At first blush, the documentary Sunshine Superman is an entertaining origin story of the most extreme of extreme sports, BASE Jumping. But really, the film, directed by Marah Strauch, is a captivating love story about Carl and Jean Boenish and how their passion for jumping off of disturbingly tall things set the world on fire in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.
How did you discover the story of the Boenishs?
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 was drawn to the personality of BASE jumpers so I started going around and interviewing people after seeing these first amazing clips. I then found Jean Boenish and her huge archive of footage and was really blown away. I immediately fell in the love with the story.
Have you ever tried BASE jumping?
No. It is funny this is a question that is always asked of me. Most people making documentaries are not asked if they participate in the activity/ world the film they have made is exploring. As a filmmaker, I like to explore worlds I normally wouldn’t be able to.
I think I would be a bad BASE jumper as I have very slow reflexes and depth perception problems. BASE jumping is not for everyone. I think this non-BASE jumper-ness
actually allowed me to be curious about the “why people BASE jump” question in a way that allows for a wider audience to “get” the film. The film is a love story against the backdrop of BASE jumping. I am interested in people who BASE jump but it is not necessary for me to BASE jump. I have skydived though and enjoyed it. But I think that is irrelevant to being a filmmaker or storyteller.
In your esteem, what is it about this story that allows it to so beautifully transcend the sport of BASE jumping?
I am happy to hear you feel the film transcends the world of BASE jumping. I have always thought of BASE jumping as the backdrop for a story about extraordinary individuals who dreamed big and made their dreams come true despite the consequences. I think the fact that I am not a BASE jumper allows me to find what is interesting about the world of BASE jumping. I do not think of Sunshine Superman as a sports film but instead a love story. I wanted to make a film people could go to on a date. I wanted to make a date movie, a pop song of a film with a deeper message.
The film is very analogue feeling and I think, as a culture, we miss that feeling. The 16mm film is so enticing and seductive. The film is about the birth of an activity but I also think it is about a time in California when the West was still wide open and enthralling. I think this energy can be felt in the film. It is a portrait of a man and wife and a time and place, California in the 1970’s to the early 80’s. I hope also that the film transcends its obvious genre. I believe in telling and directing stories that are not in an obvious way. My background is in fine art. I hoped to go deep and really direct this film for the big screen. I wanted to create a film that could be watchable by BASE jumpers, art enthusiasts, and movie goers in general.
Mentioned almost in passing towards the end of the movie, it seems that Carl’s faith is a bigger part of understanding his approach to life than you let on. Was this a conscious story-telling decision?
Yes, all of my decisions were conscious story-telling decisions for the most part. Some of my decisions maybe also were intuitive and/or a combination of conscious and intuitive. The decision to reveal more about Carl later in the film was a combination of conscious and intuitive.
I did not want people to get caught up on Carl’s faith, although I certainly think this is a big and important reveal. That said, I think his faith can be sensed throughout the film beginning with his opening statements about the universe. The film is not about Carl’s faith. It was interesting to me to know about Carl’s faith but I also think it was not the bulk of who he was. He was also an engineer and very grounded in science.
I think, at its core, the film does struggle with some tough themes that question the validity of faith and the notion of invincibility, rather like the story of Icarus. I feel Carl’s faith is an important part of his decision making process but I felt to reveal this too soon would have been a mistake. I think leaving an audience with questions is a good thing. My intention was to not wrap everything up with a bow. My intention was to leave impressions and emotions. People can draw their own conclusions.