When he first put together the idea of making a documentary about steroid use and the public’s reaction – or better yet overreaction – to it, Chris Bell never figured on the finished product coming out the way it eventually did, let alone having the opportunity to do another movie.
“I’m really surprised that the reaction has been this big,” he said of the 2008 Magnolia Films release he co-wrote and directed, “but in a way I also thought when we started making the movie that it was such an important issue to explore.”
The Poughkeepsie, New York native envisioned getting the marquee names that garnered the headlines on the front and back pages of the tabloids and getting their opinions to lead “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.”
“We tried to get Jose Canseco, that was a no-brainer,” Bell said of the baseball slugger/steroid user turned author. “But he’s always out for himself and wanted money. We also tried to get (BALCO’s) Victor Conte, but he told us that he was coming out with a ‘tell-all’ book and didn’t want to do anything before it was released.
“We reached out to other ball players and even Arnold (Schwarzenegger), but no one wanted to talk about it not to tarnish their reputation,” Bell continued. “I wanted to interview (former NFL offensive lineman) Tony Mandarich. At the time he didn’t want to talk about steroids. Then he came out with a book. We tried to talk with (former Pittsburgh Steeler) Rocky Bleier, who was a Vietnam veteran and came out and said he used steroids through a doctor.”
Because he kept hitting a wall trying to convince strangers that his intentions were genuine, he went in a completely different direction, one that came with a huge question mark.
He decided to base the film on himself and his two brothers but thought, “By using the family aspect and steroids, how do you make people want to see this film?” That turned out to be a stroke of genius, even if it wasn’t obvious to Bell at the time.
“I know that performance-enhancing drugs affected a lot of people and also in America a lot of out heroes that we find out are using them – it kind of relates to everybody on some level,” said Bell. “Everybody has a baseball player that they love, a football player that they love, some sort of athlete that’s been caught using performance-enhancing drugs.”
By bringing the issue to a grass-roots environment that everyone could relate to made it feel as real as it was and not antiseptic like many documentaries end up being. By the time you finish watching the movie, you feel as if you’re part of the Bell household. When he explains that all three of the Bell boys have at one time or are still using steroids, it isn’t just Barry Bonds or Marion Jones anymore, but someone just like yourself.
(Tragically, the oldest of the three brothers was found dead in a California drug rehabilitation center in December, three months after the film was released on DVD. Mike Bell, who at one time wrestled under the nickname of Mad Dog in the World Wrestling Federation, was 37 and his addiction to painkillers and alcohol was chronicled in the film. Eerily, Chris Bell states during a scene that he would not be surprised if his brother winds up dying young.)
Bell knew the main reason why he his requests were met with so much resistance. “Steroids are so demonized in the media and they (the people that declined to be included) really didn’t know what we were doing, thinking the movie was going to be one-sided.”
That is exactly what Bell wanted to avoid. However he was to present the facts in the film, he wanted the viewer to make up his or her own mind on what side of the fence they stood. “There are a couple of sides to every story,” he said. “That’s kind of what I wanted to do. Use the humor and the archival footage – things people could relate to and kind of bring it all together and let them make their own decisions at the end of the movie.
“Because I think human beings are a lot smarter than people think sometimes and as filmmakers we dumb it down for the audience and we should never do that.”
Although Bell claims that he presented it down the middle, the proof is in the pudding and even the staunchest of the anti-steroid parade has to admit that there are misnomers about the substances that have been repeated so frequently in the mainstream media that the facts sometimes don’t make it through. What Bell did was clear up some of those clouds.
Even people that have jumped sides have succumbed to the pressure of being ‘politically correct’ in today’s society. “When Arnold (Schwarzenegger) became governor, he couldn’t even say what he wants to say,” said Bell. “We took a few stabs at him in the movie, but all in all, he’s still somebody I really look up to. Because steroids have been portrayed the way they have been in the media, he can’t even say the truth.
“I guarantee that if I had Arnold alone in a room he would tell me something different than he would tell me on camera.”
Schwarzenegger has gone on record and admitted using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his bodybuilding career, namely testosterone and dianabol. The former seven-time Mr. Olympia and present governor of California wrote back in 1967 when the substances were still legal that “steroids were helpful to me in maintaining muscle size while on a strict diet in preparation for a contest. I did not use them for muscle growth, but rather for muscle maintenance when cutting up.”
Bell brought up the day in 1988 while Ben Johnson, the Canadian Olympic sprinter, was being condemned for using steroids that there were 75 reporters in the New York Giants locker room waiting for Lawrence Taylor, who had just returned after serving a suspension for using cocaine. “That’s sending a mixed message,” he said.
He commented that a major complaint of athletes using steroids is that it is a bad influence for children, but he also questioned the actions of other so-called role models for youngsters. “Are they going to start drug testing Hollywood and the rap stars?” Bell asked himself. “They may be smoking pot and that’s also illegal. They should crack down on everything then and not be selective.”
One category of substances that is commonly put on the back burner is painkillers. Many different athletes from all walks of life use them regularly and in 1996, three-time NFL Most Valuable Player Brett Favre admitted being addicted to Vicodin and entered a rehabilitation center.
Due to the vigorous work schedule and physical demand put on them, professional wrestlers are one group that has had major issues with painkillers. Bell, who previously worked for World Wrestling Entertainment as a writer, had a conversation with Vince McMahon and the WWE mogul told him “We’re not so concerned about steroids because we have a policy for that. There’s more of a concern for painkillers.”
Bell added, “A guy can get a prescription for painkillers and then buy 500 more on the black market. If you test them, they’re already covered (with the prescription).”
Shedding some light on this issue is what Bell has in mind for his next project. “I’m looking to do a narrative film, not a documentary, presented in a more dramatic fashion based on an ultimate fighter that gets addicted to painkillers,” he said of his intentions. “Instead of using them as a performance-enhancer, athletes use them to get back in the game. I wanted to examine that in a different way.
“In a dream world, I’m looking to have The Rock (actor and former WWE wrestler Dwayne Johnson), who is a friend of mine, play the lead role,” he continued. “We haven’t got to that point yet, so we’ll have to see.”
The main character is based on Mark “The Smashing Machine” Kerr, who began his Mixed Martial Arts career back in 1997. “It actually takes place in the old days of ultimate fighting, which to me makes it so much more interesting,” Bell said. “I started watching it a long time ago when it was a blood sport and it was pretty amazing back then.”
Bell and his production company are trying to obtain the rights of a 2003 HBO documentary entitled, “The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Kerr,” which chronicled the career and addiction of Kerr and the ‘no-holds-barred’ style that Bell spoke about.
If things go the way he hopes, Chris Bell will have another opportunity to tell a story, and most likely a story within a story. He hit a home run with his first at-bat and, naturally, should go two-for-two when his next film is released.