Bigger tells the story of the Montrealer who was the father of modern fitness

We spoke to the nephew of Joe Weider about the film adaptation of his family’s empire.

Joe Weider Montreal Bigger
Juliqanne Hough and Tyler Hoechlin in Bigger, about Joe Weider

Montreal-born Joe Weider is considered by many to be the father of modern fitness. Obsessed from a young age with the idea of perfecting physique, he launched his first fitness magazine in his late teens (alongside his younger brother Ben) and slowly but surely built a publishing empire that branched out in all aspects of the fitness industry, from gyms to supplements to competitions. Weider took the very idea of fitness from a niche interest into a worldwide phenomenon that is now an integral part of most people’s lives.

George Gallo’s Bigger chronicles the seven-decade-spanning career of the man who defined the very concept of bodybuilding. Tyler Hoechlin plays Joe Weider, who somehow never quite lost his Polish-by-way-of-the-Main accent as he moved in the worlds of fitness and bodybuilding. Weider was obsessed with the human figure and the ways in which it could be sculpted; prone to absolutely no vices (all of which he regarded as obstacles standing between a person and their ideal physique), he poured all of himself into the fledgling body-building magazine business he built alongside his more practical brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard).

“A lot of people say that accent is a weird kind of Montreal mixture,” explains Eric Weider. “It’s somewhere between Yiddish, Canadian, old Polish… his parents were born in Poland, and he picked up this Montreal kind of stew of accents. (laughs)”

The film chronicles his constant feud with rival publisher Bill Hauk (Kevin Durand), a composite of several real-life figures; his involvement in the commercialization of public gyms alongside his lifelong friend Jack Lalanne (Colton Haynes); his relationship with pin-up model Betty Brosmer (Julianne Hough), who eventually became his wife; his mentorship of a young Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger (Calum von Moger), just about the only man who trained harder and with more precise goals in mind than Joe Weider; and his founding of the IFBB, which continues to be the authority in the world of bodybuilding.

Eric Weider is Ben Weider’s son. Also born in Montreal but based in Los Angeles for the last three decades, he took over the family business after years of working alongside his father and uncle (Ben died in 2008, age 85; Joe died in 2013 at 93) and he serves as executive producer on the film, which opens tomorrow at the Forum. “It was about five years ago when I was approached by the producer, Steve Lee Jones,” says Weider. “He had read the autobiography of my father and uncle, which was called Brothers of Iron, soon after Joe’s passing. He had seen that in the news, picked up the book and loved their story. He approached me and wanted to make a movie about it.”

Joe Weider Bigger

Tyler Hoechlin, Calum von Moger and Aneurin Barnard in Bigger

It didn’t take much to convince Weider that his family’s story was worth turning into a film; he saw an opportunity to preserve their legacy. “I was open to it because Joe and my father really came up in the print era; their business was print-focused, what with Muscle & Fitness and Shape magazine and so on,” he explains. “I realized that we live in a digital world now; people watch and see as opposed to read, and I always remember something that my father told me about the evolution of a new truth. He taught me that all new truths go through three stages: first they’re ridiculed, then they’re violently attacked and finally, they’re accepted as self-evident and obvious, as if everyone already knew it. My concern was that, having done their work in print, being in a digital era when everyone accepts that physical fitness, diet and nutrition are good, I feared that it would be easy for their story to be forgotten because everyone would feel like they knew it already.”

In that sense, Bigger is a pretty straight-forward biopic. It doesn’t dwell too much on the psychological complexities of Joe Weider’s life, even if a domineering mother and failed first marriage feature prominently. “I would say it does deal with some of the real issues they faced, beginning with a sensitive issue for a family to admit to, which was that Joe and my dad’s mother was quite a difficult woman and did not make life easy for Joe in particular,” says Weider. “It dealt with a lot of the prejudices they came up against in terms of the medical community laughing at their ideas, in terms of the anti-Semitism that they faced, but the truth is that my father, especially, was an incredibly optimistic person. They’d lived through the Depression in the 1930s in Montreal – they’d had their share of challenges, but he remained incredibly optimistic. Joe was a more complex character than my father, and I think that comes through in the movie. He was so focused on his goals, he never let negative things bring him down. He was a man on a mission – a man on a mission can’t be pulled down by all the things that are trying to pull you down.”

Having relatively little experience in the movie business, Weider’s work on the film wasn’t exactly hands-on. “I wasn’t the day-to-day guy running things,” he explains. “I have zero experience in movies, I never had any interest being involved in movies despite living here in L.A. for 30 years. I’m regularly approached to get involved in movies and I stay away from it because it’s a business I don’t understand and it seems to me like it’s a business that it’s easy to make big mistakes in! But for this movie, I had, let’s say, final approval over things like script and the director and the actors, but I basically entrusted Steve Lee Jones, who was the hands-on day-to-day producer, to make the right calls. I fully understood that the movie was not a documentary, but I wanted to make sure that it was true enough to what happened to do it justice.”

Though Joe Weider made a life for himself in California, Ben Weider never really strayed too far from Montreal; he remained a lifelong Montrealer until his death. A community centre affiliated with the YMCA on Westbury Avenue in Côte-des-Neiges bears his name, as does the gym located inside Père Blanc-Sablon. “My father was a Montrealer through-and-through,” says Weider. “He travelled the world, he loved seeing other places, but he always came back to Montreal. He never had any interest living anywhere else, and he was very happy being a Montrealer.” ■

Bigger opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 12. Watch the trailer below.

For more coverage of films and TV, please visit our film section.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.

To vote for your favourite Montreal people and things in the Best of MTL readers poll, click here.

Bigger Official Trailer