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John Lamb, Published March 02 2014

Men of ‘Steel’: ‘Creepy’ encounter leads to opening film at this week’s Fargo Film Festival

FARGO – At the end of 2010, Dave Carroll had a crazy story to tell.

“At Christmas parties I was telling people about this really creepy guy I met in the basement,” Carroll recalled last week.

What Carroll didn’t know then was that that “creepy guy” from the basement would wind up being the subject of the documentary he never expected to make.

Carroll’s film, “Bending Steel,” opens the Fargo Film Festival on Tuesday night.

But first, back to that New York basement in December of 2010.

Carroll was doing laundry when he and his dog heard strange grunting sounds in another part of the basement. His dog went to investigate, and Carroll went running after.

He turned the corner and found Chris Schoeck. He immediately recognized Schoeck as a fellow resident of the building, but one that always seemed “a little off.”

Finding him in front of his storage cage only reinforced that impression. The storage unit was littered with twisted pieces of metal.

“Coupled with all of his weird behavior, it was just kind of unsettling. So I just kind of backed away,” Carroll recalls. “In this very creepy voice he said, ‘That’s OK, she’s just curious,’ and I (thought), ‘I gotta get out of here.’ In my mind, I just saw some guy who had some issues who was just maniacally bending steel for no reason. I didn’t understand what was going on there.”

Eventually, Schoeck explained what was going on: The 42-year-old was training to become an old-time strongman.

“Immediately I was intrigued,” Carroll recalls. “He was a weird character. An interesting character. I felt like it was an interesting idea for a film.”

Bending to his will

Carroll admits he had the same visuals going through his head you likely do now.

“I thought of Coney Island and this guy with a handlebar moustache and a leopard skin leotard. And the truth is, I wasn’t very far off at all,” he explains.

In the course of following Schoeck, Carroll learned about the history of Coney Island strongmen, like Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, whose exploits driving nails through a 2½-inch board with just his hand and changing a car tire without any tools.

Greenstein’s strongmen disciples carried on the tradition through the 20th century, and Schoeck wanted to join their ranks.

But what interested Carroll more wasn’t Schoeck’s goal – to entertain at Coney Island in the summer of 2011 – but his drive.

“The strongman world and culture is interesting, but it doesn’t interest me as much as the personal story that I was seeing in Chris and his transformation and his journey,” he explains.

Despite being a personal trainer, Schoeck is socially awkward and has trouble with large groups.

In the movie, Schoeck explains that he’s always felt “extraterrestrial.”

“He’s a very isolated guy in a very big city, and he can’t connect with people,” Carroll says. “And it’s only through this very bizarre activity that most people would dismiss right away… that has completely changed his life and has been the most valuable thing.”

Carroll started filming in January 2011, and as the months went by, Schoeck opened up more and more, not only to the filmmakers, but also to performing in front of a crowd.

“He wants to perform and keep alive these strongman traditions, but he could go without the audience. He didn’t really want to be in front of people,” Carroll recalls from their early discussions.

“But as he kept going, he was changing his tune. It was really fascinating to see that and build relationships with other strongmen and replace what he was missing. He really opens himself up to us, and there is a really dramatic change he goes through in this film,” Carroll says.

“It was a film about a real individual struggle. It’s completely an underdog story,” says Raymond Rea, chair of the festival’s documentary committee.

He heard about the movie while looking to see what other festivals were screening.

“I saw the trailer first. The trailer just caught my eye, seemed like it was something really different,” he says. “I just thought it was a beautiful story and a story that hadn’t been replicated a lot before. There are many documentaries that resemble previous documentaries in some way, and this wasn’t one of them. This was completely different.”

The film earned the Fargo Film Festival’s Bill Snyder award for Best Documentary Feature.

Setting the bar

The film follows Schoeck’s path to Coney Island, including some scenes shot in the basement storage unit/training space.

“Whenever there are issues for him, he just goes down there and works it out through the steel,” Carroll says.

Schoeck struggles with self-doubt and the limits of what his body can do.

“This is perhaps the largest struggle in my life,” Schoeck explains in the film. “Right now there’s a hook in me, and I don’t know if it’s real or psychological, that is not giving me enough leeway to get out there and I can’t chop through the chain to get away from it.”

Carroll, 35, admits that he hadn’t been drawn to documentary work before starting the project. He also adds that he thought by 35 he would’ve already made a movie.

Now, Carroll is working on another documentary, when he isn’t working on his day job as a director of photography, working frequently for “The Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report.”

Carroll is too busy to make the trip to the Fargo Film Festival, but Schoeck is scheduled to attend and talk about the movie.

The director says Schoeck is more comfortable in front of crowds now, but still, “very raw and kind of open when he talks.”

And yes, there’s a good chance the strongman will bend steel while he’s here.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

What: “Bending Steel” opens the Fargo Film Festival

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Single-session tickets are $6 for mornings and afternoons, $8 for evenings and $5 for students. Passes to parties and films range from $15 to $125. (701) 239-8385.