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In the last article, we brought you the first part of our exclusive look at the making of Generation Iron, the feature film that takes viewers inside the sport of professional bodybuilding. Seven elite, professional bodybuilders were captured on camera as they prepared for the 2012 Mr. Olympia and the right to be named the greatest in the world. Now in part two, we continue our conversation with writer, director, and producer Vlad Yudin and the film’s breakout star, two-time, reigning Mr. Olympia Phil Heath.
FLEX: Judging from the photos, it’s clear that you had a sizeable crew on hand.
VLAD YUDIN: Production quality was very important. Our goal was to make a monumental film that defined the sport as it is today. And we knew this was going to be a theatrical release so it had to have theatrical quality, and to do that, you need the right team. We had 10 people, so we had the option of a smaller breakaway crew to follow the guys if necessary. Basically, we were with the athletes in some form or another at all times. At the Olympia, we had even more people. And everybody had worked on Hollywood films, so we had plenty of cinematic experience on the team.
You were at a couple of IFBB Pro League shows leading up to the Olympia, but what was it like being at the biggest event in the industry?
That was my first Mr. Olympia and it was a very cool experience. The Olympia is on a whole different level. The production value is enormous. It gives you a real sense of the scale of the contest and you can see why the athletes train so hard and make the sacrifice to be at this level. More than any other contest, you have to earn the right to stand on that stage. The Olympia will always be No. 1, like the Oscars for the movie industry. They live for it because this is the absolute standard of excellence. You can’t go any higher.
One of the interesting facets of all sports is the rivalry between athletes, especially at the pro level, with so much on the line.
Everybody has an opinion, and when opinions start to clash, that can add fun and excitement to the sport. And I found that there was no shortage of opinions between these guys. And it’s not like some amateur talking about Phil; these are guys that have competed against him, and in some cases, even beaten him before. You’ll see that they were very open about sharing their opinions.
It was very important that the different personalities come through on-screen. It’s a misconception that bodybuilders are machines who just lift weights. The film shows that they have emotions just like everybody and they go through their highs and lows. They have to deal with everyday life as they’re training for the contest. And with the seven guys, you have the full range of personalities. You have the scientific, methodical type in Ben, and the blue-collar type in Branch. Kai’s introspective while Phil is outgoing. Just like their training styles are different in the gym, so is the way they are outside of the gym, in the way they deal with people and everything else. I really like that aspect of the film. Showing them not only as world-class bodybuilders, but as regular people with regular-people concerns and commitments.
Now let’s skip over to Colorado, where you shot Phil Heath. This is an ensemble cast, but as the reigning champion, Phil certainly has a presence in the film, much like Arnold did in the original, as the “man to beat” and from the trailers, he definitely comes across that way.
Phil’s a true champion. He’s achieved so much in a relatively short period of time. If you want to be a successful bodybuilder you have to believe that you’re the best. That’s where it all starts. If you don’t believe it, no one else will. And the thing about that kind of belief is that you can tell if someone really believes in himself or is trying to convince others that he does. The way that champions look at things is different, and Phil has that. He has bigger goals. He’s not content with just being on top. He wants to make bodybuilding more exciting, make it bigger, and see it grow and attract more fans. That’s how the sport continues to get better, and Phil understands this because he has a good business sense. Yes, he’s outspoken, but he has that right. He’s earned it. He has worked hard for everything he has and went straight to the top, and the rest of the guys are chasing him.
There’s no denying that Phil is supremely confident as the world’s No. 1 bodybuilder. Last year was the first time he was on top, so it’s a little different defending your title as opposed to taking it from someone else. What struck you in the way he regarded the rest of the guys gunning for him?
Phil realizes that it comes with the territory. He’s achieved something only 12 other bodybuilders have done since 1965. That’s a very select group of athletes for such a long period of time. And Phil is a student of the sport so he understands the significance of being in the position he is and why it means so much for the other guys to try to achieve it, too. He’s very respectful of all the guys because he’s been there himself, when someone else was on top and he was trying to be No. 1. And having come close, he knows the disappointment of not achieving your goal. But like he said, that only pushes you harder for the next time. He knows where the others are coming from. At the same time, he’s very competitive. You don’t get to that position without that streak. It’s evident in the way he carries himself.
The Olympia is his and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep it. In his mind, no one is coming into his house to take what he’s worked so long and hard for.
I think he likes the challenge. Knowing that you beat the best to get where you are and now you’re the best and everyone is trying to beat you, that is what motivates all great champions. At the same time, he does it all with a graceful style. His intensity in the gym is amazing, but somehow he makes it look easy. Everything he does, from the training, the eating, and everything else is in preparation for this one moment and there’s no hesitation or doubt that it will go exactly as he plans. And the way he interacts with people, he’s very approachable. He makes others feel comfortable because he’s very comfortable with himself. You can’t help but come away thinking, “Yes, there’s a reason why this guy is the best in the world and he’s Mr. Olympia.”
