A bodybuilding fever dream fueled by childhood trauma, food porn and acid techno music.

Raymond Knudsen’s “Prep” delves into the complex psyche of competitive bodybuilders, offering a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the world of muscle-bound athletes driven by childhood trauma, perfectionism, and the relentless pursuit of physical excellence. This experimental short film unfolds as a fever dream fueled by food porn, acid techno music, and the haunting memories that lurk beneath the surface of the bodybuilding subculture. As the protagonist grapples with the highs and lows of his journey, viewers are invited on a visceral exploration of the toll that relentless dedication to the sport takes on mental health and personal relationships.

With “Prep,” Knudsen aims to shatter stereotypes and shed light on the hidden struggles faced by competitive bodybuilders. Through a series of unflinching vignettes and pulsing techno beats, the film offers a poignant reminder of the human experience behind the chiseled physiques and spray-tanned exteriors. As the protagonist navigates the isolation and pressure of the bodybuilding world, “Prep” serves as a powerful testament to resilience, vulnerability, and the universal quest for self-discovery amidst the relentless pursuit of physical perfection. We checked in with Raymond who gave us a little more insight on his film.

How did your personal journey in bodybuilding inspire the creation of “Prep,” and what specific aspects of this experience did you aim to explore through the film?

I competed in multiple bodybuilding competitions in my early 20s. I discovered this world through various fitness influencers on YouTube and was inspired by their discipline and drive for self-improvement. I set my mind to stepping on stage and made it happen. Despite this achievement, my biggest takeaway from competing was how challenging my relationship with food became post-competition. As I became closer to stepping on stage, I would fantasize about the food I would eat after my shows and lose self-control once the goal was completed. I would enter a cycle of what they call “yo-yo dieting,” which is where you drop weight then put it right back on. It became a cycle of overeating, working out the next day to overcompensate, then doing it all over again. I didn’t realize how psychological the entire process was. A strong sense of confidence and moments of euphoria were coupled with ones of shame and guilt. The way I viewed food and my body was complicated. After my last competition, I worked closely with an eating psychologist named Shelby McDaniel to repair my relationship with food. It was during our work together that I learned that the seeds of issues with food are usually planted at a young age. I was an overweight child that eventually grew into a skinny teen. Expectations from fellow peers and exposure to very fit YouTube influencers led me to developing a hobby in weight lifting. Food has always been a source of comfort for me and that was exasperated during my contest preps. After speaking with other competitors, I realized that these issues are a common part of the journey for those who pursue this type of physique. The entire process is glamorized over social media as many competitors don’t show the low points, probably out of fear of appearing weak. It’s easy to fall into the all-or-nothing mindset and muscle your way through pain in order to achieve. We do this as artists, athletes, etc.

Can you elaborate on how the film portrays the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of the human psyche, particularly within the context of the competitive bodybuilding world?

A contest prep is built upon a repetitive routine and control of variables. This facade evolves into a turbulent nightmare as we deep dive into our protagonist’s past trauma. The juxtaposing styles of the music tracks and imagery was an intentional effort to communicate that gradual transition. Our protagonist is building his body and working towards his goal through a series of builds and drops in the music. The scenes within the black and white voids were intended to represent what’s happening in his head while the grind of reality takes place. I wanted the two worlds to eventually mold into one as we dive deeper into his psyche and further understand what he’s running away from.

The film promises unflinching vignettes and pulsing techno music as the heartbeat of the narrative. how did you use these elements to create an immersive experience for viewers and convey the psychological depth of the protagonist?

My last contest prep took place in 2020. I didn’t do much film-related work due to COVID and wanted to get back into writing. My eating psychologist challenged me to “write one crappy page a day without judging myself.” So I did just that. It’s very easy to shy away from unorthodox ideas during the writing process out of fear of what other people will think. There were so many things I wanted to try that I felt would ultimately tie into one another to create an immersive experience with an important message. I’ve loved house and techno music since high school, but haven’t seen many films that include that specific sound. The repetitive beat and varying intensity of this type of music aligned with the lifestyle of a bodybuilder. I listened to a lot of DJ sets during my workouts and that ultimately became the structure of film. The music dictated everything. Many people who saw the film described it as a sensory overload. My reflection on those volatile emotions and thoughts guided my creative decisions. I put an emphasis on imagery and sound that hopefully evoked a visceral feeling and opted away from dialogue. As bodybuilding is purely a visual sport, I felt this approach could be a good fit. We only see our protagonist speak in vlogs, which is so common in the fitness space, but also doesn’t share the full picture of what’s happening behind the scenes.

