I saw Strongman at the 9pm showing of it’s opening night at NW Film Forum here in Seattle, with director Zachary Levy in attendance. Just a handful of people showed up. Which surprised me, because it won Grand Jury for best doc at Slamdance last year.
Synopsis: An aging strongman, whose specialty is bending pennies and lifting trucks with his bare hands, struggles to hold his life together and earn a living in a world more interested in flashy showmanship that “true” strength.
Story Structure: The film is organized on a linear timeline, which follows events in the life of “Stanless” Steel, the main character in the film. We see him rehearsing for performances, with his family in New Jersey, and performing at events that vary widely from private weddings up to a trip to London where Stanless performs on a TV show with other strongmen. The film closely follows his rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Barbara, and the challenge of living with his low-income family and drug-using brother. What really works wonderfully well is the fact that his struggle to bend steel acts as a metaphor for his struggle to keep his life together. Add that that the fact that it’s also a metaphor for how difficult it is to make a cinema verite film, and you have a perfect storm of cinematic synchronicity.
Cinematography: The film was shot entirely by Levy, who used a hefty digibeta, shoulder-held video camera. Nothing about the way it was filmed really jumped out at me, which is a testament to the filmmaker’s intentions: to put all the attention on the events as they occur, rather than on how they were filmed. The quality is “good enough” – standard definition, much of it was shot in low light at Stan’s home. Levy told me that to light the scenes, he replaced the standard 65-watt bulbs in the home with 100-watt bulbs, which provided just enough light, while keeping the scene appearing exactly as it otherwise would have had he not been filming. Great trick.
Editing: Levy edited the film himself in Avid. The editing is simple and straightforward, and calls no attention to itself, in keeping with cinema verite tradition. My only beef with the editing comes about 3/4 of the way through the film, where I think a much tighter edit of the final quarter of the film would have improved its story and mainstream audience watchability. I was ready for the film to end sooner than it did, and the ending really just trailed out, rather than ending with any finality or in keeping with classic story arc. But that’s probably how Levy intended it: because life itself doesn’t follow story scripts.
Music and Sound: Levy is a cinema verite purist. He wanted what actually happened to provide the soundtrack for the film instead of adding music himself. Music in the film happens in scenes where the characters are playing the radio. Levy claimed “fair use” to reproduce them in the film, rather than paying expensive clearance fees, which I think is a great strategy for documentary filmmakers. To take this approach, of course, reproducing the song has to be truly part of the scene and therefore the quality is going to be limited. But it’s very authentic. Levy did use one song for this film, and it plays over the credits at the end, not during, the film.
He had just one crew member with him on all of his shoots: a sound guy, who used a shotgun mic on a boom pole to record the main characters. He hooked up the main character to a wireless lav, but almost always had the boom operator there as well to catch his interactions with other characters.
While Levy was in Seattle for the screening of his film, he was gracious enough to accept my invitation to dinner, and I learned a lot about the challenges of verite filmmaking and DIY film distribution. I met up with him at NW Film Forum, where he was asking staff to make a bigger sign announcing his presence in an effort to boost flagging attendance. When a man walked in to buy a ticket to another film, Levy unsuccessfully tried to talk him into seeing Strongman instead. That’s what I call working hard to promote your film!
Levy told me it took him 9 years to make this film – 3 years shooting, and the rest in post. I hope it doesn’t take him that long to do his next one.