Tribeca Interview: Bending Steel, Part 2


Here’s the second part of our interview with the team behind Bending Steel: director Dave Carroll, director of photography/producer Ryan Scafuro, and Chris “Wonder” Schoeck. The documentary was my favorite movie at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. (You can read part one of the interview here.)

After the interview was over, Chris “Wonder” Schoeck looked into his bag and pulled out a handful of thick nails. He asked me to inspect the nails to make sure they were authentic and then proceeded to bend a nail right in front of me like it was made out of taffy. While he was bending the nail, I could hear some of the seams in his suit jacket splitting. Chris then handed me that bent, u-shaped nail as a souvenir. I kept it in my Tribeca badge for the duration of the festival, and it’s now in my bookcase for safe keeping. There’s a photo of this nail at the end of the interview.

If you’re in Toronto for the Hot Docs film festival, you can catch Bending Steel Saturday, May 4th at the ROM Theatre. 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.]

Bending bolts Chris Schoeck

[Editor’s note: When we left off in part one of the interview, we were discussing the nature of mentorship in the strongman community.]

Yeah, the art [of the strongman] is not going to survive if it’s just people grifting and looking for favors going back and forth. It’s about passing on what you can offer.

Dave Carroll: Exactly.

Chris “Wonder” Schoeck: Without holding back. Without holding back.

DC: And that was a huge thing in the relationship between The Mighty Atom and Slim “The Hammer Man.” That’s not exactly in the film, but being with Slim, we all know how powerful that relationship was and all these guys take that stuff very seriously. And there’s an etiquette to dealing with the elders in the community, an there’s a lot of respect.

Ryan Scafuro: Respect.

DC: Chris deeply respects all those guys and admires them. Part of it is lost on the audience, but Chris is such a fan of strongmen. He’s wearing a Stanless Steel shirt, and later on you see Stanless Steel. [Editor’s note: Stanless Steel is the name of an old-time strongman, though it’s pronounced “stainless.”] I mean, you know, he’s like a fanboy of strongmen! You see all the little layers of it. That’s a little subtlety of the movie.

Slim’s training room is incredible.

RS: Yeah!

DC: “The Dungeon”!

Is it literally like a history museum?

DC: Exactly!

RS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CWS: It’s like going down beneath the Metropolitan Museum of Art or The Vatican! You discover all these catacombs with all this great stuff!

RS: So when The Mighty Atom died, he left all of that stuff to Slim, and Slim actually had the old truck that The Mighty Atom used to travel in and sell his hair tonics at carnivals.

DC: We didn’t get it in the movie.

RS: We do have a shot--

DC: They walk past it. And The Atom used to sell those tonics and stuff, like for your hair, and would sell it out of the back of that truck. So old school.

RS: But in Slim’s Dungeon there’s so much history there. When we first got invited down there, and it was the first time Chris had met him too – Err, officially met him, I guess.

CWS: Officially, in his home.

RS: We walked in there and you get a sense of history and of strength and amazement. And seeing all the metal hanging from the ceiling and the dates going back to the 70s and the 60s, and then the cases with all the photographs. And just visually, for me as a cinematographer, it was stunning. That’s one of my favorite-looking scenes in the film because there’s all of this wood, and it’s a little bit of a gym and a little bit of a museum, but then there are these metallic items hanging from the ceiling.

CWS: Relics.

RS: Relics!

DC: I always just thought about it as if, you know, you were breaking into the pyramids for the first time.

[laughs] [Editor’s note: And this point Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, Dave Carroll, and Ryan Scafuro all simultaneously geeked out for a few seconds about The Dungeon.]

CWS: Yeah! I was thinking about that! That’s how – Like I’d just opened up Tutankhamun’s tomb!

RS: Yeah! Just walk in and like, “What!?”

CWS: The splendor!

DC: And Ryan, I don’t know if you remember, but I said that the music we need for that scene, it’s like you’re in the pyramids or something.

CWS: I was waiting to get bitten by the fly. [laughs]


DC: [laughs] Boom!

