Zachary Levy's dëbut feature, Strongman, tells of a larger-than-life story writ small. The film had its premiere at 2009's Slamdance and won the prize for best documentary. So why do so few people know about this film, which is one of the most powerful and affecting vérité stories to come out of the US in recent years? While I had certainly heard of the film and knew many people who loved it, this is one of those instances where, perhaps, the film will have a slower build, finding its audience slowly, there for discovery. Levy and his main protagonist, Stanley Pleskin, aka, Stanless Steel, The Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel and Metal, have a profound rapport which only grew deeper as the two shot together over the course of several years. For some great insight into that aspect, and as an appropriate companion piece to the following chat with Levy, read Michael Tully's review at Hammer to Nail here: "In showing one man's tirelsss quest to wrap the tips of his monstrous fingers around an even somewhat tiny piece of the American dream, Levy has produced a heartbreaking drama that would make Eugene O'Neill proud."
I only saw Strongman but a couple of months ago when Cian Smyth programmed it for the Maysles Brothers Competition at the Belfast Film Festival in Ireland. I was positively floored by its impact on me and unable to shake the film from my head, I really wanted to speak to its maker. Happily, Levy complied:
Still in Motion (SIM): It’s interesting how certain films cross your radar at certain times. It seems like I might be discovering this particular film a bit late?
Zachary Levy (ZL): [laughing] Yes and no. I mean, it feels like in a lot of ways, it’s a largely undiscovered film; at least it feels that way to me. It’s been out there for a while although still largely unknown.
SIM: The second time I watched Strongman, this strange analogy emerged for me. Throughout the whole film, our hero, Stan, always receives a fairly underwhelming reaction to whatever he does—most oftentimes from the people closest around him, his girlfriend, Barbara, his family. All the larger-than-life things he’s trying to do, his ambition and drive to be the best are on display and nobody’s ever paying that much attention. This speaks to the pace and dedication in which you tell this story. I realize how difficult it is to create pieces like this since it’s not really in fashion to do so, and perhaps the reaction from the “marketplace” only emphasizes that. But it’s also so rare to see such a complete and dedicated relationship on screen as the one you have with your main protagonist. Tell me about your initial draw to Stan. What did you see in him that resonated so strongly for you?
ZL: It was a gut feeling more than anything. Certainly the contradictions and the complexity in him were pretty apparent when I met him. There was also a great innocence and vulnerability, although those aren’t exactly the right words. His openness and other things that were all in very tight proximity to one another was interesting. I connected with all that quickly. That’s just at the character level. I felt he was a character that could carry a story and one I cared about, someone who resonated on a personal level so the film could be carried beyond the clichés of how people might choose stories.
It seems to me that filmmakers, way too often these days, are choosing things on their commercial merit, a story they’ve seen before. On some level, too many people, I think, are choosing to make films that are, basically, copies of other films they’ve seen. It’s always hard to articulate why some stories resonate for certain people and others don’t. But I did feel like it had those elements where it would resonate for many people. However, that wasn’t the motivation for making the film.
SIM: What sets this film apart is, of course, the relationship between you and Stan. You allow us to hear you, but we never see you in frame. But you do manage to be quite a forceful presence since he does turn to you for validation many times, especially during the more stressful moments he’s going through. I think most people can feel that kind of authentic bond; it automatically makes you someone to be trusted, both by your protagonists and by your viewers. There’s also no ambivalence on Stan’s part to being filmed and the sense that a documentary subject might be feeling less than secure always makes me a bit nervous. I felt, in this case, that this documentation of his life and what was happening was often a lifeline for him, helping him to articulate all the things he thinks deeply about. Both Barbara and Stan struggle with words and the way they’ve resolved that is to parrot what they’ve heard on TV, from books, from other sources outside themselves. They don’t have the words so they re-purpose things to express their own feelings and points of view. It made me realize that the ability, or inability, to do that carries a lot of weight.
ZL: Yes, you’ve hit on something very few have really noticed and that is that as much as the film is about strength, both inner and outer, it’s also a film very much about language. Literally, Stan is looking for an announcer the entire film. That’s the film. And Barbara, too—she’s also looking for an announcer and her sister, for the most part, plays that role. In Stan’s case, by picking Barbara to speak for him, he’s chosen a person who is largely silent in a lot of ways. She has an extremely firm and strong voice when one strips back all the layers, but she doesn’t have a lot of confidence in it. Stan can also say some pretty profound and deeply true things but he doesn’t trust that anyone will understand him. That tension, between the things we speak and the things we are silent about, that desire to be heard, is a huge part of the film.
