A Talk with Chris Bell
Blowing the Whistle on Yourself
Blending comedy and pathos, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a collision of pop culture and first-person narrative, with a diverse cast including US Congressmen, professional athletes, medical experts and everyday gym rats. At its heart, this is 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. (Magnolia Pictures)
Bigger, Stronger, Faster is currently in limited release (
Courtesy of a local publicist, reviewer Mike Gunn sat down for a talk with Chris Bell in a suite at a downtown
Mike Gunn: Chris, when you the made the movie, what was the main purpose? Why did you make this film?
Chris Bell: I think this issue has been in my life since I was about fifteen or sixteen years old. When I started lifting weights, there were people all around me doing steroids. When I was a little kid I got the Hulkamania workout set, but as soon as I actually went to the gym, I started meeting people who were using steroids. So for me, it’s an issue that has been going on for a long, long time whereas for a lot of people, it’s been around since about 2004 when it started coming out in the baseball hearings. For me it’s been around for 20 years.
The reason I wanted to explore the issue was because I was always the one in the middle of my two brothers, and growing up, my younger brother and I were always dead set against steroids. We thought, “It’s terrible, it’ll kill you, it killed Lyle Alzado, and look what happened to Ben Johnson.” Then my older brother went to college and when he came back home for the Thanksgiving break, he told me that he’d been on steroids since the first week he was there. He told me he’d gotten stronger, could run faster, and he was a lot leaner; but I said, “What are you doing?” Then a couple days later he told me to come to his room, and he locks the door and said, “I need you to inject this in me.” And I said, “What? I’m not going to do that—I’m totally against it.” But my brother was kind of a big bully to me, not to anyone else but to me, and he said, “Come on man, you gotta help me out.” So steroids are something that have been in our family for a long time. I had never tried them until I was about 26 years old, so I felt that was like a very honest place to come from as well. I’m not going to say that I never did it. I tried it, and my brothers were doing it while I made the movie and I’ve always had a moral dilemma about it, so I just figured I was the perfect person to tell this story.
MG: Actually, I think one of the things that comes out in the film is that you seem to go to pretty good efforts to let the people speak when you interview them. Would you say that’s a pretty concerted effort on your part? You have a pretty balanced approach; is that what you set out to do?
CB: You know it’s interesting, there’s a documentary that my producer gave me and he told me that it was a really well made documentary, called Capturing the Friedmans. It was about a childhood pornography ring and it totally had nothing to do with our movie. But the filmmaker approached it by saying, I’m going to let you guys tell this story. So there were all these kids in a classroom at the same time, and half of them were saying they got molested and half of them were saying, “I don’t know what they are talking about. They must be crazy.” When the movie ends, you have to make a decision for yourself.
I wanted to make a movie where it wasn’t really pushing one way or the other. The interesting thing about the steroid issue is that it’s so complex. The movie was definitely a challenge because a lot of people said I was being ambivalent about the subject and wondered why I was making it so fuzzy. And it’s because it’s so complex. If I tell you what to think, then I’m not making the right film. I want you to make your decision at the end, and a lot of people questioned that. They wanted me to tell them what to think, but I’ll bet if I told them what to think, they’d probably hate the movie.
MG: I think you did a great job with that. You mentioned here and you also mentioned in the film, for you it was ultimately a moral issue. Why is it a moral issue? What’s God in that for you?
CB: You know, it’s funny. That’s what I question: is it really a moral issue? Plato says, never deem anything immoral just because it’s illegal. And steroids became illegal because people were cheating at sports, not because of health issues. Is that really immoral, and is it really immoral to do anything to be the best when we live in a “win at all costs” culture? I question that. I say it was a moral decision for me, and then I even question myself at the end. Is it really a moral decision, or what kind of decision is it? It becomes so cloudy.
MG: Yeah, it really does. Do you think your film is controversial at all, in any way?
CB: I hope it is. You know, controversy definitely gets people out to see it. I think what people are surprised by is the fact that—I don’t say it, but the experts are saying—these drugs are not killing people by the dozens. People aren’t dropping like flies. There are definitely health benefits to steroids and there are also health risks. If people want to say that it’s controversial to tell the truth, then I would question them on that.
