An Interview with Zachary Levy, Director of ‘Strongman’


Zachary Levy’s film, Strongman, is one of the rawest and best cinematic portraits in recent history. In it, he follows Stanley ‘Stanless Steel’ Pleskun, the self-proclaimed ‘strongest man in the world at bending steel’. Over the course of the film, we intimately see Stan’s ups and downs, which are at times comedic, at times tragic, and at times, that perfect, indescribable mix of both. This is a film one watches and never forgets, and thinking back on it later, you almost feel as though you’re thinking back to a chapter of your own life, even though you may have nothing in common with Stan’s experiences and surroundings. It’s that vivid.

I reviewed Strongman a few weeks ago, and I recently had a chance to sit down with Zach and chat about his film. The interview is spoiler-free, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, no worries. But do yourself a favor and see it soon. It’s currently available on iTunes and on DVD.

How did you discover Stanless Steel?

I met him at a stunt show back in 1999. At the time, I was doing a lot of freelance camerawork—that was my day job. I would get calls and go do whatever the call was, and I got a call for an NBC stunt show, down at Princeton Airport. And when I got there, Stan was standing in the middle of the runway between two Cessna airplanes, and on the back of each plane was a rope, and they were pulling his arms in opposite directions, trying to take off on the runway. It was an incredible stunt, and if he didn’t succeed, he would’ve been split in two. But I think as compelling as the stunt was, what made it a more interesting first impression was that he was so vulnerable, and not just physically—I could tell there was this real emotional vulnerability about him.

And like shaking his hand even, it’s not like a hard, crushing grip. He’s extremely soft with his grip, softer than a regular person on the street would be. I mean, there are these guys in the strongman world where, when you shake their hand, they wanna make a point of showing you how strong their grip is, and proving how tough they are. And he’s not like that at all. He’s very gentle.

How’d you pitch the doc to him?

I didn’t really pitch it that big, it was just a very simple thing where I said, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in your life and what you’re doing and I’d like to make a film about you’, and he was on board. I mean, he was on board from the moment we met, really. The moment we met, we trusted each other. I knew that day that I wanted to make a film about him. And my initial feeling was one of excitement, but then, there was certainly fear: am I capable of doing this, do I have the ability to commit to this in the way you need to commit to something like this. And I remember the scariest thing in my mind was that it was probably gonna take a whole year, and of course it ended up taking way longer that. (Laughs)

How many years did you spend filming him, and how often of that period? The way the film flows, it’s left a bit ambiguous how much time has passed from beginning to end.

I spent about three years filming. And I definitely wanted to film to feel organic and not have title cards saying like, ‘Three months later’ or ‘Five months later’. So time flows through the film in a more seasonal manner, rather than something very precise—I of course wanted it to be respectful of time, and be realistic, but at the same time I didn’t want to take time too literally.

The first year was the most intense year. Over the three, it was about 130 shooting days in total, and the first year was probably 80 days of that. And in general, I’d say a shooting day would run about 4-5 hours on the short side, and on the long side, 15-20 hours.

Did you feel yourself getting into Stan’s day-to-day rhythm?

Yeah, absolutely. I think when you’re making a film like this, you need to get into the subject’s rhythm, because it helps you know what’s gonna happen. If he went to bed at a certain time, I knew when he’d wake up. And if he woke up at a certain time, I knew when he’d start to get tired. And that helps you be in sync with what the actions might end up being. It gives you parameters to work with. In one way, it makes you a little bit crazy, because it’s not your own life, and so you’re living two lives at once sort of, but from a filmmaking point of view, I think it’s critical.

I noticed that in certain scenes of intense drama, Stan will look at you. Did you ever feel as though your presence diffused certain situations? That people behaved differently, or were a little more respectful, because they remembered you were there and the camera was on?

I don’t think so—or at least, not in that sense. I mean, as far as the looks go, I very intentionally kept a lot of those in because, from a filmmaking point of view, my idea was that as Stan’s world gets smaller, he begins to look out more towards me and the audience to have the connection that he’s not having in his world. So I was conscious of including those moments. But I don’t really feel like my presence changes what happens, so much as it amplifies it. It forces things to the surface, but it doesn’t necessarily change the choices people are making. Like, I don’t feel like anyone held back because the camera was there, or said something that they wouldn’t have said. If anything, it helped bring things out. And that’s actually something that Stan and Barbara had said to me at times, that it’s good that I’m there, because it’s forcing them to talk about things that would’ve been buried.

Were there any moments during these intense scenes where you were scared?

The only time I really got scared was during that scene where there’s almost a fight in the kitchen, where the guy is challenging Stan about whether he can really do that stunt or not, and Stan’s fist is clenched. There’s a brief moment where you can see that I’m scared. It’s a shot that starts off as a closeup of Stan, and then I zoom out real quick to see the rest of his body. That’s the moment I’m scared. (Chuckles) And that’s why I zoomed out, because in my head I was like, ‘we’re in a small place, these guys are angry, I’m not really sure where this is gonna go’. And for the most part, I always felt like I understood Stan’s limits—I’d seen him get angry a few times, and I trusted that there would always be a sort of container to that anger, but that was one moment where I really had no idea where things were gonna go, so I wanted to make sure, for my safety, that I was seeing as much as I could.

