Filmmaker turns lens on steroid use in America
Christopher Bell said the day that changed his life was Jan. 23, 1984, when Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWF title. He was hooked.
I thought that Hulk Hogan actually freed the hostages as a kid, he said.
From there, Bell grew up as a typical American, taught by observing the society around him to do whatever it takes to get ahead and improve himself, and part of a close-knit family that includes two brothers who eventually took a liking to steroids.
Now Bell has made an insightful documentary called "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" that brings a fresh perspective to the tired story of performance enhancing drugs. It opens in Manhattan Friday and on Long Island June 6.
I wrote about it in my Sunday newspaper column. Click below for another thousand-plus words from Bell that I collected in an interview Wednesday at an Irish pub near Penn Station during the Chelsea-Man. U. match.On how his older brother, seen struggling with his life and career in the film, is doing now:
My older brother actually went through a whole period where he actually got worse for a little while. Then he went through rehab. I think watching the film was very therapeutic for him. Hes OK now.
On how his family reacted to the way it was portrayed in the film:
My family really liked the film. I think for everyone it was a little bit of getting it out in the open. A lot of families dont communicate in general or talk about issues that are important to them or are taboo. I think my family really was supportive of getting this issue out in the open.
We all grew up loving sports and watching sports so my parents said, Hey, if you guys did something wrong in your past and want to talk about it and its going to help other people understand or get a grasp on an issue lets go ahead and do it.
My parents always taught us to be very open and honest. We went to church all the time, sometimes up to three times a week, so when youre taught to be open and honest and openly communicate with each other, when I said I wanted to bring a camera to talk to them they were receptive to that because they dont really have anything to hide.
On his approach:
I wanted to make sure not to go in with any sort of agenda. I didnt want to slant it. I wanted to let everyone speak and everyone talk. I think the audience can decide how they feel about it in the end. As a filmmaker I kind of grew with the audience because I was learning as I went along as well.
Its basically like playing Devils advocate and saying what about this? What about this? I challenged my brothers just as much as I challenged Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis or anyone in the film.
On whether he expects to be criticized for being a steroids apologist:
Absolutely, and I welcome it, because part of this film is a call for research. I think we need more research to figure out what these drugs and hormones actually do. The issue is so complex. Its not black and white. A lot of sportswriters and a lot of experts like to paint the issue in black and white, and its so wrong and complex. I think thats why people need to see the film and see how complex it really is. There are so many gray areas.
On the film's larger theme:
Bowling for Columbine wasnt about guns. It was about fear. Our film wasnt about steroids. It was about the moral issues of cheating in America and what you would do to be the best and how those lines have kind of blurred. I basically say if I was to take all the health effects and put them aside and say what if it wasnt actually dangerous, would you use it? People say, Hmm.
On what he wants to do next:
Id love to do more documentaries. I love to do films that are based on real events and real people, issues that are currently going on in the world. There are a bunch of issues that Id like to tackle, like obesity, which is very close to home for me, and the pharmaceutical industry. There are a lot of things we researched for our film that we found out about that industry, both good and bad.
On Michael Moores reaction to the film:
He just saw the film at Tribeca and gave us a rave review, which was really flattering to me. He congratulated my father on his son doing such a great job and making such a great film. My parents actually dont like Michael Moores films but they like him as a person and respect him as a filmmaker. My mom for some reason loves George Bush, I think just because he says I go to church, so my mom loves that, and I keep telling her, 'What are you thinking?' Shes like, I could never like Fahrenheit 9/11.
On comparing his style to Moores:
I didnt necessarily want to copy what anyone was doing. I wanted to basically take a film about a subject I feel is really important and be able to broadcast that to as many people as possible. Were trying to tell a story, make it entertaining, get people to see it and laugh and have fun and learn at the same time, rather than be like a hardcore documentary.
On how he landed interviews with so many prominent people:
You call them on the phone. I think a lot of it had to do with your approach to it. For example Ben Johnson has been wanting to tell his story for so long. He feels he got totally shafted by the Olympic committee and got screwed. When Carl found out Ben was telling his story he had to counter that and tell his story and when they both started talking we went to the former head of doping for the USOC and he had to tell his story, so you kind of start building it.
On his uncomfortable interview with Don Hooten:
It was really uncomfortable. Any time somebody loses a child you have to be very careful about their feelings and be compassionate toward them. I think that he is definitely doing a good thing in some respects but in other respects just kind of going about it the wrong way. I was just questioning the way he was going about it and just saying lets take a more logical approach to this without emotion.
Hes a great guy, a really nice guy. He said on all the Internet blogs and Web sites people confront him all the time, but he said, Youre the only person whos ever come here and asked me these questions and I appreciate that, and he shook my hand.
On his interview with Henry Waxman, who comes off as surprisingly uninformed:
After the interview his office called back and wanted to do the interview again because they knew he had bombed out, and we said, No, were actually busy tomorrow. Id never interviewed a Congressman before, never made a film before, Im not a journalist. I was like, Should I ask him the next question or just get up and leave? It kept making me more and more uncomfortable. When I left I thought it was a mess. Then one of our researchers assured me that it wasnt a mess, it was brilliant. They were like, No, he totally bombed it and it was great.
On his hope for the future:
I just think people should ask the right questions. When people know more they can ask the right questions. I would love for Congress to see this and baseball players and other athletes to see this and get a sense of whats really going on so we can actually talk about this in a more intelligent way.
We have all these other enhancements, breast implants, liposuction, all these different things. All were trying to do is put steroids in context, not say theyre good or bad, just put them in context in American culture and where they fit in.
On the central question of the film:
Is it un-American to do steroids or is there really actually nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be the best? Thats what Ive been taught since I was a kid. Thats what Ive seen on TV and seen everybody else doing around me. Do I win at all costs or do I get left in the dust?