‘Bending Steel’ is a Left-Field Doc That’ll Take You By Surprise
Dave Carroll and Ryan Scafuro’s Bending Steel is a documentary character portrait of a man who (you guessed it) bends steel with his bare hands. Chris Schoek is a New York native training to become an Oldetime Strongman, the musclebound freaks of nature who wowed crowds at Coney Island for decades in the early 20th century before falling out of fashion. He’s not the biggest guy (he actually looks a little scrawny at first glance) and he’s incredibly uncomfortable in front of crowds, so his quest to revive the Strongman scene at Coney Island is quite the uphill battle. Dark, moving, inspirational and beautifully shot, Bending Steel is one of the best indie docs of the summer.
I spoke with Dave Carroll about his experience making the film and getting to know Chris, who he met serendipitously in his own NY apartment building. Bending Steel is available now on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant and at bendingsteelmovie.com
Tell me about how you met Chris. From what I understand, you guys share the same building.
Yeah. I was doing some laundry and heard a loud, metallic clang and some grunting. My French bulldog, who always accompanies me during laundry time, chased after the sound. I went after her, and Chris was down there. He wasn’t actually doing anything—I didn’t see any acts of bending steel—but he was just hanging out in his storage space, which is showcased in the film. The amount of bent steel warranted a lot of internal questions, which I didn’t ask at the time. But I asked him about two weeks later.
When I saw the title of the movie I had expectations of what it would be like. I was surprised to say the least.
Marketing is a huge part of filmmaking. [laughs] I really enjoy films that take you places you weren’t expecting to go. I think Bending Steel is like that. The film really isn’t about what the title [indicates]. It’s not so much about a strongman going out to Coney Island. It’s a personal story about Chris and everything that goes into that. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the mainstream marketing idea of a title telling audiences exactly what they’re getting into, and that may or may not have hurt us. It’s nice when people are shocked or surprised by what the film actually is. I think there are people out there who like going into a film not knowing much.
The film is a slow burn. It really doesn’t give you much at the beginning, but it just builds and builds layers until the end. I think it makes the payoff that much more worth it. Some people don’t like that. [laughs]
I don’t think the title is misleading in any way. After you watch the movie it takes on a new meaning as a metaphor.
Exactly. The idea of the two-inch bar and what it means is the point. We’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve associated the bar with all kinds of things in their lives. It’s cool to have something people latch on to.
I think Chris’ journey to becoming a great steel-bender is great, and it’s clearly a focus of the movie, but his other journey of learning to be comfortable around people is even more fascinating to me.
I think a lot of what he struggles with is social interaction, finding something in the world to get really excited about and take you away from negativity. I’d be lying if I said that part of me doesn’t relate to what Chris is going through, in some way. Having taken this film on the road, I think audiences find that association as well.
Chris is a wonderful documentary subject. It came as a surprise to me when we learn that he doesn’t really have any friends. I think he’s very charming and intelligent.
He is charming and intelligent. I think he just sometimes doesn’t know what to do with himself in crowds of people. He’s more of a one-on-one guy. He’s a personal trainer by profession, and I think that lends itself to his personality. He engages the camera in a way that plays to his strengths. We spent over nine months with him where he was kind of using the camera and us as a way to engage with himself and look deeper into his own life.
In the movie, his strongman mentor is encouraging him to hold up the steel he bends like a trophy for the audience to show off what he’s done. But Chris is almost incapable of doing this. It’s fascinating psychologically. As he says, when he bends, the whole world melts away. When he’s done, he’s more happy for himself that he’s succeeded in bending the steel than he is concerned about the crowd’s happiness.
You’re absolutely right. When he performs, there’s this sense that he’s just doing this for himself. He’s just coming to terms with how to share this with people. When I met him, he wasn’t sharing it at all; he was doing it by himself. He got gratification out of it. What’s cool about the film is that you could never get that level of intimacy with Chris on-stage. When you’re aware of his story, seeing his stage performance is really special. It’s not just some guy bending steel; he’s overcoming these huge social issues. That last scene was a real joy to be a part of.
There are two empty seats at his final performance…
The element of his parents…[trails off]. It’s possible that people in your life who are physically close to you don’t really understand you. As the filmmakers, we were in between these worlds. On one side, his parents didn’t really understand what he was doing or how it helped his life. On the other side, Chris couldn’t articulate why what he was doing was important. It was like two ships passing in the night. It’s an interesting element of the film.
There’s this scene in the film where Chris and his parents have a tense conversation at their house. Chris leaves in a hurry and shuts the door. I was thinking, “The filmmakers are still in there!” How awkward to be left with his parents after an argument like that!
Documentaries are interesting in that way. Everyone just carried on like we weren’t there, which is the best thing you can hope for. There were definitely moments where we had to show ourselves out quietly, nod and thank them. [laughs]