In the sports documentary “Generation Iron,” filmmaker Vlad Yudin takes a page from the 1977 doc “Pumping Iron” and follows the new generation of bodybuilders vying for the title of Mr. Olympia, including Kai Greene and current 3-time champion Phil Heath. During our interview, Yudin talked about why he wanted to include the delicate subject of steroids in the film and where he thinks the sport of bodybuilding is going in the near future.
What inspired you to make a film about bodybuilding and did these men inspire you as you worked on the project?
Well, I wanted to make a film that showed [the bodybuilders’] dedication and level of commitment. Obviously, I’m not a bodybuilder, but I was still inspired by them. To choose to chase something and do it every day is undeniably amazing, of course. I think some people might think what [these bodybuilders] are doing is completely taboo, but you can find a lot of positive in it as well.
Was making the documentary a tough sell for any of the guys? How did you pitch it to them?
I think at the beginning they were sort of unsure. I told them if we were going to make a film about [bodybuilding and Mr. Olympia] we were going to have to be honest about everything. We had to make sure we talked about the good and the bad. They had to give me full access for the footage I needed to get for the film. I was an outsider, so at the beginning they only considered it. But I told them about my vision for the film and how I wanted to make an objective film. I think once they understood that they wanted to do it. Of course, when you show up to their house with cameras and a big crew it’s always a little uncomfortable. But after spending a couple of days with each of them it became an easy process.
How did you initially want to handle the topic of steroids? I mean, you touch on it a bit in the film, but don’t really get too deep into it.
Yeah, we talk about it in the film and we raise that point. I think this is the first time ever where professional athletes talk about it in an open way. But this isn’t a film about steroids or supplements. But we do have to talk about different components. Steroids are just one component. The subject is brought up all the time when people discuss bodybuilding, so we had to address it.
Now, you do bring up the issue, but none of the bodybuilders in the film admit to taking steroids. Is that a question you asked them straight out or was that not a line you wanted to cross with them?
It’s a very delicate subject whether they take [steroids] or not. It’s a grey area. It’s a subject that has various implications. So, while we talk about [steroids], we don’t talk about it specifically like, “Show me how you do [steroids].” We talk about it in the context of the sport overall. Some talked about it more than others.
But as a director, wouldn’t you want to push them to answer the question honestly? I mean, to get footage of one of them actually injecting themselves with a substance could have really been an eye-opening experience.
Well, in the context of the film I didn’t think [showing someone using steroids] was a critical point. I actually would not have wanted to show that. To me, I think we showed just enough to portray that point.
Just from an exercise standpoint – forget the supplements and whatever these bodybuilders may or may not use – do you consider, as an outsider, what these men do to their bodies natural?
I look at [bodybuilding] as a professional sport. It’s something they have to do. They want to win. From a history standpoint from where bodybuilding started to where it is now, the body looks different than what it did back in the day. But that’s what this sport demands. The audience for this specific sport that goes to these [bodybuilding] shows and follow these men in magazines, that’s what they’re looking for. It’s not something everybody can do or should do. It’s specific to the [bodybuilding] profession. Of course, the biggest debate in the sport right now is, “What should Mr. Olympia look like?” Some people say he should look leaner with a classic body type like it was back in the day like with [3-time Mr. Olympia winner] Frank Zane. Others want to see size. They want to see something on stage they’ve never seen before. They want to see that bulk, that mass. I think it’s a big debate in bodybuilding right now.
Yeah, I mean, we definitely have seen that change over the years. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime as Mr. Olympia was never as big as [current Mr. Olympia] Phil Heath. So, where do we go from here? Can these guys actually get bigger? Do they want to get bigger? Is it even possible to get bigger?
Well, in my conversations with doctors, I’ve been told there are limitations to growth, but we haven’t found those limitations yet. So, I guess that implies muscles can get even bigger. But again, for Mr. Olympia, I don’t think mass is the only key thing. You need definition. You need to have a full package. I think you can get bigger. That’s part of the debate: What type of body type should be rewarded? Right now, it’s definitely all about definition and mass. For Phil, he has both the size and definition. That’s where the current state of the sport is, but in the future it’s hard to predict what is going to happen. I think it may be to get bigger. I think the audience will want to see that.
It sounds like the fans are asking for a lot.
Yeah, but these fans really follow these guys. They learn about them and read about them and interact with them. Fans also like the [bodybuilders’] personalities and what routines they bring on stage and how they pose. That means a lot to the fans as well.
Yeah, judging these guys must be tough. I mean, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t follow the sport, all the bodybuilders looked pretty ripped in the same places. I don’t see how you can really say one is better than the other. It just seems very subjective.
You know, judging is an interesting process. Again, it’s about size and definition and when they line [the bodybuilders] up it’s all about comparison. So, when you line up the best [bodybuilders] in the world, you can see the slightest difference between them. They might look the same, but you can see when one guy is better than the other guy.
Now that you’ve been a part of this bodybuilding culture for a while, do you think you could judge?
(Laughs) Man, I would not want that job at all. But after experiencing Mr. Olympia, I understand it a lot better. I can definitely differentiate between the guys and see who has more mass and more cuts.
Where do you see Phil’s career going after he’s done with bodybuilding? He’s won three Mr. Olympia titles in a row. Does he follow the same career path as Arnold and go to Hollywood?
There are many different things [bodybuilders] can do after they retire. You see examples like Arnold and Lou Ferrigno who went into entertainment. You see guys like Ronnie Coleman and Rich Gaspari who have their own supplement lines. Some go into business. Then, of course, there are those sad stories where guys retire because of injuries and have nothing to fall back on. In the film, we wanted to showcase what happened to some of the bodybuilders at different stages of their careers. That’s what we see in a story like Victor Martinez. He ends up going to jail and trying to come back into the business. It really is unpredictable because one injury can really change your whole career.
I know you’re working on a film adaptation of your graphic novel “Head Smash,” which follows a superhero in a pre-apocalyptic city. Would Phil be someone you would think about casting in the lead role?
Oh, wow, I never even thought about that before. That’s a very interesting question. I’ve never imagined him in that role before. I definitely see Phil doing entertainment. He has a natural confidence. He can probably do TV shows and be an action star. He’s a true champion.
How intense is the rivalry between Phil and [fellow bodybuilder] Kai Greene? What sense did you get about their relationship? Was it really heated? Is there a mutual respect there?
It’s a real rivalry. They definitely come from different backgrounds and have a different approach to the sport. They are the two best [bodybuilders] in the world. At press conferences and backstage, there is no camaraderie between them. Of course, when they bring up each others’ names it’s not very positive. They have different philosophies. I think it is fun for the audience to see that. I think people always want to see strong competition. It was great for the film and great for the sport in general.