Powerful ‘Dreams’: Pelham native’s film about a driven weightlifter turns heads at Sundance


Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2023 8:45 PM

The idea first came to Elijah Bynum about four years ago when he was exercising in a California gym and noticed an ultra-serious bodybuilder, a guy who was “radiating intensity” as he went through his paces.

“There was this really intense energy about him that made you want to keep your distance,” said Bynum, a screenwriter and film director who grew up in Pelham and has lived in Los Angeles since 2009. “He was both feared and ignored by everyone in the gym.”

“I thought it would be compelling to explore this character,” Bynum asaid during a recent phone call. “What’s he all about, and where does this religious devotion to lifting come from?”

Fast-forward about four years, and Bynum, a graduate of Amherst schools and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has turned his initial screenplay sparked by an unknown bodybuilder into a movie that won laurels at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“Magazine Dreams,” which stars Jonathan Majors as a troubled young bodybuilder, received a special “Creative Vision” jury award at the film fest, while in a survey of 367 movie critics, “Magazine Dreams” finished third in the ranking of best Sundance films and Bynum was ranked third for direction and eighth for screenwriting.

“This immersive film’s relentless tension, achieved through the rigorous marriage of light, camera movement, sound, and an overwhelming performance, left us all disturbed, yet riveted,” says the Sundance citation for “Magazine Dreams,” adding that the movie “will reverberate through audiences to much debate.”

Jonathan Majors, as amateur Black bodybuilder Killian Maddox, has drawn particular praise for his performance, playing a man who’s physically imposing, even frightening, and obsessed with winning stardom as a weightlifter.

But Killian is also vulnerable and isolated, a socially awkward guy wracked by self-doubt that can turn into self-loathing. And as the movie progresses, his attempts to forge human connections, such as with a pretty cashier (Hayley Bennett) in the grocery store where he works, keep failing, in turn fueling his anger.

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Bynum, who’s worked on a number of film and TV projects as both a writer and director, says the “light bulb” moment for “Dreams” came in early 2020 after he’d begun writing the screenplay. He was driving through the San Fernando Valley when he noticed a bus with a huge picture of Majors on the side.

“I imagined Jonathan in that role, and then I began restructuring the story in a way that brought more humanity and nuance to the character,” Bynum said. “I sent him the script, and I’m lucky he jumped at it.”

Indeed, it doesn’t hurt to have a fast-rising star of Majors’ stature as your lead. Since making his debut in the well-received indie film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” in 2019, Majors has been featured in a number of productions, including the HBO series “Lovecraft Company” and the war drama film “Devotion.”

He’s also in the just-opened “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in the Marvel series and will be featured in “Creed III,” the next installment of the “Rocky” film series, opening in March.

Majors ate huge, protein-packed meals and pumped a lot of iron to build up his frame for “Magazine Dreams,” but it’s the emotional depth he brings to the film that critics have singled out.

“It’s an all-in performance for the ages, layered with as much vulnerability as anger, and it’s to Majors’ credit that our hearts ache for Killian even — or perhaps especially — when he’s out of control,” The Hollywood Reporter writes.

“Majors and writer-director Elijah Bynum manage the considerable feat of making us fear more for the intimidating colossus than the quivering employer he’s standing over,” the reviews adds.

Bynum says Majors told him the role appealed to him for a number of reasons, including “some personal things that he didn’t reveal to me. But I felt like he really brought the character to life.”

And in an interview with the online publication Deadine Hollywood, Majors said he was drawn to Bynum’s script because “it really speaks about a minority that walks around us, all the time. A group of people that are marginalized, mentally and socially in their interpersonal interactions.”

“I saw that in the script, and I saw a character that was so gentle and beautiful, and fragile, and actually the byproduct of the world he lives in,” he said.

Going to California

When he was growing up in Pelham, Bynum says he was always drawn to storytelling and creative writing. As a teen he got interested in sports — he played football at Amherst Regional High School and at UMass — but he was also a big movie fan.

Though he majored in marketing and economics at UMass, he completed his degree in 2009 by doing an internship at a Los Angeles movie production company. From there he landed a job with Creative Artists Agency (CCA), a major talent and sports agency in L.A.

“I didn’t have a long-term goal of being an agent, but CCA was a great place to learn about the [movie] business,” he said. “It was while I was there that I started writing screenplays, and as I got to know people working in film, I was able to get some of those screenplays onto people’s desks.”

Among his early successes was “Hot Summer Nights,” a coming-of-age story set on Cape Cod that starred a then relatively unknown Timothée Chalamet, now a Generation Z star. The film, which Bynum wrote and directed, debuted at the South by Southwest Festival in 2017 and later had a theatrical and streaming release.

“Magazine Dreams,” which Bynum says was filmed in 24 days in and around Los Angeles, has drawn some initial comparisons to “Taxi Driver,” the seminal Martin Scorsese film that starred Robert De Niro as an alienated and disturbed New York cabbie who descends into violence at the movie’s conclusion.

Other reviewers have suggested “Dreams” is also a study of toxic masculinity, the isolation and loneliness American men can experience, racism, and obsession with fame. But though the movie delves into some of those issues, Bynum says, he didn’t write the film specifically to address any of them.

“Somewhere in the back of your mind you might be thinking of these kinds of things, but it’s a slippery slope if you try to make your film a statement about them,” he said. “Those are all important ideas, but I’m more interested in the character and what drives him.”

He also says any comparison to “Taxi Driver” is unintentional: “That’s a great film, but I didn’t use that as a template or structure for what I did.”

These days Bynum and his design team have been holding discussions with different distribution companies to see how they might get “Magazine Dreams” out to a nationwide audience — including to viewers in the Valley, perhaps at the Amherst Cinema.

That could happen through a limited theatrical release or a streaming platform, Bynum noted, but in the end he says he’s confident that “we’re going to find a great home for the movie.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.