One morning last month, I was driving north on 12th Ave on Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood when a poster caught my eye. It was hanging in the window of Northwest Film Forum, the words STRONGMAN emblazoned across the poster, which boasted a picture of a human giant holding up a sledgehammer with one hand. I’m no huge movie buff, but something about that poster made had me intrigued in a way I hadn’t been since seeing previews for The Wrestler. By the time I got home and checked my email, my buddy, Light In The Attic head honcho Matt Sullivan, had apparently read my mind, as he’s done so many times in the past. In my Inbox, the note from Sullivan read: “My wife and I met this guy at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Zach Levy, who made this movie called Strongman. He wants to send you a screener.” I mean, what are the chances, right? Having watched the film several times now, I can now say Strongman is everything I hoped it would be and more. In Levy’s hands, verite becomes surreal as we follow Stan “Stanless Steel” Pleskun as he tries and fails to become the performer he wants to be. The strongest man in the world at bending steel bars, Stanless Steel is a conflicted guy from a whacko South Brunswick, New Jersey, family who wants to be highly-paid and celebrated for his acts of strength. But nothing ever quite clicks for him. Strongman is the type of documentary that could only be made in the United States of America.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Levy this week about Strongman, which is having its Seattle premiere this Friday at the Northwest Film Forum. This movie is destined for greatness, so go see it now—you’ll be way cool and totally ahead of the game before everyone else starts raging about it.
First, let’s just head back to the beginning. When did you first meet Stan “Stanless Steel” Pleskun?
It was actually June of 1999. At the time, I was working as a freelance camera-person and I had gotten a call to film Stan for a TV stunt show. So I went down to the Princeton Airport where he had a Cessna 172 airplane roped to each arm going full throttle in opposite directions. It was pretty dramatic, to say the least.
What about him, and his life at this particular time, made you feel he’d make a great documentary subject?
Well, I guess it was more a gut feeling than anything else. I mean, there was an instant connection between us. That was important. I liked him and I knew we trusted each other, which is necessary for this kind of filmmaking, but I guess the moment I really remember was going back to his parent’s house after stunt. It was pretty clear that at the least the surface, Stan’s world wasn’t particularly easy and the things he was grappling with were pretty big. The sense of physical decay was thick in the air there—and yet this was a guy who could bend a penny in his fingers.
What I found most fascinating was the attention you paid to Stan’s relationship with his whacko family. I mean, everyone’s family is whacko in one way or another, but in a way it seems as though Stan’s family is part of what holds him back from being a true star. He knows they’re nuts, but he can’t seem to let them go.
Yes, absolutely. The film is very much about “grip”—literally and metaphorically. Stan’s strengths are very real—his physical strengths for sure, but also his character strengths as well. He has this great sense of artistic purity, and also there’s this sense of obligation that runs through him as well, (“Be good kids” comes to mind) he wants to do good in the world, he wants to be honorable. Part of that for him is not letting go, really. To let go in some sense would be a sign of weakness. And so he is trapped.
You filmed some very intense, rocky moments between Stan and his wife, Barbara, including the near-disintegration of their marriage. I can see how Stan wanted you to be there for these moments since he’s the star, but what about Barbara? How did she take to you filming these intimate moments?
Well, Barbara is trickier, because she wouldn’t use words to tell you what was going on. For the most part she was fine with filming and I think in the scenes you’re talking about, she in large way didn’t really see them as being about her, so it wasn’t stuff she was necessarily thinking about. In general, if she didn’t want to be filmed, she simply would disappear. She wouldn’t be there. The things she was more worried about were the external type of things—like being embarrassed if the house was messy looking, or in the scene with her looking through old modeling photographs of herself with Stan’s family, she was embarrassed by the chaos, that’s the kind of thing that she reacted to more about filming.
Even though he is told time and again that in order to make it in the strongman biz, he needs to be a huckster of sorts, his ideas never fully materialize. Why do youthink this is? Stan is obviously not stupid, but he does seem torn between being half “average joe” and half “Thor-like legend”.
I think part of it is that he’s just not good at planning ahead. His brain just doesn’t work that way. The idea of following through on all steps it would take to do those kind of things would be really, really hard for him. His focus of course can be extremely intense, which I’m sure is a real advantage when he’s trying to bend something like a penny—it allows him to dig deeper where others might quit. But that same kind of immediate focus isn’t perhaps good for longer term type of planning. Again, it may be a case where his strengths and weaknesses are closely related.
I’m curious where Stan is currently with his career? Is he still in the biz? Are he and Barbara still together?
There haven’t been any major career breakthroughs, but yes, he is still doing local shows in Jersey. And in some ways, I see that as much a big success as if he had quickly become a household name. And yes, he and Barbara are still together!
Has Stan seen the film?
Yes, and I am happy to say that he loves it! I was scared of course when I showed it to him. Of all the potential critics out there, he was the one I really cared about the most. But I put it on and from the first scene he started laughing really hard at it—“Wait, Zach, stop it, stop it, it’s too much, it’s too funny, I have call Barbara.” So I stopped the DVD and he calls Barbara up and says “It’s so good, it’s so good, Barb” and I was happy but also perhaps even more terrified then that he may not like it as the film becomes more serious. But afterwards, he turned to me and said, “Wow, you’ve understood my life in a way that no one ever has.”