I recently interviewed filmmaker Zachary Levy after screening his critically lauded documentary, Strongman, as part of my film series. I did my best Mike Wallace impersonation but it was no use — I couldn’t intimidate the guy. Levy might not be able to bend steel with his bare hands, but he’s obviously tougher than he appears. A slim bespectacled man in his 30s, Levy followed strongman Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun, girlfriend Barbara and family members on-and-off for 10 years. Pleskun was accommodating to the process despite the fact that his struggles, both professional and personal, would be projected on screens across the country.
And Levy can list the theaters, since he was often the one to deliver the film to them. Strongman was produced and distributed by the director.
Adam Schartoff: This film is shot in vérité style. Was this form your intention from the start?
Levy: Absolutely. That’s the kind of filmmaking that I like. When I first got into documentaries, when I was a teenager, I started seeing films of this tradition. It opened my mind up to the possibilities of documentaries in a broader way. They didn’t have to be about just delivering information. The points could be larger than just advocacy. Those were the kinds of films that inspired me.
Schartoff: What were your influences?
Levy: (David & Albert Maysles’ 1968 film) Salesman (POV, 1990) was huge. I think anyone who has seen Salesman will see the similarities with my film. It was the first film I saw where I thought, “Oh, wow, there’s a different way of doing this,” where the story can be realistic and metaphorical at the same time. It can all be tied up into one thing. When I’m asked to describe Strongman, I’ll often triangulate it by comparing it to Salesman, The Cruise (Bennett Miller, 1998) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967). Look at those films if you want to see where I’m coming from.
Schartoff: How did you meet Stan?
Levy: One day I got a call by NBC to shoot a stunt. The show was a revival of “You Asked for It,” a show that was originally popular in the 50′s. So, I went down to the Princeton Airport, and Stan has a Cessna airplane tied to each arm! He’s holding them back while they’re trying to take off! It was a great stunt, but what really struck me was his personality. When you are filming someone, you have a certain kind of relationship with them across the lens that is not necessarily the same relationship you have in life. It can transfer, but you sense something coming through the lens. I trusted him immediately, and he trusted me. It happened in 30 seconds.
We went back to his parents’ house for the interview part of the show and there was chaos everywhere. But I knew I had a much bigger film here, that it was not just about physical strength but about a man re-shaping his life.
Schartoff: And it took 10 years to film Strongman?
Levy: A lot of that was due to me not having money. I filmed intensely for three years, and then I would come back periodically. It’s very difficult finding money for a film like this. Most documentaries tie into some segment of the demographic out there, whether it’s celebrity or advocacy. There was a total of 135 shooting days. The crux of the film covers roughly two autumns. That’s the chronological structure of the film.
Schartoff: Over the course of the film, there’s a painful disconnect between Stan and his girlfriend, Barbara. It’s difficult to watch.
Levy: The film is basically about Stan looking for an announcer. Here’s this strong guy who actually has a voice, who can say some really profound things, but doesn’t trust it, and a woman who doesn’t have a voice. And that’s who he’s putting his trust in.
Barbara was trickier than Stan in terms of getting deep. Stan trusts immediately. Barbara does too to some extent, but Barbara also cares about appearance. And that’s part of the tension between her and Stan. Stan is purely internal but she’s much more conscious of the surroundings.
Schartoff: The moments when they do successfully connect is quite a relief.
Levy: Is everything completely fixed? No. But perhaps they understand each other slightly more on the next orbit. Hopefully there’s another orbit of understanding. Hopefully the planets have shifted a couple of inches.
Strongman begins an engagement in New York City starting today, Friday, September 23, 2011 at Brooklyn Heights Cinema. Levy will be making a number of appearances for Q&A’s. Check his website, strongmanfilm.com, for details and more show times.