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How the Director of ‘Sunshine Superman’ Captured the Thrill and Danger of Base Jumping

How the Director of 'Sunshine Superman' Captured the Thrill and Danger of Base Jumping


With five fatal accidents, this month has been one of the deadliest months for base jumping in the sport’s history. The heart-racing new documentary “Sunshine Superman” provides some perspective and history of the extreme sport by focusing on Carl Boenish, one of the founders of base jumping (the acronym is for Bridge, Antenna, Span and Earth). The engineer turned stuntman-cinematographer started out skydiving before he pushed himself and the sport to create an entirely new sport in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Along with his wife Jean, in 1984, the Boenishes broke the Guinness World Record on Norway’s “Troll Wall,” the tallest vertical rock in Europe. Within days, their triumph was followed by disaster.

A hit when it screened last year at both the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, the film is told through a mix of Boenish’s 16mm archive footage (culled from 250 hours of material) and state-of-the-art aerial photography, which lets viewers experience the thrill (and terror) of base jumping first-hand.

Indiewire recently spoke to first-time director Strauch about why she was driven to document Boenish’s story and why it took her eight years to bring it to life.

READ MORE: Toronto Review: ‘Sunshine Superman’ is One of the Best U.S. Docs of the Year

How did you get involved with the project?

Well, I went to art school as a visual artist, and I used a
lot of 16mm film in art school, which was very fortunate because I basically
came across this box of footage which was my uncle’s. He was an aerial
cinematographer who happened to have some of Carl Boenish’s footage as well. People always talk about how
dangerous base jumping is, but he died in an automobile accident.

So I found
all this footage and I was just really intrigued by it, and then I just started
contacting people and I really got to know the world of base jumping. I
eventually found Jean Boenish and she had all of this 16mm footage, and I was
very fortunate that I actually knew how to work with it from going to art
school, and I talked to her about making a project and we did! So it was a long
process but, you know, it was a pretty big project. I’d never made a doc
before; I’d made experimental art films. So it was a challenge, for sure.
[Laughs]

It
took a total of eight years, right?

Yeah, but you have to understand that I was working full-time
both as an editor and a glass-blower during certain times of it, so I had a
full career other than trying to make this film. I was self-financing when I
first started making it, so I would get a little bit of money, I would make a
little bit of the film, I would make a little bit more. I wasn’t on a deadline;
I really saw value in this footage and I really knew that this footage was
something that needed to make it out into the world. I wasn’t in a hurry, but I
was very fortunate to eventually get financing. It just built itself into a
film, kind of like a snowball effect. One thing would lead to another, and then
eventually we had a film.

What would you say
were some of the biggest challenges along the way? Was it the amount of footage you were working with?

The footage was a huge challenge because it was all 16mm
reversal stock, and just the expense alone of getting that transferred was
really big. I happen to be a Film Independent fellow, which is great. I was in
the Doc Labs and I was introduced to the people at Technicolor who actually
helped me with a discounted rate, I got to transfer a lot of the footage. So
that was a really big hurdle to overcome, was to get the footage transferred. The
other really big thing was going to Norway — we absolutely knew we had to shoot
some of the film in Norway, and that was a huge challenge, to get the financing
to do that. And of course, financing is always one of the biggest hurdles,
especially if you’re not wealthy.

As someone who writes about filmmaking, what interests me about the film is that it’s not so much about extreme sports as about extreme cinematography and the lengths that Carl went to get an image. As an artist, did that interest you? 

Yes. That’s really the crux of what interested me about the
film that he took. I mean, I’m not a base jumper. People always ask me if I am,
but I think what I’m very interested in is physical filmmaking — the idea of
going out and really risking life and limb to photograph and to have an
experience. It’s almost like it’s the experience behind the photography that’s
truly interesting to me. I think similar to a film like “Grizzly Man,”
films where people are putting themselves in situations and then photographing
themselves in those situations is very, very interesting to me. I’m not exactly
sure why, but I find it probably the most interesting thing about Carl is him
as a filmmaker.

Carl’s filmmaking really predated the age of the GoPro. Do you think he paved
that era for people filming themselves in these extreme situations?

Yeah I think he absolutely did, although you have to
remember he had basically a 6lb weight strapped to his head or to his stomach.
I think he paved the way, but I think the technology was so different at the
time that it was even more of a physical thing at the time that he was doing
it. But I think definitely he contributed with “The Gypsy Moths,” and all
of the other films that he filmed during the ’70s and ’80s. So yes, I think he
was part of that lineage.

How much
archival footage were you working with? How many hours did you have to cut down?

Well, it’s funny because I never think of it in hours,
because it was like 70,000 feet. [Laughs]

Wow!

