Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 28, 2010
Young New York filmmaker Zachary Levy’s debut feature, Strongman, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival and is now finally hopping around to select cities. The documentary follows a modern-day hulk by the name of Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun. For his day job, Stanley hauls around scrap metal. But his every waking moment seems consumed by a dream of being the best in a small field of metal-bending and strong-man athletic performers. Strongman is a compelling documentary full of heart, humor, and pathos that recalls the achievements of Chris Smith’s American Movie. Its carnivelesque quality and eccentric characters would not be out of place in a film by Federico Fellini, but the more immediate and inevitable comparison reviewers are apt to mention is Darren Aronofosky’s The Wrestler. After all, both films “feature longhaired, seemingly past their prime fringe athletes living in a dilapidated New Jersey who are chasing a dwindling dream as the outside world relentlessly presses down upon them.” (Michael Tully) Last week while visiting Austin’s SXSW Film Festival I met Zachary and we had a chance to talk about his film.
Can you describe the origins behind Strongman to the uninitiated?
Yes, sure, of course. About ten years ago, I got a call to go film a stunt show for NBC, so I showed up at the Princeton airport and saw Stan with each arm roped to a Cesna airplane and the planes trying to take off in opposite directions! It was a pretty fabulous stunt, to say the least. Afterwards we went back to his house and I knew pretty quickly that there was a larger film here that I needed to make—just seeing the things he was struggling with resonated in a certain way.
How would you describe the aesthetic approach?
I guess I would describe the aesthetic approach as “hard-core verite.” I really don’t have a good label for it yet. Generally speaking, I’d say it owes a lot to a Maysles-style tradition and I see someone like Shirley Clarke as a close cousin.
Basically I’m just trying to put you in the room with the people in the film. Past the bounds of the normal cinematic frame in some sense—any of those things that would allow you to say it’s just a movie. I want to strip back the layers and kick out the crutches, so to speak. I hope it brings you close enough to see the guts of it all, so when you take it home with you, it feels closer to life.
That’s not to say it’s not a “movie.” I think that if it’s on a screen, it’s a “movie.” But the film’s playing with some of those inherent tensions and contradictions.
The cover image clearly evokes the iconic image of The Mighty Thor from Marvel Comic Books. But the reality of Stanley’s situation paints a different picture. Is he a tortured soul? A delusional loser? An overbearing control freak? Or is he a loveable teddy bear with a big heart that is pure as rain? He certainly seems stoic and strong in his commitment despite all adversity, and true Nordic heroes fight the good fight even though they know they will lose in the end. How much time did you spend with Stanley and, when all is said and done, would you describe him as a hero figure?
Yes, for me, he is heroic. Not even so much in spite of the weaknesses in his life, but really because of them.
It would be easier to understand if Stan bent his bars in comic-book fashion, but he doesn’t. There is no real yardstick of course for the things that Stan does. There are no contests. There aren’t “expert” television commentators. There aren’t any of the things we rely upon to “tell” us how to judge or place someone.
It’s a world where external validation is going to be extremely difficult to come by, and yet Stan—for better or worse—chooses to keep on doing things in the way he feels he can get through life. Is it tilting at windmills? Perhaps. But really so are a lot of us.
Maybe it’s akin to Evel Knievel’s old saying—a man can fall many times, but is only a failure when he refuses to get up. Given some of the alternatives, I think there’s a certain fundamental nobility to Stan’s choices.
I was riveted by Stanley’s girlfriend, Barbara. There was such a unique combination of compassion and sadness in her eyes that, right away, I knew there would be some kind of drama that would unfold later on between the two. For such a sensitive and vulnerable person, I was surprised she gave you as much access as she did. Her sister’s reaction to your camera crew (literally peeling away from you in her car or fending you off with a dismissive wave of the hand) seems the more natural response. Were there ever points where you felt the conversation was getting too personal to intrude upon? Although we live in a time when so many people are desensitized to reality-TV histrionics, Barbara is no attention-seeking narcissist and, instead, seems loathe to be caught on tape. And yet you capture what would otherwise be very private quarrels on camera. How?
Oh, I don’t know, exactly—there’s not a trick to it or anything. I mean for one, I did spend a lot of time with Stan and Barbara, but truthfully time by itself isn’t the answer. There were things I filmed in the first week of shooting that were just as intimate as things in the last week.
I guess part of the answer is that when I film something I don’t really see it as “capturing.” I’m not there to “get” something per se, but really to try and understand something, about the people in the film, but also about myself as well. I guess that’s something you carry with you in some way, so that when tough times happen, it’s not about you just watching them, but really going through it with them.
