The documentary Bending Steel was my favorite movie at the Tribeca Film Festival. It follows Chris “Wonder” Schoeck in his quest to become an old-time strongman, but the act of bending steel winds up meaning so much more — it’s an opportunity for Schoeck to break out of his shell, but it’s also a metaphor for everyone’s worthwhile struggles in life. I’m going to do my best to see Bending Steel again over the summer during the Rooftop Films outdoor screening series.
During the Tribeca Film Festival, I had a chance to sit down with director Dave Carroll, director of photography/producer Ryan Scafuro, and Chris “Wonder” Schoeck himself. It was just two days after the film’s world premiere, and they were all in great spirits and really fun to talk to. Though I didn’t make it to that premiere, I did make it to the Bending Steel after party, which included feats of strength from Schoeck, Chris “Hairculese” Rider, Sonny “The Man of Steel” Barry, and other members of the strongman community.
We had a long conversation, which is why I’m splitting the interview into two parts. If you’re in Toronto for the Hot Docs film festival, you can catch Bending Steel on Saturday, May 4th. For those of you in the New York area, Chris “Wonder” Schoeck and other strongmen will be performing live at the Olde Time Coney Island Strongman Spectacular on Sunday, May 19th. The event is free. For more details, visit coneyisland.com.
[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 17-28 in New York City. Check with us daily for reviews, interviews, features, and news from the festival. For all of our coverage, go here.]
At the party Slim [“The Hammer Man” Farman] passed by me and I remember saying–
Dave Carroll: Well you can’t miss him! [laughs]
[laughs] I remember saying to him, “I love the trick you do with the sledgehammer.” And he was like, “No, it’s not a trick. It earned me a lot of money — not on the stage, but in the quarry.” And I’m just thinking, “That’s awesome.”
Ryan Scafuro: Yeah.
Chris “Wonder” Schoeck: Slim tells it like it is. He doesn’t need a teleprompter or anything.
DC: Yeah, saying “trick” around these guys–
DC: But I’m sure he didn’t take offense to it.
CWS: Right, because he knows that as a layman you use terms interchangeably.
Actually, what is the proper terminology for it?
CWS: A feat.
DC: It is a feat of strength. It’s not a trick.
CWS: Yeah, it’s not a trick.
DC: A trick is like there’s a catch to it.
I see. Yeah. But it’s all real.
DC: It’s all legitimate.
Could you talk about the world premiere screening itself and how that went? I mean, to be in front of a crowd and everything.
RS: You know, this is our first film, and this is our first festival, and that was the first time we were showing it officially in front of people. And the reaction was overwhelming for us. To have a theater full of people react so strongly to what we put out there and to Chris’s life was really an amazing feeling.
DC: I mean, it’s important for us since this is our hometown, so this is like our homecoming bringing the film. And Chris is a New York native.
RS: To do it at Tribeca!
DC: To do it at Tribeca, you can’t ask for a better better place to do it at. And we had a room filled with very important people to us: family, friends, contributors; people that not only were emotionally there but just super supportive. Couldn’t ask for anything better.
And at the after party. In terms of all the feats that were planned, how did you organize that night?
RS: I called up Chris Rider and Adam RealMan and I was like, “We’re doing an after party, you guys are producing it.”
CWS: They arranged it.
DC: [laughs] I mean it doesn’t take much with these guys to get pumped up and go out there and do stuff. And that night was really all about them.
Dave, could you describe what it was like to run into Chris for the very first time?
DC: Sure. So I was doing laundry in the basement of the building I live in. I had my dog, Gizmo, with me, a little French bulldog. And we were just minding our own business, but then we heard some clanging and grunting off in the distance. And of course Gizmo, you know, her ears go up and she just goes scampering around the corner and chases after the sound. And Chris is there. I didn’t see anything going on. I had seen Chris in the building before and he was always a little strange. Like, I’d say hi to him and he wouldn’t really make eye contact with me, or if he did it would be really quick.
So I didn’t think much of it until I went in after Gizmo because she was in Chris’s storage space, and in this storage space, in a pile on the floor, are like nails, hammers that are bent in half, chains hanging from the ceiling. And everyone else has– Well, I have an air conditioner and a bike in mine, right?
