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  • Interview: 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster' director Christopher Bell

    Mon, 02 Jun 2008 09:49:25

    Interview: 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster' director Christopher Bell - Documentarian Christopher Bell asks, "Is it still cheating if everyone's doing it?"

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    Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco—in addition to being renowned athletes, these celebrated giants have also gained infamy for their alleged flirtation with anabolic steroids, a performance-enhancing substance that, should media cries and locker room talk be any indication, are ubiquitous in the sports world. The issue is wrought with conflicting arguments regarding the degree of medical and ethical harm that taking steroids incurs, despite the popular and perhaps somewhat uninformed consensus that steroid use is always deplorable. Director Christopher Bell turns a filmmaker’s lens onto the convoluted subject with Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, a documentary utilizing a mix of educational facts, pop culture references, humor, and a dramatic personal narrative to explore the many dimensions of steroid use in contemporary society.

    Bell readily admits to experimenting with steroids at one point in his life, and he further personalizes the material by allowing the cameras to follow his two brothers, "Mad Dog" and "Smelly" Bell, both of whom are continued users. Mixing the audacious filmic tone of Michael Moore with a relatable storytelling bent, Bell has crafted a balanced and impressive debut feature. He spoke with ARTISTdirect about making the movie, which took years of research, exertion, and personal investment to bring to life.

    You chose to sub-title the film “The Side Effects of Being American.” What do you think is inherently American about steroid use?

    It’s interesting, because in the genesis of the film, one of the scenes I first thought about was the 2004 congressional hearing [on steroids where] Joseph Biden said, "There is something simply un-American about this." When he said that it sparked a little thought in my mind: "Is it really un-American to use steroids?" Or, "Is there nothing more American than taking any opportunity you can to win or get ahead?" I always thought that this idea about being bigger, stronger, faster was something that my brothers and I were consumed by, and that’s a side effect of being American. We think that we have to be great, and not a lot of other countries have that same kind of experience. While steroid use isn’t strictly American, a lot of the bigger concepts and themes of the movie are very American.

    You also explore the idea of having cultural heroes, but when these figures are revealed to be imperfect, why do you think people look to them to justify steroid use in some cases?

    Well, my dad said in the film—and it’s probably some of the best advice he’s given me—"Look, I know we have all of these heroes and I know you hear all of these stories, but every man is fallible, and it says this in the Bible. Every person has their flaws." It’s funny because we can look at an athlete and they can have all sorts of other flaws—they can get suspended for drug abuse, for using cocaine or something, and they get kicked out of the game for a while, suspended for a while, and they come back and we cheer them. But if we find out they’re using steroids, we put an asterisk next to their name and label them as a cheater. I think that in our culture we really like to put people on pedestals and say, "Hey, this guy’s a winner and he’ll do anything to win," but then we also like to, when they get to a certain point, knock them down as well. I think that happened to Barry Bonds and McGwire and a lot of these other guys. I think when you achieve a certain level of success, and it’s like that with anything—with film, for example—you can get a million great reviews, [then] suddenly someone comes along and wants to say something negative or wants to find a flaw, something to grasp onto. I think it’s human nature. Everybody doesn’t see things the same way.

    You humanize the story not only by revealing what's real about these athletes and their shortcomings, but also by delving into your personal family history. Was there hesitation on your end when you made the decision to examine the story of you and your brothers and make yourself vulnerable on camera?

    You know what, it was something that was definitely a decision to make, but I thought it was a really important one to make, so I talked to my family, I told them what the film was about. My parents had this idea that I was doing this really anti-steroid movie because I've been anti-steroids my whole life, and in some respects I still am. I don't necessarily condone it, but at the same time I wanted to look at the hypocrisies around it and look at the culture that breeds this. I knew that my brothers and I grew up in that kind of environment, and I knew that exploring that environment with the family [elements] would be a very important topic. I have to say that my brothers really wanted to tell their stories, so it made it a little bit easier, the fact that they really wanted to do it.

    Do you think that they wanted to tell their stories as a means of unpacking [the issue] in their own heads?

