The strongman documentary Bending Steel is an inspiring movie from filmmakers Dave Carroll and Ryan Scafuro that explores the life of 43 year-old Chris Schoeck, a Queens, New York native who is training to become a professional Oldetime Strongman.
The story follows Chris’ journey from his early days training in a small basement storage unit, to his very first performance on the big stage at New York’s historic Coney Island. MovieMaker Magazine caught up with Dave and Ryan at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you talk a bit about your working relationship? It’s somewhat unusual for a director and producer to share “a film by” credit.
Ryan Scafuro (RS): Making a film with just two people working through production is a bit of an unusual process in itself. Though we decided to divide the producing and directing roles, we have always considered ourselves co-filmmakers. We made the film together, from conception right up to the point we are at now. It may not follow the structure of how roles are traditionally credited, but I guess the film was not made in what would be considered a “traditional” way.
Dave Carroll (DC): Traditionally the credit ‘a film by’ is reserved for the director but in our case it calls attention to the intimate working environment that we shared on ‘Bending Steel.’ It was essentially just the two of us during the majority of principle photography, Ryan would shoot and produce while I directed and ran audio. Once our editor, John Hoyt, came on board I worked closely with him to develop the story while Ryan was building our base through social media and fundraising for our finishing funds. It is in the spirit of collaboration that warranted the shared credit.
MM: This is a fascinating profile, but there are so many good stories out there. How did you decide that Chris and his struggles would be worth two years or so of your time.
RS: I don’t know if we decided, I think the film and Chris’ story may have decided for us.
DC: One day I was doing laundry in the basement of my apartment building when my dog Gizmo and I heard a noise off in the distance. It sounded like grunting. Her ears perked up and before I could issue a command to stay she had taken off in the direction of the noise. I chased after, following her through a maze of storage spaces. When we turned the corner a man of slight build was standing there out of breath, I would later find out his name was Chris Schoeck. I had seen Chris before, he never made eye contact with me when I would say hi to him in the elevator. He always seemed uncomfortable around people.
Gizmo was helping herself, sniffing around in his storage space. I closed in to retrieve her and that’s when I took a look around. The floor was covered with piles of twisted horseshoes, torn phonebooks and bent nails. It was the bent hammers hanging on the wall that really made me question what was going on. This wasn’t normal.
I picked Gizmo up and offered an apology as I back peddled out of there. I didn’t ask what he was doing or why, but it left an impression on me. Two weeks later I ran in to him again. This time I unabashedly asked what he was doing. Chris told me very straightforwardly that he bends steel and was training to become an oldetime strongman.
It just so happened that we were looking for subject matter to make in to a short film and Chris’ answer posed a lot of immediate questions. I had a vague notion of what a strongman was, the image of a guy in a leopard skin leotard came to mind but I didn’t know much beyond that. This coupled with the strangeness of his character was enough to start filming his journey. Within a few months the complexity of his character revealed itself. He wasn’t just moving steel on a molecular level but rather transforming himself with each bend. ‘Bending Steel’ is a powerful metaphor for the struggles that we all go through at one point or another. We all strive to better ourselves. It was his journey that I related to and it was that universal kinship that solidified our investment of time and money in to the film, which was now going to be feature length.
MM: Did you formally explore your potential audience before you agreed to begin this project? In this new world where moviemakers are so involved in distribution, did you first assess the success potential of this film or did you simply move forward on a gut-level, knowing that you had a good story on your hands?
RS: No, the potential audience didn’t really factor into the equation at all until the film was complete and we started exploring our distribution possibilities. From the beginning we knew we wanted to make a film that we would enjoy watching and hopefully others would as well. That was the most important thing.
DC: We definitely embarked upon ‘Bending Steel’ with a gut instinct and the determination to convey a strong universal message. We knew that the film had to speak to a larger audience outside the small and relatively unknown strongman community. It couldn’t just be about bending steel. It was important to me to reveal Chris’ story to the audience as it was revealed to us making it.
That being said I would think that a great deal of amazing stories would be passed up and never realized if filmmakers were solely trying to please a specific audience or audience type. I’m not sure I could make a film using demographic research. It sounds like a shot in the dark to try and please people who may not even know themselves what they want. A good book, poem or film touch people in an unquantifiable manner. No amount of research can identify that inexplicable human vulnerability.
MM: The film looked and sounded great. Can you talk a bit about your backgrounds as moviemakers? You both do this full time, I believe, even though Bending Steel is the first full-length feature doc for both of you?
RS: Dave and I have worked together in the production world for about 7 years now. I originally come from a photojournalism/documentary background. When I was in college I was first exposed to the cinema verite films of filmmakers such as Fredrick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, and Les Blank. From there I started getting into the narrative styles of Erroll Morris and Werner Herzog (actually as a direct result of Les Blank’s “Werner Herzog Eats His Boot”). I found inspiration in the way those filmmakers could tell real life stories with both craft and individual style.
