Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) is an aspiring bodybuilder who wants to be beloved and admired — and on the cover of a fitness publication — in writer/director Elijah Bynum's stunning film, "Magazine Dreams." This intense character study, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, centers around an imposing man whose aggression stems not only from his steroid use (which is damaging his body), but also other aggravating factors, such as a grudge he harbors against the judge who once told him his deltoids were too small.
"It probably takes more dedication than any other sport ... It is very isolating and can take a toll on people."
Killian, who regularly sees a therapist (Harriet Samson Harris), becomes increasingly more unhinged as he experiences a series of physical and emotional setbacks — including a car accident after a violent episode; a bad date with Jessie (Haley Bennett), a cashier at the grocery store where Killian works; and his efforts to compete for a title while injured. In addition, Killian's obsession with a world-famous bodybuilder, Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O'Hearn), is also complicated, especially after they meet.
Bynum exacts the same amount of commitment and control as a director with precise visual compositions as Majors does in his astonishing performance. Many of the scenes in "Magazine Dreams" are painful and uncomfortable, but they reveal both the damage Killian feels and inflicts on himself.
The filmmaker spoke with Salon about his extraordinary new film.
What knowledge did you have of bodybuilding? What was the time and commitment you put in when you decided to make this film?
Bodybuilding was something I have been fascinated by since middle or high school. I was a scrawny kid and had a friend group and they were much bigger than me. There was a desire to put on muscle. I was fascinated by these guys who were built like action figures. I had gone down the rabbit hole on bodybuilding — pre-dating the script — out of curiosity because it is such an extreme sport. It probably takes more dedication than any other sport because your trophy doesn't sit on a mantle; your trophy is something you carry around with you everywhere you go. Whether you are in the gym, or preparing meal, or eating a meal, you have a religious devotion to this sport. It is very isolating and can take a toll on people. I always saw it as an interesting, extreme, niche sport and had a tremendous amount of respect for people who dedicated their lives to it.
When it came time to write the script, I needed to really understand the sport on a technical level and not from afar to understand how bodybuilders prepare for matches, drop the weight, bulk up in the off-season, the different poses, and what makes a certain post stand out to a judge. That took research, and seeing every bodybuilding documentary, and reading interviews. I shared this with Jonathan who consumed every last bit of it. I think he entered a bodybuilding competition under the name Killian Maddox. The other aspect is we tried to paint an honest unflinching portrait of a very complicated individual. That was what was most interesting to me and Jonathan as well. Who this character was — and wasn't — and how he viewed the world.
Elijah Bynum, director of "Magazine Dreams." (Sundance Institute)
Killian is not a gentle giant. I pitied and feared for him as he suffers a series of painful humiliations. Can you talk about creating those episodes and tracking his reactions? He is fragile, shy and aggressive, honest and delusional, and worst of all, self-destructive.
"The way I described him to Jonathan ... was that he was an alien who had just crash landed on this planet and was vibrating at a slightly different frequency than the rest of us."
We were very careful not to present him in a way where he was completely blameless in his own descent. It was irresponsible to suggest he had no other choice but to go down that path he did because the world was so cruel. Maybe Killian would see it that way, but trying to be objective as a storyteller, we knew that as cruel and isolating as his life might be, and how cold society might seem to him, he is also a participant in it. He does get in his own way, and that's more honest and relatable. Oftentimes, we are our own worst enemy. We didn't want to make excuses for his behavior. We want to understand his behavior and why he might make the choices he did. We never wanted to condone his behavior. That felt wrong.
Killian suffers from steroid abuse and 'roid rage, can be violent, and suffers from trauma and possibly some mental illness. What prompted you to address these issues with this character?
He struggles with himself, and that is what makes him interesting to me. The way I described him to Jonathan, when we first talked about the character, was that he was an alien who had just crash landed on this planet and was vibrating at a slightly different frequency than the rest of us. He was having trouble connecting with those around him. He wanted to be a human being and engage in the ways he was told would work. That's why he's Googling things like, "How to make people like you." These very simplistic ways of trying to respond to a much more complicated society. He always felt a bit out of tune, and we were exploring his trying to find his harmony again. It was important for us not to have the film be completely nihilistic or devoid of hope. He does have some agency over his life.
Your film certainly showcases — one might say objectifies — Killian/Majors' body throughout the film. Can you talk about that and how important it was to display his physique considering how much abuse he suffers? You're not eroticizing him; his body is his character.
"The body is one of the most pure expressions of ourselves."