DC: So there’s a dynamic to not only his personality but to what he was doing that was a little startling, and I just kind of picked my dog up and said, “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt,” and just backed out of there. And I thought about it for like a week or so; I’d tell people about it. I went to a Christmas party a couple nights later and I was like, “I ran into this really weird guy…”
RS: Yeah, that’s actually when we first talked about it. Dave and I are both directors of photography in New York, and we’ve worked together for a very long time. So it was at a Christmas party we were both at… We had been looking for a subject to kind of make a short about just for our reels, and he just came up to me and said, “I’ve found this guy in the building that has all this bent crap in his storage unit. I think this might be something worth exploring.”
DC: And I was thinking– Strongman wasn’t even in my head. I just saw something. I saw anger, I saw anxiety, stress, tension. What is going into this? It was obsessive; it looked obsessive to me. It was just piles, it wasn’t just– You know, I never experienced that. So when I ran into Chris again, two weeks later in the basement, I just had to ask him.
What was that moment like for you Chris?
CWS: I was doing what I was going to do anyway, and I suppose I was a little bit flattered that somebody found value in this particular activity unsolicited. And it was a little shock of self-worth or self-esteem.
DC: I think when I asked Chris what he was doing, his reply was, “Training to be an old-time strongman.” I immediately thought of a guy in a leopard skin like on Coney Island. I’m not very familiar with that, or wasn’t familiar with that at the time, but I knew there was some kind of rich history there. And he said, “Let me show you this DVD,” and I was like, “Wha–? Okay…” He kind of invited himself into my apartment to show me this DVD of Slim “The Hammer Man,” like this old interview made by Dennis Rogers. And I’m watching it and I’m kind of getting a little interested.
We’re looking for a short, and all of a sudden this strongman comes out of nowhere? No problem! We’ll follow you! And of course it got more interesting as we got to know Chris. You start peeling these layers. Some of this stuff wasn’t coming out for months and months and months. And it just kept coming. It was so engaging, and the conflict between Chris trying to do something and better his life and get out in front of people, even though he really didn’t want to at first. And then it becomes a necessity. It’s really interesting.
RS: Yeah, we really didn’t have an idea at the time about the depth of what we had with Chris as a subject. And once we did realize, it was a little bit of a revelation and we realized that we had much more than just a short film.
Chris Rider also plays a big part in the movie as well. Chris, could you talk about how you first contacted Chris Rider, and then how Chris Rider became involved in the movie?
CWS: Well, once I knew that this was going to be a passion, or certainly a hobby of mine, I searched the internet and randomly found a gentleman — January 23rd, 2010 — he’s now deceased. His name is Greg Matonick.
DC: He’s in the film.
CWS: He’s in the film, and has a good spot in the film. But he worked with me for a day. He runs a welding business and he explained that he knew such a person who would provide good mentorship not too far into Pennsylvania. So about a month later, I reached out to this person, who happened to be Chris Rider, who lives somewhere right outside of Lancaster and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and we trained in old-time strongman feats for five hours once every five weeks. I would perfect the things we worked on, and then when we got together again we would have a little redundancy and introduce a new one. And then he all of a sudden sprung it on me that I have to do this in public. [laughs]
CWS: Hmm. And then, things changed! [laughs] I was like, “Public? [laughs] Public? What, isn’t this public?” [laughs]
CWS: “This is public! You’re a person, no?” [laughs]
[laughs] And Chis Rider being on film is so great as a contrast to Chris, and a great personality as well. Can you talk about interacting with Rider?
RS: Chris Rider is a seasoned performer. He knows what’s he’s doing, and he’s good at drawing a crowd and commanding a crowd. And the dynamic between [Rider and Schoeck] was such a huge contrast, that it really was interesting to us.
DC: You just had to put the camera on them. You could see Chris Schoeck’s hesitation with an audience, and you can see the tension on his face. And Chris Rider just goes out there and just starts performing. It’s a dynamic shift between the two of them. But also, in the moments where it’s just them without a crowd, Chris Rider is an incredibly motivating, inspirational guy. He’s astute with what he does, he’s very good at it, and Chris Schoeck learned a lot from Rider and played a very important part [in his develeopment]. Everyone can use someone to take them under their wing, and kind of show them a craft, and he really got Chris started on this whole process. What everyone didn’t realize was that it was going to wind up changing [Chris Schoeck’s] life
RS: And let’s be honest, the physical contrast between the two of them.
