This Thursday, Nitehawk is hosting a very special presentation of Bending Steel, a new documentary by director Dave Carroll and producer/cinematographer Ryan Scafuro about the New York steel bending community. Hatched spoke with Scafuro to find out exactly what inspired making this film, what oldetime strongman means, and the wild story of how they met their central character, Chris Schoeck.
Who is your intended audience with Bending Steel? Are you trying to reach/inform a new and younger audience about this sport?
Well, since steel bending and the other feats of strength that are performed in the film are part of a subculture within the strength community, we have initially attracted a large audience within the strength and sports community. It’s definitely something that not many people are aware of, and it is a really unique art form that will attract an audience of all ages. But ultimately the film is an inspiring personal narrative about someone trying to find fulfillment and his place in the world…which is something that we all can relate to.
That’s is a pretty funny story, actually. Our subject Chris Schoeck lives in the same Queens apartment building as the film’s director, Dave Carroll. One day Dave was doing laundry in the basement, and his french bulldog Gizmo runs off. Dave chases him around the corner and Gizmo is in Chris’ storage unit, which is also his training “cage.” Chris is standing there, and Dave sees all of this bent metal, nails, hammers, ripped phone books, and is like “ok this guy is NUTS”, grabs the dog, and splits. Then Dave runs into Chris in the elevator a few days later, and they start talking about steel bending and Chris tells him about the oldetime strongman. At that point we knew this was something that would make for a really interesting film. It wasn’t until we found out about all of Chris’ personal struggles that we realized how interesting it would turn out to be.
You go over this in the documentary, but can you briefly detail the history of Coney Island and steel bending?
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s many of the oldetime strongmen were part of circuses and sideshows, would perform at fairs and carnivals, a sort of vaudevillian act. Among the most famous were Arthur Saxon, Louis Cyr, Eugen Sandow, Warren Lincoln Travis, and the Mighty Atom. They were very popular at places such as Coney Island, where the Mighty Atom once performed, so there is a direct link to the past there. There’s also a history of mentoring that links Schoeck to the Mighty Atom. Schoeck is trained by a man named Chris Rider, who was trained by Dennis Rogers, who was trained by Slim “The Hammerman” Farman, who was the Mighty Atoms original student. Slim and the Mighty Atom performed onstage at Madison Square Garden together in 1975. These men are living connections to the past.
Since we started following them, Schoeck and Rider have been working alongside other men within the community to bring this nearly forgotten art form back to Coney, and have been fairly successful. The Strongman Spectacular event which is featured in the film, is now an annual day long block party that is held down at Coney every April. It’s been an honor to play a small role in this renewed interest in the oldetime strongman, there’s a resurgence of sorts.
The contemporary oldetime strongmen are a very tight knit group of people. While there is some sort of competitive aspect to it, it’s a friendly sort of competitiveness. They push each other to perform feats above and beyond what the normal human being would consider possible. They teach each other and learn from each other. I think it’s such a unique activity, that there is a natural bond amongst these men. I mean, what kind of person looks at a horseshoe or a wrench, and thinks “I need to bend that!” They are all really unique characters, and their personalities really come out in the film. These men have welcomed us into their community, and really opened up to us. It’s been a great experience.
When did you first come into contact with Chris Schoeck and how soon did you know that he would become the main focus on your documentary? Did you anticipate his vulnerability to be captured on camera?
We first met Chris in 2010, and knew right away he was going to be the focus of the film. First of all he was our gateway into the world of the oldetime strongman and steel bending. But in addition, he is such an endearing character. He has this sort of innocence to him, something that is rare in a 43 year old man. When you are watching him in the film, you WANT to see him succeed.
We had no idea of the depth of his vulnerability when we began filming. As Chris got more comfortable with Dave and I, with the camera being around, a lot was revealed. It’s a very delicate relationship. And once he got comfortable, it was like peeling away layers of an onion…what we found at the core was remarkable. Without giving too much away, he had a lifetime of issues which he believed had held him back, which were keeping him from succeeding, from true happiness. And so the activity of bending steel not only is cathartic for him, but he also sees it as a road to greater things in life.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making Bending Steel?
You know, I think the most surprising thing I learned is that every one of us has the potential to perform these feats. It’s just that most of us don’t know it. That’s the thing, you have to believe you can do it, you have to believe in yourself, and once you set your mind right you’d be surprised what you can do. Being around these guys, I really became interested in the activity and have started bending stuff myself. I’m actually bending horseshoes and decent size nails now, things I never ever thought I’d be able pull off. You just have to push past the pain, you have to go a little bit further when your mind is telling you to quit. Every person has a governor that holds them back, and once you remove that governor, you can accomplish anything. There truly is no limit to what you can do. Whether it be ripping a deck of cards in half, bending a piece of steel that was never meant to bend, or anything else in life. Following these men for the past few years has taught me that. It’s why I think this film is so inspirational… these men are living proof that with positive mindset, and a little hard work, you can accomplish anything.