Yeah, I think of it as in feet. In actuality, that turned out
to be something like 20 to 30 hours, so it’s not as much as you’d think. But
it’s hand-rolling it with your arms through a viewfinder. It’s a very different
experience; it’s an analog experience. And I think people shoot a lot of
footage for their films. We actually had significantly less footage, but we had
to handle it differently so it felt like a lot more in that it was, again, very
physical filmmaking to get through this archival footage. Very tactile in a way
that you don’t get to experience as much in the digital world.  

How did you decide on
the form of the film and the decision not to have voiceovers? You had mentioned “Grizzly Man,” but were there other films you looked to emulate? 

I think obviously I looked at pretty much every film that
had reenactments in it [Laughs] from “The Thin Blue Line” to
“Man on Wire.”

“Man on
Wire” was the one that I had in mind.

Everyone mentions “Man on Wire” but it’s
interesting. I think people compare the film a lot to “Man on Wire”
because it has people in the air. If you actually look at the film it’s a
really different film, but I think visually you have people in the air, you
have archival footage and you have reenactments–people in the air that do
things that other people think are extreme.  But I think the characters, for instance,
couldn’t be more different. Definitely I’m very interested in Jean Boenish,
Carl Boenish’s wife, who is also a really strong female character who I’m
really interested in as a filmmaker. I’m a huge fan of Werner Herzog, and I’ve
probably mentioned it in other interviews, but I think in thinking about this
film I looked at a lot of his films. I looked at a lot of paintings too–my
background’s in visual art, so I looked at a lot of Romantic-era paintings,
which is what I used as a reference to work with my DP. I looked at a lot of
other sources besides film as well.

Was it always clear that you were not going to do voiceovers and that you
were going to do reenactments? Were those decisions made early on or was that
part of the process of making the film?

You know, Carl was an amazing cinematographer of base jumping,
but what Carl did not do so often is film himself in intimate situations. Most
of us don’t unless you’re in the modern world, and I think people with video
often film themselves more in private situations. There was nothing like that
in the footage. You see a couple of shots of him in the footage, like, running
across the lawn. These are things that he was using as test footage. It was
never actual footage that he was shooting to use, so I had the challenge of
having somebody who is no longer with us… I wanted to be able to create
something that wasn’t just about base jumping but was about the story of Carl
and Jean Boenish. Their love story against the activity of base jumping — I
wouldn’t have been able to do that without reenactments.

Right.

It would have been a very stiff documentary, and I really
wanted to make something that was very theatrical in scope. In that way I would
also compare it to films like “Man on Wire” in the sense that it’s a
theatrical experience that you can immerse yourself in.

I’m not a
huge fan of reenactments but I really felt like I needed them to bridge the
gap. So it was about creating reenactments that were subtle and were not going
to jar you out of the story in a way that reenactments kind of can. It was
about trying to make reenactments with a very light touch, that doesn’t take you
out of the film.

Definitely.
What do you wish somebody had told you about the documentary filmmaking process
before you began? Was there one bit of advice that would have been beneficial?

Oh man. [Laughs] I probably wouldn’t have listened, but I
think the one piece of advice would be to listen. People tell you so many
things and I think it’s really good to listen to people who’ve been through the
process before you and can help you. Any time anyone’s willing to give you help, just take as much as you can get, because it’s such a gift to have other people
who are willing to help you. I was really lucky to eventually find Film
Independent, a group of people that were really willing to give me input and
give me notes, you know. I had to really open myself up to criticism and really
open myself up to being a first-time filmmaker. I think that’s when my film
started to become something that other people were starting to understand, and
that advice and that help was really, really beneficial. I wasn’t an expert on
my first film so it was really good to have other people who had been through
it, you know?

What advice do you have to other first-time
filmmakers who have an idea for a documentary?

Just start. I think that’s a really important thing to do. I
didn’t know what my film was about when I started, and I think that was
actually really beneficial because I hadn’t locked myself into something. I was
able to really find the story, and just find something that I was passionate
about. I didn’t lock it down and say “This is the history of base jumping,” I said “Oh, what is the story?”

It’s going to take longer than you think, and I think that that’s the other thing. People kind of think you’re crazy at one point if you just
keep going, but you have to be like “I don’t care,” and just keep
going anyway, because it really is a personal journey that a lot of your
non-documentary, or even your documentary film friends, might not understand.
Each film has its own life and its own path.

Sunshine Superman is now available on Amazon Video and iTunes.

Note: This story was originally published on May 22, 2015.

READ MORE: Magnolia Pictures & CNN Films Acquire ‘Sunshine Superman’ BASE Jumping Documentary

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