Basically we talk about the anti-aging industry, the supplement industry, and all these things—all the stuff around steroids—and the interesting thing is it’s all about money. It all comes back to money. People in the supplement industry want to make the most money so they put a guy on steroids in their ad to say that they’re going to sell that. The people in the anti-aging industry, they just want to sell you steroids so they say your human growth hormones are low, or whatever. Everybody is about making money. And then the flip side of it is everybody is afraid to lose their job. There are people in all sorts of different areas that are saying, “I can’t talk on camera to you about that—I’ll lose my job.” People want to tell the truth, they just can’t tell the truth. I’ve had dozens of pro wrestlers that I’m friends with tell me, “I’d love to tell you the truth man, but I ain’t gonna to do that,” you know.
MG: I would say, as far as controversy, what made it very interesting to me, though—to watch your movie—was that you did do that. I believe, in my estimation, in looking into this for years myself, that you did tell the truth, and truth is often hard to hear. And I read another interview where you said one of the toughest parts was interviewing the dad who lost his son—I think it was Don Houghton, was that his name? It was tough for you; it was really emotional. That’s a controversial piece you did there.
CB: I feel horrible about what happened to Donald Houghton, you know. It’s like anybody that has a child; you know, you have a kid. (Yeah, tears were in my eyes.) Well, I went into his house and the next thing I know I’m in the kid’s room. I’m looking at the kids’ dirty cleats—and the kid died about four years ago and there’s still dirt on his cleats and his room is perfectly kept. Donald is telling me this story and I’m caught up in the emotion of it, thinking, “Oh my God, this kid killed himself in this very room, and his father is telling me it’s because of steroids and I’m here refuting that. I’m asking him all the right questions and I feel like an asshole.”
You want to ask the right questions and you don’t want to base your decisions on emotion, and I think that I was able to find a delicate balance of asking the right questions. I definitely think that what Donald Houghton is doing with his foundation is great. I don’t necessarily agree with his approach to it. I think that any sort of program to keep kids away from steroids is good. Sure, it’s just like alcohol or tobacco or any of these things—they are not for kids.
We definitely should be keeping kids knowledgeable about it. I think our film helps to educate kids. I showed it to about five hundred high school kids in
I’ve actually been approached by a major ad corporation to do anti-steroid spots for kids and they ask me, “How do you tell a kid not to do it if it’s not that bad for you?” And I said, “I don’t know, you guys figure it out; you’re the ad company!” I don’t know if we’ll end up doing those spots, but it’s an interesting balance. You know, if you’re an athlete—like, you said your son signed a scholarship—do you want to be the guy singled out as a cheater for the rest of your life? Or do you want to be the hero? So, I think that’s a big thing for athletes; but the problem is, a lot of these kids aren’t athletes. They’re just kids that want to look better on the beach.
MG: Just thinking through that aspect with the kids, because I agree with you there, what do you feel about performance-enhancing drugs with pro sports—with professional athletes? What is your basic opinion on that?
CB: That’s another complex issue, and I don’t mean to be ambivalent on it, but it is a very complex issue. Look at Barry Bonds. He’s over forty years old and he’s starting to decline in his career, and there’s a drug he could take to prolong his career, that anybody else on the entire face of the planet can take, but if you play pro sports you’re not allowed to take it. And we’re not talking about abusive dosages, we’re talking doctor-recommended prescribed dosages. So when you ask if I think it should be okay for athletes—if a twenty-year-old pitcher wanted to take steroids—I think it might be a different story because we don’t really have any research [on the long-term effects]. All the research has been done on older men with lower testosterone growth hormone levels, and we don’t have enough research on younger people so we don’t really know those answers. That’s one reason it is a complex issue.
I do think that if there are rules in a sport, you should follow the rules. If I went into the ultimate fighting octagon and I brought a machine gun, and I say, “Hey man, it doesn’t say in the rule book you can’t bring machine guns”… But anything against the law is against the rules. That’s the tricky part because steroids are not always against the law. People are taking them through legal methods.
Dr. Borden, a preventative medicine doctor who does a lot of work with these drugs, said to me, “Chris, here’s the problem: you have an athlete that has been knocked around so much”—somebody like Brett Favre or Bill Romanowski are good examples—who has like sixteen concussions. Every time you get a concussion, your growth hormone production goes way down. Dr. Borden has tested boxers, and they have growth hormone levels of a 100-year-old man, because they get hit in the head and the pituitary produces growth hormones. So he’s basically saying, for an athlete, you have these on-the-job injuries, basically they occur on the job, and you can shoot them up with cortisone; you can shoot them up with all these other pain killers; but you’re not allowed to give them something that will help their own body cure the growth hormone injury, which is really bizarre.
