Interview with Chris Bell, Director of “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”

The following is an interview I conducted with Chris Bell, director of the film, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.” For the synopsis of the film, as well as a review and discussion, click here.

Among other topics, I asked Bell what drove him to make the film, what he wanted viewers to take from it, and how his family (who are prominently shown throughout the film) reacted when they saw it on the big screen. For more information about “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” visit the film’s official website.

Scores Report: Hey Chris, how are you?

Chris Bell: Good, thank you.

SR: Just wanted to start off by saying I really enjoyed Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. And I guess the biggest thing I wanted to know, Chris, is what you want viewers to take from your film?

CB: I think just a better understanding of steroids and a better understanding of athletes in general and what they go through. And you know, the kinds of pressures that are placed on younger people growing up who want to become professional athletes. When I was a kid growing up, I basically faced a lot of pressure to look good and to feel good about myself. I felt I had to have a good body. I just thought [steroids] were an interesting facet and I started looking at my own life and going, wow, I’ve really been obsessed with this for a long time and maybe I shouldn’t be. And also, to understand that maybe steroids aren’t the monster they’re made out to be and that there are definitely other sides to this issue.

SR: That was one thing I found to be pretty unique about the film. You did a nice job of showing both sides of the coin. What did you learn from those who support steroids and those who are against them? In other words, what was the biggest takeaway from each side and what did they teach you?

CB: I would say the biggest takeaway from the pro-steroids side was that all the guys that were steroid users were basically saying, “show me the bodies – show me the evidence that steroids actually kill people.” And the fact of the matter is, there isn’t a whole lot of research to prove that. So, [steroid users] are saying, you want me to stop taking this – show me that somebody has died from it. And you really can’t because there’s no real information, or not enough good information, on these drugs. So as part of this film, I wanted it to be a call for more research so we can learn more about these drugs. The other thing that was really interesting was the fact of why steroids became illegal. We always think drugs become illegal because they’re dangerous and with steroids that’s completely not the case. I think that’s an important reason why people need to see the film. They became illegal because people cheated in sports. That was the main reason and there’s no proof otherwise. We did three years of research for this film and that was probably one of the most interesting things that came to light for me.

SR: Right.

CB: And on the anti-steroids front – the people that are against steroids – I was finding that they were against steroids more for moral reasons than medical reasons, but that they would use medical reasons to make their moral argument. And that was a really interesting conflict, because we can’t base things off antidotal evidence or emotion – we need to base them on facts. So, there were people like Donald Houghton, whose son committed suicide, which I feel terrible for and I wanted to approach that in a delicate manor, but I felt that in order to get to the bottom of either side of the coin, you had to really ask the right questions.

SR: That was a really powerful scene, by the way. To be standing in Donald Houghton’s son’s room and having to ask difficult questions about the fact that the young man wasn’t only on steroids, but also anti-depressants, too, yet his father choose to ignore or look past that fact must have been extremely hard.

CB: That’s what I meant when I say [non-steroid users were] basing [their opinions] on emotion. I basically met [Donald Houghton] and went inside the house and talked to him for a while. Then the next thing you know, I’m in the kid’s room and once you get in that room, everything changes. My own personal opinion of what happened actually started to shift because I was like, I’m going to test this guy and ask him all the right questions. I’m a good film maker, I’m going to go do this. And I went and did it, but once you get in that room and see all the kid’s baseball gear is still there. His cleats are still there with mud on them. And you’re like, oh shit, this is emotionally harder to ask the right questions. But I still knew that I had to do it if I wanted to explore the issue.

SR: Absolutely. Why do this film? What was your main drive?

CB: The main drive was in the beginning. Both of my brothers were doing steroids and we started talking about the issue and basically how people lie about it. And I was saying to my younger brother, Smelly, “what do you think about Mark McGwire and his use of andro?” And my brother laughed and said, “Andro? He’s on the juice – come on.” I was like, “really?” and he said, “well come on, you don’t start hitting home runs and get that big.” So I was like, oh my God, maybe there’s something more to this. So the genesis really was that my brothers were using steroids, I started talking to them and learning more about steroids, then realized there was definitely a film in there.

SR: There was an underlying inner battle for you, I thought, throughout the whole film, and that was whether or not you should take steroids. Did you come to a conclusion about whether or not to take steroids or was that not the main focus of the film and really, it was just a small storyline?