After school I shot a few social issue docs for a regional network based out of Boston called NECN, but yes this is the first feature length documentary that I’ve produced or had a major role in.
DC: Yes, ‘Bending Steel’ is my first feature film and first documentary at that. I come from a more narrative background, from the time I spent at The School of Visual Arts to the films that I love to watch. I’m more of a Tarkovsky, Godard and Wong Kar-Wai enthusiast, although I have become very fond of documentaries through the process of working on this. There is an intimately personal and powerful element that the filmmaker has with the subject of the film that makes documentary very appealing.
Ryan and I both work as directors of photography in the television and commercial industry so the look of ‘Bending Steel’ was very important in how we told Chris’ story, from the lenses we chose to the angles. It was also important to have a distinctive mood throughout, so sound design and music were crucial. Thankfully we had some very talented people working with us: John Hoyt (editor), Fernando Martinez (Composer) and Hollis Smith (Sound Design).
MM: What specific equipment did you use? (camera, sound, editing, etc.)
RS: We shot on the Canon 7D, which was a bit of a challenge but once we got used to its limitations it served our purposes very well. We were able to capture very intimate moments while still creating a cinematic feel to each scene. Because Chris story so closely resembles one that you may find in a fictional film, we wanted to try to compliment the narrative with a visual style that people are accustomed to seeing in those films. The ability to change lenses quickly and easily with the 7D was very helpful. And the cost fit our budget very nicely.
DC: Audio was recorded second system, so we used a Zoom H4N with a slate and boomed most of the film, only using lavs for a few important scenes. John Hoyt edited the film on Final Cut Pro, out in L.A., which we chose so that I could easily watch and work with the footage myself, if I needed to, on my own FCP system in New York.
MM: Can you talk a bit about securing your archival footage? Was that a difficult and time-consuming process? Did you have a staff/interns, etc. to help out?
RS: Oh yes, it was definitely a difficult and time consuming process. We didn’t have the budget for staff, but in hindsight I probably could have used an intern or two to help out. This was the first time I’ve had to do that kind of research, and believe it or not finding archival footage of relatively unknown strongmen from the early 1900’s is not an easy task. While Dave was working with our editor John Hoyt on putting together the scenes, I was trying to find whatever footage I could of the Mighty Atom. Most of what we ended up using actually came from the personal collection of the Mighty Atom’s son, Mike Greenstein.
On a related note: First time filmmakers reading this who may have questions about archival footage and fair use and who may not be able to afford a lawyer, reach out to a filmmaker who has been there before. You may be surprised how willing to help those within the documentary community can be.
MM: What was the film’s budget and how many hours of footage did you shoot?
RS: Aside from a successful Kickstarter campaign to help with finishing costs, we funded the entire film ourselves.
DC: Principle photography lasted approximately ten months and when it was all said and done we had just over 200 hours of footage to sift through.
MM: Do you have distribution in place? Are you planning to handle some or all of this yourself?
RS: Josh Braun and Submarine are handling our North American sales representation, and they have been fantastic. The reaction to our Tribeca premiere has resulted in significant interest from distributors, so we have been considering what our goals are and working with Josh to figure out what would be the best fit.
DC: As first time filmmakers it was critical for us to attract collaborators who really believed in the film as much as we did, from the production team to our sales rep. Submarine has been a huge supporter of us and the film and we are excited to have them represent us. We want to reach the widest audience possible and find a distributor that truly believes in the message that the film delivers.
MM: What was Chris’s reaction to the film? Do you know if his parents ever saw it and, if so, what their reaction was?
DC: I had the honor of sitting down with Chris for the first time to watch the film. I practically just studied his face and read his reaction. He had no idea what to expect as we didn’t share much footage with him throughout the process. It was clear that he was overwhelmed, it must be a very odd experience watching yourself on screen for ninety something minutes, surreal even. Thankfully he really loves the film and knows that we did our best to accurately capture his journey. He appreciates the interest that we showed him by making the film. It gave him a sense of validation. As for his parents seeing the film… I don’t think that has or ever will happen.
MM: I enjoyed this film very much. Do the two of you have plans to collaborate again, and if so, what’s your next project?
DC: Thanks for the kind words, we appreciate that. And yes we do have plans to make more films. We are developing a doc/narrative based on a true story that involves flying cars, spaceships and mental illness.
RS: This first project was very much a learning experience. And we learned a lot. We plan on taking that knowledge and using it to continue to make more films, meet new people, and grow as individuals. That’s all part of the process I think. We are working hard on the projects that we currently have in development, and always looking for interesting ideas. This is a new world for us, and we are excited for what the future holds.