Taking the Leap with Sunshine Superman Director Marah Strauch

Taking the Leap with Sunshine Superman Director Marah Strauch

Shakefire sat down with Marah Strauch, director of the upcomming documentary Sunshine Superman which tells the story Carl Boenish, the father of modern day BASE jumping. During our interview she discussed her process of going through hours and hours of Carl's own personal footage and doing justice to Carl's and his wife Jean's incredible story.


Shakefire (SF): How did you first get involved in making Sunshine Superman?

Marah Strauch (MS): My uncle was a base jumper and aerial cinematographer. He actually died in an automobile accident, but he left all this footage that I ended up finding in my father’s basement. Basically I decided that it was amazing footage, and I really wanted to work with it so I started investigating where the footage came from and how to get in touch with the people in it and then I started making the film.


SF: Do you know how he got a hold of that footage?

MS: Some of it was on VHS tape; copies of this footage. Some of it was actually 16MM that he had purchased copies of Carl Boenish’s films and some of the footage was his footage that he had taken of jumping off buildings and various activities. It was very exciting to find this footage. Then I was able to find Jean Boenish and really engage with the 16MM footage.


SF: How did you go about going through all this footage and then condensing it to what we see on screen?

MS: It was a really big challenge. Of course, one of the challenges with 16MM footage is if you want to edit with it any more you really have to get it transferred to video, so I did a lot of hands scrolling through it, because it was also shot on reversal film which is very, very sensitive and can scratch really easily. It wasn’t negatives; it was actually the reversal stock, so I had to hand crank it through and then find selects that I took to Technicolor, who gave me kind of an amazing deal on transferring it, and then I was able to do kind of dailies of the stuff and then go through it with the interviews and put it together.


SF: And then filming all the reenactments. They felt extremely realistic in capturing the time period. How did your background as a visual artist help you in filming those segements?

MS: Yeah, the other really wonderful thing about this archive of film is that Jean Boenish really kept Carl’s studio very much intact so I was able to shoot a lot of the reenactments in that actual studio. Also, when we were in Norway and I was shooting reenactments it was wonderful because we had a lot of Carl and Jean’s original clothing and their original rigs and everything.


The art direction was interesting because we had all of this material already and then anything else that we purchased; it was a really fun thing coming from a visual art background and getting to art design my documentary. It was super fun. Creating these kind of environments that these people would have lived in was very fun.


SF: And there’s also the whole evolution of the sport. You end the film showing the modern day wingsuits. It was interesting to see these massive tape cameras mounted on helmets when today we have GoPro cameras that are smaller than the helmet you’re wearing.

MS: We didn’t use GoPros. We wanted to feel very cinematic. Just the body-mounted stuff is something people use a lot more now. It has become very popular, but at his time it was not so this was something he probably helped innovate.


SF: Jean was a very integral part of the film. It was very much about her as much as it was about Carl. Was that always a part of the story or did it just naturally evolve that way?

MS: No, immediately when I met Jean I really wanted her to be a part of the film. To me, she’s the most important element of the film. I know it’s called Sunshine Superman, but I think it’s really about these two people and their relationship. I don’t think base jumping or Carl’s career would be what it was without Jean Boenish. She also was a filmmaker in her own right. She was an integral part of organizing all these events and making this whole thing happen. I always saw her as a huge part of the story, if not the story itself.


SF: Why do you think it’s taken so long for this story to be told? Carl had all this footage and material. You’d think that’d be an easy sell.

MS: Haha, you know when something’s done it seems like an easy sell. The very interesting thing is, I was going out with great executive producers, with great pitch material, and it took a long time for people to see the totality of the story. I think people would see the footage and be like, “Okay, well how is this an actual film?” The story hadn’t been written, so even in me making the film I had to write the story because it really didn’t exist other than what people would say via word of mouth. This was not something that people necessarily knew could be something.


It seems very obvious now, but when I was pitching or when it was in a smaller form, people didn’t get it until it was almost done. I think some of the great ideas are like that. You’re like, “Oh, why hasn’t that been done?” and then it’s like, “Oh, okay. Well that’s obvious.” It’s also a lot of work. The 16MM is in spools. People can’t watch it until it’s transferred. I think that that is a challenge for most people in the modern world.


SF: One of the scenes that stood out was when Carl did the first BASE jump off a building. It felt like it’s own mini-film with how they run towards the taxi and flee from the cops. How much of that was Carl’s editing and how much was yours?

