Most of us have dreamed about being able to fly, soaring birdlike above the Earth. Some of us try the closest thing to it: skydiving. And a few intrepid souls dare to defy gravity by BASE jumping, leaping from bridges, antenna towers, skyscrapers, and earth structures (mountaintops, cliffs) just for the thrill. Whether you find the thought exhilarating or absolutely crazy, you've got to admire those who attempt this extreme sport. What drives them to do it? The new documentary "Sunshine Superman" seeks answers by profiling daredevil cinematographer Carl Boenish, the free-spirited father of BASE jumping.
Blending exhilarating aerial footage, archival interviews and new interviews with Boenish's wife Jean, friends and associates into a colorful narrative, first-time director Marah Strauch creates a fascinating portrait of a little known but notable figure in her film. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 22, coincidentally the same week as the death of climber and BASE jumper Dean Potter. The film's release extends to theaters nationwide on May 29.
For Strauch, "The sense of freedom and beauty in the activity of BASE jumping was important to show on the screen. I enjoy people who are willing to take risks and to think for themselves," she says. A full-time film editor on documentary-style commercials and also a visual artist working in installation art, she was looking for material when she came across a box of old Carl Boenish films while visiting her father.
"My dad was a rock climber and my uncle was a BASE jumper," she explains. "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. 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."
As Strauch gathered all the archival and interview footage and did her research, the film changed over the eight-plus years she spent on it. "In making documentaries you can go in with a very clear idea in your head of what the film is and how it should unfold. As you begin to research and do interviews you learn more. So the film always changes. This film started as a short film about the history of BASE jumping. I then discovered this amazing love story between Jean and Carl Boenish. This discovery was key to making the film appeal to a larger audience. The time it took to make the film really can be felt in how close I got to the subjects and footage," she believes.
Not surprisingly, the challenges were considerable. "Maybe the biggest challenge was I was coming out of a visual art background, and I'd never made a feature film. 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 U.S. 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. 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."
In the end, Strauch had roughly 100 hours of film to sort through and piece together, including new location footage shot in Los Angeles and Norway. "All of the mountain shots and wingsuit shots in the film were filmed at the Troll Wall in Norway," she notes.
Carl Boenish makes a BASE jump in a city.
While Strauch has gone skydiving and enjoyed it, she has not tried BASE jumping but imagines "it is quite exhilarating and peaceful. I have heard that is very quiet. Unlike jumping from a plane, the air is very still when you BASE jump. I hope my film can give people at least a small glimpse what this is like. I love the beauty of the activity. But BASE jumping is not for everyone."
That's for certain, as "Sunshine Superman" tragically points out. However, "I think people who BASE jump would absolutely say it is worth it the fear and seeming danger," Strauch says. "The people in my film loved BASE jumping and skydiving. They loved falling through the air. I think the passion of people to pursue anything they love is a beautiful thing. I think Carl also wanted to share the activity of BASE jumping with a larger audience. He was a BASE jumper but states quite clearly that his aim was to inspire others to do amazing things in their own lives."
Jean and Carl Boenish after a jump.
Strauch sees "Sunshine Superman" as a love story set against the backdrop of BASE jumping. "I hope people can enjoy the journey the film takes them on. I hope this film will encourage people to be individual thinkers and to question authority. I also hope people to enjoy the experience of watching BASE jumping on a big screen. It was meant to be a theatrical experience where the audience could almost feel they themselves had BASE jumped," she says.
"I hope people leave the theater feeling inspired and able to take risks in their own lives."
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