Much like the Arnold and Lou rivalry, there’s a rivalry between Phil and Kai that seems to be one of the driving forces in the film.
This rivalry is for real. Both are very successful but they’re very different. I don’t want to give away too much, but you really see it in the movie. Their outlooks in the sport and life in general, even their appearance—Phil with his shaved head and the clothes he wears and Kai with his braids and his trademark boots and all— total opposites. The dynamic between the two is powerful and it creates tension. Whenever you have that between two driven individuals going for the same thing, the stakes go higher and higher. That’s exciting for the fans. And you need that tension to keep the narrative moving forward. It was really highlighted at the Olympia when they went at it and they were the last two standing. The whole movie captures the rivalries between all the guys. You have the back-and-forth between Branch and Ben, Branch and Dennis, and of course, the central rivalry between Phil and Kai. One guy knows he’s being compared with this guy, and how does he stack up?
Finally, what is it that you want people to take away with them when they leave the theater?
The main question I’m trying to answer with this film is “What is bodybuilding and who are bodybuilders?” Obviously it’s a sport, but it’s more than that. It’s a combination of sport, art, and science.
It’s very unique. It’s artistic expression using the human body. It’s competition. Who are these guys and what motivates them to push the limits of what is physically possible? The film will deliver that answer.
SEIZING THE MOMENT
Phil Heath on turning his second Mr. Olympia win into a history-defining moment
FLEX: What was your first exposure to Pumping Iron and what was your impression of the movie?
PHIL HEATH: I believe it was the first couple of months of being a bodybuilder, and I can definitely say it was very entertaining. Of course, I knew Arnold was going to win, but it was how he did it that impressed me.
The way he toyed with everyone showed how supremely confident he was. And you could see that the other guys were definitely chasing him. You could even sense a little envy or jealousy because of all the things that Joe (Weider) was bringing to his table, as far as appearances and all the notoriety, which is to be expected given that he was a five-time Mr. Olympia at the time and rightfully deserving of all the spoils. But more than all of that, it was the balance he showed in his life. He had more balance than anyone else in the movie. He was doing his thing at Muscle Beach and Gold’s, eating, doing photo shoots, chasing chicks, living the lifestyle, and all that stuff. Then you had Lou Ferrigno training in the dungeon with his dad. That was all he was concerned with, almost to the point of being narcissistic. I didn’t relate to that. I didn’t think to myself, “That’s how I want to be.” No disrespect to Lou, but I wanted to be like Arnold. I wanted to be the guy that people are painting pictures about; the guy having fun and enjoying everything that came with being the absolute best. Everywhere he went people were falling at his feet. I mean, I’m sure he had his haters, as everyone does, but he was respected. I can relate to that, especially now because I’m dealing with it myself. I have a lot of fans, but I also have a lot of competitors and people who don’t like who I am and what I’m about. But at the end of the night, he stomped on these guys and he did it with a smile on his face. You couldn’t say that he wasn’t good and didn’t deserve it because he was obviously very focused, but not with this crazy do-or-die attitude like there’s nothing else in the world. You see him training his ass of and the next minute he’s telling jokes. That’s how I am. I can turn it on and be as hardcore as the next guy but I can also make people laugh and have fun with it. You don’t see a lot of bodybuilders smile or tell jokes. They’re all super-serious. But how are you going to interest people if all you are is a big dude who just grunts, lifts weights, and scowls all the time?
How did you become involved with Generation Iron?
Robin Chang (of AMI) told me there was a potential re-telling of Pumping Iron, a movie that would pick up where the original left off, and I thought, “Gosh, if that really does come to fruition I’d love to be a part of it.” It would be an honor. Then when I actually talked to the Vladar Company guys, they gave me an idea of what their vision was. You have to realize that bodybuilders get offers for movies or TV, but then we’re not treated with respect. It’s usually done as a mockery or to make us look stupid. They didn’t come of like that at all. They were for real. And it was their attitude and enthusiasm for the sport that sealed the deal.
Were there any concerns that this might affect your ability to defend the Mr. Olympia?
Initially it raised some questions, but more so for Hany [Rambod, Heath’s trainer/ nutritionist] than it did for me.
I actually saw it as an opportunity. Because I knew I was going to be a part of history, I was going to lift heavier and be more intense. I figured it was going to help me mentally, physically, and emotionally to turn it up a notch. Getting ready, you know the other guys are talking trash and they were kind enough to share some of that with me, so I realized that I needed to remind them how good I really am, I needed to remind the world. I viewed it as an awesome opportunity to have my Olympia win on film.
