The New Yorker Zachary Levy’s Strongman, which opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center advance tickets go on sale tonight), is about the life and struggles of New Jersey strongman Stanless Steel, who can bend coins with his fingers. We emailed with Levy—who financed the film in large part by designing and selling a deck of Bush administration playing cards—to discuss, among other things, how documentary subjects actually feel about their lives.
How’d you find Stanless Steel, the titular strongman?
At the time, I was doing a lot of freelance camerawork and one day I got a call from a stunt show to go down to the Princeton airport. When I got there, I saw Stan with each arm tied to a Cesna 172 airplane and the planes trying to take off in opposite directions. It was a pretty fabulous stunt—but as soon as I went back to his house, I understood that there were layers to his life even more interesting than just his physical strength.
And I understand the film took about ten years to get off the ground—what’s it like following a subject for that long?
Well it actually got off the ground quickly—I started shooting about a month and half after meeting Stan— but I guess it just took a long time to land. But yeah, no question, working that long on something is hard. It’s kind of like running a marathon but you’re never sure where the finish line is.
Your film has been called “touching” and “a metaphor for the American Dream—in general, do you find that documentary subjects agree with filmmakers or critics about the tragic pathos of their life stories?
In general, I’d say no—these are real people who are living their lives the same way the rest of are. Like most of us, I think the people in documentaries are usually thinking more about what’s on their grocery list and getting the laundry done than about if they are metaphors for something bigger than themselves.
Even as a filmmaker too—to be honest, I’m not really thinking about that stuff. That’s the kind of analysis which comes later. While I’m shooting, I’m really working on the most basic level which is just making sure the notes ring true to what’s going on. I think a lot of filmmakers do try to fit their subjects into some kind of predetermined arc, and that’s when for me the films become hollow-feeling—the characters are just metaphors then, not people. I think when they are people first, that’s when, as characters, they have enough weight that people can see bigger things in them.
What are the challenges and rewards of self-distributing?
Well, hmmn, the challenges part is definitely easier to answer—I’m my own film booker, pr person, bill collector, messenger, flyer-person, web-site poster, etc… The rewards, well, I guess it depends on how many people come out. It’s like buying your vegetables straight from the farmer.
Are the Bush playing cards still selling briskly enough to finance your next film, or are you looking at other options?
Happy to say they aren’t selling at all.