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‘Sunshine Superman’ Documents the Rise and Fall of BASE Jumping’s Creator

One of our favourite documentaries at TIFF tracked the life and times of the man who invented BASE jumping: Carl Boenish. The film, 'Sunshine Superman,' makes use of Carl's giant archive of 16mm footage that he filmed with a helmet-mounted camera...

by Patrick McGuire
Sep 12 2014, 9:19pm

Carl Boenish jumping off a cliff with his wife, Jean.

Carl Boenish is the godfather of BASE jumping. He literally came up with the name, which is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth.

As an engineer who gave up his stable—but otherwise landlocked—life to become a full-time skydiver and filmmaker, Carl was jumping off of cliffs and mountains just as a boom of skyscraper construction erupted in Los Angeles, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

To share his predilection for freefalling with the world, Carl wore a helmet-mounted 16mm camera for the majority of his jumps, which allowed him to capture stunning and incredibly colourful footage of his death-defying feats.

Carl and his wife, Jean, who he charmed into becoming a skydiver and BASE jumper herself, ended up setting a world record for highest jump off of a mountain in Norway—where they both successfully leaped off the tallest vertical rock face in Europe: a 1,100 metre high point on top of the Troll Peaks mountain.

A day after setting that record, Carl jumped again from a different point on the Troll Peaks mountain, which had previously been determined to be too dangerous to attempt. And, after making that decision, unfortunately, he met his match. Carl died at 43 years old in Norway, and left behind Jean, as well as a treasure trove of 16mm footage.

30 years later, Marah Strauch completed a feature-length documentary on Carl and Jean called Sunshine Superman, which premiered at TIFF last week. I caught up with Marah to chat with her about her first documentary film, what it was like to work with Carl’s amazing library of footage, her experience at Werner Herzog’s rogue school, and the few times she’s gone skydiving herself.

VICE: Hey Marah! How did you discover Carl Boenish as a subject?
Marah: My dad was a pioneer rock-climber in Oregon. He did a lot of stuff with Smith Rocks, and my uncle was an aerial cinematographer and BASE jumper. He may or may not have known Carl, I don’t really know. But he actually got into an auto accident after he had been jumping for many years. When he died, he left a box of footage that he had shot. And some of the footage was Carl Boenish’s footage on old VHS tapes that had been recorded off the TV.

So there was the old Guinness World Record on VHS tape, and some other things that really got me started in terms of making the film. As soon as I discovered Carl, I was like this is so interesting. Then I tracked down Jean Boenish, and had a journey that lasted a really long time.

How long did it take to make the film?
It took like eight years to make the film. But that was Eric (my producer) and I working full time living in New York City. I was working as an editor and my background is in art—glass art, particularly. I was instructing students on how to blow glass in Brooklyn. So I had a lot to do during this time, and this is my first feature doc, or my first feature in general. It took a while to convince people to give me the kind of money I needed—so I could go to Norway and shoot helicopter shots.

Those are really striking. For your first feature, Sunshine Superman is very visually accomplished, and I think a big part of that is having Carl’s 16mm footage. It’s awesome. But I noticed you had a Kickstarter up just to transfer the footage—was it kind of a blessing and a curse to have all of this amazing stuff on that medium?
It was an absolute blessing. It was hard but it kind of was—and is—this treasure trove of material that I’m still helping Jean Boenish archive. It’s a project in its own right. I think Carl was a really exceptional filmmaker. I kind of became the keeper of his footage, in a way. I really needed to make sure that it wasn’t deteriorating further and getting it digitized properly. So there’s more than a movie here, there’s also this real push to make sure this footage is available to future generations.

Do you think if Carl saw a vision of the future where people do this kind of filmmaking with GoPros, then upload it to YouTube, he’d be excited?
I think Carl would’ve hated GoPros, and I’ll tell you why—because he was a filmmaker and he was very much into being a professional. I think we made big decisions to shoot the aerial cinematography how we thought Carl Boenish would’ve shot it, which was using the highest-quality cameras. I think he would have thought GoPros were cool for amateur cinematography, which is essentially what GoPros are kind of for. They’re kind of the equivalent of selfies. They’re not pro filmmaking.

Carl really believed in craftsmanship and making fine work. Everything he did was on the best material available to him. So even when video was starting to be popular [through VHS tapes] he wouldn’t use it because he really felt like the quality that he wanted was going to be much higher.

You workshopped the film at Herzog’s Rogue Film School—what was that like?
I kind of workshopped it. I had an early trailer that I cut together myself, and we didn’t really have any financing at that point. But it was wonderful. I’m a really big Herzog fan in my own way. I can very much geek out over meeting Herzog. I think with me, a lot of that experience was just being excited to meet Herzog. The fact that he acknowledged this movie that I had, actually acknowledged me, and acknowledged that what I was doing was interesting, was just a giant vote of confidence in general—because he’s just such a hero of mine. I think he really understood Carl Boenish, and liked him as a character. It was nice to have that enthusiasm of Herzog at that time.

