Mention the strongman profession in everyday conversation and you are bound to be on the receiving end of a few perplexed looks and shoulder shrugs. And such responses wouldn’t be totally unjust. In fact, the proverbial strongman is now considered a lost art, a form of entertainment that was popular over a century ago in the early days of the Coney Island amusement park scene. But for Chris Schoeck, putting brute strength into action for purpose of crowd-pleasing has always been a dream. He even has a rather unique talent to back up his aspirations: he can bend steel of all kinds with his bare hands. The only thing is, Schoeck is a particularly anti-social person who spends more time with his mangled metal than real-life people.

For their new documentary Bending Steel, first-time director Dave Carroll and first-time producer Ryan Scafuro intimately follow Schoeck as he strives to move out of his basement-level training studio and into the eyes of spectators looking for his brand of impressive strength. Along the way, he meets men like himself who have refused to let the strongman legend die, even as the golden age of the profession fades farther into the past. With Carroll and Scafuro’s lens focused squarely on his path forward, Schoeck begins a journey to find himself, and build his career, in the name of strongmen everywhere.

Carroll, Scafuro and Schoeck talked with GALO about the chance meeting that led to their inspiring film and how that film has changed each of their lives forever.

GALO: It is stated several times throughout the film that the strongman profession is a bit of a lost art that had its heyday over 100 years ago. What was the motivation behind capturing this subject, and more specifically, Chris’ attempt at breaking into this business? How did this project come about?

Dave Carroll: I was doing laundry in the basement of my building with my dog and we heard a noise, kind of like a grunting. My dog went chasing after it deeper into the building and I chased after him. When I rounded a corner, Chris was standing there and my little dog, Gizmo was inside his storage space sniffing around. And inside the storage space was all this bent metal — hammers were bent, horseshoes were bent and there were chains hanging from the wall. I really had no idea what to think. I had seen Chris in the building before, in the elevator, but he was really awkward and really wouldn’t make eye contact, even if I said “Hi.” That whole [prior interaction] had me a little taken aback by what I was seeing in the basement, so I just picked my dog up, excused myself and was on my way.

I thought about it for like two weeks and I told my friends that I thought that there was a crazy guy downstairs that was manically and angrily bending metal for some reason. Then, I ran into him after two weeks and I asked him what was going on with the steel, and he said that he was training to become an old-time strongman. The history that that conjures up is intriguing. I thought of Coney Island; I thought of a guy in a leopard-skinned leotard lifting odd-sized weight, possibly with a handlebar moustache or something. That reading is relatively accurate but that’s all I knew. And Chris was such an interesting personality that Ryan and myself were thinking at the time that we could make what we thought would be a short film. As we kept working with Chris, after a couple months, we realized he’s very complex, he had a lot of layers, and it wasn’t just about bending steel. The film is called Bending Steel, but it’s much more about the transformative nature of doing something that can really trickle down to the core of who you are as a person.

GALO: You described him as awkward when you saw him around the building and in the basement, so what was it like getting him to open up for the camera. And Chris you can elaborate on that from a personal standpoint as well.

Carroll: I’ll just say that Chris had this ability to ignore the camera and just talk directly to us. So, in a lot of ways, the [filming process], thankfully, didn’t put up a roadblock for us as filmmakers because he was able to just carry on with what he was doing.

Ryan Scafuro: I will say that we have become really good friends throughout this process and the more time that we spent with him, the more comfortable he got with the camera. That allowed us to have conversations with him, very candidly. And we spent a lot of time with him without the cameras rolling as well. That is natural for a documentary such as this, to really just become part of each other’s lives.

Chris Schoeck: I think, looking back on it now, I was faltered that two people would take time to recognize something that I was doing. They saw value in it and that gave me a certain sense of self-esteem, and through beginning to work with me, they would ask questions and I was forced to be introspective and look at different aspects of my personality. As things progressed, I started to see and feel changes. And much to my initial angst, I actually discovered things that I liked about myself, which has propelled me to reach out to other areas of life. I now believe that there might actually be some worthwhile things that I have to contribute.

Scafuro: Just to add to that, I think from a filmmaker’s perspective, the process of making a documentary can be therapeutic for the subject. Being asked these questions, you do start to become introspective and realize things about yourself that you might not have realized before, or you start to take a look in a way that you hadn’t before.

GALO: The film is comprised of a healthy mixture of revealing and seemingly self-shot confessionals from Chris, and professionally shot renderings of him in his element and working on his craft. Can you talk briefly about the production process, especially since all three of you played different roles in it? Was there a push and pull between giving Chris freedom with the camera, or were you in control the entire time?

Carroll: When Chris received that GoPro camera, we had to establish the camera, and there is one scene where he is practicing his performance and we’re there and he’s there, but everything else, with the GoPro, from then on it’s just him. So we had to sift through quite a bit of footage of him doing all kinds of things — from just working out, to those confessionals, to that wonderful scene where he is talking about Moby Dick during the hurricane. That was just a diamond in the rough amongst the rest of the footage. It was a fantastic example because he felt comfortable pushing the [record] button and whatever happened, happened.

Scafuro: We really didn’t expect that Chris was going to use the camera in the way he did. Once we realized that he had kind of turned it into a diary of sorts, we were really blown away by the stuff he opened up about to just the camera. Those are very intimate moments that he, kind of, expressed without us being there.

(Interview continued on next page)