Chris Bell’s films have addressed steroid use (Bigger Stronger Faster*), pushing our children too far in youth sports (Trophy Kids), and in his latest film, America’s addiction to painkillers and other pharmaceuticals (Prescription Thugs). Together, these movies form a compelling trilogy about physical and mental health in America. But if the documentarian has been able to keep his finger on the pulse of some of the biggest issues facing our nation today, it’s because many of these issues affected him and his family directly. In an interview with RI Magazine, Chris Bell talks about the most disturbing things he witnessed in the course of making these films, what gives him hope for the future, and how he broke the bonds of alcoholism and prescription painkiller addiction, lost 60 pounds, and took charge of his own health.
RI Magazine: Your documentaries—Bigger Stronger Faster*, Trophy Kids, and Prescription Thugs—form a loose trilogy about life in America and our misplaced priorities. Did you plan them that way or was it more organic than that?
Chris Bell: It was more organic than that. We did Bigger Stronger Faster* (BSF) and I was looking for something to do after that. My brother Mike “Mad Dog” (who died after the film was released in 2008) had gone through prescription drug addiction. I had gone through it, too.
Right toward the end of BSF I had double hip replacement surgery. I was put on a lot of painkillers and I realized there might be a problem with them, that I might be addicted. So I decided to stop taking them for a while. While I did that, I met Tom Farrey from ESPN and he was telling me about this book he had written and how out of control youth sports were. It’s called Game On. So I went out and got the book and I read it. It had a big impact.
At the same time, my best friend, Leland, was an AAU basketball coach and he was dealing with these kids who had been pushed so hard by their parents that they didn’t even want to play anymore. So I decided to just start filming it.
RI: Why did you need double hip replacement surgery?
CB: I have a genetic condition where I lose cartilage in my body. I don’t have any cartilage in my knees, hips, and ankles, so it’s difficult to deal with and I’m in a lot of pain all the time, even now. In my lower back there’s no cartilage. It’s at a point where some days I think about it, like, “Oh man, I wish I just had a pain killer.” But then I remember that the painkillers kill the pain, but they almost killed me.
I also found out through my research that maybe opioids are not the best medicine for pain. What is the most effective? It’s actually an ibuprofen and Tylenol combination. It’s way more effective than OxyContin at dealing with long-term chronic pain. OxyContin isn’t good at dealing with chronic pain. It’s good for acute pain.
RI: What do you want people to take away from your movies?
CB: If you look at the life of an athlete, it’s a lot like these movies in the issues that they face: In BSF, it’s about what you’d be willing to risk to be the best. Then if you look at Trophy Kids and the pressures that are placed on young athletes and we ask, “Do we really want what’s best for our children? Or do we just want our children to be the best?” I want parents to reflect on that and understand that what they want and what the child wants don’t always line up. The third film, Prescription Thugs, is intended to be an homage to Mad Dog—and the way that fits into the puzzle is Mad Dog was a college athlete who got done with sports and became a drug addict. We see that transition becoming more and more common. My film starts out with five or six athletes who are now drug addicts. And the reason I started it out that way is because it’s the answer to one of the questions from Trophy Kids: “When they’re done with sports, what happens then?”
We’ve got to teach kids that what you learn on the court or on the field, has to transfer to real life, like learning to be good teammates. What you learn about the actual game doesn’t help you with anything.
RI: You’ve uncovered a lot of disturbing material in these films. Can you point to a moment in any of the three that was the single-most troubling thing?
CB: Anything to do with the children in Trophy Kids. When you’re dealing with children, you’re dealing with kids—their brains are still developing. Any form of abuse, any form of negligence—that affects kids forever. I wanted to show parent that you could never touch your kid and still abuse them. A lot of people don’t understand that.
RI: Do you know what your next film will be?
We were talking about doing Insurance Frauds where the companies are the frauds and not us. You’re dealing with a multi-billion dollar organization that’s taking your money and then when you go to ask them for the product they’re like, “Sorry, we don’t cover that.”
But the next one out of the gate is going to be a documentary called Strong. We’re going to follow the world’s strongest man, Brian Shaw, along with up to six of the other world’s strongest men. We’re hoping to partner with the World’s Strongest Man competition.
RI: One of the things that came out of Prescription Thugs is that there’s now a
law against advertising prescription drugs for sale on Craigslist.
CB: The positive things—helping people change their lives and make better decisions, stay alive, and get sober—that always trumps the negative things I’ve covered. That’s my mission now. I see a lot of hope. Making documentaries: It’s me taking a camera—that holds the mirror up to society—and we just show you what’s happening. We show you and that’s your warning. You’ve been informed. If people are better informed, they make better decisions, and if they make better decisions, everyone’s better off.
