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Elijah Bynum didn’t want to look the man in the eye. No one at the gym did. He was massive, a bodybuilder who inspired fear because of his size.
“No one wanted to be caught in his path, I think because he made us uncomfortable,” says Bynum of the feeling of his fellow gym patrons.
It was relatively early in the pandemic. Bynum had been thinking a lot about isolation, and wanted to craft a character forgotten by society. When he saw how people avoided this bodybuilder, something clicked: “You have an individual who is both feared and invisible — because of everyone around him. And I thought it was a really peculiar way for someone to move through the world.”
That was the genesis of Magazine Dreams, the new feature that debuted at Sundance last month and took home the creative vision jury prize. It is earning rave reviews for Jonathan Majors, who in a transformative role inhabits Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder dealing with personal demons. It’s poised to be a key part of Majors’ filmography as he approaches new levels of fame thanks to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Creed III opening in the coming weeks.
But before all that, Bynum was just a filmmaker looking for his movie after directing the 2017 Timothée Chalamet festival feature Hot Summer Nights. He wrote a draft quickly, but it left a lot to be desired. So, he put the script in the proverbial drawer and moved on.
Then, a year later, came a jolt of inspiration. Bynum saw a Los Angeles city bus, and on the side was Majors’ face.
“That’s when it really clicked. ‘Oh, I haven’t been thinking about the character the right way,'” says Bynum. “I started writing the script all over again, specifically for him. And that turned out to be the script that we shot.”
Majors was already on his way to becoming one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood, with his role on HBO’s Lovecraft Country in the books, and was in production on the all-star Western The Harder They Fall.
Bynum sent him a script with a personal letter. Majors, as is his custom, did not read the letter first as he doesn’t like them to color his read. But the script? The script he liked.
“The script was just so incredible, and Killian was so impossibly vulnerable, impossibly human,” says Majors. “And I thought, OK, so what’d it take to do it? You know? And I was like, ‘This is gonna be hard!’”
In Magazine Dreams, Majors has a transformative role, akin to Christian Bale’s extreme weight loss feature The Machinist or Michael Fassbender’s own transformation in Hunger.
“You don’t get many of those in a career,” says Majors. “As a young actor I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to take that challenge, physically and emotionally.”
Majors was already in boxing shape for Creed III, in which he plays antagonist Damian Anderson, but Magazine Dreams was next-level. He spent around 18 months training and consumed 6,100 calories a day to maintain 202 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
During the 24 days of filming, Majors lived a monastic lifestyle involving three workouts a day. He rose at 4 a.m. to take care of his dogs and look at his script, all while sipping on a protein shake. He’d hit the gym in West Hollywood before going to set — where there’d be more protein shakes in between takes — followed by a phone call with Bynum on the drive home to discuss the next day of shooting, with a late night workout at the gym ending the day, before it all started over.
“That’s the life of the bodybuilder though,” says Majors. “Just grip to weights and food.”
Bynum, meanwhile, peppered the world of Magazine Dreams with a mix of character actors and familiar faces such as Frasier’s Harriet Sansom Harris as Killian’s court-appointed therapist and Bradley Stryker as a man who wrongs Killian. Perhaps most notable was Cyrano’s Haley Bennett as a fellow grocery store employee and potential love interest. Bennett flew in from London and was thrust into a particularly grueling scene on a hot day in the San Fernando Valley with no air-conditioning.
“You come in, you’re jet-lagged. You shoot 11 pages with an animal across from you,” Majors says, referring to Killian in that scene. “She came in with so much elegance and grace and … a real appetite for the scene.”
The team could feel they were making something special. Actors would ask Bynum how to get through a scene without breaking down in tears. And the crew would break into applause after Majors delivered impactful moments — not something often seen on a film set.
“Sometimes Jonathan would break down after a scene and we would need 10 minutes. We didn’t say much,” says Bynum. “I usually just kind of hugged him and let him kind of come back to Earth and then he would pull himself together and we’d move on to the next.”
Out of Sundance, the buzz surrounding the film focused on its dark material, with it drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (Gilroy was a producer of Dreams). Yet Bynum notes the film also has hope in the end.
“We weren’t interested in just creating a completely nihilistic story, devoid of hope,” says the filmmaker.
Bynum is not an emotional person, but on the final day of shooting he found himself in tears. It’d been two years of effort to get to that point, and he was finally saying goodbye to Killian Maddox years after dreaming him up.
“That hit me a lot harder than I thought it would,” says Bynum.
Adds Majors: “Leaving each other and leaving him and leaving that grounds of fellowship and conjuring … There was ennui, certainly, and also celebration that we had done it.”
In snowy Park City, Utah, Bynum and Majors brought Magazine Dreams to the Sundance audience, the first time anyone outside a core group had seen the movie.
Like some actors, Majors does not watch his own performances, but afterwards a son of a friend remarked that the actor had spent months and months of training for around 10 minutes of workout scenes. At first, Majors was taken aback by the comment.
“I was like, is that the math of it?” Majors says with a laugh. “And I go, ‘That’s worth it, man.'”
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