Cena talks to 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster*' creator
In part one of the latest Superstar to Superstar, John Cena talks to Christopher Bell, writer and director of Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. From the producers of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the documentary explores the controversial topic of performance-enhancing drugs and anabolic steroids in sports. The film was recently released on DVD and is available at Amazon.com and Netflix.com.
John Cena: How did you come up with the idea for Bigger, Stronger, Faster*?
Christopher Bell: We've known each other for a long time, working back in the days of Gold's Gym, we were always looking around and these guys were larger than life. A lot of my heroes -- the guys I grew up admiring -- had taken steroids to get there. So I just wanted to explore steroids from both a health point of view, to see if they were as dangerous as we're led to believe, and also explore some of the moral and ethical issues in what we call "cheating in sports."
In my mind, there is nothing more American than winning. So it all kind of falls into the culture of winning and being the best, and that's kind of how Bigger, Stronger, Faster* came about.
Cena: This is obviously a hot topic and definitely one that everyone treads on thin ice with. As soon as they hear the word "steroids" or "performance-enhancing drugs," they turn their nose up. I saw the film. I thought you did a really, really good job of hitting it from both sides -- both the negative and the never-discussed positives. There was a case of a guy with HIV who was down to 12 red blood cells or white blood cells, and steroids pretty much saved his life. Why do you think all of the publicity on anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs is usually so negative?
Bell: You and I have been involved in the area of powerlifting, and you were a bodybuilder. And ever since I've known you, people have been like, "Hey, man, can you get that big without steroids?" You always get questioned no matter what, no matter how hard you train, no matter how good your genetics are. … But I know that you, as a natural bodybuilder, and me, when I was growing up, I was a natural powerlifter for the longest time, and I would just constantly get bombarded with these questions. A lot of people don't like cheating because it takes away from the aura of a superstar. They think, "That guy's a cheater -- he did this and that." They don't understand every single aspect that goes into what athletes do to get there.
I think part of the demonization came from when Carl Lewis was beaten by Ben Johnson, and all of a sudden, steroids became part of the media craze, and the media immediately wanted to say, "This Canadian sprinter beat our guy from the U.S.A., steroids are bad and they're going to kill you." But nobody ever decided to take a look at what it was doing for HIV patients, what it was doing for burn victims and cancer patients, and what these drugs can do if they're used properly under medical supervision. So while I don't condone them in sports, I don't condone people using them for recreational purposes, or illegally, I also wanted to take look at the other side of it and just present a fair, balanced view.
Cena: You touch on so much stuff in this film. What is your favorite scene? What was the most fun to film? What were you most surprised about?
Bell: The most amazing thing -- and I think this hits home with you guys, as well -- I went to interview Congress. And I'm just a normal guy, I'm a filmmaker, I went to USC film school, and never, ever thought I'd be interviewing a Congressman. I was an average guy, walking around asking questions.
So I went to interview Henry Waxman, who actually had been bringing up some things with performance-enhancing drugs in wrestling and other sports, especially with the guy who started the ball rolling on the baseball trials, and I walked in, I was very nervous, going, "How am I going to talk to this Congressman? What am I going to ask him?" And I just started shooting stuff at him like, "Are steroids dangerous?" I basically realized that the more I asked him, the more I realized he didn't have a clue. Every time I would ask him a question, he would defer to his assistant. … And this is a guy who is working on legislation against anabolic steroids. He was trying to so-called "save the children." And while I think it's a noble cause to stop kids from doing any drugs, I think that Congress needs to be more informed.
So for me, walking out of the Capitol that day, I turned to my producer and said, "That was a complete waste of time. That guy didn't know anything." And my producer said to me, "Are you kidding me? That was brilliant, the way you handled that." I said, "I didn't handle that any way. I was totally nervous the whole time because the guy couldn't answer," and it made me feel so uncomfortable that my Congressman didn't know what the facts were, about something he was condemning all these baseball players for. So that was probably my favorite scene in the movie.
Cena: What should people know about this film? What should they expect when they go in the store, hold it in their hand and get ready to learn? As a director, what do you want to tell them?
Bell: I basically want to shed light on something that everybody's afraid to talk about. It took a lot of guts from everyone involved in making this project to do it.