RS: [laughs] We’re all dead.

CWS: We’re all dead, that’s it! Mwahahaha!

RS: This is also a subtle thing too, and Slim might get mad at me, but he keeps his hammers in a false wall. I don’t know if you noticed that.

Yeah, I did!

RS: He considers that a shrine. It’s a really spiritual space for him because he used to train there. Like they said, he used to go there religiously and train, and I think that was his place where he felt at home, where he felt like he could do anything, where there was no judgment, and Chris has that same place in his storage cage.

DC: It’s really weird because in the last interview we just did, Chris called his downstairs storage space a temple. [Editor’s note: To Chris] I’ve never heard you call it that.

Chris, does it feel that way to you?

CWS: It is. It is undoubtedly my temple. I enter that little arena and I am free of electronic devices and any sort of outside distraction, and there usually isn’t anybody wandering around down there. So there’s frequently no judgment. It’s a private area, and it’s a place where I truly feel comfortable. I can, you know, communicate with my items, sometimes silently, sometimes… audibly.


CWS: I can carry on these sort of relationships that I have with these various items that may have been bent years ago. And I try to put a date to them all, and I have memories. All of these things things just look like articles that have been bent, but they all carry with them some sort of meaning or specific dates.

DC: Chris Rider would always say to us, “I used to lift weights. You pick up a weight, you put it down, you pick it up, you put it down. But when you bend a piece of steel, it’s there — you can see it.”


DC: You know when that was. You remember the pain that you experienced putting into that. And that’s why with Chris, by now his storage space is – You see the movie poster, that is his storage space: it’s almost engulfing him.

RS: There’s a lot of relationships in that storage space! [laughs]


DC: There’s a lot! And, you can tell! I mean, Chris is pulling up dates, and I do not doubt that he remembers some of that agony and pain that went into it and what caused that with those articles. I mean, the most obvious one is that two-inch bar.


CWS: Yeah.

What happens if – Well, when you run out of space in that storage space? Where will you put all the articles?

CWS: Well, I hope to buy a studio in LIC [Editor’s note: Long Island City] not too far from that area around Queensboro Plaza. And that could be a place where I keep my apartment and go there and conduct my art form.

RS: So the answer is he just moves. [laughs]

CWS: Yeah! I tried to do it the easy way. I just told [the landlord] there’s a another storage spot for rent, let me rent it downstairs.


CWS: Somebody tells me, “Oh, there’s big money in scrap metal!” Well, look: there’s not big money in scrap metal. What are they gonna give me? Fifty cents for a hundred pounds or something?

DC: You’ll be lucky just to get someone to move it for you! [laughs]

CWS: Yeah! Yeah!


CWS: And I’m gonna get rid of all this history? What? For five, ten--

DC: He’s very precious about the metal.

CWS: I don’t have any urge to get rid of it. I would rather get another space; buy or rent another space and be a little more circumspect about how I store it and archive it.

DC: The answer is just expand. It’s not to reduce--

CWS: Not to reduce but to expand. That’s very succinctly put! [laughs]

RS: Exactly. [laughs]

Actually, I wanted to touch on the score. You’d mentioned how important the score was for Slim’s Dungeon. Could you talk about how you got the score for Bending Steel?

RS: Yeah. Fernando Martinez is a friend of mine, and he composed the score. We all sort of sat down, the three of us, but Dave worked really closely with Fernando to actually get the mood of each scene.

DC: I mean, I love the score in the film, but it took a lot of trial and error to really get it. We went in with a lot of ideas, and I think a lot of it is on the screen because a lot of it just worked. Some scenes you need to conjure up some kind of ancient strongman-ism, like the texture or feel of this stuff is more exotic or has an old feel; and some of it’s newer, and some of it’s more folksy because it’s the guys together. And we’d play around with Chris’s isolation in the beginning, and there are ebows and things that kind of give it an austere feel. It was very, you know--

CWS: An eboooow?

