It doesn’t take much to get the crowd in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas excited — a well-oiled physique, a perfect lat spread, quads playfully flip-flopping before being snapped into perfect-teardrop definition. But what appeared on the screen in the middle of the Mr. Olympia competition in September 2012 brought the mood to a whole new level.
During a break in the competition, the arena went dark and the many screens lit up with footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger posing in front of strobing flashbulbs, Phil Heath being declared the winner of the 2011 Sandow, a hooded Kai Greene, Heath reading a magazine in a bubble bath …
These scenes, interspersed with montages of Heath, Greene and other major heavyweights grunting, sweating and heaving iron, heralded the release of a new film. Called Generation Iron, it follows the top names in bodybuilding in the lead-up to the very event the crowd was at the Orleans to watch that night.
The name is an intentional nod to the 1977 classic Pumping Iron, otherwise known as the film that helped vault Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno — not to mention the sport of bodybuilding — to international stardom. But a lot has changed in the past 35 years, and it’s those changes that director Vlad Yudin set out to chronicle when he decided to step into the lives of several of the competitors for the title of Mr. Olympia in 2012. Yudin and his crew got unparalleled access, shadowing eight professional bodybuilders and taking a long look behind the curtain of the Olympia contest itself to discover — and, in the process, define — the current state of the sport.
And so we took a peek behind the scenes of the film. We sat down with Yudin to find out how a documentary filmmaker gets interested enough in bodybuilding to want to immerse himself in it for several years. We flew to Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym, aka the East Coast Mecca of Bodybuilding, in Syosett, N.Y., to catch up with 2012 runner-up Kai Greene a mere couple months out from his next head-to-head with Phil Heath. And then we crunched some data and pitted the 1975 Mr. O competition against the 2012 contest to see just how much has changed.
So grab your popcorn — or protein shake — and read on.
Vlad Yudin is a 30-year-old Russian emigré with a resume that includes a couple of features and a documentary on the life and death of Puerto Rican-American rapper Big Pun. How in the world did he decide to immerse himself in the world of professional bodybuilding? That was one of the questions we asked him when we sat down to discuss Generation Iron.
How would you describe Generation Iron?
It’s Pumping Iron about the current generation of pro bodybuilders. Pumping Iron introduced mainstream film viewers to professional bodybuilding back in the 1970s. Guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno weren’t well-known before the film was released. Pumping Iron helped catapult them into mainstream films and television shows.
Generation Iron isn’t a sequel — it’s a stand-alone film. But it encapsulates today’s bodybuilders in the same way that Pumping Iron captured that previous era. No one has made a film about bodybuilding for theatrical release for more than 35 years, and that was my objective. We wanted to introduce the new generation of top pro bodybuilders to mainstream moviegoers. A lot has changed in bodybuilding since the ’70s. Yet in many ways, the sport has remained the same: It’s still taboo and underground.
Who’s in the film?
The main guys are Phil Heath and Kai Greene, and we document their preparation for and competition in the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest. I got a chance to spend a lot of time with these guys, and you really get to know them in the film. Phil is a true champion; he reminds me of Arnold. Kai has a very different personality — he’s an artist. He not only sculpts his body, but he paints canvasses at night. The film explores the differences between these fascinating characters.
We also included several other pros who were preparing to compete in the 2012 Olympia: Branch Warren, Dennis Wolf, Hidetada Yamagishi, Victor Martinez, Roelly Winklaar and Ben Pakulski.
What were the logistics? How did you film the movie?
The film isn’t just about the 2012 Olympia; it’s about the sport of pro bodybuilding. Before the 2012 Olympia, we went to each city where the top competitors live, and we spent several days with each of them while they were training and preparing. My crew and I went to Denver to film Phil, New York to film Kai, Texas to film Branch, Vegas to film Dennis and Los Angeles to film Hidetada, among other places. We also show what goes on behind the scenes at the Olympia. People will be able to see things they haven’t seen in other behind-the-scenes films and videos.
We approached this in a cinematic way, putting a lot of effort into production value. We’ve been working on this film for more than a year. We had a big crew and multiple cameras. This wasn’t renegade filmmaking. This was a well-planned production. But making documentaries is challenging because you don’t know what the story is before you start to film. We shot more than 100 hours of film. That’s a lot more than many big-budget films shoot, and it makes editing very challenging.
