Unbeknownst to me, when I walked into Rochester’s Powerhouse gym in the late 90s, I was not only entering the epicenter of hardcore bodybuilding in the Northeast, but embarking on a nearly 15-year journey to make this film.
When I saw Tony for the first time–half of his body wrapped in bandages–he was somehow training one side of his body, not casually, but ferociously, even violently. It was quite an image. After a week of watching the angry ritual of this injured man, I realized this was the very same man whose photo was above the entrance to the gym, hoisting a massive championship trophy in happier times. Instantly, the filmmaker in me was determined to ask if he might share his story.
With trepidation, I approached Tony. Fortunately, he not only agreed but turned out to be an incredible subject–insightful, self-aware, articulate, and emotionally available. I began shooting with whatever resources I could gather, which were limited. Using my trusty Digi8 Sony camera (a format now long, long gone), I began building up a stockpile of footage with Tony in the gym, in the pizza shop, and in church. More importantly, I was building a relationship with Tony of trust, and as the years passed, a mutual respect for our commitment to our respective crafts.
After about seven years of shooting in this matter–despite moving away from Rochester, I had continued to return there to shoot regularly–I realized that while I had an abundance of raw, intimate, and accessible verite style footage, what the film needed was the other side, the operatic side–the smell, taste, and look of the hardcore bodybuilding subculture through Tony’s mind’s eye. To do that, I knew that I would need to shoot film.
With the support of the LEF Foundation, and with additional funds from the sale of my condo (crazy, but true), I got together enough resources to buy the film stock, rent the gear, and assemble the crew to return again to Rochester, this time shooting Kodak Vision 2 Super 16mm stock.
Shooting film, in widescreen (a.k.a. CinemaScope), we were able to capture the fully glory and dynamism of world of The King of Size. As a film lover, and as someone who had worked in the film archives at the George Eastman House in Rochester, there was something palpable and inimitable in the way that celluloid captures light, and that is only heightened when it is applied to the “real world” of documentary.
Shooting Super 16mm, returning to the gym, I was able to storyboard certain workouts, and achieve in-camera effects–such as speed ramping from slow-motion to normal speed in real-time–and also photograph in a studio environment where the cinematography could show the full detail of Tony’s physicality.
Did I expect this process to take nearly fifteen years when I first began? Absolutely not. But has it been the most challenging and rewarding project of my life? Yes. More importantly, I feel the work, in addition to revealing my vision as a filmmaker, is an honest and true testament to the spirit and heart of Tony Natalie. For his trust and faith, I am grateful.