DC: Just the physicality alone!
RS: It’s pretty remarkable!
DC: It’s almost hysterical when they’re next to each other.
RS: Yeah, as a cinematographer it was great for me just to be able to play with that, and there was always the, the, the–
DC: Looming, big strongman in the room.
Is mentorship always common for strongmen?
RS: Yes. So that’s something that we actually have a direct link to the past through that mentorship process. Chris Schoeck is a student of Chris Rider; Chris Rider was a student of Dennis Rogers; Dennis was a student of Slim “The Hammer Man”; and Slim was a student of The Mighty Atom, who is one of the most famous strongmen back in the vaudevillian days. There’s that direct link to that genuine old-time strongman that’s actually represented.
Could you talk about the shooting process, like how long were you guys hanging out? And maybe what it was like early on compared to later in the shoot?
DC: When I met Chris it was like December 2010. We started shooting in January of 2011, just as like a short. We live in the same building, so I would spend a lot of time with him, just off camera as well. Just hanging out, we’d be talking. It was always very intimate stuff, just about life in general and personal things, and a lot of that stuff then gets translated the next when we were shooting. So one of those scenes where Chris is down in the basement and he’s got the Stanless Steel shirt on towards the very beginning, he’s talking very intimately about how this [storage unit] is home, and this is like a safe place for him, and he doesn’t need relationships. [Editor’s note: Stanless Steel is the name of an old-time strongman, though it’s pronounced “stainless.”] The way he’s looking, he has that vulnerability there that he’s expressing that was so moving to see, and that came from these close conversations where we would just be posing questions to Chris and he would be thinking about it introspectively, and that would come out in the film.
Chris can speak to this one. You’re the subject of a film like this. I guess for the most part you’re pressed. Or not pressed, but at least you start thinking about things in a different perspective. Chris always had that capacity, though. Because you watch other character-driven films and that character does not change. They’re just that person, the camera’s just on them, you don’t see any difference. But I think the process being there, because Chris was not used to having people around him, and just having us there and being a part of his life, I’m pretty sure that…
CWS: Yeah, it’s funny because when the process began I was sort of maybe just a little naïve or I was just taken that someone was very much interested in what I was doing. And then as it got more involved and they became a bigger part of my life, they — I don’t want to say forced — but they encouraged that you would be introspective or that you would reflect on certain aspects of your personality. By doing that, you got to know yourself, and trust built up, and the questions would get deeper and deeper, and they would peel things away, and you would get to know yourself more; and you would find out things that you’d like about yourself, things that are worthwhile, things that you never knew were really there.
And so just as the film started out as a little tiny thing and evolved into something much bigger, my life mirrors that development.
RS: And structurally speaking, the timeframe that we had was a little bit of a blessing and a curse. You know, often with cinema verite films you’re not really sure where the film is going to end and you could be filming for years and years and years. With our film, we knew that we had a definitive or at least some sort of ending with Chris performing for the first time publicly. So that was kind of nice, because we knew that would pretty much be the end of filming, but at the same time we had to incorporate all of the pieces of a story within that timeframe, which was a little bit of a challenge for us and it forced us to spend a lot of time with Chris during those months.
How long were you guys shooting usually?
DC: Oh man, we were shooting…
RS: Maybe like four times a week?
DC: Yeah, four days a week. I mean it was pretty intense.
RS: And the traveling.
DC: I mean, every now and then we would have a down week where we’d only do one day or two days or something. I would also be going down and doing things myself, like something was happening and you had to go down and get it. Eventually Chris Rider gets Chris Schoeck a camera and he starts filming on his own, and we had to sift through that, and that’s where that Moby-Dick scene came out of at night during the storm, and it was just like… It was like gold, you know?
Those were great moments too because it felt like Chris was able to open up completely even though you were on you own.
DC: He wouldn’t say that. [Editor’s note: Speaking to Chris.] You wouldn’t be exactly that open with us. He still wouldn’t. I found that there was another layer of openness after [getting the camera].
RS: And that wasn’t the intent of that camera at all, you know? That camera was sent to Chris in order to help him sort of perform. And then–
DC: Yeah, to help perform! And it became a little diary of sorts.
It was an interesting element. Chris, could you talk about the camera being used both as a way to critique and improve your performance and to be a sort of diary?
