Sunshine Superman, about BASE jumping pioneer Carl Boenish, is the opening night documentary premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Here, glass artist-turned-documentarian Marah Strauch discusses her directorial debut, why filmmaking is like sculpture, and the time it took her to carve out her story.
Making Sunshine Superman was a quixotic journey that my producer, Eric Bruggemann, and I traversed over nearly a decade. There was no blueprint for the story—the history of BASE jumping had never been written. Carl Boenish, the man who invented the activity of BASE jumping, was mostly the stuff of legend. Finding his story in a haystack of footage was an epic effort, physically and mentally.
I was a visual artist, living in NYC. I went to Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a degree in glass art. I studied film at art school and was lucky enough to learn filmmaking on 16mm and editing on an analogue Steenbeck editing table. Film is physical, much like sculpture. I made installation art, often projecting film on glass or making my own handmade lenses. Most of my early films are experimental. I learned optical printing and how to make a good splice, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be very helpful. I love film as a medium. Each format has its own personality and meaning. Film is emotional; it is transparent like glass, with a sense of romance and time, especially in smaller formats like 16mm. The challenge, of course, is that film is expensive and archaic for most in our digital age.
I found the story and some of my early material for Sunshine Superman when visiting my dad in Oregon. My family has a long history of risk taking. My father was a rock climber during the ’60s and ’70s in Yosemite. My uncle, Mike Allen, was a BASE jumper and skydiver, who died when I was 18 (Although he lived a life of danger, he died driving in the Florida Everglades at night when a truck hit him. It was one of those deaths that made no sense.)
My dad is a bit of a pack rat and I was helping him clean up his basement. There was a box of films that had been shot by my uncle Mike and there were also films my uncle had recorded of other filmmakers. One of the filmmakers was Carl Boenish.
This was the first time I had seen BASE jumping. BASE stands for Buildings, Antenna, Span, and Earth—from which people jump with parachutes. I was taken by the characters and the relationships that were very clear in the footage. Carl Boenish was begging to be exposed. Why was his story unknown? This man was a madman in the best way possible. The footage he shot of early leaps was elegant and poetic in its execution. And he had a evident proficiency in filmmaking.
I had a Sony PD-150 (that is how long to has taken me to make this film!) and I started contacting people who were in the footage and asking them if I could interview them. It is then that I met Jean Boenish. Jean Boenish is a pioneer of BASE jumping. She was married to Carl, and she was also a filmmaker in her own right.
When I entered Carl’s studio, it smelled like vinegar. What I later learned is this was “vinegar syndrome.” His film was going bad. Jean and I needed to act fast and start working with this footage—particularly the audio, which was on magnetic tape. There was over 100,000 feet of film to evaluate in this archive. (Even now, after Sunshine Superman is finished, we are still working on the archiving process.) The footage was mostly shot on reversal film; it was very delicate and the process was laborious. Over eight years, I rolled through thousands of feet of 16mm film with a hand crank, making notes in a journal while listening to eight-track cassette tapes of Fleetwood Mac, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Bread in Carl Boenish’s studio.
It was my mission to unearth the story and, in doing so, unearth Carl Boenish and the message he meant to convey to the world. Why had he kept such intact documentation? I think it was clear to Carl that he was making history. Carl had helped create an activity, and a way of filmmaking, that I could now preserve and celebrate in Sunshine Superman.
Technicolor was generous enough to help us transfer a large amount of this footage for a discounted rate. We were then able to begin really pitching this as a film. My producer, Eric Bruggemann, and I worked as editors as we raised enough money to complete the film in small bits. I learned a lot working as an editor on other peoples’ documentaries and corporate projects: I learned about pacing, how to get good coverage, and how to approach narrowing down my mountain of BASE jumping footage.
The next steps involved condensing this archive and, inevitably, reshooting the interviews and reenactments with an ARRI Alexa and a larger crew. At this stage, money was an even great hurdle. When I started making with this film, grants were non-existent for pop culture documentaries. I was an unproven filmmaker and it was very hard to convince people to give me a budget, or even part of a budget. This part was not fun and not romantic and, at times, scary. It took a long time and many, many pitch reels to get our first financing—which helped us further solidify our story direction. I knew Sunshine Superman was not destined to be a small film; it needed to embody the visual feast that Carl had started. We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that ultimately found us our first investors, on top of making our goal.
We also had to shoot a good section of the film in Norway. Not too give to much away, some big events happened for Carl in Norway. The film needed to feel large in scale; the mountains needed to feel sublime in scope. I also knew that some of the photos, interviews, and video I needed could only be found in Norway.
So: We needed to launch an expedition to shoot in Norway.
We worked with co-producers from Flimmer Films, hired a Norwegian crew, and shot the film there for three consecutive summers. I worked with cinematographer Nicolay Poulsen, and aerial cinematographer Peter Degerfeldt. As a visual artist, I was often giving them references that were German Romantic paintings, or just scribbles I had made. They translated all my needs very well to cinema.
Money consistently fell through on the U.S. side. We kept meeting investors that were money laundering, or crazy—or a combination. Eventually we raised the money and reshot all of the original interviews I had shot. I wrote maybe 10 treatments to get the right treatment. Pitching the film actually helped me refine the story I was looking to tell.
Eric Bruggemann worked very closely with me as we sculpted the story, stripping away parts we didn’t need. Shooting on the Alexa was a lot like shooting film, in terms of being very precise about what was needed. We could not simply run tape. The editing process went very quickly after the last American interviews were shot by U.S. cinematographer Vasco Nunes, and all the footage we needed was transferred.
There was so much time spent inside the story watching the footage in such a physical way, shooting the film and then reshooting. It was a film that needed to formed and then reformed, and polished and re-polished. The time it took to make this film was maddening, as a human who wants to move quickly. But it was what the film and the story needed. The story revealed itself in time. It took me to become the filmmaker I needed to be to tell the story properly. MM
Sunshine Superman is premiering as the opening night documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival tonight, September 4, 2014.
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