One of the things I noticed about our sport compared to others is that we’re so afraid to fall on our faces that we don’t take chances and come right out and say that we expect to win. If you look at the Super Bowl, both teams have champagne in their locker rooms, hats and shirts with “Super Bowl Champs” printed on them because they expect to win, even though only one of those teams will go home with the trophy. But an athlete doesn’t go into a contest not believing that he can win. At least I don’t. I expected to win. I had every intention of winning. That’s why I worked so hard for it. I wanted to be in the history books again. You have to step up in those moments and have the confidence to show the world that you believe in yourself. It was a chance to put my legacy on film.
And what about the film crew? You’ve done a lot of training videos but what was it like being on a real movie set for the first time?
It was a trip at first. I had an 11-man posse and an RV parked outside my house. The neighbors thought I was doing a reality-TV show. That’s when it hit me that this was real and it made me very excited for the whole thing. But I was pretty comfortable in front of all the cameras. One of the things that sticks out, and I hope they show it, was that I was making Vlad laugh so much that he’d have to re-shoot and tell me to say the same things.
One night, we were at the gym shooting a workout, and the next thing you know, there’s a big-ass bus, and out come all these Japanese people. And it was just like the scene where Arnold is in the prison posing, but this time it’s at the gym and I’m training. I was surrounded. People clicking away and every time I finished a set they would applaud. It was crazy!
You said before that having the cameras there helped you. Can you explain that?
Anytime you have cameras in front of you, it’s a reminder to not screw around. It’s extra motivation. You think about how you want to be remembered on film because thousands of people are going to be watching it and it’s forever. Let’s face it, shooting free throws in your backyard is different from doing it in a high-pressure situation in front of 20,000 people. But I have experience with that from my basketball days, and others who aren’t used to performing in front of a crowd might not shine in that moment. I mean, bodybuilders by definition are introverted. They don’t want the attention, but on the other hand they do want it because they’re working so hard to build their physiques and they want to be recognized for it. It’s funny because you see guys trying to copy my swagger onstage, trying to pump up the crowd and all, but the reaction isn’t the same because
You can read the script, but if you want to nail it like an Oscar-winning actor, you have to own it. Charisma comes from within. You can’t fake it. That comes from being in tune with who you are and what you’re trying to represent. For me, I just love people and it comes out in the way I do things. And I realize that being in my position, all eyes are on me. There’s always someone watching, b so you give it your best shot. I know guys are taking notes on my workouts at the gym or snapping photos when my back is turned, and they don’t think I notice. But hey, there’s a picture of me training five minutes later online. As a bodybuilder, that’s what I signed up for. We’re judged onstage and everywhere we go. You have to be a strong-minded person to handle that. People can think they are, but until they walk in those shoes, they’re not battle-tested.
You saw the trailer for the first time last year during the contest. What did you think of it or were you too focused on the show to really have an opinion?
I thought, “Holy shit! This is crazy.” I said to myself, “I gotta win this contest tonight.” And the best part is that moving forward into this year’s O, all the guys who talked trash in Generation Iron are going to have to watch that movie, and watch me win. [Laughs]
What do you want people to think about bodybuilding and bodybuilders after watching this movie?
I want them to get an honest look at the sport. If I could ask each person to write down their top 10 impressions of bodybuilding as they walk into the theater and then another list of 10 things after watching the movie, I’d hope that their stereotypes would be gone and that those 10 new things would be positive. Each and every one of us puts a ton of effort into this. The movie will show what we go through and that we’re professional athletes with a great perspective on the world of health and fitness. We do it every day, not with fads or gimmicks, but with fundamental diets and training programs that actually help us lose fat while gaining muscle. It would be great for the general public to realize that they can do it, too. You don’t have to be Mr. Olympia or a professional bodybuilder to excel at this sport and use it to improve your current situation.
And for those guys who do want to be Mr. Olympia one day, they can say, “Look, Mom, I don’t have to be a basketball player, I can be a bodybuilder like Phil Heath.” Let’s be honest, most kids want to play pro sports for fame and money. And this movie is making me look like the biggest baller there is, which I’m not, but bodybuilding has given me a very comfortable lifestyle. Parents can see that here is an educated family man who works hard and is a decent role model. Mr. Olympia can be a role model who can motivate you to do better things. I want them to learn something new. The next time they see a bodybuilder, especially a pro who makes his living in this sport, maybe instead of sneering or making backhanded compliments, they can look at that person and say, “I admire your work, that takes a lot of dedication.” – FLEX