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A discussion with the documentary director, Zachary Levy

  • Stanless Steel in "Strongman."
  • A scene from "Strongman."
  • Stanless Steel in "Strongman."
  • A scene from "Strongman."
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Strongman is the documentary of Stanless Steel, whose real name is Stanley Pleskun. Stan does feats of strength that include lifting trucks (with both his arms and his feet), lifting four people with one finger (wouldn’t have believed it without this movie), and even having trucks driven over his chest. Talk about work related injuries.

I’m a fan of documentaries. When Anvil, the documentary on a band, came out last year, critics called it "The real life Spinal Tap." Well, Stan is the real life wrestler from the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler (with a little Anvil thrown in). Stanless Steel looks like a combination of Meatloaf, Steven Seagal, and Brando circa 1997. And much like how The Wrestler had to get a job in a deli to supplement his income, Stan works in a scrap yard. Initially this was a good idea; it turns out the only thing breaking was his body from all the physical labor. He’s also well passed his prime (guessing he’s in his early 50s). There’s a scene where Stan talks to a “strongman agent” that’s both hysterical and sad (as many of the scenes in this were). It reminded me of Broadway Danny Rose.

Your heart breaks when you see him performing a stunt, like bending a horseshoe or metal pipe, and the camera shows it’s for about 25 people at an elementary school. Yet you can’t stop smiling as he signs autographs for the excited kids afterwards. You cringe watching a relationship he has that’s starting to sour, and at the attempts his girlfriend makes doing his introductions. Stan is patient sometimes, a task master other times.

When I interviewed Zachary Levy, the director/cameraman/editor of this fascinating documentary, I told him I liked Stanless at first, than I felt sorry for him. There came a point where I didn’t like him, and eventually I rooted for him to be successful again.

Were you on the same roller coaster ride I was with Stanless Steel?

Zachary Levy: Yes, absolutely. No one is perfect or likable all the time, but there does often seem to be a need in movies to reduce characters to these simplistic smiley face versions of themselves. In some ways, it’s often even worse in documentaries than in fiction, where filmmakers sometimes go to great untruths to keep their characters in these kinds of limited roles for the audience to understand. I never wanted to reduce Stan to just the fuzzy version of him — that’s very much a part of him — but it’s just a part. I always wanted to make a film that had more complexity and nuance to it, so that as you see more and more layers to the film, the audience would understand more not just about Stan, but hopefully about their own lives as well.

How do you decide what to edit out? I’m guessing you had over 100 hours of footage.

ZL: There was about 230 hours total, but there was very little — maybe only about 30 hours — that I knew right away weren’t going to work. So you are really looking for the pieces that can fit together the best for the overall narrative. It’s hard; there are some amazing individual scenes that aren’t in the film. I mean, Stan can walk down the grocery aisle and something fascinating can happen, but you just keep refining it and refining it until the bigger film works in a way that feels right. One of the reasons it took over two years to edit the film.

I don’t know anything about the history of strongmen, other than the cool black-and-white photos of the bald men with handlebar mustaches throwing around weights at a circus. Why there wasn’t anything about the history of strongmen in Strongman?

ZL: The history of strongmen is definitely interesting and would make an interesting film, but a very different type of movie. Maybe I will do something like that at some point as kind of a PBS-style film. It would be good, but just not for this.

There was no music or narration in the movie, and at first I wished there was a voice explaining certain things to me.

ZL: Yeah, I think it’s more powerful too. I never really considered narration. Pretty much from the moment I started the film, I hoped the audience could experience it as if they were there themselves, so that when the layers unfold, they just become involved deeper and deeper into Stan’s world.My voice would have taken them out of that.

There's a scene where a fight almost broke out. Were you worried about being in the middle of a melee?

ZL: Yes! That’s the only time in the whole part of filming where I got a little scared. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a shot that starts on a close-up and zooms out to a wide shot. The moment of that zoom is exactly the moment I got a little worried. I’m the smallest person in the room by a long shot.

I would’ve enjoyed seeing some of the early competitions Stanless appeared in, going back 10 and 20 years.

ZL: I remember an early conversation in the editing room about how to start the film; one option could have been a montage of stunt clips from different shows. I think not only would it have been clichéd, but the film would have immediately felt like a ‘come-back’ story, which wasn’t really the case. There is an assumption of ‘making it’ on an audience’s part when they see someone on television.‘ Oh, that was his heyday. He was doing really well then.’ Well, the truth is he wasn’t really doing any better then he is at the beginning of the film. So, I felt like that would have only given the audience a misimpression and not added anything dramatically.

Why is it so hard to get audiences in to see a documentary?

ZL: It would be nice if people would rush out to wait around the block for the openings of more documentaries, but there’s probably not any real mystery why that doesn’t happen too often. I mean, we live in an advertising-driven world. Hollywood has spent billions of dollars over many decades conditioning people to get excited about going to see certain kinds of films, promoting a whole culture of celebrity that allows for people to be interested in new Brad Pitt movie or George Clooney movie even if they know nothing about the film itself. It’s no wonder documentaries have an uphill battle. That said, I don’t think documentaries are inherently slated for second class stature. I mean, Nanook of the North was the Star Wars of its day. And I think the upside of documentaries is that even if they don’t currently reach the kind of mass audience that Hollywood does, they are more likely to be truly original. They’re not derivatives of comic books or novels or plays that people already know, and I think that helps with their longer term prospects. That’s part of the reason why I think a good documentary stays in people’s heads long after they’ve forgotten most Hollywood releases.

One woman introduced his act by saying, "don’t try this at home." This is perhaps one of those times you don’t need to say that, because you’re not going to be able to lift a sledgehammer with one hand, or break a license plate with your fist, or lift four people in the audience with one finger. This is an interesting character study most will enjoy. I’m giving it a B.