So my whole point with the movie is that we need to reexamine this issue and just get it out on the table and talk about it. All these experts should be sitting in a room like this at a big round table discussing if there is a way to do this. Should people be taking this? And in the same respect, I’m always confused within myself because I think we shouldn’t have to rely on any drug to perform, but we do rely on a lot of other drugs to help fix athletes’ problems. The pain killers are fine, you know.
MG: How about guys like Bonds and Clemens and McGuire and some of the guys you brought up? They’ve been absolutely ostracized. Do you think they’ll go into the Hall, if they’re qualified as a baseball player?
CB: It’s interesting, because I’m not a sports writer; but I talked to a sports writer in
I thought that was really interesting because you do have to ask: are all these people still heroes, if they’ve used steroids? My theory is that whatever happened before baseball started to crack down on steroids should be washed away. For example, almost every record in the Olympics was set on drugs and continues to be set on drugs. If you look at the Olympics, steroid use started in the ’60s and all these records were set on drugs, and continue to be set on drugs, more and more. And a point that Louie Simmons, the strength trainer, made to me was: if all these records were set on drugs, and then all of a sudden there’s drug testing, yet the records keep getting better—do you think that the athletes aren’t using drugs? He said if a clean athlete can beat an athlete on drugs—for instance if Lance Armstrong is clean, and he can beat everybody without performance-enhancing drugs—then why do you need drug testing? Who cares, because the best guy still won, you know? All these arguments are really interesting when you start thinking about them.
Then there’s an interesting case with Floyd Landis, a guy who made a triumphant comeback, and then we find out he used drugs and it’s so disappointing, especially to the kids. I think that’s a big problem with all this. Kids look up to sports heroes and we put them on pedestals and we say, “That guy’s a winner and he’ll do anything to win.” And then when you have to break the news to your kids that the guy was using steroids; what do you tell your kids?
MG: Would you say these guys are unfairly demonized, though? I mean, we created that scenario. I mean, Clemens and Bonds and those guys.
CB: You know I think that—I think you’re right: we do create that scenario for the kids. I think that the media’s attention focused on the steroid issue has given a whole new aspect to sports writing. It’s given them a whole new thing—a whole new bracket to talk about. Every day there’s some new story to talk about. I think that we do create that because we have created such a buzz.
I went to
It’s weird because there’s such a clash between what we define in
MG: Actually, I was going to go there with you, because it seems obvious. I think steroids are one piece, but there’s a secondary point there regarding
CB: Yeah, you know, I wasn’t trying to preach to anybody. There’s a very interesting question and it was asked by Dr. Yesalis in the film. If there was a pill that I could give you, and you could keep your job and support your family better than you do now, would you do it? I know a lot of people would say yes. You know, a lot of the morning talk show hosts that I talk to are comedians, and they say if they could take something to make them funnier, they would do it in a second. And then they always joke about what that drug actually is—it’s called alcohol or marijuana. It definitely is an interesting point.
There’s one thing that I don’t think I answered clearly before so I just want to back up a bit. With Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, I think there is a two-fold problem. It’s partly their fault and it’s partly our fault. We’re creating this whole hysteria around them but they’ve created it as well because they’re denying a lot of things that happened, or what they did. But there’s a reason for that, because we say, “I’m going to take everything you’ve ever had, every record you’ve ever had, and I’m going to put an asterisk next to your name, and you’re going to be marked a cheater for the rest of your life: now did you use steroids?”
What are you going to say? What if you just said, “Hey Roger, look, all is forgiven. We just want to know the truth. If you did it, you did it. Let’s just talk about it.” You might still get the same story, but you might not. It seems like they were coming down on Roger so hard, and pressuring him to confess so they could be right—and get re-elected.
MG: That’s really true. I agree with that. One of the problems, too, and you may have mentioned it in your movie, is baseball in ’94 was dead, pretty much. No one was coming to the games—the whole nine yards. I remember that; everyone remembers that. And then McGuire and Sosa take off in ’97 or ’98 or whenever it was, and the game gets revived. And it’s really interesting—
CB: Yeah, I loved watching that.
MG: Oh my gosh, it was unbelievable. It was a boost; it was a steroid in the arm of baseball! (And it was a team that I didn’t even like—yeah, I’m a Red Sox fan.) It was amazing; and I think you did bring that out. But the part I struggle with in demonizing these guys, is I believe baseball did know, and I believe baseball didn’t have very good policies back then; and I believe that a lot of guys took them, and I think Canseco is probably more right than wrong in that. And yet they pick out some guys to demonize, including guys who helped revive the game, McGuire being one of them.