Doing the research into bodybuilding and reading about these guys, I was trying to figure out why they [do it]. They spend months and months of training with no recognition, eating bland boiled chicken and rice for these fleeting moments of glory — if you are lucky to be on stage under the lights in a competition. All the hard work for these people is worth it in that moment. What individual wants to dedicate that much of their life to something grueling and uncomfortable for these small moments of joy and glory? A recurring theme I found was that they were bullied when they were younger, or had a trauma in their life, or were undersized, or felt rejected by society. The body is one of the most pure expressions of ourselves. In a world where you can feel very little control, what they are finding is some semblance of control by working out and eating the right foods, they can control what their body looks like, they can command respect or dignity of myself.
I also wanted to explore the Black body and its long and fraught and complicated history in this country, whether it is being bought, or sold, or exploited, or destroyed. What does the Black body represent? We did not need to say much more than present it. It is something Kilian is proud of, something he is abusing, something he is trying to profit from, and build a legacy on. At the same time, he is brutalized and poisoning himself. It is a very complicated relationship with the Black body. We didn't want to get too intellectual with it. We wanted to present it and feel what they felt about it.
"For Killian and other Black men in this country, whether they are aware of it or not, there is a deep-seated fear of erasure, or eradication, or extinction."
What are your thoughts about Black masculinity and how Killian's imposing figure makes others uncomfortable? There is racism on display in the film.
The first germ of the idea of the story came to me during a short-lived period when I tried to get back into the gym. When I was there, this guy came in – he was clearly a bodybuilder. He would have his 5-gallon jug of water and oversized hood on, and there was this immense aura around him, this severe energy. He looked to be in quite a bit of pain, and not just physical pain, but spiritual and emotional pain. Because of that, myself and everyone around him, all pretended he wasn't there. We'd avert our eyes and move around him. In that moment, I saw someone who was both feared and invisible. What a peculiar way to move through the world. How alien that must feel. People are terrified of you, and your presence can make people uncomfortable, and the reaction to that is to pretend you don't exist. That spoke to a larger idea of Black masculinity in general. For Killian and other Black men in this country, whether they are aware of it or not, there is a deep-seated fear of erasure, or eradication, or extinction. If that is buried deep in the self-conscious — whether it is real or imagined — that someone wants to erase your existence, they respond with overcompensation: I am here, I exist. There is a boastfulness and peacocking at times. It's expressed often through joy, and that my life will not just vanish, or you cannot just snub me out. With Killian, that is what we wanted to explore — there is power in that fear, and what it can get you, but also knowing it can be abused, and that it can be flipped back on you. If you make people too uncomfortable, they are going to want to control you. You can be ping-ponging back and forth between these strange polar opposites of the spectrum.
What can you discuss about Killian's interactions with others? He is cool towards his therapist, overshares with Jessie, is enamored with Brad, and has an uncomfortable encounter with Pink Coat (Taylor Paige), a sex worker.
If nothing else, he wants to connect with another human being, and he always approaches people with level of respect until he feels that respect is not being reciprocated. He likes to present himself as a noble, righteous, honorable man, which comes from his grandfather. It is how he wants to be perceived by the world. So, he is gentlemanly. With Jessie, when he is oversharing on their date, it is because finally, there is someone here who listens to him. He does not feel comfortable sharing those thoughts with his therapist because he has been in the system since he was an adolescent and has learned no matter how nice she may appear, information he has given in the past has been used against him. His trust felt violated. He is very private and closed off and bottled up with her, whereas he overshares with Brad and Jessie.
He also fabricates parts of life because he wants to present himself in a way that gains acceptance and makes him feel validation — because he thinks that is the only way to be loved. With Jessie, there is a childlike eagerness to get it out all at once. He doesn't pick up on the social cues to ease into conversation, he just word-vomits. He wants to be an honorable man, and thinks, if I'm civil, courteous, and polite, as I was taught to be, then things should work out in life. And if he feels he has been upstanding and if it is not reciprocated, then this switch flips, and now he is going to use fear he can instill in people. He can no longer hold back this rage that he has been curtaining off with these civil gestures. He does this when he decides that person deserves it because they are not playing by the rules of society that he tries so hard to follow.
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There is an emphasis on Killian wanting to be seen and seeing what he becomes — his "magazine dreams." He is concerned about leaving a legacy. Why is this his obsession?
He already feels quite isolated, and one of the only people left in his life is his ailing grandfather. Once he is gone, who will be here to know Killian existed? This overly simplistic idea that if he can get on the cover of a magazine there is something permanent and lasting about that. He won't be swept away into obscurity once he's gone. It's the only way of leaving something behind. It is what he is able to do well. He has this physique and determination and pathological drive to be great because he wants to be loved. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, love is people everyone knows from them being on TV or a magazine cover. He is chasing this idea of celebrity because that's what love and validation looks like. There is no one else in his live giving that to him, so, he looks outwardly.
"Magazine Dreams" is available to watch online at the Sundance Film Festival through Jan. 30. For tickets and more information, visit https://festival.sundance.org/