The movie starts out Jan. 23, 1984. You and I know what that day is -- the day Hulkamania was born. For me, Vince McMahon was the one who taught me how to tell stories. Ever since I was a little kid, it was good guys and bad guys, and it wasn't Star Wars for me. It was the Hulkster and Iron Sheik who taught me if you're going to defeat people, "train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins," and all these other things. I wanted to show it from the inside out.
I said, "Hey, I'm an athlete. I'm a powerlifter. A lot of my friends are bodybuilders." I just wanted to show what we go through as athletes and what we go through as kids growing up because for me, I started out as a fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who was short and basically wanted to gain some recognition. I was always picked on. My older brother was the fat kid. Maddog was the fat kid of the family. My younger brother was nicknamed "Smelly," and he was picked on. We all basically used weightlifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting as kind of an armor to protect us from the things that were trying to hurt us. …
One of things that was really important for me was in the beginning, when we were making the film, I worked with a lot of people who worked for Michael Moore, who produced Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and a lot of these people kept saying to me, "Chris, you need to take a stance. You need to tell the audience what you think." And I just said I'm not going to take a stance because I'm still confused about the issue itself and that bothers me every day. … I wanted to lead the film down the middle. I want the audience to decide what they think at the end. I think that was the most positive thing the critics said about the film.
Cena: I saw the film with you in the theaters when it opened. What do you get on the DVD? Have you added anything?
Bell: Yeah, actually, there's a lot of fun stuff on the DVD. There's more on the Olympic drug testing that shows you that you can test all you want, but there's always ways around it. For an athlete in the Olympics, passing a test is sort of like passing a driver's test if you're a limo driver. There are always ways around things, and we show how those loopholes work a little bit.
We also get into discussing more about HIV and anabolic steroids, and how that helps people with certain diseases.
One of my favorite DVD extras is when my brothers and I go into get heart scans. I have two brothers who are using steroids extensively, and my older brother goes in to get a heart scan and he's done every drug under the sun -- painkillers, steroids, everything -- and he had a pretty legitimate amount of plaque on his heart. And I had my younger brother, and the only drug he's ever taken in his life is steroids -- he doesn't drink or smoke or do anything else -- and he was totally fine. And there was me in the middle, and I was totally fine. I don't think you can necessarily use that as a controlled study, but if you look at it from the standpoint of that my older brother did every drug under the sun, he has a heart problem. It's a minor heart problem, but there's definitely something there. To me, that was very, very interesting. It's also very funny when he's listing his drugs in front of the doctor. What he's taken is kind of ridiculous. (laughs)
I think those kinds of scenes are what's controversial and what will help push this film. I think this is a film every wrestling fan needs to see. They'll get a better understanding of what is going on. I think you have to say that WWE is the only sports organization that I've encountered that is actually caring about the athletes and instituting an actual wellness policy, rather than just demonizing the guys who have done this. I think they've taken great steps to control it, to actually help people who have a problem. It's a very noble thing and it's the only organization that's doing it as far as our research.
Cena: I thought one of the great points you made is … it shows a lot of information, obviously, pointing out the negatives of steroids and demonizing and all that, and then you cut to a scene in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, where, Giants Stadium, I believe, the capacity is between 75,000 and 80,000 people. That day, there were 80,000 paying customers, American people, paying to see these guys do their best on Sunday. Not only that, but in the parking lot, pre-, during and post-game, completely getting overly intoxicated on a legal, over-the-counter drug -- alcohol -- and everyone's driving vehicles there. I know everyone's not taking a cab to Giants Stadium. There were certainly a lot of folks tailgating in the back of their cars that didn't look as if they could operate a vehicle on the way home. Now, an interesting debate I see coming from the film is where do you draw the line? Why do you think the government is drawing the line on what is acceptable and what is not, because I remember your first film -- Billy Jones -- which is short film about nicotine addiction, which is also an acceptable, buy-over-the-counter addictive substance. There are substances like caffeine. Then on the other side, you have illegal substances, like marijuana, like anabolic steroids, even all these recreational drugs. Why do you think the line has been drawn where some are OK, and some aren't, when all of them have been shown to increase addictive behavior, or possibly, in excess, harm a human being?