CB: No, that was definitely part of it. I asked people several times, do you think I should [take steroids]? And you know, some people said yes – some people said no. Louie Simmons said, “Your morals are your morals, mine are mine. Who are you to judge me and who am I to judge you?” I thought that was really interesting. It definitely is a personal decision for people to make. I didn’t necessarily come to any conclusion (as far as whether or not to take steroids). I thought my conclusion was learning more about myself, and the fact that I learned that my goal wasn’t to be a bodybuilder or to be a power lifter. You know it’s kind of funny, I went into the film trying to figure out if I should do steroids and if they were a good thing or a bad thing, and I came out of it, like, I don’t even know if I want to be a meat head anymore – I just want to be a filmmaker. (Laughs)

CB: It was an awaking for me, because I feel like I wasted a lot of my life slaving away in the gym and I think a lot of us worry too much about what we look like and not having enough fun in life.

SR: That’s a great point. I thought one of the more positive scenes was one with you and your mom when you were sitting at the kitchen table and you had to break the news to her that one of her brothers, your uncle, gave your older brother steroids. Did you show your parents the film and if so, what was their reaction?

CB: Yeah, my parents have actually been to almost every screening so far. They really love the film and their opinion was hey look, if you guys did something wrong or illegal and now you’re turning it into education for people – where people can learn from what you guys have done – then more power to you and God bless you for doing it. They think it’s a good thing. Obviously they were concerned a lot about my younger brother doing steroids, especially because he has a kid. They were also really concerned with my older brother because he has a lot of other problems that steroids only contribute to. We don’t know what steroids do for people that are bi-polar for example, and that’s what he was diagnosed with a couple of years ago. And so, what do steroids do when someone is bi-polar? We don’t know, so of course they’re concerned. But they also feel that the film showed the family in an intelligent light.

SR: And what did your brothers think of the film?

CB: Both of my brothers love it because they really wanted to tell their story. They really wanted people to know how they felt about this situation. And basically, I took a lot of what my brothers said out of the film – a lot of their real, personal opinions about steroids – because I didn’t want people to be skewed and think my two brothers were telling me what to think. And so I left that up to the experts and I just kind of got more of the opinions from my brothers on how steroids are affecting their lives.

SR: What was the hardest part about doing this film?

CB: The hardest part, overall, was patience. I’m probably the most impatient person in the world and it took three years to make this movie. That was probably the hardest thing, just trying to get it right over and over and over again. And editing for months upon months upon months was just really difficult. But I’d have to say if there was one individual scene that was difficult, it was probably that one with my mom because my mom came to me and said, “I need to talk to you because I feel like a failure as a mother – I feel like I failed you guys. And I want to know what’s wrong.” And I was like, oh man, I don’t know if I can talk about this.

SR: Right.

CB: The whole film I was the one asking questions to people and my mom’s like, “all right Chris, I’m going to sit you down and ask you some questions.” And that was kind of scary, you know? At first she didn’t want me to film it. She said, “No, I don’t want to do this on camera, I want to just talk to you about it.” And I said, look, I think what you’re going to tell me right now is going to be really powerful and I think we need to shoot it. I said, you know what, I’ll only have one other person in the room – it’ll just be the camera operator, you, and me and that’s it. And you know, that’s kind of the way we did it.

SR: And it turned out to be a great scene.

CB: Yeah it’s really emotional. And also, you know, I call the film the “side effects of being American.” And what I mean by that is that we have this idea that we have to be the best and we have to be great – if we can’t be great and if we’re not a great athlete or have the best psyche or whatever, we’re nothing. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think that my mom’s brother John was swallowed up by the same exact problem my brother Mad Dog had. What a lot of people don’t know is that my mom’s brother John died of a drug overdose. I think he was 34 years old, so he was the same age as I was when I was making the film. He died of a drug overdose because he was a great football player and he broke his back. And after he broke his back he couldn’t play football anymore so then he basically felt like a failure. He felt there was nothing more for him to do in life. So he got into drugs and all sorts of other things.

SR: It kind of seems that your older brother followed that same mindset. You know, he even said it in the film that he didn’t just want to be average he wanted to be great.

CB: Yeah, you know what’s really interesting on both sides of coin, my brother said, “I’d rather be dead than average.” My younger brother, you know, has his own gym and his philosophy since seeing the film is that he wants T-shirts made to say that – “I’d rather be dead than average.” And I’m like – I didn’t mean that as a good thing. (Laughs)

SR: (Laughs)

CB: So my younger brother you know, this win at all cost power lifter, looks at that saying as a really positive thing, you know? I’d rather be dead than average – he’s like, “that’s amazing.”