Are there any moments you wished you had captured, but the camera wasn’t rolling, or you weren’t there at the time?

Yeah, there’s thousands of them probably. At this point, I actually don’t remember them though, and that’s a really good thing. But when you’re making a film like this, you miss a lot. It’s just part of the deal. You end up missing a lot, and it can be really painful when that happens. I mean, I can remember times when I’d wake up in the middle of the night and be like, ‘I can’t believe I missed that’. And over the course of making this film, I began to just trust that if something was really important to Stan or Barbara or anyone else in the film, it was gonna come back—whatever I had missed was still gonna be in the film, just in a different way. And that was s a really big lesson for me, as a filmmaker.

Were there any moments that you ended up losing just due to technical problems?

Yeah, there was a scene at the banquet, after the dinner, where all the strongmen were talking and Stan brought out this 9-inch piece of rebar that he had bent, and the guys were genuinely impressed. And it was like the only time in all the times I’d filmed Stan that I’d seen him get some real acknowledgment from his peers. And I went home to discover that the batteries on the wireless had died just as the scene started, so I had no audio on the scene.

That was a painful one, but the truth is, I don’t think I would have used the scene. You have these ideas when you’re filming something of how it’ll fit in with the rest of the movie, and then when you look back on it in editing, it’s not always what you think it is. It doesn’t necessarily play. And I beat myself up over losing that scene for a while, but ultimately, looking back on it, the scene didn’t have what I thought it had.

How did you know when had shot all there was too shoot, and were ready to edit?

Well that’s one of the hardest things. I didn’t, is the short answer. I really didn’t know. I think if you’re making a good film, you don’t ever know. Because I think there are a lot of a filmmakers—and in particular, a lot of documentary filmmakers—who do know exactly when they’ve finished, because they’ve designed a film from the beginning that isn’t really about people’s lives, but instead is about some version of some other film they’ve seen, some story arc that they’ve said, ‘okay, this is the beginning of the story arc, and this is the end of the story arc’. And so they have a much clearer sense of the end, because the end is what they’ve told themselves is the end. And in my case, I wasn’t working from that kind of template, so I didn’t know, and not only didn’t I know, I wasn’t sure how I even would know. For the longest time I was like, ‘I don’t know if I have an ending, and I don’t know if I’m gonna know I have an ending’. And that was a really scary thing.

I did have some sense, though. There were a couple scenes I’d shot over the course of filming that, while I was shooting, I thought ‘this might be an ending’. And the ending I used for the film is one of those scenes where I had a sense that there was something in it that was connecting a lot of things. And that’s why there’s that wide shot of them in silhouette in front of the shed—something in me said, ‘this might be where it’s ending’.

But I think the real thing that let me know I was doing shooting was that every time I went to film Stan, I felt like I was seeing something new, that I was getting some new layer, but then there were two shoots in a row where I didn’t feel like I was seeing something new. And it wasn’t like some big thing, it was just that there was something that was telling me, ‘you’ve seen this, you’ve been here before’. And I didn’t know whether I had an ending at that point, but I knew that whatever was in his life, I had filmed. And that just let me say to myself, ‘okay, for better or for worse, I have it, and whether I can make a film out of it, I don’t know, but it’s time to try’.

What was the editing process like, and how long did it take?

The editing was really hard. That’s like the hardest thing for me. And I guess on the calendar, it was about four years. But as far as actual work over those four years, it was probably about two and a half, or three. There were some breaks here and there.

It was especially hard because it’s not my personal muscle. I had some professional editing experience, but my real professional experience was as a cameraman. And when you’re shooting, there’s a lot of adrenaline involved. You’re interacting with people, whereas the editing room can be such a lonely place. You’re really locked in there. And so my muscles, so to speak, were not in good shape for that experience. It was very difficult for me.

And of course, looking at your own footage is very hard. It’s like being in a therapy session, because you’re literally looking at all the choices you’ve made. I’m looking at a scene and I’m saying, ‘I’m filming Stan here, why am I standing over there?’ So that’s not a lot of fun. I mean, sometimes you’ll be like, oh, that was a good a choice. But then other times, you’re like, ‘what was I thinking?’ (Laughs) It’s not fun, but it’s a great process.

What did Stan, and the other subjects, like his family and friends, think of the finished film?

They loved it, which was great. I mean, I was completely terrified. It’s the most terrifying thing. The film had actually already played at Slamdance before any of them saw it, because I had finished mixing the film literally at like 2AM, and had to get on a plane at 9AM to go show it publicly at Slamdance. And that made nervous. I was not happy about that, because I felt like it was Stan and Barbara’s right to see it first. Not that I would’ve necessarily changed anything, but it made me unhappy that I had to do it that way.

