Making both his Tribeca and feature filmmaking debut director Dave Carroll explores, for the most part, uncharted territory with his documentary Bending Steel. A talent known for its odd ball nature and hard exterior, Carroll showcases the modern day strongman in Queens native Chris “The Wonder” Shoeck within the sport’s origin backdrop of Coney Island.
Bending Steel at first strikes the unassuming viewer with a daily routine for Shoeck, that routine is soon revealed to be significant the further Carroll familiarizes himself with the world of strongmen. His lens focuses on the original history of men practically moving mountains in performances on the boardwalk of Coney Island, as Shoeck reminisces learning about his strongmen idols as a boy. The stereotype which pairs the profession in the same group as bearded ladies and other subversive “freaks” slowly unfurls to reveal an impactful truth about a community of men that long for a human connection, and to overcome their own mental limitations.
At the center of this community is 43-year-old Shoeck; awkward in posture, his stature alludes that he’s a tiny bull in a china shop unaware of the strength he possesses. During a truly captivating moment, the camera frames his face, as he gazes in a trance at his latest two-inch steel obstacle, eyes ping ponging faster than his revelations about his own social inadequacies. A subject with a social crutch might have proved to be difficult to capture, but Carroll’s camera gets inside of the human spirit and tells a truly universal story.
THE INQUISITR: Just for the readers, can you give a brief history of the strongmen in Coney Island?
CARROLL: There were guys like The Mighty Atom and Warren Lincoln Travis they would perform out there for crowds. The strongman culture was very popular in the vaudeville days, and traveling circuses and carnivals. These guys really had a standing in their community. There was multiple strongmen per city, but Coney Island was the place to go for amusement for a long period of time for New Yorkers. They definitely had a very prominent spot out there. Warren Lincoln Travis would have all kinds of challenges, and there was always a great spirit out there.
THE INQUISTIR: The culture in and of itself is so fascinating.
DAVE CARROLL: The interesting thing is that the show we get in the film is the first annual strongman show, and the strongmen haven’t been at that capacity for 60 years. They come out every now and then but not like this, or officially want to come back and actual perform and keep it going. Now it’s going to be a third annual and it’s become a thing. The guys are super excited about that, and Coney is a tough place anyway, with people trying to tear it down. I looked into the history and it’s a long history of people trying to come in. Every mayor seemed to have a kind of beef with Coney Island, that community fighting for itself all came together.
THE INQUISITR: Was it always your intention to film a documentary on Steel Bending? Or were you pulled into Chris’ world first?
CARROLL: I was doing laundry in the basement of the building I lived in in Long Island City, and I was with my dog, and we heard a noise downstairs. She ran after the noise and I went chasing after her and when I turned the corner Chris was standing there. I had seen him before in the building and he was very shy. I would say hi and he would say hi, but wouldn’t really look at me and was very awkward. When I went to his storage space to get my dog, all I saw was this bent metal. I wasn’t familiar with strongmen. I kind of just saw someone that maybe had some issues. He just seemed like a weird guy to me. I kept thinking about it and telling people about it, and two weeks later, I saw him and finally asked “What’s with the metal?” That’s when he used the word “strongman.”My interest piqued because he’s an interesting guy, and because I knew there was a rich history there.
THE INQUISITR: Since Chris was socially inept and had difficulty connecting to people, did that make him a difficult subject to capture?
CARROLL: He agreed to do the film without hesitation but I don’t think he had no idea it was going to turn into this. It started off very, very small. I think he agreed to do the film because he wanted to shed light on an activity that kind of had faded away, or barely in existence and he wants people to be involved in something he felt passionate about. At the same time he was so introverted that he has a hard time being around people. The dynamic of that was very interesting.
THE INQUISITR: So you didn’t expect that transformation out of him?
CARROLL: No we had no idea it was going to be like that. I knew the conflict of his story. When he was talking about getting up in front of people and perform. When I met him he was single-mindedly thinking, “This activity is a great way for me to be down in this basement forever.” Then when Chris Ryder suggested, “You need to start taking this out in front of people.” Compounded with us being interested in him he started to feel like “This might be something, where I can show people who I am and what I’m doing.” Some of the other guys would be aware of us being there, and he would kind of forget about it. It was a little challenging to have him open up to us because it was very much like peeling an onion. He was out of the larger social loop for some time and he built up barriers to get through.
THE INQUISITR: In a way the film takes on a spiritual element with Chris taking on the mantra of mind over matter. As a filmmaker did you overcome any obstacles making the documentary?
CARROLL: I feel like I’ve been waiting for a chance to show what I can do, in a way, and it’s not an ego thing. Chris always had this belief that there was something in him that he could share with someone. Making a film for us was very much a familiar struggle. He had his own issues and things to eventually do what he wants to do, and we had the similar struggle of making the film, and putting all we had ino that. For us being surrounded by these guys that are constantly being positive, and talking about things that we can really relate to so for us it definitely fueled the engine to make the film, and capture what it is that these guys were talking about because I felt it through this experience of trying to take something and make something out of it.
THE INQUISITR: When you first started filming did you think Bending Steel would have an audience?
CARROLL: There’s a lot of things that we didn’t want to focus on. You can’t have a 93-minute film about guys bending steel. There was a lot issues of doing this type of thing too because it’s tough for these guys. We talk about performance and the theory of performance because they’re doing something, but to actually show what’s going on behind the person that’s doing it. It’s not training or lifting weights that makes this happen. There’s a mind set and a mentality that allows these guys to do that. Especially when we’re doing something that’s the outer limits of your body. It goes beyond that.
THE INQUISITR: Was mind over matter the heart of the story for you, because it seems like it was for Chris?
CARROLL: Yeah. It very much is the mind that allows these guys to do what they’re doing. All the work leading up to that moment, and all the experiences they had up to that moment. They’re channeling things in their life that are not apparent to the eye. It’s important that this is what the film is showing as much as what we could do in the time we had with them. This is what goes into that object.
THE INQUISITR: Did you guys form a bond during the filming?
CARROLL: He lives a floor below me but the connection that we have from this is life long at this point. He’s been through a lot and I can relate to. I understand what he’s talking about and going through this whole experience was very personal. There was a lot of time spent shooting and just sitting there and talking. It was a very powerful experience for myself as well as Chris.
THE INQUISITR: The arc with his parents was interesting. It could have been a separate film.
CARROLL: We had no idea what was going on there and it was definitely a thread in the film that kept developing and kept giving. Honestly he didn’t he talk about his parents. I didn’t even know if they were alive for the first month or so. This is what I mean about the complexity of the onion. There was stuff we didn’t even put in the film that came out six months in. It’s a sensitive subject that he has to live on this earth with his family, and I think we had to exhibit some kind of control and restraint in telling someone’s story that’s still here. Chris meant a lot to us and you can’t get too deep into things.
THE INQUISITR: Was there something that was significantly surprising about making Bending Steel?
CARROLL: The one thing for me is that I never really saw myself making a documentary. I would watch the big documentaries but I was very much more interested in fictional storytelling. Through this experience, like the scene of him in the basement and he’s explaining the relationship he has with the steel and how he doesn’t have a lot of other relationships in his life. That scene came from me spending hours talking about things, deeply for the first time. Seeing that come out the next day on a human level between the three of us, it kind of changed my mind about documentaries at that moment. That was kind of the big shift for me. You can kind of emulate real life in fictional films and you might be able to come close to reality but seeing that moment in real life, and his eyes shifting around, and he’s not acting, he’s just there — it’s really powerful. I’ll never forget those little moments.
BENDING STEEL IS PLAYING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL NOW.