DC: Yeah, it’s a--

CWS: A whaaaat?! [laughs]


DC: It’s… [laughs]

CWS: A whaaaat?! [laughs]

RS: We really wanted to have a score that was subtle but powerful, which are two contrasting things, and a great composer is able to do that, and I think Fernando really nailed it.

I always wondered this: how does a strongman come up with all the different kinds of feats he does? What is the process of creating a feat?

CWS: Since it’s primarily passed down, there are going to be basic feats that everybody’s trained in, at least in my perspective: steel bars, spikes, scrawling of steel, horseshoes, tearing poker cards. And I believe that a lot of feats are renditions or variations of certain basic ones.

DC: It’s tributes. A lot of it’s tributes to the past.

CWS: Combinations, too.

DC: There are also other guys who do a variety of different things, some of whom weren’t in the film. But I mean, towards the end you have like Gary “The Brick Man” Brown. He’s--

CWS: Sandwiching.

DC: He’s sandwiching bricks together and lifting them, and he’s got the circus dumbbell.

CWS: He’s the closest to the guy with the leopard skin.

DC: Leopard skin, barrel-chested strongman. There’s so many variations of these guys and combination-feats. You know, Steve Weiner, the guy who picks up the boulder. I mean, that boulder is like 350 pounds or something like that. But he does combination feats where he’ll literally have 250 pounds on one side, 250 pounds on the other side, and attach another 200 pounds to his head.

RS: Yeah, via a fire hydrant.


DC: Via a fire hydrant! I mean lift like a giant cement boulder while levering a hammer. Doing all these things at once. The stuff that goes behind that, that’s really what the film is about. Bending steel is just a simple term for what happens in the movie. It’s really the transformative nature of taking something and turning it into something else. When people say weird things like, “Hey, great sports film,” or something, you have to wonder whether they saw the film or not.

[laughs] It’s like, “Umm… welll…”

DC: That’s why we all appreciated what you wrote because there was a thoughtfulness to it that obviously understood what it was we were trying to portray. And I think people get it. The film’s gotten a great response… once you get people in the door.

Especially watching what happens to you, Chris, over the course of the movie. It’s obvious it’s not just a kind of sports film. It means so much to you, so obviously there’s something else going on there beyond, “Oh, they’re just lifting things. Or bending things.” It’s something more fundamental than that.

DC: We would always talk with the strongmen — and they would always have internal conversations about this — the difficulty of standing in front of someone and making them understand what was happening. Just because you pull apart a horseshoe, people may say, “Ah, that’s a great feat,” but they have no idea what goes into that. And not just the physicality. It’s like, “Oh, that guy’s really strong.” That’s easy to say that and then walk away from it, but what we really wanted to get across was the emotional weight.

CWS: Value. The actual value.

DC: What’s going into that act, what’s going on behind the eyes.

RS: And it’s something that… That struggle is represented as steel in the film, but there’s also that other level. That’s struggle is something that we can all relate to in our lives. We all have a two-inch bar.

DC: In anything.

RS: In anything.

DC: Making the movie for us was our own kind of struggle. So we related deeply to what Chris was saying.

RS: And the act of overcoming something like that, these perceived limitations, right? Because they are perceived.


RS: Once you overcome that, you can find greater things. And the thing that holds you back from overcoming that is your own mind. And I think that people can take that away from the film and apply it to other aspects of their life, whether they be an artist or whatever. You can apply it basically to anything. Even relationships.

CWS: It’s a journey. Precisely how the journey started is something which is still becoming clearer to me, but I can tell you why I stay on that journey. It’s a journey where I find a lot of self-illumination and fulfillment, because I train myself to turn off governors or self-imposed limitations, and that frees me up to open my eyes to a whole panorama of things which normally I would try to avoid — that I would go to great lengths to avoid.

RS: And I think, you know, that idea of it being a journey is something that Dave and I really wanted to portray. That the quest for fulfillment is something that is continuous. You get that fulfillment from accomplishing something. Chris gets it every time he accomplishes a bend. Dave and I got it from accomplishing this film. But it’s ongoing. That feeling is somewhat fleeting, and then you move on to the next thing. For people to continually grow, you need to have that thing that you’re striving for.

