In the first scene of Strongman, Zachary Levy's debut film documenting several years in the life of professional strongman Stan "Stanless Steel" Pleskun, we see Pleskun trying to obtain a truck for a stunt. Over the phone, he reveals little by little what the truck is to be used for and who he is. The guy on the other line doesn't recognize his name and eventually hangs up in frustration. Stan lets out a big sigh and says to the camera "I was so close."
It's a small moment in the day-to-day life of the showman, one of many captured by filmmaker Zachary Levy in his intimate portrait of Pleskun. And though the big stunts--bending pennies with his hands, lifting three people with a single finger, lifting a 10,000-pound truck with his legs--form the bones of the film, it's the small moments that form the meat. Over the course of the film, we see Pleskun enjoying dinner and kissing his girlfriend in a pizza joint, taking care of his nearly bedridden grandmother and moving in with his brother after an emotional breakup. But Levy says it wasn't hard to develop the trust that let him deep into Pleskun's personal life.
"There wasn't a lot of negotiation," Levy tells Art Attack. "I trusted him from the beginning, and he trusted me from the beginning."
Within a few hours of meeting Pleskun, Levy knew he wanted to make a documentary about the professional strongman's life. It wasn't just that Levy had seen Pleskun perform a stunt that day at a New Jersey airport, where the strongman kept two CESSNA planes--one strapped to each of his arms--from lifting off through sheer physical strength. After visiting Pleskun at his home later that day, Levy knew he found something big. "I knew literally that day there was a real film here," Levy says. "I remember leaving scared, because I knew the level of commitment it was going to take."
Levy followed Pleskun around for three years and went with him to TV appearances in England, strongman conventions and his parents' house. The movie is shot with a gritty, lo-fi realism, without music or narration. "You can make these kinds of films that revolve around a single event, like a competition," Levy says. "But I didn't want to graft it to any sort of structure."
Pleskun is portrayed as an honest, hardworking showman; he doesn't have an flashy costumes or showy gimmicks. For his stunts, he relies on loose-fitting clothes and his girlfriend, Barbara, as an announcer. He's repeatedly told by those around him--his girlfriend, his agent--that he's the best at what he does. Yet, he's relegated to kids' birthday parties and parking-lot performances.
"Stan really believes that if you work hard, that work leads to reward," Levy says. "But there's a huge luck factor as well."
Pleskun's almost naive belief in hard work leads to tension between him and his family, including his brother, Michael, who uses one of Pleskun's workout bars as an upside-down-beer-drinking contraption. Most of the interactions with Michael were filmed at Pleskun's parents' house in New Jersey, in the once-rural corridor between New Brunswick and Princeton.
"It almost looks like it could be Appalachia, but a few miles down the road, you're in subdivided New Jersey," Levy says. "And that was interesting, because Stan and his family were in the same geographic proximity, but it feels like a world away."
It sounds like a huge project for a first-time director, but Levy says it wasn't difficult to convince Pleskun to let him make a movie about him. "Showing up a lot is a big part of it," he says.
7 p.m. June 25 and 5 p.m. June 26 at 14 Pews, 800 Aurora St. $5 to $10.