MS: During the last part of his life when he really got into base jumping, it was about four years of time, he never finished a film that was just solely about BASE jumping. His plans were to do that. He created a lot of what he called “film poems” and he created a bunch of them about sky diving. These were going to be his base jumping film poems, but they were never really finished, but he was shooting them as if they were going to be finished things so you see the end where they’re escaping in the taxi and all of that and it’s so great, because it’s him reenacting. That’s all reenacted. That’s reenactments that Carl did for his movies. It’s very odd, but it’s so delightful. There’s this kind of playfulness about it that, to me, really embodies Carl as a filmmaker. It’s like, “Let’s just go out and do this!” They hired a cab. They’re running around. They’ve got their jumpsuits on. They’re like, “Do it again!” That’s something they’re doing to reenact, but there’s also this activity and playfulness of filmmaking that I really think is wonderful?


SF: Do you know where Carl got the funding for this? The film briefly mentions how he worked in the film industry towards the beginning. All that film must have been expensive.

MS: He paid for everything himself. It was reversal stock, and they were shooting pretty small reels of it, like three minute reels. If you have reasonable amounts of income you can cubbyhold that away. As long as my film took, his short film poems each one would take him over three years to make and they’d be 15 minutes long, because of the financing. He worked doing aerial cinematography for commercials, so he’d get paid a certain amount of money to do that and then he’d pocket it away and buy 16MM stock. A very similar process I had to go through to make my film. I worked full time and had to do bits and pieces here and there and then show investors a little bit more as I was going. There was never a time when I was solely working on it, except for like the very last part where I could quit my job and fully focus on what I was doing. Carl, his job was to be an aerial cinematographer and he shot commercials and financed this other stuff. I think that’s very common for documentarians to not be able to do their jobs full time.


SF: This took eight years to make. How did the film evolve over that time period?

MS: I think it evolved in that I saw more and more of the 16MM footage. It was 70,000 feet of footage so I had to go through this archive, go through photographs. I did a lot of pre-interviews that I shot myself. None of those are in the film, because I was learning to use a camera. I was told as a documentarian you can just shoot your own film. There’s that kind of sense in documentaries that, “It’s a documentary so it doesn’t have to look great.” But for me it was really important that it also looked good.I kinda shot two films. I shot one that I shot, and then I eventually got financing and reshot it with a wonderful cinematographer, Vasco Nunes, and then I had Nicolay Poulsen in Norway. I had great people who were shooting my film. It evolved a lot because I had to write the story as I was going.


SF: Was there ever a point when you had to tell yourself that you needed to stop? With all this great footage it must have been difficult to pick and choose what to include in the film.

MS: I could have gone on indefinitely. What is that saying, “A film is never finished, it’s just taken away from you.” For me, I always knew I wanted to make something that would stand the test of time and be really classic. I knew with me shooting it or some of the limitations of my budget I really had to raise enough money so that it would look right. I also knew I had to go to Norway. So as soon as I had those elements in place I knew it was time to stop, but I knew I needed that.


SF: What were some of your influences for the film? I got a very Man on Wire vibe from it.
MS: You know that's interesting. It's not...I think it's a fantastic film. I think because there's air and a large production value you would say Man on Wire, but I think ultimately my characters are very different than Man on Wire. I'm very interested in having a female person in my film, haha. I think Werner Herzog is a big influence. I think in terms of this film in particular, I was looking at a lot of German romantic paintings. I was looking at a lot of Norwegian landscape paintings. I think visual art has always been a big influence on me. I think in terms of having it be large scale, some of these films feel like you're having an immersive theatrical experience. I think they show there is an audience for that. Documentaries can be really immersive and be really dramatic. I think in that way, Man on Wire really opened doors for a lot of people.


SF: What's next for you? This was your directorial debut. Do you want to stick with documentaries or do you want to branch out to narrative?

MS: I have a couple narratives that I'm starting to develop. I have one that's based on an Icelandic science-fiction book. Again, working with a lot of landscapes and a lot of interesting philosophical ideas. I'm also producing a film about Dungeons & Dragons right now, about the history of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm producing, I'm directing, I'm definitely keeping very open to what comes next. I'm feeling like I can make it faster now that I've understood the process. I didn't go to film school so I think part of it for me is you learn as you're making things. Now I feel like I know a bit more.


SF: So what did you learn most from making Sunshine Superman?
MS: On a personal level, just this idea of overcoming artificial limitations, whether they're self-imposed or societally imposed. I think Carl was a really inspiring person to spend a lot of time getting to know. Just on a personal basis, it really made me feel like if I set my mind to something I can really do it and I think people can. It's a very inspirational thing for everyone.


Sunshine Superman opens in limited release in Atlanta, GA on Friday, May 29.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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