As I write this, my documentary “Sunshine Superman” has been out in the world for a little over a year. We have played at over 40 festivals worldwide and had a limited theatrical run with Magnolia Pictures. Last Sunday the film premiered on CNN, which is thrilling.
“Sunshine Superman” traces the history of BASE jumping through the love story of Carl and Jean Boenish, who invented the activity of BASE jumping — jumping with parachutes off four types of structures: “building,” “antenna,” “span,” and “earth.” The Boenishes invented this sport in the late ’70s, leaping from Yosemite’s large granite cliffs. It was and still is to a certain degree a marginalized sport. The media often describes the participants as “crazy” and having a “death wish.” The footage and the activity itself, however, is undeniably beautiful and epically cinematic. This is not a perspective most people will ever see in their own lives, so we wanted to show the audience what it felt like to BASE jump.
Lucky for me as a documentary maker, Carl Boenish was also a masterful filmmaker and documented the birth of this sport in 16mm film. He mounted cameras to the jumpers’ heads and captured their bodies falling next to the objects — well before the invention of the GoPro.
Carl was a true pioneer in the sport of BASE jumping, as well as in aerial cinematography. He was the cinematographer of the film “The Gypsy Moths,” directed by John Frankenheimer in 1969, before he ever dreamed up the idea of BASE jumping. He was strapping cameras on the skydivers and showing the jump from the air, in real time. This was revolutionary, and I think working with Frankenheimer forever influenced how Carl showed movement on the screen. It was like ballet, elegant and beautiful.
BASE jumping was not a topic I was familiar with; I by no means have an extreme sports background. What I discovered about the history of BASE jumping, though, was the fascinating backstory of its founders. I felt that Carl’s films had some things in common with such films as Werner Herzog’s “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.” The activity of human flight was shown as transcendent. I was mesmerized by the graceful and almost existential nature of BASE jumping. The poetic moment of leaving solid ground and falling.There had never been a feature-documentary film on the topic, and I knew I needed to make this film.
I wanted to make a film that would be a visceral experience for the viewer. “Sunshine Superman” gave me a wonderful opportunity to engage the audience directly in the camera movement and really use the theatrical space. We attached cameras to the BASE jumpers’ bodies. I wanted to give a sense of what it feels like to fly. We did this though large-scale helicopter work and really shooting this documentary like a feature film. I also placed a huge importance on sound design and creating a soundtrack that merges you in the ’70’s-’80s.
The film at its core is a love story. I was enthralled by Carl and Jean’s relationship and their unusual and dynamic pairing. A remarkable athlete, Jean Boenish has been given very little credit for her contribution to this sport. Her role in the story is so heroic. Even if you have zero interest in BASE jumping, their love story may pull you in. I was excited to see an example of a couple that worked together creatively in such a passionate and pure way.
When people get to know Carl and Jean in the film, I believe they will see a glorious example of what it means to live an authentic life, regardless of what the consequences may be.
I hope people will walk away from the film inspired, not necessarily to BASE jump, but to take risks in their own lives, whatever those may be. I hope that “Sunshine Superman” will continue to inspire people to dream passionately and to go forth without fear.
“Sunshine Superman” debuted on CNN on Sunday, January 17. It is available to stream via CNNGo until January 24.
Marah Strauch is a filmmaker and visual artist; after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in glass art, she studied filmmaking and screenwriting at NYU and The New School. She recently attended Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film.