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Last month 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.
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.