SIM: Concurrently with all those individual struggles, there is a very unique and very touching love story you capture between Stan and Barbara. It sneaks up on you, the depth to which they can relate to one another, even though there are aspects of their relationship that are troubled given the way in which they have to deal with Barbara’s sister’s interference. In fact, Barbara’s sister’s role in this drama is symbolic in a lot of ways as a physical manifestation of the conflicts between Stan and Barbara. She was, in fact, the only one that seemed exceedingly uncomfortable in front of your camera and expressed as much. She acts as some kind of weird Greek chorus, commentating on the “action” in their household.
ZL: The other part of it, too, is that both Barbara and her sister are much more concerned about image than the other subjects. Stan cares about the image in terms of his showmanship and his ideas about that, the presentation. For him, what’s more important is something deeper than that, something more internal. He’s not sure if Barbara has that or not, or understands who he is. “Do you really get me?”, he seems to always be asking her. That element of image does play a part in their individual relationships to the camera.
SIM: Well, really the only time we get to see Stan shine in that aspect of showmanship is on the British game show and that comes very early in the film. He’s such a natural showman, as if he was born to do that. He loves the camera and it loves him back in that instance. The audience is with him right away—he tells them he needs them. What’s interesting in terms of the dramatic structure, is that you start with something like that where many directors would end on that note. What follows, instead, is a pretty relentless slide. One of the things Stan says after doing that show—and he’s kind of pissed off at the quality of acts that are also on there—is “You show craftsmanship.” But right after that, he also says, “You show realism,” as if the two, somehow, go hand in hand. It’s such an amazing metaphor for documentary filmmaking.
ZL: Particularly for this film.
SIM: How long did you shoot with Stan?
ZL: I would say the active shooting took about three years. The story arc you see in the film represents roughly a year and a half of filming. I went back for several more years—it was a fairly long time to make this. In some ways, an embarrassingly long time; it depends on how you look at it. Perhaps other filmmakers would be impressed and wince at the same time. I just wanted to capture anything that was changing dramatically as long as there was room to do that. The editing of the film happened after all the shooting was finished. There were about 135 shooting days over the course of the primary three years. With any kind of documentary filmmaking, but particularly with this kind of documentary filmmaking, there’s a lot about it that has the element of a fishing trip. You have to be willing to sit by the river for a day or two and nothing really happens. I had never filmed anyone, however, where at the end of the day, I had so much footage that was usable. There often were three scenes at the end of a day that could have been in the finished film. It came to 230 hours of footage. Which is, admittedly, a lot, but these days you do see people shooting 400 to 500 hours. Effectively, I think you lose so much when you’re shooting in that range. There’s the risk of missing something essential in the editing room because you have so much material to sort through.
SIM: Contextually, so much of your shooting nonverbally illustrates some pretty profound statements in relation to Stan’s story, which is a very American story—a larger-than-life guy in a larger-than-life culture, a culture that consumes everything in its path.
ZL: Well, Stan’s world was a very hard world in which to shoot. What I mean here is in a physical sense, leaving aside the other emotional things. The kitchen downstairs in his mother’s house where his grandmother lives was tricky. There are these ropes from which they hang wet laundry [laughter]. These laundry lines inside the kitchen are eight feet off the ground. There’s horrible boom shadow in that room, anyhow, and with the ropes and everything, it becomes really difficult to maneuver.
But one thing that is useful when shooting people for a while is that you get to really know their habits and actions, behaviors they repeat regularly. When I’ve taught cinematography—or documentary making since it’s a storytelling lesson as much as one about cinematography—I always tell people that whenever you’re shooting vérité, one thing to really pay attention to are these predictable or repeating behaviors. If you pay attention and your eyes are open, you’ll see a lot. Stan would always sit in the same chair or Barbara would. I could begin to anticipate where I should situate myself after a while. You become more comfortable using these things as storytelling devices and to make your work a bit easier. But you do miss things; it’s inevitable. Sometimes they are things that seem incredibly important. But I think that anything that’s important in life comes back, not necessarily in the same way that you missed, but it does come back and I learned that over and over during the process of making this film. The confidence in the storytelling comes from not worrying so much about what you missed or what you lost because they will reappear in some other shape.
SIM: Speaking of that, do you want to know my favorite scene in the film?
SIM: I couldn’t tell you why this affected me so deeply, but I felt it was really when I totally connected to Barbara. Stan, Barbara and another guy are sitting in his truck at night and the only light is coming from the light inside the car and the dashboard. The guys are totally wasted and Stan is in an angry mood but trying to make himself feel better by rocking out to a song, singing at the top of his lungs right into Barbara’s face who’s sitting beside him. It’s a scene where everything is just sitting on the edge of some precipice; everything’s at stake. The shooting is extraordinary considering your space limitations but you get an awful lot of great stuff in close-up, great reaction shots, particularly of Barbara’s face. And then there’s a point where you can only see her eyes and the look in them is indescribably sad and bewildered, a look of sheer entrapment. It’s like she’s having some weird flashback to high school and just completely staggered that life is repeating itself in a nightmarish déjà vu.