RI: Drug companies who can market directly to consumers helps to create a huge market demand, but the other half of that is most doctors don’t seem to have the wherewithal to deal with nonstop requests for all these different drugs. If you ask your doctor for something, you’re probably going to get it, aren’t you?
CB: Yes. There’s a stat that 75% of the people who walk into a doctor’s office and ask for a prescription by name will get that drug. And the reason they ask is because they’ve been advertised to. So they watch these ads and they don’t know anything about it except what it’s meant to treat. Then they go ask their doctor and their doctor says, “Yeah, that might be good for you.” That’s kind of crazy because we send people to medical school and require them to have degrees… but the biggest problem with the pharmaceutical industry is there’s not a lot of unbiased information. Most of the studies are funded by the companies. You’re getting ghost-written articles.
RI: You were fair to point out that the pharmaceutical industry has helped to cure a lot of diseases. But in the same breath, the monster money doesn’t come from curing a disease, it comes from treatments for symptoms that last for life, like erectile dysfunction or depression or chronic pain. These things require a pill every single day.
CB: Yeah, or they can just make up diseases, like metabolic syndrome. If you have metabolic syndrome, that’s just another term for “you’re fat.” People don’t want to accept that. It’s more palatable to say, “I have metabolic syndrome.” But the truth is, you have a slow metabolism now because you got fat. You’re not fat because you have a slow metabolism.
RI: You’ve lost a ton of weight since you made your last film. How much did you weigh at your heaviest and how did you lose the weight?
CB: I ballooned up to 260 pounds at one point. I just didn’t care about myself. I’m only 5’6” and my normal bodyweight had always been around 200.
To lose the weight, I did my own thing, “The War on Carbs.” I kept it under 30 carbs and the only carbs will be incidental carbs, like from vegetables. Just by doing that I lost weight. I wasn’t even working out. Initially, I went from 260 down to 247. Then I cut carbs even more and I lost about 15 pounds in two weeks. I went from 247 to 232. All I really ate the whole time was grass-fed beef and Bulletproof Coffee. I ate at a place called Burger Loft – no bun, every day. I made it easy and fun and would cheat one meal a week.
RI: You never counted calories?
CB: No. I didn’t count one calorie. I didn’t weigh one gram of food. You don’t need to when you do a ketogenic diet. When they process food, they remove all the fiber from it, a lot of the vitamins and minerals, and they add sugar to it. It’s just a different story when processed food doesn’t get inside your body. Today I weigh 205. I hover right around 200. In 12 months I lost 60 pounds. Getting sober was a huge part of all this. I was drinking a lot. I’ve been sober for 21 months.
I’ve gotten all my creativity back. I was robbed of all that. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do anything. I used to dream big. I used to think I could do anything. I used to think whatever I set out in life to do I would do it. And then for the past eight years while I was drinking, I couldn’t do anything. I had no energy.
RI: Your job as a documentarian is to hold up the mirror and ask the question and present the reality, not necessarily supply the answer. But between the three films, have you been able to put your finger on where our misplaced priorities in this country come from? European nations don’t seem to have this obsession with getting huge and muscular and dominating sports. And in terms of developed countries with prescription drug addicts—the U.S. is unrivaled.
CB: Yeah. I feel like we’re the world’s frat party or something. Other countries are so buttoned up and dialed in to their healthcare and their government and what they want to do with themselves.
Why are we this way? Why do we want to win and be the best? I feel answers like that, you can’t get.
Look at all the people that came to this country. People will say they want to be great and they want to be famous and they never really know why. They’ll say they want to be famous because they want to help save the animals. That’s not a real reason. There’s always a root reason.
The problem is I don’t know if the truth is something that really exists—the full truth of everything. Something very simple, yes, but when when we get into talking about things this complex, there are so many potential causes.
However, I do think one of the reasons America got to be so wild and rowdy—why we want to be pumped up on steroids, why we want to be the biggest and the best—I think that came from our founding fathers. This nation was created by the hands of men who sought to build and that’s a different feeling than you get in different parts of the world. In other parts of the world, everything in that country has been around forever. So I think it’s something like that, where we took cues from very ambitious men and it snowballed.
My brother Mike used to say, “I’d rather be dead than average.” But my dad said something that really stuck with me: Being average is great. Your normal everyday person who goes to work every day and takes care of his family—that’s greatness.
A lot of people can’t do that. They want attention, fame, and money, but they can’t take care of what’s right in front of them. And so they miss out on life.
Originally published in the May 2016 issue of Robert Irvine Magazine.