Behind-the-Scenes

Bigger: The Wild Life of Joe Weider

A new film about larger-than-life bodybuilding icon Joe Weider comes to the big screen. Here’s your exclusive behind-the-scenes sneak preview of “Bigger”—this fall’s must-see movie.

by
Bigger Movie
Per Bernal / M+F Magazine

If Joe Weider had never lived, you wouldn’t be holding this magazine. This isn’t just because Weider, celebrated as the Father of Bodybuilding, founded Muscle & Fitness in 1980—itself a descendant of earlier publications that grew from Weider’s first-ever stapled handout, Your Physique (circa 1940). Without Weider and his visionary quest:

  • The IFBB, NPC, and Mr. Olympia would not exist;
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a charismatic middle manager somewhere outside Graz, Austria;
  • Gyms and health-food stores would be less of a presence around the globe;
  • You—and billions of other people—might have never picked up a weight, drank a protein shake, and felt the transformative power of the bodybuilding lifestyle.

Weider, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 93, preached the life-affirming potential of weight training from his days as a teenager in a tough Jewish ghetto in Montreal. That he emerged from that hardscrabble youth to be one of the most successful fitness entrepreneurs of the 20th century is just part of his legend.

How do you film a biography of a near-mythic figure who changed the world yet remains a mysterious force of nature even to those who knew him?

How the World Got Bigger

That was the challenge enthusiastically embraced by Steve Jones. The Hollywood producer and writer had already displayed a brilliance in bringing a complex personality to life in the critically lauded You Don’t Know Jack. The film starred Al Pacino in a riveting portrayal of Jack Kevorkian, the self-appointed angel of mercy who administered euthanasia to terminally ill patients at their request, and carefully navigated the thorny terrain of end-of-life decisions.

Jones already knew a lot about Weider. In his younger days, the producer had trained at Gold’s Gym Venice, lifting weights under the images of Schwarzenegger, Dave Draper, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, and Joe and Ben Weider. When Joe passed, Jones became interested in the man who had birthed a lifestyle and belief system that grew out of a single-minded vision. Jones’ gut told him there was a great story behind it all that needed to be told. It’s the same instincts that drove him to create You Don’t Know Jack.

“I’m really interested in stories about people who live life with great intensity, who are motivated beyond what most would find normal, and who have laser focus on their goals,” Jones says.

He got in touch with fitness entrepreneur Dan Solomon, head of Digital Muscle, who connected him with Eric Weider, Joe’s nephew and Ben’s son.

Eric himself played a role in broadening the reach of the Weider empire in the last two decades of Joe’s life, and he is a cautious gatekeeper of the Weider brothers’ legacy. Eric met with Jones, and the two hit it off. Eric decided he had found the perfect person to tell the Weider story. He joined the project as an executive producer, providing crucial source material for the film.

Jones’ research started with the Weider brothers’ autobiography, Brothers of Iron: Building the Weider Empire. His appreciation for Joe and Ben grew the more he learned about them.

“You have to get to the heart of what made them tick,” Jones says. “It’s hard to tell a person’s life story in two hours, especially one as grand as the Weiders’. It’s an extraordinary tale.”

In a gestation period that lasted more than three years, Jones assembled a team of established Hollywood talent. He signed on George Gallo (Midnight Run) to write and direct and enlisted writers Ellen Furman, Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Andy Weiss (the upcoming White Boy Rick) to help shape the script. Jones knew he had to delve into a world easily misunderstood. He wasn’t just telling the story of a man but of a subculture.

“There has never been a mainstream scripted Hollywood film about the world of fitness and bodybuilding,” explains Jones. “Pumping Iron is a classic, but it’s a documentary. Bigger gives a glimpse of the sacrifice that Joe and Ben made to create a world where bodybuilding is accepted. Young bodybuilders today don’t know what the Weiders went through in terms of adversity, fighting against the norms of society at a time when doctors said that working out was bad for you. They fought the system.”

Capturing the Quest

Bigger Movie

It’s one thing to tell a life story by depicting major events in sequential fashion. But capturing Joe Weider’s red-hot intensity, his indefatigable mission to spread bodybuilding to the masses, is a far more difficult task. Translating Weider’s single-minded focus to the screen meant casting a lead capable of crystallizing his enduring inner drive. But he also had to look like he knew his way around a gym.

“One of the things that made this a little more difficult than most castings is that Joe was essentially a bodybuilder himself, so the physicality of the actor became important,” Jones says.

Working closely with Gallo, Jones decided on Tyler Hoechlin from the Teen Wolf reboot, who also played a baseball player in 2016’s Everybody Wants Some.

“Tyler is an athlete. He almost went in the direction of playing professional baseball,” Jones says. “Tyler committed to a program to add a little weight and to look like a bodybuilder from Joe’s era.”

Casting the role of Betty Weider was no less daunting. A globally famous cover model from the 1950s, Betty Brosmer, as she was known in those days, was recognized for her beauty, curves, and 18-inch waist. Jones and his team found an ideal actress in Julianne Hough.

“Julianne is just perfect,” says Jones. “She’s absolutely elegant, a delight visually, and very sweet.”

The cast also includes Tom Arnold, Steve Guttenberg, Victoria Justice, Colton Haynes (as Jack Lalanne), Aneurin Barnard (as Ben Weider), and Robert Forster as an older version of Joe, who appears throughout the film, reminiscing while preparing for Ben’s funeral.

Re-creating the Golden Era

Jones was also tasked with casting an actor to play Arnold Schwarzenegger, the young Austrian bodybuilder whom Weider brought to the States in 1968 and mentored. He went on to be one of the planet’s most famous men as an athlete, movie star, politician, and entrepreneur. 

Knowing that you can’t depict Arnold in his prime without looking like the real thing, Jones cast Australian IFBB bodybuilding champ Calum Von Moger. 

For fans of the sport, the scenes of Arnold battling Sergio Oliva (played by his son, Sergio Oliva Jr.) are themselves worth the price of admission.

It’s not surprising that word of mouth is spreading about Bigger following screenings on both coasts. “There is a groundswell of energy around the film,” says Jones. “We get over 100 emails a day asking when it’s coming out.”

Bigger will have its U.S. premiere in Las Vegas on Sept. 13 during the Olympia Weekend, says Jones, and the film will open nationwide on Sept. 21. 

Solomon, who stayed on as a co-executive producer, believes that even insiders will be thrilled with the results. “This story was placed in the hands of some of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers, and they’ve created something truly special,” he says. 

Bigger tells an incredible tale: how a scrawny kid from the mean streets started training with weights to escape the constant beatings from local bullies, became an evangelist for weight training, married the most successful pinup model in the world, and helped create a now global industry. This is about one man’s singular mission against unbelievable odds.

“What Joe advocated went against all norms, but the Weiders didn’t care,” Jones says. “They followed their own hearts and created this world.”

See the Film!

Bigger will have its U.S. premiere at the Century Orleans 18 theater in Las Vegas at 4 p.m. on Sept. 13. (It will also screen at 4:30 p.m.) For more information, go to muscleandfitness.com/biggermovie.

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