This is one of those scenes—and there are a lot of them—where it plays out for quite a long time, much longer than most directors would choose to let them run, thus leading to your longer running time than the average feature doc these days. Usually, seventy-five, eighty minutes and you’re out.
ZL: That drives me crazy, that obligation to “proper” length because I have to tell you, if anything, I think this film might be too short. The structure of the film probably works best at two hours and ten minutes. It doesn’t actually feel any longer at that length; it just breathes a little bit more. But that’s a hard length to put on a shelf. If this weren’t my first film, I probably would have had more confidence to do that. There is this unspoken pressure that a feature documentary has to be 90 minutes or less. It’s death to good filmmaking.
SIM: Yes, but there are many feature docs that don’t warrant their length and seem way too long and indulgent, so I don’t know the answer to that. What sets this film apart is the pacing of most of the scenes and this is a strong editing choice. You don’t cut away with abandon; in fact, quite the opposite. By letting things play out, you create a really profound connection for a viewer with these characters. You catch those moments when they’re not actively performing or doing anything, really. This is a rare thing since most pieces are edited with that eye blink pace that gives me a headache. You allow us to really look and observe. With your filmmaking choices, you were saying something about that.
ZL: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of things to say about that. So much of traditional film story is about change, transformation. In a lot of ways, that kind of profound change is a fictional device. Major change in who we are doesn’t happen in one moment or several moments strung together. Or by just a surface change in one’s appearance or what have you. The problem may somehow be worse in documentary filmmaking these days than in fiction—this squeezing in of these kinds of forced story arcs which create a phony sense of storytelling change. We don’t see a lot of change in Stan and Barbara. But your understanding of who these people are is changing. The change that’s happening is the internal changes the viewer is experiencing and that’s exciting when the film works on that level. A lot of audiences don’t want that, or are ready for that; they don't go to the movies to experience that. A lot of people would be fine if the whole film concentrated on Stan’s trip to the UK to do that TV show.
SIM: Placed at the end, of course, since it’s his triumphant moment, so to speak.
ZL: But it’s just the beginning of the film. I’m starting there from a filmmaking point of view very intentionally; it's a very precise choice. We’ve all seen that other story before, many times. But, yes, you’re right, they’re not the choices many others would have made. I like to think that most people who see it will have the same type of experience you did where they engage deeper and deeper as the story goes on. That’s what I hope for.
It’s funny, Stan was watching the film not so long ago. He’s seen it a number of times. I asked him if he wanted to go outside for a bit and he said, "No, Zach, it’s involving!" [laughter] He got totally reengaged with it as an audience member and got involved as if he were watching other people.
SIM: That’s part of what’s so fascinating about him. More than most people, he has a really wide-ranging perspective for such a small-town, backwoods Jersey boy. I notice in most autodidacts, there is an ability to focus that’s pretty intense. Stan is so focused on his goals and dreams almost to the exclusion of everything else. And when that focus is broken by what he considers to be an interference of some sort, he breaks down quite easily. It’s so easy to make fun of that in a way, and even though there are lots of humorous moments specifically because of that, he’s for real.
I think of that strange scene in WalMart where he’s waiting for Barbara to finish shopping and some kids come to stand around to see what you guys are doing considering you have a camera trained on him. His face flushes with pride because someone is giving him that much attention; his life is interesting enough to warrant that. He’s getting so much out of the experience of being filmed, even more than you’re getting from filming him and that’s not such a common occurrence. His true lack of self-consciousness is a real asset to a filmmaker. Tell me a bit about your editing process for this long-term project.
ZL: Well, unfortunately, as I mentioned briefly earlier, I didn’t edit as I went along. Part of the problem was that I shot part of it on digibeta. I used to work as a freelance cameraman for several people and I knew someone who had a digibeta camera. A guy named Vic Losick used to have a camera rental business and he gave me a camera to use and told me that if I ever got money for the film, I could pay him back. Of course then I didn’t know how long the film was going to take. At the time, there weren’t a lot of 16 x 9 cameras out there so it made a lot of sense to shoot with that. I thought I would shoot for six months and then be able to get some money to complete the film. And that never happened [laughs] so I had all these digibeta tapes on a shelf and no way to watch them. In essence, I was shooting blind while I was making the film. There was an element of not really knowing what I had even though I did, essentially, have everything in my head, what I was getting and not getting. I didn’t start editing until five years after the initial shoot.
