Sunshine Superman Director Marah Strauch on BASE Jumping, Interview Technique and Recreations as an Imaginative Space
Piling off cliffs and from airplanes, locking arms in the air or tumbling singly, the divers in Marah Strauch’s compelling documentary, Sunshine Superman, are simply hypnotic to watch. Seen mostly in archival footage culled from 250 hours of material, their forms take on a near-abstract quality — a quality that seduced first-time director Strauch to transition from experimental installation art work to documentary film. Her long-in-the-works Sunshine Superman, about pioneering BASE jumper Carl Boenish (he coined the acronym, which stands for building, antennae, span and earth) and his wife Jean, is a mixture of love story, human mystery and extreme sports documentary. It’s also quite a beautiful film. The early days of BASE jumping were gorgeously documented by the Boenishs in lovely 16mm, making Sunshine Superman as much a film about filmmaking as about sports. Aside from the strong archival footage, Sunshine Superman boasts evocative recreation footage — not dramatic reenactments but rather eerie shots of Boenish’s car traveling through the woods of Norway and up to a mountaintop for his final, fated jump.
Premiering today at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sunshine Superman was picked up by Universal Pictures for international distribution. I spoke to Strauch about her art background, her challenges as a first-time documentary filmmaker and all that archival footage.
Filmmaker: What attracted you to this material and how did you get involved in the project?
Strauch: I was a visual artist, working in mostly installation art, and I was looking for material. I was home visiting my dad, and I discovered these films of Carl Boenish’s in an old box of my uncle’s footage — my dad was a rock climber and my uncle was a BASE jumper. I was really taken by the quality of the footage and this idea of people BASE jumping, which I’d never seen before. I was attracted to the movement, but I also the personality [of BASE jumpers]. So I started going around and interviewing people after seeing these first amazing clips.
Filmmaker: Did your uncle know Carl? I mean, he obviously must have because he shot some footage, right?
Strauch: He actually didn’t know Carl. He knew Jean Boenish, but he had collected some of Carl’s films because they were very popular in the skydiving and BASE jumping community. My uncle started BASE jumping a little bit later, like ’85. Carl died in ’84.
Filmmaker: Watching the film you understand BASE jumping as a kind of precursor to many of today’s extreme sports. But the fact that this sport was so well documented cinematically early on is interesting too. There’s almost an abstract element to the cinematography of jumpers piling out of planes, or off cliffs. I began to think about the film as almost as much about filmmaking as about sports.
Strauch: I don’t think of this film as a film about sports. I never have, and I would’ve never been attracted to that as a subject matter. I think it’s about innovation, and, in terms of the visual abstract element, I definitely was attracted to the imagery. I think of [the film] as a love story against the backdrop of BASE jumping.
Filmmaker: There is a sports documentary audience for the film, whether you’ve made it for them or not.
Strauch: Absolutely, and I think they’ll like it. It’s got all those elements. But I made it because of the characters, their relationships and because of the visual possibilities. That was my interest.
Filmmaker: Once you discovered Carl, Jean and this footage, what were the main challenges in turning this all into a 100-minute documentary feature, both on a practical and storytelling level? What did you feel you needed to uncover, learn or discover in order to tell a full story?
Strauch: It was a very long process. We worked on this film a total of eight years. One of the biggest challenges was that there was about 100,000 feet of 16mm film in reversal stock. So, I had to figure out what was in [that footage]. I also had many ways I could’ve gone with the film. I could’ve gone that sports direction — kind of an extreme sports journey. Or just the history of BASE jumping. It was obviously a challenge to boil down not only the story, but also the large amount of footage we were working with.
Filmmaker: So, how did you go about working out your specific direction?
Strauch: The historical element [of this story] had never been written. When I started the film, it was a history that [had been relayed by] word of mouth. So, I had to do a lot of interviewing before I even knew what the film was about. With a crappy camcorder I interviewed everyone at least once before the interviews you actually see in the film. I wrote the treatment based on those early interviews, and then we re-shot all the interviews with an ARRI Alexa. So it was this pretty intense process of boiling down the stories and the footage over a long period of time.
Filmmaker: Talk a little bit more about that interview/pre-interview process. The second time around, were you directing people to hit the points they hit previously? Did people change their stories? Did you push them to go more in depth?
Strauch: Yeah, I mean, I definitely realized that as a documentarian, you also need to direct. [Laughs] I think part of what I learned [from] these early interviews was what I was interested in having this film be about. I do think that I was kind of directing the film during those second interviews… to help create a really compelling narrative. I also think my subjects became more comfortable in front of the camera [the second time]. We were able to get an emotional depth [because of] the time we spent with them. Even though we don’t follow them over a large amount of time, we got to know them over a large amount of time. There’s this kind of familiarity that was created, particularly with Jean Boenish, who, I think, was a little hesitant to reveal this whole story. It’s a pretty emotional story for her, and so, I think the time spent with her was really needed, and it really helped.
Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about the form of the film, and your decision of which techniques to use, and not to use, in the filmmaking. There’s no narration.
Filmmaker: And there are no titles. And while there aren’t recreations per se, there are these incredible shots of the car traveling through the woods in Norway and the jumpers on the cliffs. These shots exist in a kind of ambiguous space between recreation and imagination. How did you settle on the range of techniques you used to tell the story?