    Yeah, I think so. I think my older brother has more problems than just using steroids and we try to help him through it all the time. It's definitely very therapeutic for him to watch the film. He's been doing better since we made the film, but he still battles with drugs and alcohol, things like that, everyday. Basically, I think it's therapeutic for him and my younger brother as well. He just wanted to tell the truth and let the truth be known. He was actually sick of hiding it from people, sick of hiding it from my own parents. He didn't tell my parents in the film. He knew that they were going to see the film, and the reason he didn't tell them in the film is because he said, "I'd rather have them find out and I'll just get in trouble later." I don't know that he necessarily got in trouble; my mom just had to talk to him about it.

    I'm guessing that they've now seen the film. How did they react to how they were portrayed on camera or things that they said?

    Well my family definitely had creative control over anything they wanted to. I said, "You can cut out anything that you want. You can tell me, '[I] don't like this; [I] don't like that.'" They actually never exercised that right once. None of my family members told me, "I don't want you to say this," or "I don't want you to put that in the movie." They said, "Why don't you make the movie that you want to make, show it to us and then we'll decide."

    That's really generous, both for you as a filmmaker to make that offer, and for them to say, "We trust you enough with our story to do what you want with it."

    Yeah, and they obviously knew that before we went anywhere, like to Sundance, we would show them [the film] before we were actually finished finished with it. They saw the 95 percent finished version when we had a few things to tighten up and change a little bit. Then they saw it again at Sundance and they still liked it.

    You also explore the compelling argument that steroids may not be as harmful as we generally like to assume. There's actually certifiable scientific evidence to back up that claim. Were you nervous about treading that path?

    Well, we did three years of research, and this is something that's been in my life for a long time. I've been around steroid users since I was 16-years-old and I'm 35 [now], so I have almost 20 years of experience being around guys that are using steroids. I've seen it so much and it's been so rampant and I would discuss it with people all the time. The people I know weren't dropping dead; they weren't dying. There are instances where people have died from abusing different drugs, and steroids [usually] takes the rap for it. So I saw a lot of bodybuilders that were in Gold's Gym, a lot of pro-wrestlers...that have died, and steroids always gets blamed, which is interesting, because there [are] all of these other things involved, other factors involved that nobody wants to discuss. So, there was always reason to say, "Oh, steroids killed this guy." I wanted to show the actual truth about it and dispel some of the myths, and not condone the use of steroids. I just think that people should be educated about steroids. People are going to use them anyway, and they're actually finding that there are more medical benefits to using testosterone than ever thought before. It's actually being explored right now as [a form of] male birth control, which I know women would love. "Hey, go ahead, take testosterone, I don't care. I don't want to take birth control." On the women's side it definitely causes a lot of side effects, and those are steroids just as well, but we demonize steroids that enhance performance. I wanted to take a look at the hypocrisy of how we demonize these drugs because they can help you do something better.

    There's a spectrum of use that most people aren't attuned to.

    There [are] all different kinds of steroids, so we explore that in the film as well. I made a little education film called Steroids 101 which explains the difference between corticosteroids, anabolic steroids, and birth control, which are all in the realm of steroids, but all the steroids we're talking about in the film—anabolic steroids—are all synthetic versions of the male sex hormone testosterone, which really needs to be studied more because there are so many actual benefits to [using] it. [We] also need to know what the dangers are for people who are really involved in it.

    Have you experienced a backlash because you gave face time to pro-steroid advocates?

    There is always a little bit of a backlash when you do something that flies in the face of what you normally see. I think I gave face time to both sides. A lot of the doctors that we interviewed, like Dr. Charles Yesalis and Dr. Norm Fost, they're not steroid advocates by any means. They're doctors who are trying to make sense of this. These are really big highly educated doctors who have been involved in this for a long time, and they're saying, "Hey, wait a second. You guys are looking at this in all the wrong ways." There are doctors out there with an agenda, like Dr. Gary Wadler, [who says], "These things are killing people and they should be banned everywhere possible." He's not really making any sense of it; you ask him to prove it and he can't prove it. If there's a backlash, I don't really care. I researched this subject for three years up and down, fact checked it up and down. Anybody can dispute it and I would be happy to dispute it with [them]. Of course there's always going to be a backlash, but when people find out that what we're telling is actually the truth, I think that will subside that backlash.