SIM: Did that make a lot of the earlier footage fresh for you?
ZL: Yes it did, but it was also terrifying. When I’m watching my own raw footage, I’m seeing very clearly every day’s shoot. I see not only the actual footage but am also remembering everything that had gone into that day—from whether or not I could get a sound person that day or arrange the rental car or pick up the equipment—all the mess of production day in and day out for years, really. It was a result of not having money so every day was a struggle just to get to the point of actually shooting. I also remember the things that were happening in my life at the time. When I’m looking at the footage, it’s almost like being in therapy [laughs]. I’m seeing all the choices I made and sometimes that’s hard. After so much time not seeing the footage, seeing it was often quite scary in some ways. It was exciting, as well. I could feel how alive the film felt for the first time.
SIM: Who helped you out the most during that time of going through all that footage and settling in to assemble it?
ZL: It was really just showing people I trusted the footage and gauging their reactions. That was really helpful. Not everyone got what I was doing. I showed a lot of people. I probably talked to fifty editors in New York, at least. One person told me that he thought that Stan didn’t have a really expressive face. I knew right away that was not the right person for me since I can’t think of anyone I know that’s more expressive than Stan. But it wasn’t just professionals I would show it to; I showed many friends who aren’t filmmakers. It was a process of finding the people that did connect to the work since that was my audience. Luckily, the people I liked the most liked what I was doing and that was reassuring. One of the biggest challenges of being a documentary filmmaker, especially one that works pretty much solo, is that it’s difficult to discern when you’re in the vacuum by yourself and when you’re not. That was a challenge for me throughout the process. But every encouraging word—any encouraging word, really—got me to the next day and then the next. But from day one, there was a part of me that believed so deeply in this. It was something that took hold of me and I wasn’t going to let go. It goes back to what you were saying before about how so much of this film is about documentary filmmaking itself.
SIM: Yes, especially because your story arc ends with the realization that these two people have found one another to be much more of a support system than they had supposed and that Barbara, somehow, does find her voice since she does the best intro ever for Stan at the very end of the film. It is a really lovely moment, so playful and alive. They even do a role-reversal of sorts, which is hilarious.
ZL: Throughout the film, I’m trying to play with this tension of what an audience expects from a movie and what they would feel is “real life” in any kind of traditional way. That’s why the film doesn’t end at the Hollywood moment when they kiss. It ends thirty seconds later.
SIM: The post-Hollywood moment then.
ZL: Their lives are not magically fixed in one moment but they understand one another more. And perhaps then, we can understand ourselves a bit more. We might see the roles or the parts that we’re playing. But again, it all comes down to the audience and how they’re reacting, especially if you’re not presenting the Hallmark card variety story arc. It’s way too easy to write half sentences in your filmmaking if you expect that your audience’s needs are quite basic and they don’t need or want any more substance than that. To serve up familiar emotions with the accompanying visuals allows for a pretty insubstantial experience and there is certainly that kind of engagement, engaging with cues of what they’re supposed to feel, rather than the work as a whole. I think a lot of people find that totally satisfying and don’t want or expect more than that.
I think there are a couple of different audiences for a film like Strongman. The people who seem to respond the most to it are either artists themselves or artistic in the way they engage, in general. The other group of people that is responding, or has responded strongly to the film, know nothing about documentary filmmaking; they simply get involved in the story and the characters because it resonates on a very basic level.
SIM: Like it does for Stan.
ZL: Like it does for Stan. I really would like to say that what makes audiences engage are stories that take them to places they want to be taken but I don’t know if that’s always true since much less than that is enough to engage people who come see a movie, whether it’s a festival audience or not. And that’s a challenge for filmmakers who aren’t interested in making that kind of film. Ultimately, as a filmmaker, you have to trust that if you’re engaged, then there will be other people out there that will be, too.
SIM: Yes, and with a film like this that doesn’t hit the market very hard, there is a chance for discovery, a long shelf life, if you will, since films like yours are distinctly not made for that fifteen minutes of glory, but rather the long haul. You chose an incredibly inspiring protagonist, one who is rigorous in his efforts to always improve, who has the discipline to always pull himself back on track when things derail. I would like to see more subjects like him. We need these films that tap into things with which we all struggle. There is a distinct lack of substance in almost everything we encounter these days, unfortunately.
ZL: I couldn’t have done it any other way. It still is a film under the radar in so many ways. But I’ve received both big and deep responses from people who have seen it and still think about it a year later and still want to talk about it. My hope is that it will continue to resonate with more people. The paying-the-rent part of all this is always difficult, but I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects. At the very least, I hope it encourages more filmmakers to make work that is true to themselves and who want to push the door open a bit wider for other kinds of films.