Bigger, Stronger, Faster with Christopher Bell

In American culture, we define ourselves in superlatives–we are the biggest, strongest, fastest country in the world. We reward speed, size, and above all else winning, at sport, at business and at war. Metaphorically we are a nation on steroids. So it may not be strange that many of our heroes are on performance-enhancing drugs.

The producers of “Bowling For Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” have made a film that unflinchingly explores our win-at-all-cost culture through a personal journey. Blending comedy and pathos, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is a collision of pop culture and first-person narrative, with a diverse cast including U.S. Congressmen, professional athletes, medical experts and everyday gym rats.

The docu chronicles the story of director Christopher Bell and his two brothers, who grew up idolizing muscular giants like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and who went on to become members of the steroid-subculture in an effort to realize their American dream. When you discover that your heroes have all broken the rules, do you follow the rules, or do you follow your heroes

Director-Writer Christopher Bell

In 2004, Senator Joe Biden testified before a Congressional Hearing on steroids that the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes is simply Un-American.” Ive tried steroids and my two brothers still use them today. Is Senator Biden right Are steroids Un-American Are the Bell Brothers the Bad Guys For a country that seems obsessed with being the best at everything, how can the choice of an athlete to enhance his own performance be Un-American These are the big questions that motivated me to make a film about the use of performance enhancing drugs in American culture.

I grew up worshiping Arnold, The Hulkster, and Stallone. I wanted to Crush the enemy, Hang and bang at Golds Gym, and tell Adrian I did it! But what I didnt know is that all of my heroes used steroids to get to where they are. When I eventually found out, Id like to say that I was fine with it, but I wasnt – I was really disappointed, and then my disappointment turned to wonder: Is that what it takes to be an American Hero Is that what I need to do I have been struggling with the choice to take steroids ever since. I tried them once, but I felt guilty and had to stop. Why do I find them immoral, and yet both of my brothers made the other choice

In 1988, the same year that Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, my older brother Mad Dog became the only student in the history of our high school to go on to play Division One football when he started at the University of Cincinnati. We were so proud of him. And literally one week after arriving at training camp, he started taking steroids.

My younger brother Smelly started taking steroids while trying to get a professional wrestling contract with the WWE. One of his best friends was John Cena – the WWE World Champ and he outweighed Smelly by about 40 lbs. If Smelly was going to make it as a pro-wrestler, he had to get on the juice.

Turning the camera on my own family was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I dont think well ever be the same, but I also dont think weve ever been closer. This film forced us all to discuss an issue that nobody in America wants to talk honestly about. Many families struggle with issues like alcoholism, drug abuse, depressionMy familys battle just happens to be with steroids. For the past twenty years, my brothers and I have been fighting our genetics, obsessing over what we eat, how we train, and what were doing with our lives. Guys like us are sticking needles in their butts for the same reason young girls are sticking their fingers down their throats. Pop culture has convinced us that were just not good enough. My brothers and I needed to find a way to become bigger, stronger, and faster – and we did, but at what cost

I also wanted to find a context for steroids what does the use of steroids by so many of our heroes say about ethics in our culture Is this a problem unique to the athletes and gym rats, or is it a sign of a much bigger issue

With a USC film school education and 20 years in the gym, I hoped to make a comprehensive, fully researched, and honest film about a topic that affects my brothers and me every single day. Im just a kid from Poughkeepsie who likes to lift weights and make movies.

Writer-Producer Alex Vuono

The docu has been a three-year-journey that began as a reunion with my friend Chris Bell. We met while at USC film school, and after graduating in 1995, we made a short film together called BILLY JONES, which was an anti-smoking themed dark comedy that played very well on the festival circuit. We lost touch with each other as we both pursued our careers, but then in 2004 I moved to Venice Beach, a few blocks away from Golds Gym. I joined the gym, and to my surprise, there was Chris Bell behind the front desk, selling gym memberships! Soon my morning workout included an often hilarious introduction into the bizarre characters and intense subculture of bodybuilding at this most famous gym in the world.

Around the same time, two sports news events were all the buzz at the gym: Barry Bonds was being called before a Federal Grand Jury in steroid investigation, and Jose Canseco was releasing a book called Juiced – about his experience with steroids in baseball, including his story of injecting Mark McGwire. I knew absolutely nothing about steroids, and the news about Bonds, Canseco, and McGwire was pretty shocking. Not so shocking, however, to Chris who seemed to know a lot about this subject already, and pointed out that many of the gym rats I was working out with everyday were on the same drugs.

The March 15, 2005 Congressional Hearing into steroids in baseball was the event that finally sparked the idea that there might be a documentary happening in front of my eyes, and I began telling these gym-stories to my producing partner Tamsin. Her advice: it was timely and hot button, but not compelling enough to elevate beyond sports television. The story needed to be personalized, and we began meeting with Chris on the weekends to try to find an angle. Then seemingly prompted by chance, he mentioned that both of his brothers were currently ON steroids. Eureka! How had this not come up in the past few months Like most of us when thinking about our own personal story, Chris was thinking: who in the world would find my familys story interesting

The family story was what we needed, and the three of us–Chris, Tamsin, and I–formed a partnership, and quickly assembled a treatment for the feature doc. The next big leap forward happened when I brought the treatment to my agent, who also represented Jim Czarnecki, producer of Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. My agent passed the treatment along, and Jim grabbed onto the idea. His immediate optimism and encouragement is what gave us the confidence to start pitching for the financing and, with Jims guidance, we soon had a production budget and strategy to make a much bigger feature documentary than we had ever imagined. Jim also
brought the invaluable connections to our co-producer Kurt Engfehr, who had edited the Michael Moore docs.

