When Marah Strauch first began making films, she inherited a Beaulieu camera that once adorned the helmet of her uncle Mike Allen, an aerial cinematographer well-known within the BASE jumping community. With a degree in glass art, Strauch had created her own unique way of looking at the world through film, often crafting her own lenses and tinkering with projecting film onto glass. Years later, these two distinct perspectives would collide when Strauch discovered her uncle had bestowed to her another gift after his passing, a collection of films that included footage of the death-defying leaps of BASE jumping pioneers Carl Boenish and his wife Jean, who set a Guinness World Record in 1984 by scaling the Troll Wall mountain range in Norway, only to skydive from it.
Eight years after sifting through 100,000 feet of 16mm film as well as shooting new material,, Strauch has created a one-of-a-kind experience with “Sunshine Superman,” a biography of the Boenishes that doesn’t skimp on the exhilaration they felt as they zipped through the sky. Carl, an electrical engineer who found his calling after being put in charge of filming the aerial freefall sequences in John Frankenheimer’s 1969 thriller “The Gypsy Moths,” would spend two years just to accumulate enough footage for a 15-minute film, scoping out national parks and skyscrapers he and his team could parachute from with a camera, often without the permission of local law enforcement. While the rush of witnessing such leaps even by proxy is chill-inducing, Strauch is able to warm things up by showing Carl and Jean’s greatest cliff jump, deciding only a few weeks after meeting that they’d spend the rest of their lives together.
Shortly before the film opens around the country after a triumphant debut at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Strauch and Jean Boenish spoke about how they brought the past back to life and make it feel as if it’s happening in the present, honoring Carl’s legacy of sharing his experiences with others, as well as what it was like for Jean to return to Norway.
How did this come about?
Marah Strauch: My uncle was a BASE jumper and an aerial cinematographer and I basically discovered some footage he had of Carl Boenish and the Guinness Book of World Records jump. I started interviewing a lot of different BASE jumpers and eventually I came to Jean Boenish. I found an amazing archive of footage and I said, “This is amazing. It has to be a film.” We had to find out what the story was behind all this footage because it was just 16mm, mostly not sync sound and it really hadn’t been written, so it was about unraveling this story and trying to figure out what the most interesting parts would be.
Jean, if you had all this amazing footage stashed away, were you in some ways looking for someone to turn it into a film?
Jean Boenish: The cosmos was pulling us towards each other. [laughs] Really. Because Marah was preparing herself for this point in life and I was in a holding pattern, and I needed somebody who was going to make this happen. And Marah did in a way that nobody could criticize or expect more from. It really has achieved more than what either of us expected. We worked, we tussled, we struggled, we…as Marah put it, put blood, sweat and tears into doing this right and she deserves all the credit that anybody could give for standing by and being true to the nature of what I was spilling out unto her.
And even though [Marah] got her uncle’s film through his death, and I, of course, have all of Carl’s film from after his death, it’s palpable in her film that it’s about life and not death. There is the presence of Carl and of love and joy that never goes away. We may have been conditioned in this society to think dead is dead, everything’s gone, it’s over — it’s negative. But there is a level at which there is something that some people have been told is just not there, yet you can feel it through the movie. It’s real. It’s a perspective that for some is as alien as BASE jumping, but if you’re willing to stand on the edge of it and then jump out away from self, you can start to feel the connection to whatever it is you’re doing in your own life.
From what I gathered from the film, Carl was very much into the idea of sharing his experience with others. Was that a guide in what you wanted this film to express?
Marah Strauch: Yeah, a lot of my desire for the film was to have it be an immersive experience that you can see on a larger screen, so I always thought of this as a very large scale film. From the very beginning, that was something that was really important to me and why I needed to make it in ways that were at times more expensive because we wanted to go to Norway. We wanted to do these things that you could really experience the full story.
Jean Boenish: Marah’s film is what IMAX aspires to be.
How much did the archival footage you had onhand dictate what you could do with the rest of the film?
Marah Strauch: Completely, because Carl was great at shooting base jumping and skydiving, but he didn’t shoot as many of his private moments…
Jean Boenish: We were rarely in front of the camera unless we were doing an interview or something for television.
Marah Strauch: He didn’t shoot as much of himself as I would’ve needed in order to have an entire film that was just archival. So whenever we could use archival, we always, always did. But there were times where we wanted to tell a story visually that we didn’t have the footage for, so of course, we had to make decisions based on what was available to us.
Jean Boenish: A lot of the footage that was selected was footage that either I hadn’t seen for a long time. Maybe I had seen it once or maybe never before because they were camera tests. [laughs]
Marah Strauch: I used the stuff in the garbage bin! [laughs]
Jean Boenish: But Carl had this mantra, “Never lose a frame of film.” As Marah was going through the studio archives, she found things I would’ve never thought about using. We were more interested in living and doing it than revealing and showing it. And some of [the footage] was just too close to me. But it’s so valuable because it’s a demonstration of living life to the fullest. It’s a demonstration of love and enjoyment and the goals that can be achieved by being harmless. You can’t achieve these things when you’re lashing out or hurting others. I love what one of the jumpers, a pioneering hang glider pilot, said after seeing the film — “Sunshine Superman, this film will make the world a better place.” That’s why we want it distributed as broadly as possible. This crosses boundaries and borders and we want everybody to experience the uplift. We don’t want everybody to BASE jump. They don’t need to. They can get everything they need from Marah’s film.
I’ve read that several BASE jumpers actually pitched in to help finance the film and of course, many sit for interviews. Did it feel like you were part of something larger while making this?
Marah Strauch: Yeah, it was really great. Because of my uncle, people were really open and embracing to me because he was a lovely person and they respected the work that he had done. From the very beginning, I felt embraced by the community. They’re really nice people who are living in a really present way, which is nice to be around.
Jean Boenish: We are a perfect cross-section of society, so it runs the full extreme. And as brothers, we have to deal with each other lovingly – help and not hold things against each other and assist, so it’s a wonderful thing to experience. You can get bogged down if you’re not careful, but that’s part of the challenge is to identify what can bog down, identify false fears and then see they can be pierced through.
Marah alluded to going to Norway as a logistical challenge, since the same things that make it so majestic must also make it difficult to film, but of course, it’s also the site of great tragedy. Was it difficult going back?
Jean Boenish: What I really love [about Norway] is knowing people that when you’ve stopped your conversation before, you can pick it up again, be it decades later as if no time has passed. It’s the love and care that lets that happen and even though there might have been events that have infused themselves in the mean time, the love and care is still there to help each other through those things and we can give each other a big hug and it only makes things better.
Marah Strauch: It was great seeing Jean reunited with people she hadn’t seen since 1984. The local paper came and took photographs of Jean and seeing these bonds that were made [then] and having them reunited was very lovely. I spent three summers in Norway making the film and it was lovely to bring a lot of people [together] there who’d been through the experience in the actual location.
Jean Boenish: It was something that touched all of Norway. When we went back, one of the youngsters from when Carl and I did the Guinness [World Record] jumps there, [who] was seven years old at the time, was all grown up and handsome. Because of what Carl had done that had touched his life, he had BASE jumped too and had gone all the way through it [to the point] it had become a past part of his life. That was really meaningful when we went back — the whole country was open and receptive to hearing about how it was touching everybody [else]. If others could see that and learn from that, every country could be a better place.
“Sunshine Superman” opens on May 22nd in Los Angeles at The Landmark and New York at the Sunshine Cinema 5 and the Empire 25. It will expand in the coming month. A full list of theaters and dates is here.