CB: And you know they picked the best guys. They didn’t pick some scrub. And here’s the opposite: in the NFL, they usually pick the scrubs and say, “This guy tested positive.” But the NFL has a big scandal going on right now; I don’t know if you saw: some guy has come out and named all these names, and I don’t think they’ve printed the names, but they say he’s been telling the investigators the names of all these people he’s sold steroids to. So it’s always going to come out in the end, you know.
Someone asked me at a screening last night, “Why don’t you really get into football?” And I said, “Well, football does a really good job of covering everything up, and they have really good PR with that, so it’s really difficult to find any information.” One interesting case was that the doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers was involved in that signature pharmacy bust down in
Then, back in 2004 I think, the year they went to the Super Bowl, ten players from the Panthers got suspended for taking prescribed steroids illegally from a doctor, and that doctor is now in jail because he wrote prescriptions for football players.
But I think football does a really good job of keeping a lid on it, and not really opening that can of worms—and baseball never did. I think baseball’s biggest fault was that they were denying it. In the film, we point out that George Bush owned the Texas Rangers, and Jose Canseco played for them. Do you think that Bush didn’t know, that he had no idea? If you own the team I would think you have a pretty good idea of what goes on.
MG: Yeah, I remember when Sosa and McGuire were having that whole run in ‘98 or whenever, and Sports Illustrated did an article on McGuire—and in his locker there was a vial of Andro or something, and people brought it up. It was brought up for like a week in sport talk and then it went by the wayside and no one said a word right then; but now it comes back on McGuire. That’s the stuff that I find really atrocious.
CB: You know, what’s funny about that story about McGuire using Andro is when we started formulating this movie, I mentioned to my brother that they were making a big deal about Mark McGuire being on Andro and hitting all these home runs. And I asked him if he thought McGuire was doing more than Andro. And my brother said, “Yeah, he’s totally on the juice. He’s gotta be; look how huge he got.”
That was my first realization that those guys were doing it—because I hadn’t really even thought about it before. It never even crossed my mind that baseball players were doing this. Actually, when I started doing research for the movie, I found the clip from when Canseco played for the
MG: Yeah, ‘88 or ‘89—it’s crazy. Switching gears here a little bit, you talked about your heroes a lot, and to tell you the truth I had a lot of the same heroes. I had Schwarzenegger’s bible on weightlifting back then.
CB: Do you think he wrote that?
MG: Probably not. And I saw his film, Pumping Iron, and that was a big deal, and of course seeing Stallone and a lot of these guys in the movies, I had some of the same heroes. And you alluded to the fact that those heroes fuel the problem in the sense that this is what a real man should look like. For women, you have these beautiful girls, and so women become anorexic or bulimic to be the standard—and in reality there’s a standard for men, too. I agree with you there. So when you think of that, what’s the need for heroes? Why do we have a need for heroes and men that look like that?
CB: Yeah, Stan Lee actually talks about this. Stan Lee created these super heroes and he says that people need these super heroes because they need somebody to look up to: somebody to admire. And I think in a way, it’s funny—because Floyd Landis grew up in a Mennonite family, and Mennonites are much like Amish, and they don’t have any heroes. When I asked Floyd who his hero was growing up he said, “Nobody—the mountain. The mountain I had to climb was the thing I had to fight. I was never into that, or aspired to be like anybody; I just aspired to be the best bike rider I could be.” And I thought that was interesting. And he said, “You know, my daughter is growing up and I don’t want her to have these heroes; I don’t let her have these magazines and all these different things—posters on the wall of people—because I don’t think that that’s right.”
So that’s one line of thinking. The other line of thinking is like what Hulk Hogan said: “Train, say your prayers, take your vitamins, and work out.” That got me to go work out, and it led me down the path of working out and staying in shape. So I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing to have heroes; but I do think that you need something to aim for. Even as a filmmaker, you have heroes. You look up to certain people that make films that you like, and you wish you could make a film like that.
So I think that heroes are important; but as an adult it’s different. If someone said to me now that Hulk Hogan took steroids, I don’t really care. But when I was a kid it really bothered me. When you’re older you realize that people do a lot of things, and you understand that. The problem is, like we were saying before, the kids and the teenagers don’t understand it and just say, “I’m going to do what they did.” That’s what I think we’re afraid of with this whole issue.
