. Their boards can overrule the official rules if they decide that the overwhelming value of the film or that it’s really important.
Bell: This guy says the “F” word but every kid in high school over the age of 13 says the “F” word.
Buono: In fact, there’s a certain argument in documentary filmmaking that you can’t tell everyone what to say because then it’s no longer documentary filmmaking.
Bell: It’s not like I scripted them, although a lot of people ask me about that guy Valentino. “Did you write that for him?” No, he’s just this guy who goes crazy about stuff.
CS: To wrap this up, do you think that steroids are just an American problem?
Bell: I think it’s growing. It depends on what the phenomenon is. If it’s like body obsession. I know from what I hear that Brazil is a lot worse than we are. People get their ribs removed and get butt implants and all sorts of crazy stuff going on down there, which I haven’t really gone to experience that, but it’s really intriguing to me. The one thing I think that’s really significantly American is not the fact that we’re using steroids, but the fact that it would drive people like Taylor Hooten to commit suicide, people like my brother to try and commit suicide. It’s not steroids. It’s what we say in the film: “The side effects of being American.” It’s like if you can’t make it and you keep failing and you keep trying, and you just want to be the guy. If you’re sports-minded, you always have that philosophy, whether you play soccer, you play football, you play any sports. You want to be the best. If you don’t have that desire to be the best, you’re almost looked down upon if you’re not that guy who wants to be the best. “Get off my team!” I think that strictly American-speaking, it’s definitely that ’cause a major amount of stress and peer pressure in kids’ lives, this idea of being the best. I can’t speak for other countries if that’s really a big problem. I know when we’re up in Canada, it seems like it’s spreading to there because a lot of the kids are on… kids that came to our screening that were on steroids were in high school. It’s kind of scary, because they saw the movie, but the main consensus among high school kids is, “Wow, thank you for telling the truth, because I hate when people talk down to me. I hate when people say, ‘Don’t smoke; you’ll die tomorrow’ and I know I’m not going to die tomorrow because I see people who are 90 that are smoking. What are the real problems, the real complications?” It’s interesting. I think when you tell the truth, kids respect you more and they listen more. They’re actually allowed at that point to make an informed decision and that’s important, to make smart and informed decisions.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, but should play in other cities in the next few months.