How does the film address these issues, and what message or reflection do you hope it provokes about societal pressures and their impact on mental health?

I tried to be as honest as possible. I’m not trying to demonize bodybuilding, but if you look at the films that explore this sport that have been released over the last few years, the commonality is the darker aspects of this athletic experience. It’s just the way it is for many competitors and a lot of them aren’t aware of what’s going on subconsciously. Many are doing it for the wrong reasons. My biggest priority with this film was dissecting a man’s conflicting relationship to food. It’s something that hasn’t been explored much in the media. Food is such a huge part of our lives, especially for bodybuilders. It’s the variable that changes the body’s shape the most. We all have a relationship with food. We live in a culture where achievement and external validation are put on a pedestal. We prioritize this pursuit and chase until we have it, thinking the hole will finally be filled. It’s a singular focus on the outcome that results in many of us feeling empty on top of the mountain.

Can you discuss the research or insights that informed the portrayal of the protagonist’s mental state and struggles, especially concerning childhood traumas?

Most of the research was my own experience. I expressed as much personal emotion and thought as I could while making this movie to not only understand my experience, but to share what I feel is universal to many. A lot of competitors that I’ve spoken to found bodybuilding during a tough period in their lives. Some were overweight kids who were bullied, others had tough upbringings or were coming out of a bad breakup. I think the biggest spark for exploring childhood trauma was from a party when I was a kid. A family friend’s father made a comment to someone about how big I was and speculated how much I weighed. That stuck with me for a long time and directly inspired the scene at Chuck E. Cheese. As I’ve gotten older and observed how people from the older generation communicate about those who are heavier, there is a fat phobic mindset that’s been passed down for a long time. The mind at its earliest stage is very sensitive and events like that can subconsciously push people to different places.

The commitment to reminding modern-day gladiators that they’re not alone is a powerful sentiment. how do you envision the film resonating with bodybuilders or individuals facing similar psychological battles, and what discussions or reflections do you hope it sparks?

I’m not entirely sure how bodybuilders will react yet, but I have a good feeling based on reactions at our screenings in 2023. I’ve tried my hardest in both my films about bodybuilding to depict everything truthfully. Being on the same page with my lead actor and current pro bodybuilder, Chibueze Anyasor, was the most important aspect of the process. I didn’t want to misrepresent anything. Our goal was to show it all: good, bad and ugly. Getting his sign off on our creative decisions was a priority. Even the bodybuilders who were extras in the film, I was very transparent about my goal and wanted this to be a collaborative experience. I hope people see their relationship with food with more clarity. Maybe even being more gentle with ourselves and others. We’re all molded differently based on our past experiences and upbringing. Everyone is fighting a battle in their head that nobody knows about.

How did you use cinematic techniques or visual storytelling to convey the emotional and psychological turmoil experienced by the protagonist?

I was very inspired by the work of Gaspar Noe, specifically his film CLIMAX. I’ve always wanted to work with dancers and felt that type of movement would emphasize the emotional and psychological turmoil. Noe’s use of top down shots, pulsing strobe lights and a frenetic soundtrack opened my mind to what’s possible while writing this film. His descent into insanity aligned with many of my personal thoughts and feelings. I was also inspired by the use of step-printing in the films of Wong Kar-Wai and music videos of Travis Scott. Another technique that would create discomfort. Our minds often go into overdrive when we fly too close to the sun. Things can feel heightened and surreal. The film was meant to feel like a fever dream or acid trip. We were open to any technique that would raise the temperature until our protagonist’s inevitable breaking point.

Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from “Prep” in terms of understanding the psychological complexities of competitive bodybuilding and the importance of mental health within this world?

We can’t muscle our way through pain and trauma alone. Hustle culture pushes a narrative that ends up revealing itself as a false positive. Oftentimes we accomplish our goals and our well-being takes a major toll. I’m not here to tell people to not compete in bodybuilding, but it’s so important to know your why and make sure you have a solid support system. Many people compete because they want to get in shape, but their relationship with their bodies and food is already not in the healthiest place. This often leads to a mess under the rug, which will inevitably be pulled by the stress of a contest prep. I’m all for pushing for greatness and self-improvement. You will have to work hard to accomplish your dreams. Just don’t forget about taking care of yourself along that journey.

What are your favorite short films that have inspired you over the years?

HEARTBREAK THUNDER by Mees Peijnenburg
THE SEND OFF + THE RABBIT HUNT by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas
THE VACATION by Jarreau Carrillo