Sometimes you capture moments that are so perfectly composed in terms of framing characters within their environment that I have to ask: was your approach completely “hands-off” and “fly-one-the-wall,” or did you ever stop things, even if just for a moment, so as to allow the camera to re-frame itself to include, say, a painting on the wall or to capture some other background detail?
No, you get pretty attuned to the environments, so you kind of just know where things are. In this kind of filmmaking, the foreground of the story is difficult enough to get, so you don’t want to mess it up by interrupting for the sake of the background! You just continually try to interpret what’s in front of you.
That’s not to say, it’s not a directed film. I’d say it’s a highly directed film, but when I film I do more listening than talking. The closest thing I can compare it to is really jazz improvisation. With one ear, you are paying attention to the individual notes and the same time you are figuring out how they fit into the larger melody.
I was having a hard time pegging the age for either Stanley or Barbara. They both have an innocence and naiveté that gave them a youthful demeanor, but they also clearly had their share of stumbling over a field of broken dreams and seemed to have one eye in the rear-view mirror. Although bad manners on my part, I can’t help but ask: how old are they? And while I’m being nosy, how did they meet?
In the film Stan’s in his early to mid forties. Barbara is a couple of years older. It’s funny, but if you ask Stan his age he never really knows right away—each time, he always counts up from his birthday.
Stan and Barbara actually had dated briefly when they were in their twenties and Stan had never really forgotten about her. Then about two years before the film started, they ran into each other in the supermarket.
While Stanley certainly has his share of problems, his brother’s addictions to alcohol and crack are way worse. And yet Stanley moves in with him instead of vice-versa. How on Earth is it that Stanley’s brother is the one to have a roof over his head?
Ha! I think that’s kind of what Stan is asking himself!
Are you still in touch with them, and if so are there any updates you want to share insofar as their reaction to the film or such?
Yeah, I stay in touch with them all time. To this day, we still talk a couple of times a week. I’m happy to say that they really love the film. Both of them are always asking me about it, asking how it’s doing, how people are responding to it.
When I first showed Stan, I was really nervous. But he kept on laughing at the humor, which I liked but also scared me that he might not respond well to the more serious parts—but at the end, he just turned to me and said I had understood his life in a way no one else had. It was high praise.
Ramin Bahrani, the director of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo (among others) hailed your documentary as “A phenomenal film” that heralded “the debut of a new important American documentary filmmaker.” How did Bahrani come to see your film, and how do you feel about his work?
I had actually first showed him some footage from it way back in 2002. That was after Strangers, but before Man Push Cart, so he wasn’t famous yet! We knew each other from Columbia but had fallen out of touch until we happened to run into each other on the subway one day.
I sent him the finished film after winning Slamdance. To his credit, Ramin is a tough critic and isn’t shy about expressing about his feelings when he doesn’t like something, so I was really moved by his response of course.
In terms of Ramin’s work—well, first off, I’m in awe of his productivity. This is a guy who will write two feature scripts and make a short film in a year and will honestly tell you that he feels he didn’t get enough done. We are all hard workers, but he’s at another level.
Goodbye Solo for me is a great, great film. The opening shot—I mean, it’s not one really, and that’s what’s so great about it. There’s not a single big note or obvious note in the whole film, and yet it adds up to something really big. I saw it at SXSW last year; I literally left the theater and jumped up and down in the parking lot. I mean, he did something really big with really understated pieces and I don’t think people realize how hard that is to do.
Can you describe the different reactions you’ve had to your film at various festivals? And while on the topic of film festivals, what’s your take on the strengths and weaknesses of the different fests you’ve screened at?
Well, the interesting thing for me is sometimes just how different the film plays. I mean it’s the same film of course, but each audience has its own energy and some days that takes it more to the comedic side and other times they respond more to film’s tragic side. Especially for a film like this where there’s not a lot of external guidance to tell you how you are supposed to watch it, it’s really fascinating to see how the group energy affects the film.
There are so many festivals these days, but for me personally, I’ve actually really had some of the best times at the smaller festivals. Sometimes, when there is no industry present or expectation of deal-making, it kind of allows it purely to be a film festival. With a good crowd, it can just be fun. The big festivals are fun too, just when you have a film there, there’s a part of it which is work.
What’s the best (or a favorite) question you’ve had so far in reaction to your film?
What’s the budget?! No, I don’t know…the questions sometimes are similar but I really liked what a viewer said to me the other week—“Wow, so many films have so much put into them—this one, so much comes out of.” Which I took to mean that unlike most films, he wasn’t paying attention to the mechanics of it… he was just in there.
I had a screening in LA, where someone came up afterwards and say he could smell the film. And while he was telling me this, he was rubbing fingers against his palms where you could hear his skin crinkle—the film was in his hands somehow—and that’s what I want, really. For it to move into places that you are not used to.
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