Strauch: I wanted it to feel more like a narrative film, so I thought a lot about who would be my narrator. I definitely didn’t want it to be a voiceover narrator. I like to think of the narrator as Carl because we have a lot of his amazing archival audio, which I utilized as much as possible. I have him kind of be the authority in terms of telling the story. In terms of how the film would look and feel, obviously we have this archival element, and there were parts of [the story] that we did not have. The idea of full-on reenactments didn’t really appeal to me. The reenactments I wanted to create would feel like something out of your imagination — more in an imagination space than just a narrative space. My cinematographer and I looked at a lot of German Romantic paintings — things you wouldn’t normally look at to create a reenactment in a documentary. But we were trying to create an emotional visual language, and we were really lucky to have this great aerial cinematographer, Peter Degerfeldt, who actually knew Carl. We worked with him to create these aerial reenactments. They feel removed from the actual scenes, but, in a way, I think they represent more of what’s going on than if we would’ve been on the ground.
Filmmaker: Why did the film take eight years? What were some of the roadblocks on a production level or an aesthetic level?
Strauch: Well, I was coming out of a visual art background, and I’d never made a [feature] film. [laughs] I’d made experimental films and installation work — things you couldn’t necessarily take to financiers and say, “Will you give me this budget to have helicopter shots?” Nobody wanted me to direct [this film]. I had a number of people telling me they would finance it if I had somebody else direct. I had a very hard time getting the film financed, and I really wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it. I had a very precise way that I saw the film from the very beginning. TV networks in the US wanted me to do much more of a dry kind of historical extreme sports-oriented thing, and that didn’t interest me at all. So I really stuck to my guns. I was also working full time as an editor on documentaries and commercials, as was my producer. We’d make it in little parts, and then we’d get more money and then we’d make more parts. [laughs] Eventually we had something that we could show actual financiers. It went pretty fast after that. But it took a solid three years of shooting in segments and getting the kind of larger amounts of financing we would need to do a pretty large-scale documentary.
Filmmaker: How did you wind up getting it financed?
Strauch: We were financed a lot through private equity, and also [by], actually, BASE jumpers who were just really passionate about the subject matter. BASE jumping is so often displayed as this crazy, stupid thing to do, and [BASE jumpers] really loved the project and invested. So we had those early investors who were BASE jumpers. We also were lucky enough to do a co-production with Norway, which was the best thing we ever did. We were able to have partial financing to do those shoots in Norway, which would have been really expensive otherwise because Norway’s an incredibly expensive place to shoot.
Filmmaker: Was it just because of the scenes at the end, which take place in Norway, or was there some other connection between the project and the country? Was Carl Boenish well known in Norway? Or did you build up your crew with Norwegian key crew members?
Strauch: Yes, the scenes at the end [in Norway] have all those helicopter [shots]. And one of our cinematographers, Nico Poulsen, is Norwegian. We also have a Norwegian composer, John Kaada. We brought on a number of Norwegians so that we could have it be a Norwegian-American coproduction. Over 50 percent of the work in the film is done by Norwegians, and we also did our post in Norway. We built a good Norwegian coproduction, and I think the film tremendously benefited from that.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to get Jean to participate? Was she reticent to going back and exploring this all again?
Strauch: Jean has been wonderful, a very good collaborator in the process. I think it took a while for Jean and I to develop a rapport, where we were able to get deeper into the story. When you’re wanting to have something not just be on a surface level, I think it takes a while to develop that trust between people who are working together. But, I think we’ve really collaborated on this film at this point in a way that we’re both very happy with.
Filmmaker: I’m presuming that she must have owned some of that archival footage.
Strauch: Yeah. I mean, she owns all of it. It is mostly from Carl Boenish’s archives. What’s really amazing about Jean Boenish is she’s also a filmmaker. She was Carl’s partner in this. So, as much as Carl was the pioneer of this sport, so is Jean Boenish. She was the first female BASE jumper and she’s also a filmmaker in her own right.
Filmmaker: What are her thoughts, if you know, on how the sport has progressed?
Strauch: I can’t speak for Jean, but everyone’s really inspired by what’s happened with the wing suits. I think there was this really innocent way of looking at this activity in the beginning, where people really watched out for each other and it was this sense of discovery. There wasn’t this kind of extreme sports kind of thing that seems really not very intellectual. When you look at the early pioneers of this activity, they’re lawyers, rocket scientists, electrical engineers. They were very well educated, very articulate people. I think Jean probably wishes that that was still the way the activity was being perceived because, I think, BASE jumping can get a bit of a bad rap in the media. But it’s a different generation, and ultimately I think she’s very excited by the technical abilities of these young jumpers.
Filmmaker: What are your expectations or hopes going forward? Are you waiting to see how it plays in Toronto about distribution?
Strauch: We just announced that we have distribution with Universal Pictures in the world. But not in the US. We’re still looking for our North American distributor, but we’re really excited. [Universal] have been wonderful partners. They came on the project pretty early, when I had a 35-minute cut.
Filmmaker: Do you want to make another movie? And if so, what would you do differently or similarly based on having done this one?
Strauch: Yes, I want to make other movies. I’m looking into making narrative films, although I have a couple more docs up my sleeve as well. What would I do differently? You know, I don’t know if I would necessarily do anything differently. I have found collaborators that I now know that I can really work with. I love the cinematographers I’ve chosen and the composer I’ve chosen. You know, the collaborative process is really important for films, and it’s something that’s very different than visual art. You have to really communicate. Something I’ve really learned is how to kind of get that visual language out of my head, to other people rather than just to sculpture or to painting. Communicating with other people is something I’ve had to learn as a visual artist moving into a theatrical space, and I will definitely carry that into my next pictures.