It takes a lot of courage to stare down one of the great bogeymen of modern American life, but that’s exactly what Christopher Bell does with Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, his powerful and controversial film about the world of steroids, which won the Best Documentary prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Utilizing images of muscle-bound eighties icons and his own family’s history with ’roids (both of his brothers are users), Bell depicts a culture that holds up impossible images of real-life supermen while breeding often-unfounded fears about the drugs that got them there. Along the way, he expertly mixes standard documentary reportage, intensely personal filmmaking, and even a couple of Michael Moore–style stunts — such as when the director’s attempts to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger pay hilarious and unexpected dividends. Vulture sat down with Bell over sushi to talk about his film, which hits theaters this Friday.
Was it hard convincing your family to star in a documentary about steroids?
My brothers were part of the reason we decided to do it. They wanted to speak out themselves about this issue and about their use of steroids. My parents knew the film was about steroids, but they thought we were making a movie about how terrible steroids were. I did let them know from the get-go that the film was going to be very tough — I told them that if they ever got to the point where they wanted to shut it down, all they had to do was tell me. They never got to that point.
One of your brothers talks openly in the film about his steroid use but also says that he doesn’t want your parents to know. Was he aware that by saying it on film he was essentially telling them?
I asked him: “Why would you tell me, but not our parents? They’re going to see the movie.” And his reply was, “Who’d ever want to tell their parents to their face about something like that?” He was willing to tell something to the whole world, but not to his mom.
The film also features Ben Johnson, the Canadian runner who was famously stripped of his Olympic gold medal in 1988, admitting to steroid use.
Ben Johnson claims that he was taking something, but not what they discovered him taking. He believes somebody poured steroids into his drink. And when you say to him, “But you were still cheating,” his response is, “Yeah, but so was everyone else.” He says he took Winstrel but that he was tested for Stanozolol. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that those are actually the same drug. Winstrel is just the brand-name version.
And then there’s Floyd Landis.
Floyd sleeps in an altitude chamber. There are four different ways you can increase your red-blood-cell count: You can sleep in an altitude chamber; you can train at altitude; you can inject EPO, a hormone that makes your blood produce more blood cells; or you can blood dope, which is just reinjecting your own blood a day before the race. The two latter ways are cheating; the two former ways are totally allowed. You ask, what’s the difference? They’ll say, “Well, one actually increases it a lot more than the other one.” Which is just another way of saying: “An altitude chamber doesn’t work as well as the drugs or the blood doping.”
What do you think of his story?
I don’t know whether to believe him or not. I wasn’t there when everything went down, but I did see the lab results, and they were very shady. The way they went about the testing was a mess.
You make a compelling argument in the film that the dangers of steroids have been greatly exaggerated, and in some cases even completely invented. Why?
It’s easy to get on a soapbox and say, “These guys cheated, they used steroids, and steroids are bad. I’m gonna protect you and your children from this evil drug.” Remember, in the 1960s, the Russians were using them. And the Germans were using them in WWII: Guys were coming back from war malnourished and beat-up, and the Nazis were injecting their soldiers with testosterone. Of course we misinterpreted that as the Nazis injecting them with steroids so they’d get ’roid rage and go crazy, but it was actually to reinvigorate the men so they could function and get back in shape. But basically, anything the Nazis and the Soviets were using couldn’t possibly be a good thing, in our eyes.
So, should steroids still be regulated?
Definitely. I just don’t know if I think they should be a controlled substance, the way they are now. If you look at all the laws in our country, and at how and why things get banned, they don’t actually fit into that category: They’re not addictive, they don’t actually kill people. I don’t condone the stuff, but after three years of researching this, it seems like we should take another look. —Bilge Ebiri