CWS: I was wondering how this thing was going to improve my performance! [laughs]
CWS: Because the camera was an inanimate thing it took pictures of me, but I’m supposed to review my performance and I wasn’t able to review what the camera was doing!
CWS: So finally one day I was wondering, “How is this going to help me? I still don’t see what this thing is doing!” But for some strange reason I had never had any inhibitions about the camera. The camera is an inanimate thing. It has no life to to it.
DC: It’s not going to ask you a question.
CWS: It’s not going to ask me a question!
DC: And it’s not going to look at you weird if you say something weird. It’s just there!
CWS: It’s just there! [laughs]
CWS: I mean, it could be 300 million people, hopefully, who see what that camera captured. But I wasn’t thinking past that. [laughs] I just, I mean, I just pushed the button.
CWS: What I was more worried about: sometimes I got mixed up. I was pushing the button–
DC: Double push?
CWS: I’d be double pushing it, just like I do on Facebook. “Like,” but then it would say I’ve unliked. I’m like, “No, ‘Like’!” [laughs]
CWS: On, off, on, off, on, off. [laughs]
One of my favorite moments of the film is when you get the name “Wonder.” Could you talk about what it was like that day? This is for all of you.
CWS: I remember the day that I officially assumed that name was May 22nd, 2011. And I was outside Harrisburg, and I remember that day with the strength feats we were working on, and I received a call from Dennis Rogers saying this should be the definitive name that you use — this is the name, and he gave the understanding of why I should use that name, one on one.
My feelings? I felt it was very important, because generally when I get on stage, I maybe don’t look like your typical strongman. I don’t even think I do. I lift all these weights in the gym and there these guys with huge muscles– I dunno. [On stage], do they expect me to pull a ukulele out of my case, or do they expect me to pull a steel bar out of my case? Something like that. But so there’s that element of wonder. When I do something in front of a crowd, I usually get a certain reaction from the men and certain reactions from the women, but the overall reaction is, “I really wonder how someone of that stature can generate enough force to be able to do these things.” And of course I pass [the items] out to people in the audience that would like to try.
But I think that’s a very good name, and I expect some time it will be abbreviated by the crowd from Chris “Wonder” Schoeck to just plain Chris “Wonder.”
RS: Chris, talk a little bit about how it felt to have Dennis give you that name, and what being named by Dennis felt like.
DC: I personally love the moment when Chris is standing there in Dennis’s apartment.
DC: And he says–
RS: “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Chris–!”
DC: And he’s about to say “Schoeck” right away, but then stops himself and says “Wonder.” For me, that was really… I mean, really, the name came down to him, but it was the first time it was coming out of his mouth. And that was really, that was– Even I was like– I was doing audio and directing and I was just like [Editor’s note: pregnant pause]. “Is he going to remember?! Oh, he’s not going to remember!” And then it was like, “He’s not going to– WAIT! There it is!” [laughs]
CWS: Let’s start over again!
DC: You had to! It was great, the way you did it was perfect!
RS: Yeah! Though talk a little about what that meant to have Dennis name you.
CWS: What was nice about it, it was so personalized. It was a person who I really didn’t know that took a lot of time to think about this. Because not only did he throw the name out at me — and just one basic reason: size, name, size, name, makes sense. But he spent time explaining how this could be an asset to me, and why I should use it. It showed me that another person really, without remuneration, was taking time out of his day, was thinking about me, and cared for me as a person and really wanted me to be successful as a strongman. And, what’s also unique about it, what helped make Dennis unique as a strongman was his size.
CWS: So he was in some ways helping to raise me up. And most people in the professional world, they may be nice to all the other professionals in their field, but they’re always holding onto something to give them the edge. And this was somebody that actually was releasing some of his edge.
RS: Selflessly, yeah.
CWS: Selflessly, yeah — didn’t expect anything for it. So that was very special, and it’s also transformative in that if I’m ever in that position for somebody else for whatever it is, I have some sense that it will be right for me to make myself just a little bit vulnerable and help raise somebody else up who’s lost or maybe a little bit directionless. Even if it could jeopardize my perch.
And it’s back to the sense of mentorship. Back to the tradition.
CWS: It’s genuine mentorship.
CWS: Not obligation.
CWS: It’s genuine mentorship
RS: Because how else is this art form going to survive otherwise?