We began shooting in February of 2006. We had hoped to start in the fall of 2005, but we were determined to shoot the film in high definition, and there was a new camera about to become available called the Panasonic HVX200–it was as small as a handheld camcorder, but recorded true HD, and was also capable of slow motion, which we thought would be great for our live sports sequences. The camera just wasnt available yet so we pushed our shoot dates and waited. That decision paid off the camera finally arrived and was a dream to work with.

Our workflow became quite complex, as the camera records to hard drives rather than tape. We spent 2006 traversing the country on a dozen road trips as a 3-person team: Chris was in front of the camera, I was shooting and recording sound, and Tamsin was field producing while downloading the hard drives and managing the media. We continued shooting through the spring of 2007, and by the end had accumulated over 400 hours of interviews from over 100 days of shooting.

Our goal was to interview ALL of the experts, the Congressmen, the athletes everyone involved in the broader story of steroids in sports and find the real truth: Are steroids deadly Why are they illegal Why would these athletes the paragons of health choose to risk their lives to enhance their performance And even more interesting: what does it say about our culture that so many of our heroes are breaking the rules to win Conversely, we approached our interviews with Chris family as a humanizing element one that would help us identify with the reasons for why someone would choose to use performance enhancing drugs but we had no idea there would develop an entire story arc. The more we interviewed the Bell family, the true story of our film revealed itself.

It is a huge understatement to say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We thought the Congressional Hearings of 2005 was the news event that motivated our story the Columbine or 9/11 of this film. Yet month after month, story after story broke. We were sure that the end of the rainbow would be when Barry Bonds finally hit homerun #756 and broke Hank Aarons All-Time Home Run record but then there was Marion Jones and the Bonds perjury indictment, and even as we finish the film, the just-released Mitchell Report outs dozens of baseball heroes as cheatersIt seems this story is far from over. We had pitched to our investors that we wanted to premiere the film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and just one year tardy here we are premiering at Sundance 2008.

My background and nearly all of my experience has been in narrative filmmaking, and now having made a feature documentary, I can finally recognize what a miraculous safety net and blue print the screenplay truly is. It almost seems like cheating. Documentary is a different beast altogether. The two filmmaking processes seem to have far more in contrast than in common, and my respect and appreciation of any documentary that manages to tell a comprehensible story has grown enormously almost as if on steroids.

Writer-Producer Tamsin Rawady

I knew very little about steroids when I began this film but was immediately intrigued when Chris told us he and his brothers had all used steroids, but hed felt so guilty hed thrown them away. This base idea sparked many long conversations with Chris about his own personal relationship with steroids, tapping into his vast knowledge of the professional sports world, gym subculture and growing up with American pop cultural influences.

While Congress was debating the medical issue of whether steroids were going to kill you, we were trying to dig deeper, and examine the ethical aspect of why American men and women were using steroids. What struck me first was that steroids are not like other drugs. People dont use them to get high or escape reality but with a purpose–to lift more, to run faster, to lose weight, or to make more money. The deeper we dug the more we realized that this was not just a medical issue at all. It encompassed everything: politics, morality, mortality and ethics. We knew going in, this was going to be a huge responsibility.

Chris, Alex and I spent eight months researching everything we could about steroids, and developed a detailed treatment, which became our guide for both pre-production, production and post-production. We tried to put down on paper every theme and debate that existed or could exist about this issue and then set out to capture it in interviews and archive footage. This was a massive undertaking and, as our crew looked to us for guidance, much of the direction was find everything you can on, or track down everyone who has spoken about.

Our production and post-production started at the same time. As we conducted interviews, we also commenced editing, collecting and watching archive footage and reading interview transcripts, developing and refining paper-cuts in order to get a handle on all the material we were amassing. Chris would generate lists and lists of the pop cultural influences, including films, cartoons, and music, that he loved as a child and archive department would set out tracking them all down. While we were on the road, our editors worked tirelessly putting together cut after cut, in order to see every angle to this debate.

We all wore multiple hats on this film. Writer/Producer Alexander Buono is also a career cinematographer having shot and produced Academy-Awarding nominated short film Johnny Flynton and Green Street Hooligans starring Elijah Wood. This experience shooting narrative features, generated a polished cinematic style for the interviews. Our co-producers, Jim Czarnecki and Kurt Engfehr, who have had experience with some of the most successful essay-style documentaries ever made, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, helped keep us on track and offered great support and guidance as to how to take all the footage and make it into a cohesive documentary while still being entertaining to watch.

As we continued to write, re-write, edit, record voice over, collect archive footage and interview more people, it seemed like the steroids story itself was on steroids as it just kept getting bigger. We had hoped to finish a year earlier, however, more and more kept happening that we wanted to document not only within Chris family, but also within America and professional sports. We vowed to not stop until we were satisfied that we had combed through every transcript and every piece of archive footage to tell the best possible story about this debate.

We set out to make a film that gives audiences the chance to view all sides of the steroids debate in one cohesive film, while also being able to identify with Chris personal journey and have the opportunity to hear from a family that has had first hand experience.

I hope our film will encourage viewers argue and debate the ramifications of the win-at-all-cost attitude of our past leaders who turned a blind eye and allowed, if not encouraged, steroid use among our heroes because the rewards were too great, and ultimately set a course, where kids like the Bells grow up thinking that they have to use steroids in order to succeed in America.