How did you become interested in this topic?
I’m a filmmaker of documentaries and feature films. I’m a fan of Pumping Iron, and it pops up in my life every few years. I saw it again a couple of years ago, and then I met [Pumping Iron producer] Jerome Gary, and we had a conversation. Nothing had been done to explore the subject matter of current pro bodybuilding, so I started researching the sport, and that led to weeks and months of development and preparation with Jerome. I realized that there were a lot of cool, fascinating personalities in the sport, but they hadn’t been given the exposure they deserved. I wanted to make a documentary that would be interesting in its own right but that would also bring more attention to these athletes and characters.
Pumping Iron has heroes and villains. Did you try to achieve that same dynamic?
Our primary dramatic interest was trying to explore what it takes to make it to the Olympia stage and what it takes to win. Phil was the reigning champion, and Kai was trying to beat him. At first, Kai looks like an aggressive predator coming for the hero, but I think Kai also becomes a protagonist in our film. It’s a fascinating dynamic because you can cheer for either of them.
But whether or not you think Phil or Kai — or any of the other guys — are heroes or villains is up to personal interpretation. We didn’t set out to cause drama because we thought the story was compelling and that it would tell itself.
As a side note, I’d like to add that I think that Pumping Iron had a significant impact on our concept of what heroes look like. After this film was released, and especially when Arnold became a movie star, other heroes in film and other forms of media became larger and more muscular. Bodybuilding is a sport that’s under the radar, but it does influence mainstream culture.
Can you give us any spoilers?
Sure. But just one. Some of the guys were still battling to qualify to compete at the 2012 Olympia. Victor Martinez had been a top pro for many years, but he’d recently spent seven months in jail. During that time, he’d lost a lot of weight, yet he still wanted to compete. The film shows him trying to get ready to make it to the stage. He was dealing with a lot of difficult emotions, and he wasn’t sure if he should go onstage. Finally, he decided not to compete. We document that in the film, and it’s heartbreaking.
Gimme an O
In September 2012, fans were fairly sure that Phil Heath would repeat and claim the Mr. Olympia title again. Here’s where Generation Iron’scast landed in the rankings:
1. Phil Heath
2. Kai Greene
3. Shawn Rhoden
4. Dexter Jackson
5. Branch Warren
6. Dennis Wolf
7. Toney Freeman
8. Evan Centopani
9. Johnnie Jackson
10. Lionel Beyeke
11. Ben Pakulski
12. Roelly Winklaar
13. Ronny Rockel
14. Essa Ibrahim Obaid
15. Hidetada Yamagishi
16. Baito Abbaspour
16. Bill Wilmore
16. Fred Smalls
16. Michael Kefalianos
*Victor Martinez did not compete.
What else can you tell us about the film?
I’m really excited about two other elements. First, Mickey Rourke is our film’s narrator. He’s a great actor, and he was amazing in The Wrestler, a movie that captures the triumphs and anguish in pro wrestling, another sport where most athletes don’t make a lot of money. Our film needed a narrator, and Mickey was my first choice. Interestingly, his father was a bodybuilder. Mickey’s narration is filled with emotion and pain because he knows a lot about bodybuilding and fitness. His voice captures the struggles bodybuilders endure: the battle between the perception of beauty and art — and freakishness.
Second, Dr. Jim Stoppani explains the difference between common-sense health and fitness and steroid use. People may be surprised by many of these facts, but Dr. Stoppani presents them in a straightforward way.
So when can we see the film?
We’re aiming for a September 2013 theatrical release. We want bodybuilding fans and mainstream viewers to see Generation Iron the same way they saw Pumping Iron for the first time: in a theater.
Olympia Past and Present
A lot can change in 37 years. In 1975, when filmmakers for Pumping Iron recorded athletes training for the Mr. Olympia competition, the sport of bodybuilding was in its infancy. Now, thanks in part to the mainstream success of Pumping Iron and the athletes it followed, bodybuilding is bigger in just about every way. Here’s how.