Bell: You saw what happened when they tried prohibition back in the '30s. It didn't work. People wanted alcohol so they found a way to get it. Unfortunately, our country was founded on tobacco and slavery. That's one of the most unfortunate things in the history of our country. It's something that has so much money involved in it. It's something that's so ingrained in our society and our culture. It's a drug that kills 435,000 Americans a year. Alcohol kills 75,000 Americans every year. Deaths related to anabolic steroids -- according to the Centers for Disease Control -- are three people a year on average. You're basically looking at those numbers, and go, "Yeah, three people is too many any time." But what about the 435,000 people who are dropping dead from cigarettes? You never deem anything immoral simply because it's illegal. It doesn't mean you can go ahead and use it but it means that I think we've deemed steroids immoral simply because they are illegal.
Look at the dietary supplement industry, which is a huge industry, where they basically market things where they say, "Take this pill and you'll look like this guy." And people will do it because it's legal, so they'll take anything. You know as well as I do there are some very great dietary supplements out there and we use them all the time -- protein shakes and different things we take -- and there's a lot of other stuff where you just know that look, I'm not going to take a pill and look like John Cena, but it can be part of my dietary regimen to get me there. So I think the same mindset people have when they're taking supplements is basically the same mindset guys have when they're taking steroids, except basically they have to cross a moral barrier to use steroids because they are illegal. There's some sort of bridge to cross there in your mind, I guess. I know a lot of guys will push natural bodybuilding to the edge and they'll take every single supplement known to man -- whether it's a steroid precursor or not -- yet they won't take that jump to take steroids. There's definitely been a stigma attached to steroids that's so strong, that who knows if it'll ever go away.
My theory on steroids is very simple: I look into the drugs. I look into all the side effects of the drugs from a health standpoint. I don't think they're as dangerous as the media makes them out to be, but at the same time, it says something about our culture and about how we're brought up and the way we feel about ourselves, when you have to rely on a drug to feel good about yourself. I think that's the detriment of anabolic steroids.
Cena: You also briefly touch on the supplement industry. … You basically, over the course of 24 or 48 hours, were able to start your own supplement company and brand your own supplement. Now, I find it amazing that there's such a crackdown on anabolic steroids, on one hand, but on the other hand, the supplement industry is not regulated by any of the FDA. … Why do you think the supplement industry in this country is so de-regulated? They pretty much have no law.
Bell: Yeah. Interestingly enough, what a lot of people don't know is that we used to hock supplements together at Gold's Gym, which was like the best job we ever had. (laughs)
Cena: I've been in the supplement industry for years.
Bell: Back when I first met you at Gold's Gym, we were selling supplements to people. I remember we would get bonuses for selling certain supplements. Like you'd get a $5 bonus if you can tell somebody that white kidney beans would block all of the carbs going into their system. "Here, take this pill, it's a carb blocker," and you get $5.
Cena: With no proof, or no positive information that it actually does that.
Bell: No. And the interesting thing is that because of our film, a lot of companies are cracking down now. When you take a drug test, for example, if you take a dietary supplement, and it has Deca in it, which is a steroid, it used to be a pro-hormone. A lot of these companies would have tons of it leftover and they'd dump it into their supplements and all of a sudden people are increasing size and strength and going, "Oh wow, this is great." But yeah, it's great because it has a steroid precursor in it. Of course it's great. But when the FDA finds out about it, then they crack down. Companies have been sued and there have been lawsuits settled time and time again. So even as an athlete, you have to be careful with the supplements that you take.
What's interesting is that a lot of these guys that have gotten busted -- and I'm not going to say one way or the other what happened. Ultimate Fighter Royce Gracie got busted with Deca. Shawne Merriman from the Chargers got busted with Deca. What happens is all they do is turn around and say, "Well, it was in my supplement." And who's to say it wasn't? You can't say that guy's covering it up and he was actually taking steroids. I didn't do the test, but that does happen. That's a really interesting clause. Congressmen have been taking a look at it, and I think there will be crackdowns in the dietary supplement industry. I don't want supplements to go away, I just want to know that what I'm taking is what I'm taking and I want to know why I'm taking it.
Return to WWE.com the week of Oct. 19 for part two of Cena's Superstar to Superstar interview with Bigger, Stronger, Faster* creator, Christopher Bell.