That little extra thing. I remember, Chris, you describing what bending steel is like: holding your breath and then trying to hold it for 20 seconds more.

CWS: Right.

Always trying to push on.

CWS: That’s exactly it.

You guys are going to Toronto with this next, right?

RS: Yup, Hot Docs.

DC: Hot Docs.

How are you guys feeling about that?

RS: Oh, we’re excited!

DC: Yeah, excited. You know, Tribeca, I guess, is a little more spread out. Hot Docs, I’ve never been.

Neither have I.

DC: Are you going?

No, I wish I could.

DC: We’re excited to be going to Toronto. I mean, the doc community is really amazing. I find the filmmakers to be very approachable for the most part, and open and really collaborative.

RS: Super supportive.

DC: Super supportive. Maybe not everyone, but almost everyone we’ve run into.

RS: Yeah.

DC: Really positive.

RS: And I think that’s really across the board with a lot of people in the community.

DC: Because our film is so tiny, and we’re first-time filmmakers and we didn’t really have any champions of the film. No one was going to put their name on the film. So it meant a lot to us to have people in the community, anyone, just say, “Hey, you guys are doing something good and worthwhile.”

RS: Yeah.

DC: To show us the same type of encouragement that Chris was looking for. So on that level, thank god this film was inspirational on certain levels.

RS: It helped a lot.

DC: If this was a depressing film, it would be really – [Editor’s note: If I remember right, both Dave Carroll and Ryan Scafuro looked at Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, and they all busted up laughing.]


CWS: Whew!

DC: It would be really hard to work the motivation up, because you need that driving force to get you to get this thing done and out the door.

RS: For Hot Docs, we’re super-excited to have our international premiere there. We’re so grateful to Charlotte [Cook] for inviting us. We’re really excited to continue these relationships. We’ve met with fellow filmmakers and programmers throughout the festival circuit, and we’re especially looking forward to being up there because we’ve heard amazing things about the festival.

DC: In a weird way, very similar to Chris — and maybe it’s because we’ve worked on a film about an introverted guy coming out of his shell and actually wanting relationships with other people — but I feel like the best part of this process is meeting people. [laughs]


DC: And actually developing various forms of relationships that we just didn’t have before. And I’m not talking about business relationships. I’m talking about--


RS: Mutual respect.

DC: Actual relationships. Like with people you’ll see again, and it’s a cool thing. And like the party… That’s why the screening for me was very emotional too, because all these people helped us out tremendously, so it was pretty important to have them all together in one room.

And one last question. What can you say about the Coney Island strongman show coming up, Chris?

CWS: I’m involved in it. It should be… The size of the event is something I don’t think Coney Island has seen in a long – Ever. At least in terms of a sizable strongman event. We’re going to have several notable people in our community perform, including people from Johannesburg. And you’re going to see a lot of variety. Everyone has they own area of expertise, and they will have an opportunity to perform that in front of a large group of people.

It should be really, really exciting. And it’s something which everybody is looking forward to. I’m sure they’re honing up their bars for it, or whatever — you know, to have special bars which they want to polish up. They want to come across really good and take pride in performing, and they’re all very happy that so many people want to come down and see these feats.

And now, hopefully, the film will show that these aren’t just feats, and people will have the background to see the real value in the art form. It isn’t just something where you go, get a ticket, and see something neat done. You sort of are part of the experience that led up to this person being able to do this seemingly impossible or improbable thing.

RS: And it’s Adam RealMan and Chris Rider who are producing the show together.


RS: It’s gotten bigger every year.

DC: May 19th. Third annual.

RS: You weren’t at the premiere, and so I also didn’t know this, but Mike Greenstein, the son of The Mighty Atom, is going to be pulling a car at 92 years old.

DC: 92!

CWS: 93. He’ll be 93 years old.

[laughs] Holy crap!

RS: Yeah.

That’s going to be incredible.

CWS: It is.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.