I was telling him about Carl’s footage, and I went very much against his words. There was so much footage… he was like: “Oh, I edited Grizzly Man in six weeks. You should be able to kill the footage.” He kept saying, “Kill the footage.”

What does that mean?
He’s like, “Get rid of it, just decide. Make a decision.” And I’m like, “But Herzog, it’s on film that I have to like roll through with my arm, so how do I do that?” He’s like, “Oh, pick randomly.” I would have loved to take his advice, but it was a slower process for me. So I spent another four years making the film.

Did you skydive while making this film?
That is the single most-asked question, which is fine. I did, I did skydive. But I have a background in rock climbing and I grew up in Oregon rock climbing, so I don’t really have a lot of issues about heights. And actually, I thought the scariest part was going up in the airplane because they’re really mechanically not well maintained, a lot of the drop zones. But I enjoyed it very much. I haven’t been BASE jumping because it takes a lot of skill, so it’s not something you just kind of go out and do.

Besides his pseudo-prediction of GoPros, Carl kind of predicted action sports filmmaking. Did you look at any action sports films, like Art of Flight, when you were making Sunshine Superman?
I was actually looking at action sports film to find out what I wanted to do the opposite of.

What didn’t you like about action sports films, or what did you want to avoid?
It never would have been my inclination to make an action sports film because that’s just not my aesthetic or concern. I don’t like the kind of machoness that’s involved in that.

Carl and Jean.

I’m glad you brought up the macho thing, because one of the most interesting characters is Jean, Carl’s wife. Her perspective, and the way that she is obviously treated skeptically by other BASE jumpers as a mousey woman when she first enters that scene is very interesting. What was working with her like?
I’m still working with Jean and I will be working with Jean for a while. Not only will I be working with Jean, but Jean will be one of my favourite, bestest buddies. I just love her. She’s like family because I’ve been working on this project for so long. She’s somebody I love very much and I think that, like Carl, she kind of was her own person. It was this sense of not needing to conform to any preset mold of what this person that you’re going to be in the world would be. She’s very true to herself, and I think that’s a lot of what the film is about. It’s about being true to yourself, and I think she’s absolutely true to her character throughout the film. When I had producers looking at the film early on, they thought she was a very problematic character because she’s not particularly emotional at times. She doesn’t cry. People expect her to cry.

When Carl dies, you expect this big, emotional flood from her. But there isn’t one.
I could have had it. I chose not to because it was a cheap shot, and it was formulaic in a way that wouldn’t have been fair to her. And it really wouldn’t have been fair to the film because I think it’s so much more interesting that she ended up being this powerful, strong woman. If it were a man, you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to cry. So there’s this sense of her being a woman and people being like well she’s a woman, why isn’t she being more emotional?She’s a strong, professional person and she says it. They started BASE jumping; so it was her duty [to jump again, after Carl’s death].

She’s very heroic, I think. So I like her as kind of the strongest character in the film for sure.

The other fascinating “character” in the film is California in the time period that Carl was jumping—the birth of skyscrapers, for one. Plus Carl was literally changing the laws on skydiving by lobbying for the parks department to let them legally jump off of cliffs. How was working within that time period?
It was one of the things that attracted me to the film most. There’s a kind of openness of mind during that time in the 70s, and there’s a [particular] colourscape. I mean, the film is called Sunshine Superman,and there’s this real sense of light that, to me, California offers in this way that other places don’t. And it’s interesting. We also had Norway being its own thing. So you had these two seemingly different forces, but what I would say is that there was kind of an openness of mind in both places during that time period. I’m sure it was present in the whole world, but you look at New York and it’s more jaded.

But there’s something about Los Angeles and Norway that were very open to exploration and open to free thinkers, which I really think suited Carl. He was a force against oppression of the kind of limited kinds of thought that people could have. So I think California was a really good place for him during that time.

And in terms of it being a character, it’s really hard to put it into words. It’s more of a visual thing—it’s a kind of expanse. One of my favourite films is Antonioni’s Zabriskie’s Point, which is just California. It’s actually earlier like 1969, but gives a sense of Los Angeles being this very modern city. It’s that kind of modernism from 1969, which is an aesthetic that I love. I think Carl had this very modernist-geek aesthetic that could be kind of hipster now, but I think it really works well in the 16mm footage. You’re like wow, who are these people? I mean, it’s very American Apparel or something, like whoa.

Yeah, the short-shorts and the mustaches. Do you have any interpretation on why Carl jumped from that point, which was already determined to be dangerous, on the day that he died?
I think… Carl had just made this world-record jump, and he was really enthusiastic about that, and I think there was this slight sense of invincibility at that point. And I think he was tired. I think people make mistakes. I think there was—I wouldn’t say God-like sense to Carl. But he was feeling very invincible at that point and I think in that moment, he wasn’t really checking himself. So I think that when we get to that moment, of absolute dizzying heights, we may want to check ourselves and really make sure that we’re in the right space. He probably made a mistake, so that happens.

Sunshine Superman is screening this Sunday, the 14th, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto at 9PM.