Lately I had the strange experience of voting among the jury of a documentary film festival's sports documentaries, and finding that my top three choices were nowhere among those the festival recognized. Big deal; tastes differ. Still, I couldn't figure how my top choice, Bending Steel, wasn't everyone's favorite. The feature-length documentary — directed by Dave Carroll, produced by Ryan Scafuro — follows a shy, diminutive would-be Coney Island strongman, Chris Schoeck, now 45, in his efforts to parlay a peculiar obsession into a full-on public persona. Along the way, demons are faced, weirdness abounds and you find yourself strangely captivated by the cosmically absurd question of whether Schoeck can fold a 2-inch-wide bar of steel using only his arms and thighs. Here's the trailer:
I wondered how Schoeck and the film are doing. Turns out it's up for the audience choice honor at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and is eyeing a small theatrical release next spring. Tonight I managed to get the filmmakers and Schoeck on the phone, with Carroll hanging out in the strongman's apartment. They share a building, as it happens. The director was doing laundry downstairs one night when his dog heard a clang and went looking for the source of the noise. There was Schoeck, warping immovable objects with his bare hands, and a journey began. Here's some of what we discussed.
On the various oddball objects Schoeck bends and rips
Schoeck: I have a huge pile of horseshoes. I have steel bars, and I have a tremendous assortments of spikes and 6- and 7-inch pieces of steels, and I have cards. Cards are a very funny thing. Everybody has touched a deck of cards. When they see you tear one, it's a real crowd-pleaser.
I have some odd objects, some wrenches, a few hammers here and there. I've tried to bend anything I could get my hands on that I thought I could ever learn to bend — wrenches, screwdrivers, anything. There are things that I view as improbable. But I'm no longer willing to say I can't bend it. I'm willing to put a long-term time frame on it. I easily bend things now that two years ago I thought couldn't be bent. I always want to hedge myself and tell people it's a journey. I can only tell you where I am at the moment.
On reaction to the film
Carroll: People walk away and they say the most incredible things. The 2-inch bar he's trying to work his way to bend, not only is it confronting his fears and all these self-imposed limitations, but that 2-inch bar really represents something. We've had people name their own 2-inch bar in their own life. It's a powerful moment when multiple people will come up with red eyes and tear trails on their face and say, I’m a composer and music's my 2-inch bar, or people saying they're going to go back to school because of the film. We ourselves — Ryan can attest to this, as first time filmmakers — the film itself was our 2-inch bar.
On whether a strongman is an athlete
Carroll: I don't consider it really a sports film. It's a character piece.
Scafuro: We didn't go into this intending to make a sports film, but it does have all the elements — the underdog story, the moment of truth — that good sports films do have.
Schoeck: I'm more of a showman. Whenever I get out in front of people or whenever I train, it's a personal challenge. I'm just taking that challenge and doing it in front of people. For example, in a marathon, people are fixated and train vigorously for it. Most people know they're not going to be victorious, but the victory is just in completing it. They know most people will be able to accomplish the 26 miles.
I take objects and I work on objects that I'm not so sure I could complete or fix or bend or manipulate. The challenge for me is forcing myself to approach the unknown, and developing my ability to shed limitations to complete something that very few people can do.
Carroll: We don't do too much in the film with it, but he certainly trains like an athlete, he's constantly working. I'm sitting in his apartment and there's just an absurd stack of torn playing cards.
Schoeck: What Dave doesn't realize is that underneath those playing cards are easier playing cards. It's sedimentary. You dig through it and you can see progress. And much of the stacks of cards are dated and numbered.
On the existence of old-man strength
Scafuro: There are guys who are doing this who are in their late 60s, who are bending things that guys who are 25, younger, maybe stronger, wouldn't think of bending.
Carroll: All the old guys will tell you they didn't really hit their peak strength around 50 or something.
Schoeck: There seems to be a strange figure, 40 to 50 that's thrown around. Now, that does not mean you get weaker after 50. The articles you bend don't get progressively more difficult — you evolve as a person. You continually change through this activity. Most of the development occurs in the effort. It's in the isometric pushing. It's pushing, pushing and pushing, even if the item doesn't move. Learning how to honestly say 'I put out maximum exertion. I turned off all those things that would've stopped me.' We keep pulling on something that won't move, and if we keep pulling on it, and it looks like it's not going anywhere, one day it budges a little bit.
On what it feels like to frickin' bend a frickin' slab of steel
Schoeck: When you hear or feel it budging definitively, all of a sudden the euphoria kicks in. When the item is completed, that's the eureka moment — when you hold it up and say, 'It's finished.'
I'll tell you what, you try and bend that bar — I hate to give it humanlike characteristics. It really is an opponent sometimes. It's a battle. But the end result is, it bent. Whether I cajoled, whether I made a deal with it, a pact — it bent.
Photo courtesy the filmmakers. If you want to stay on top of the movie's festival appearances and distribution, sign up for its newsletter.