    You mentioned how you introduced an educational aspect into the film. The tone of the film is kind of mixed. It's at once humorous, but it's also dramatic. It's personal, but you also explore the realm of celebrity. How did you decide on that tone?

    It wasn't really intentional from the beginning; [I] was working out how to tell the story. What ended up happening was that I wrote the beginning of the movie—the part with the Iron Shiek—that was the very first thing I wrote. I said, "Here's how I want to start the movie," and when I showed it to Alex and Tamsin, my producers, they read it and they were like, "Wait a second, this is hilarious!" That kind of set the tone for the whole movie, where we were kind of going to go with it. You're never sure if it's going to be serious or funny. It kind of walks these different lines and I think that's what makes it highly entertaining, that there's ups and downs in the film.

    Are there documentary filmmakers that you look to for inspiration or that you simply admire?

    I think it's pretty obvious the influence of Michael Moore. Actually, some of the people who worked on his films worked on our film, like, Jim Czarnecki was one of our producers, and he produced Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Jim got involved with us because he read the treatment and he said, "Wow, this sounds like such a big topic. It sounds like a Michael Moore-type topic." It really is, but there's a big twist to it. It's very personal to me, and also, I wanted to let people speak both sides of the issue and really be open and honest about this issue, and that really sold it to them. I would have to say, the film Capturing the Friedmans—it has this really crazy family story that is kind of insane. Obviously the subject matter is a lot more sensitive and delicate, but for me it really worked because they were letting people say, "We're in the same room at the same time...I know he did it," and another guy would say, "There's no way he did it." That was interesting to me—cutting people back-to-back and letting the audience make their own decision. That's kind of what I wanted to do with our film, to have the audience make their own decision at the end.

    I think we definitely need more research on anabolic steroids. My views have definitely changed. I was totally dead set against it when I started the movie...I'm more open-minded toward it [now].

    At the end of the film, the question that's at the heart of it—"Is it still cheating if everyone's doing it?"—is left very much ambiguous. After making the movie and watching the movie, I'm wondering if your views have changed or if you've come to a more definitive conclusion about steroid use.

    I just think I've become much more educated about it. I think we definitely need more research on it, on anabolic steroids. My views have definitely changed. I was totally dead set against it when I started the movie, not to say that I'm for it now. I'll just say that I'm more open-minded toward it, and I have a way better understanding of why people are using steroids. Looking at these athletes and looking at what they go through everyday, if you had to physically assert yourself every single day of your entire life and there was a drug that actually made you recover quicker, [made] you be able to train harder—these aren't lazy people trying to take a shortcut. These are people who are pushing their bodies to the max and are obviously topping off the tank with a little more high octane fuel. [Making the film] just made me understand it better, understand why somebody would go to those lengths.

    I have a silly question that was plaguing me while I was watching the film. Where did you end up unearthing that Ben Affleck 'roid rage footage from?

    I saw that a long time ago. Actually, my sister-in-law, Andi, she appears in the film. When we cut to the Ben Affleck thing, she was actually referencing that. [She and] her sister love that more than anything, like, "Oh my God! Remember when Ben Affleck did the 'roid rage movie?" They love it more than anything, so it's always kind of been on my radar for the past seven or eight years since I've known her. We'd…discuss it because we'd always discuss, like, working out, whatever, and somehow that came up one time. We've always kind of known about it. That gets the biggest laugh, by the way, all the time. He's, like, shoving pills down his throat. People don't take steroids like that.

    Do you think you'll keep working in documentary film as a genre?

    I started out as a narrative filmmaker. I kind of fell into making a documentary just because it was so personal a story; it was really close to me. But I love making documentaries now; it's an art unto its own. There's definitely a lot of subject matter that I'd like to explore. I don't have anything set up right this minute. I basically want to branch out in my career and do a little bit of everything. I think to do a little bit of everything it was nice to start out with a documentary. I also did a narrative short film called Billy Jones that won a bunch of awards back a couple of years ago, and I can show people both films and say, "I can do both of these things." It kind of opens you up as a filmmaker to be able to explore, really, whatever you want. I think I want to try and make a narrative film next, but if that doesn't happen, maybe another documentary will be in the works next.

    —Heidi Atwal

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