When I came back, Stan came to my house, and it was actually the first time he’d ever been to my house, and he’s sitting there watching it, and immediately he starts laughing hysterically saying ‘Ah, it’s too funny, it’s too funny!’ He has a great sense of humor. And my first response is ‘oh, this is great, he’s on board’, but my second response is fear because I don’t know if when the film gets more serious towards the end, he’s gonna respond as well. And then at the end of the movie, there was this moment of silence, and he turned to me and said, “Zach, you’ve understood my life in a way that no one else ever has.”

What was it like having Strongman reviewed by Roger Ebert, and making it on his Year’s Best list?

It was kind of surreal. He wrote the review, and I emailed him saying thank you, and he actually emailed me back. (Laughs) And we had a little exchange, and I didn’t have a real relationship with him or anything, but there was a little email exchange.

And when I made it on his Year’s Best list, that was a big surprise, because that was at the end of the year, and he had reviewed the film back in early February. And most of the films that end up on lists like that are films that came out in September of that year or even more recently than that, and they’re often films that are up for awards. So it wasn’t anything I was thinking about, and I ended up finding out about it because someone texted me and congratulated me, and then I went online and checked it out, and was of course really flattered. I emailed Ebert a thank you, and put something like ‘that’s even better than getting a Red Ryder BB Gun rifle’—a little A Christmas Story reference, since it was around Christmas. And he was like ‘Oh, funny you mention that’, and he emailed me his holiday card for that year, which was him and his wife dressed in a bunny suit, with the leg lamp and everything. (Laughs)

Despite glowing reviews, a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, endorsement from Ebert and from the New York Times, Strongman had a difficult go of it. It was completed in 2009, and it’s taken until 2013 for it be released on iTunes and DVD. Why do you think it took so long to find a home?

It was never a film that had industry support, is the bottom line. And it always had filmmaker support from the day it showed—there were filmmakers who were incredibly enthusiastic about it, and told other filmmakers, and some that told industry people, too. There were people who went out of their way and said ‘I’m gonna email 15 people that I know in the industry because I love this film, and this is a film that needs to get seen’. But for whatever reason, it never had industry support, and I don’t totally know why. And of course, there’s a high degree of luck in this. You can do everything right and have it not work out, and you can do everything wrong and have it totally work out.

Also, to a certain extent, maybe the businesspeople were right. The film is doing very well now on iTunes, but in theatrical, there were times it did well, but the lines were never around the block—

Well, there’s no penguins in it, no melting ice—

(Laughs) Right, exactly. And I think that’s a big part of it, because especially in 2009, there were larger structural things going on. There was a downturn in the economy—which, in some ways, this film speaks more to than a lot of other films—but that’s not necessarily the way a business side might see it. Character portraits in general, in that time period, were not what people were looking for, from a business standpoint. And if you’re selling a documentary, it’s much easier to say ‘Well, if we have a polar ice film, we can get every environmental group in the world to send out emails about it and promote it’. There’s built-in support. And to some degree, that’s still the mindset of a lot of studios, but I’d like to think it’s changed slightly. Hopefully.

And I didn’t necessarily make it easy for myself either. It was the first time I had ever been on a festival circuit, and I didn’t fully understand how much of a marketing event those things are. When I played at Slamdance, I didn’t have a trailer for the film, and I didn’t have a trailer for it for about two years. And part of that was because I didn’t want people to judge a trailer, I wanted them to judge a film, and just go see the actual film. But on a festival circuit, it doesn’t really work like that.

Trailers are hard cut. I’ve had a really hard time cutting them for my own stuff.

Yeah, it’s a completely different muscle from making a film. And I didn’t really try to make a trailer for it for a long time, and any little attempts I did make, it just wasn’t right. But I do really like the current trailer.

I don’t see making a trailer as a filmmaking skill though. I think someone can be a great filmmaker and not be able to make a great trailer. And it’s a marketing thing, you’re selling something, and when I was on the festival circuit, I was very reluctant to that whole concept. I didn’t wanna put the film in a box. I just wanted people to experience it.

We first met when you reached out to me after reading my How To Watch A Film essay, which discussed the importance of the theater experience when it comes to people taking a film seriously. What does the theater experience mean to you?

Well I think for a film like Strongman, there’s a certain amount of attention that’s required. I don’t think you can watch it casually. And I think what happens a lot with screeners is that people half-watch them. Especially when it comes to festival programming, because there’s huge stacks that they have to get through. So I think what happens in a theater, first of all, is that it gives people a reason to pay attention. They’ve bought a ticket, they’ve sat down—

Hopefully they’ve bought a ticket—

(Laughs) Yeah, hopefully they’ve bought a ticket. Sometimes they don’t. A lot of times at festivals they don’t. But even if they haven’t actually paid for their ticket, at least they’ve made a physical commitment to be there—to leave their house, drive there, walk in, and sit down. And I think that means that they’ll give it more attention.

Also, I think the energy of the room really affects how people watch something. And with a film like Strongman, where I haven’t clearly defined when and where you’re supposed to laugh, for some audiences it’s helpful to have other people in the room letting you know that it’s okay to laugh here or there.

Lastly, and I know this is kind a big question, but what are you thoughts on the current state of independent film?

The indie world, and especially the industry side of it, needs to open up. It’s an insular world still, and I think there’s a lot out there that it’s missing out on.

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