SXSW 09 Interview: "Strongman" Director Zachary Levy

By David Cornelius
Posted 03/13/09 01:44:39

The South by Southwest rundown on “Strongman”: Stanless Steel can leg-press 10,000 pound dump trucks, drive nails through boards with just his bare hands, and can even bend a U.S. penny in his fingers - a feat no one else in the world can accomplish. These are acts, he feels, not just of physical strength but of mental and emotional strength - demonstrations of the kind of change possible through will-power and perseverance. Yet as Stan reaches middle age, career disappointments and difficult personal relationships begin to test these strengths and force him to struggle with the weaknesses around him - including his own. Befitting its subject's sense of integrity and artistic purity, Strongman uses a hard-core verité approach and applies it to a thoroughly modern story.

Just what is "Strongman"?

Strongman is my film about Stanless Steel-a professional strongman from New Jersey. Broadly speaking, it's a film about strength, faith, and the courage it takes to pursue your dreams. Stylistically, I aim for the depth and complexity of a novel without losing the humor or humanity of everyday life.

How did you meet Stanless Steel, and what compelled you to document his story?

I met Stan while filming an NBC stunt show in 1999. The stunt was really good-he was holding two Cesna 172's back from taking off-as they were pulling in opposite directions. It was loud and terrifying and I was immediately struck by the contrast between the potential violence of the stunt and the gentleness I was seeing in his personality.

It was one of those things where there was this immediate connection --- a real trust between us that I could sense from behind the lens.

Later, we went back to do an interview at his parents house and once I understood the kind of things he was struggling with in his home life---I saw there was a great film there. I left that day slightly scared because I knew I was going to try to make it.

Your bio is interesting, to say the least. How does someone go from disc jockey to cameraman to inventor to filmmaker?

An active mind! Maybe sometimes to my own detriment, I'm interested in a lot of different things.

Between filming and editing and financial struggles, "Strongman" took some nearly a decade to make. How many times did you need to convince yourself not to throw in the towel?

Truthfully, not once. Once I started, I really wasn't going to stop. There were plenty of times that I was pretty depressed about the whole thing and wasn't sure if anyone would ever get it, but no, I never really seriously considered quitting. I really believed in the film from the beginning and felt it was important. It's true I probably could have snuck out the back door without anyone else noticing - but I would have known. So no, at the bad times I just picked up the towel, and found a way to keep going.

Also on the subject of the lengthy production time: How did such a lengthy production schedule affect your outlook on Stan's story? Did everything evolve over the years spent putting the film together, or did you manage to stick to the same ideas you had at the beginning?

Well, I don't know. It's a good question. In terms of themes and approach, I had a pretty firm understanding of what I was going for from the beginning. The length of production may have affected the way I played some of those notes, I guess. The challenge of a long production time is that you can't rely on adrenaline really to get you through. It's a marathon - one that you are still trying to run 5 minute miles, but a marathon. There's a lot of time for your own thoughts so it would be hard for me to not see my own struggles to finish the film in Stan's story.

What's the trick to bending a penny?

No trick!!! It's all just pure strength. If Stan was willing to do any tricks, it would be a very different film.

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

You always miss stuff. Even those things which seem irreplaceable, if they are truly important, they will come back. It won't be exactly like what you missed, but it will be there. The challenge is then to find a way to use it in its new form.

Always bring extra tapes. Twice as much as you think you need.

Wear long pants - you're going to have to use your knees.

Don't worry about the weather. It's not that important.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

Yes, a little actually. Not sure why. I think it's party because I'm a little bit of a homebody. The industry stuff kind of unnerves me some. The thing I love most is making films, doing the work.

You recently won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. Does that make things easier for you (you're validated!) or harder (now you've got a rep to uphold!) as you move on to other festivals?

Well, after feeling like I was in a black hole for so long, it's certainly nice. It definitely gives me an opening that wasn't there a year ago, but I don't think for a second it means I can stop working on really getting this film seen. I actually didn't know I had a rep (!) so no, that doesn't worry me. I'm still the new kid in town and happy to play that role. I'd like to believe the film can hold itself up.

What's next for you?

I don't know and that's good --- because that's when I tend to be most creative.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd probably be...

A scientist.

Rock, paper, or scissors?

Paper - you can make the most from it.

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

Bent Pennies! Upside-down Beer Drinking!

“Strongman” joins South by Southwest as part of the Special Screenings series. It screens 6:30 PM March 13, 7:30 PM March 18, and 4:00 PM March 20.

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