CB: Not necessarily. There are a lot of genetically gifted people out there. There are a lot of great athletes that never touched a steroid in their whole life and play basketball, football, baseball, or whatever. So no, I don’t think it’s necessary. I think that what we’re finding is that it is a lot more wide-spread than what we ever thought.
I think that winning depends on the sport, too, whether it’s individual or team. You could be a great quarterback and never touch steroids, but if your whole offensive line that’s blocking for you is on them, then you’re basically cheating as much as they are because you’re part of the team. Whereas, if you’re doing an individual sport, if you’re a wrestler or an ultimate fighter or something like that, winning is more up to the individual person. No, you don’t have to cheat to win, but I think that we define, in
MG: Two really quick questions. I want to get to your family a bit—to something your mom said and something your dad said. Your mom said that you boys need to accept who you are as a person, and your body type is a different thing. And I think she goes on—during a very emotional part of the movie where she was almost in tears—and she asks, “Why don’t you boys feel you were good enough?” Is the problem we’re having a steroid thing, or something else?
CB: I think that, to me and my brothers, the steroids weren’t the problem; they were just another side affect of being American. And the reason I said that was, we grew up glorifying all these heroes to the point that we became obsessed with being like them. And then there was also the peer pressure. You know, I work out in Gold’s Gym in
MG: So in some ways it’s an identity thing that we’re trying to figure out.
CB: I think my mom had a great point. My mom said, “I am who I am, said Popeye the Sailor Man”; but if she thinks about it for a second, he was a gyp because he was taking spinach; and everybody’s taking something, you know.
MG: Your dad talked about getting off our self-righteous soap boxes and start loving one another, and I guess this goes back to the witch hunt idea—but I think your dad made a good point. It’s amazing in
CB: Yeah, you definitely see it going on with this whole global warming thing, too. If you drive an SUV now people will frown at you, especially in California. An article just came out in Wired (I just read it—it was awesome) saying the Hybrid uses just as much energy as [a gas powered vehicle]. Yet you have all these people looking down on people who aren’t “green” or people who are using steroids, or people who are smoking. I like what Barry Bonds says: “Go clean out your closet, before you come clean mine.” I think that a lot of people love to lash out and bash people, and it’s the same “win at all costs” attitude.
It’s also interesting about the book, The Game of Shadows. Those guys leaked grand jury testimony, and then wrote a book on it. It’s the same “win at all costs” mentality: they didn’t obtain that information legally, and yet they wrote a book about it. Then because they wouldn’t reveal their source they’re going to jail; that whole controversy. But I think it’s that same attitude that drove Bonds to steroids. It’s that same attitude: if you’re a writer, to do whatever it takes to get the scoop, you know? So I love what Barry said.
MG: How is your family taking this? I know this has been a very personal film for you. How is your family—your brothers and your mom and dad?
CB: They’ve been doing great. My older brother Mad Dog, he still struggles every day with this idea of not being good enough and we really try to help him through it as a family. It’s tough when somebody has lost their way and has gotten involved in drugs and alcohol. And it’s tough bringing them back. He was such a good athlete, so it’s really sad to see. And growing up, he was my hero. He was always my hero, so now I say to him, “Come on man, what happened? You were my hero and I want to get back to that.” So, it’s a struggle for him, but I think he’s doing better than he was.
Then there’s my younger brother who has always been this “win at all cost” athlete. But you know, we talk about morals, and my brother is probably the best father I’ve ever seen in my life. He got off of steroids so he could have another kid, and he’s probably the most moral person I know. But he does steroids, so… He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he’s not a guy who goes out without his kids or his wife, you know, like to go hang out with the boys. He never does any of that. He’s a total family man. He’s also coaching the high school football kids, and that’s an interesting conflict, because he keeps doing steroids. A very interesting conflict.
MG: I would say that a lot of this is a cultural thing that’s been created. A created morality. You take a look at a guy like your brother—he came off as a guy that is a good father, a good guy, and he’s doing some good things, but because he’s taking steroids people look at him like he’s immoral.
CB: Yeah, that’s where we have to try to figure out this situation.
One other thing I wanted to say really quick is that my parents were really moved by the film. They really thought we did a good job, so they’re really proud of it, no matter what I say in the film. They are really proud of it, and I really think it helped us talk more. Once you have interviewed your mom, I think you can ask her anything, you know?
MG: Chris, I want to thank you for the opportunity. Congratulations on your early success, and good luck with the film!
Look for Mike’s review of Bigger, Stronger, Faster on June 20. Also check out Mike’s article about steroid use at Hollywood Jesus.