SR: It’s amazing how one person can view one thing and take a positive from it, while someone completely different can view the same thing and take it in a whole different direction.

CB: Right.

SR: I thought it was kind of cool when the movie first started and you started talking about your heroes being Hulk Hogan, Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and Rocky, and then slowly coming to the realization that these aren’t heroes at all. I had the same crushing reality when all the steroid-talk first started in baseball. Do you think kids can look up to sports heroes anymore?

CB: Well, there’s no one to really look up to that’s totally clean anymore, let’s put it that way. But I don’t know if somebody is not a hero because they use steroids. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a hero of mine. I don’t necessarily agree with him and his take on steroids, but I definitely look up to him and admire what he’s done. And I’ve come to the realization by doing this movie that steroids don’t create great athletes, they make great athletes excellent, I guess.

SR: Sure.

CB: I think for kids it’s different though. When you’re talking about an adult…when you’re talking about me…my perception of Hulk Hogan, if he did steroids, I’m like, who cares? He’s an adult and he can do what he wants. But when you’re a kid it really crushes you. It’s really devastating. I think the conflict of my little brother is one of the most amazing strengths of the film because he’s a football coach and he loves working with kids and he loves being a positive influence in these kids’ lives. And there have been kids that have told me the only reason I come to school is to train with Coach Bell. And then I say (to my brother), did you tell the kids you’re taking steroids? And he’s like, “What good would that do? It would only make it worse and it wouldn’t do them any good to know what I do because I’m an adult. And this is something that’s not for kids.” So I thought that was a really interesting conflict because is it sometimes better to not know what people did to get to where they are?

SR: That’s true. And I think it’s interesting when you bring alcohol and cigarettes into the mix, because those are two things that should be, in theory, choices you make when you’re an adult.

CB: Yeah, and you know what’s really interesting is that we did a screening last night and for the first time I realized something. Somebody asked me, “You guys were brought up in a really moral family, so why did you choose to make an immoral decision to use steroids?” And I said, wow, that’s a really strong statement. You know, first of all, my youngest brother is probably the most moral person I ever met in my life. He doesn’t drink – he never drank alcohol really. He doesn’t smoke. He has two kids. He teaches high school kids. He’s a personal trainer and he goes out of his way to help people all the time. He’s a great husband, a great father who plays with his kids all day when he’s not at the gym training people. And, I’m like, so he made one decision (to take steroids) and now all of a sudden, you know, he’s the bad guy. And he said that in the movie – “Why am I the bad guy?” And I say, “Because you’re on steroids and steroids have been demonized so much.” I’m not condoning what he does, but there’s a lot more people doing a lot more immoral things out there, so I’m thinking, wow, with all the problems we have in this country, it’s amazing how steroids have become one of the main issues.

SR: Absolutely, it’s amazing what people will overlook when the topic of steroids comes up.

CB: Definitely.

SR: So what’s next for you as a filmmaker?

CB: Well, I signed with Endeavor, which is a great agency, and they’re working on finding a couple scripts. I think everything I want to do will be something with a social impact or some kind of social relevance to it. So I’m looking at a script right now that deals with kind of the same problems my brother Mad Dog was dealing with, but in the world of ultimate fighting. It’s based on a documentary called “The Smashing Machine,” so we were looking into doing something with that as a narrative film. And I also wrote a script called “Bell’s Gym,” which basically focuses on the wacky world of Gold’s Gym, Venice (CA) and that’s more of a comedy that shows you all of the things that occur in the gym that I couldn’t show you in the movie because we didn’t have enough time. Part of the genesis in this movie is that, oh my God, there are some many crazy people in Gold’s Gym – we just have to film these people. I’m sure that any people that work out in any gym has the guy that pulls his shorts up under his nipples.

SR: (Laughs)

CB: In our gym we have “Grannie Guns.” It’s this woman who has size triple-F breasts and she’s about 65-years old and she’s always flaunting them with these really tight outfits.

SR: (Laughs)

CB: And so, it’s just this really interesting world that needs to be it’s own TV shows. It’s not really a reality show – its kind of “The Office” meets Gold’s Gym.

SR: Oh you guys have to include the guy that was living out of his van [in “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”].

CB: (Laughs) He’s just a great character in general. You should have heard some of the other stuff he said, it was crazy.

SR: I could only imagine! Well I appreciate you sitting down with us Chris and I loved the film. I wish you the best of luck.

CB: Great, thank you very much!

SR: Take care.

CB: Talk to you soon.

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