New documentary focuses on BASE-jumping pioneer Carl Boenish, who paid the ultimate price for his fearless obsession.
For those who don't find skydiving exciting enough there is BASE jumping-- hurling oneself from "Buildings, Antennae, Spans and Earth."
It's extremely perilous of course, and just this week two men in wingsuits-- including famed extreme sports enthusiast Dean Potter-- were killed in a plunge from Yosemite's Taft Point.
Not surprisingly the man who founded the BASE jumping movement, Carl Boenish (pronounced Bay-nish), is no longer around to see how the activity has developed since he helped popularize it in the 1970s.
Carl wanted to see how to do things that other people thought were seemingly impossible.
Boenish's astounding story-- from his innovations in aerial photography, his daring leaps in Yosemite and downtown Los Angeles, to his untimely death in Norway-- is told in the new documentary "Sunshine Superman" from director Marah Strauch.
"Sunshine Superman" opens Friday (May 22) in New York (Sunshine Cinema 5) and Los Angeles (The Landmark).
Nonfictionfilm.com Editor-in-Chief Matt Carey spoke with Strauch (pronounced Strauk) and Jean Boenish, Carl's widow, about the documentary. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Nonfictionfilm.com: Marah, how did you hear about Carl Boenish and decide to make a film about him?
Marah Strauch: My uncle was a BASE jumper and I basically got this footage of Carl and Jean that my uncle left behind. He actually died in an automobile accident although he was a BASE jumper. So I found this story and I was just really, really interested in pursuing it... I ended up spending the next eight years of my life making the film.
NFF: Jean, you agreed to participate in the film. Did you have any hesitation about revisiting some events that must have been very painful to recall?
Jean Boenish: For Carl and me we became a part of each other and that never goes away. And the love that you share from somebody… that love never goes away, it’s always palpable. And it’s a wonderful thing to revisit so there’s never any trepidation.
[Editor's note: Jean Boenish and director Marah Strauch will appear at The Landmark in Los Angeles on Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23 (Q&A after 7:20pm screening and intro to 10pm screening). Boenish will participate in a Q&A on Sunday, May 24 after the 2:40pm screening.]
NFF: What was Carl like?
Jean: Everybody liked Carl. Carl was enthusiastic. He was excited about his passion in life. He was excited to share new discoveries with people and for both of us when we joined forces, got married and pursued all of this together it was about learning and sharing and doing no harm to anyone or anything and considering with foresight the impact of our ideas and what we might be encouraging even though we didn’t necessarily want to encourage anything that wasn’t– certainly nothing that wasn’t right for an individual. We never encouraged anybody to BASE jump. But if it was right for that person we would assist them in gaining all the knowledge so that they could approach it in an educated way and pay attention to all of the details.
We never encouraged anybody to BASE jump. But if it was right for that person we would assist them in gaining all the knowledge so that they could approach it in an educated way and pay attention to all of the details... We respected the laws of nature.
Boenish rejected what he considered artificial limitations placed on human potential, expressing an almost religious fervor in the idea that every person had the right to push the boundaries of the possible.
He was an idealist and a dreamer but not an unthinking one: trained as an engineer, Boenish carefully planned his jumps and developed special equipment and techniques for filming his aerial endeavors.
NFF: The film really evokes the period of the 1970s and early 80s. There's a kind of optimistic feeling that seems innocent in retrospect.
Marah: That was something that I wanted, to really show that time… It was about capturing something that was kind of a nostalgic period for California and the West. I grew up in Oregon and that was kind of the feeling when I was a small child and I wanted the film to have that kind of analogue “old record player” feeling to it.
NFF: In some ways "Sunshine Superman" reminded me of ”Man on Wire”-- two men, Carl Boenish and Philippe Petit achieving implausible feats. It fills one with wonder that a human being could think they could pull off such things.
Marah: The feeling at that time was that anything could have been possible and I think that is something that the films share for sure.
NFF: I also thought of "Grizzly Man," the Werner Herzog film. Carl Boenish and Timothy Treadwell were both drawn to very perilous activities. In the case of Treadwell it was living with grizzly bears. One questions in his case especially whether it was just crazy.
Marah: It’s interesting that you should mention that. People a lot of times will mention “Man on Wire” in comparing my film and of course I feel like it’s a very different film. But I do feel—as a filmmaker I’ve always been very inspired by Werner Herzog and I think “Grizzly Man” is actually a very interesting comparison. They [Boenish and Treadwell] were both people who were filming these activities as well as participated [in them] and I think that’s also really interesting.
Marah: Now we have Go Pros but during Carl’s time it was a very heavy and physical filmmaking. He was trying to figure out ways where people could film while they were doing an activity that you really need to pay attention to. There was a lot of innovation, a lot of creating their own cameras and their own gear in order to do this in a way that was as safe as possible.
NFF: In the film we see Carl, Jean and associates jumping with cameras mounted on their helmets. How much did those rigs weigh?
Jean: The average dual mount, helmet-mounted camera system-- which consisted of one still camera and one movie camera which was usually a military surplus gun camera– together they weighed between 12 and 15 pounds... [It's] hard on your neck. Carl had very strong neck muscles.
NFF: Carl was kind of a dreamer, but he had a practical, logical mind at the same time.
Marah: He was an inventor. He was an innovator. I think like a lot of people who are inventors he had a logical mind yet he thought about interesting new opportunities... He wanted to see how to do things that other people thought were seemingly impossible.
NFF: You take viewers to the Trollveggen ("Troll Wall") mountain range in Norway, where Carl broke the Guinness record for BASE jumping, and where he lost his life in 1984. That must have been a moving experience to go there.
Marah: The Trollveggen is almost its own character in the movie because it’s so—it just makes such an impression. It’s such a large cliff and it doesn’t seem almost real because it’s almost something out of Walt Disney or something mythological so we were very excited when we first saw the cliff. It’s something that we had been looking forward to [seeing] for a long time. I kept a picture of the cliff on my wall because in financing the film one of the big hurdles was actually getting to Norway.
NFF: Jean, have you gone back to Norway since those fateful events?
Jean: Yes, Marah took me back as part of the filming and it was wonderful to see everybody there again and many decades had passed but we were able to pick up right where we left off and to really share the joy and the love that we had originally shared. It was a wonderful thing.
NFF: Do you do BASE jumping anymore?
Jean: No, I'm retired from it. It's important to know when to say "no" and [laughs] realistically my life has turned a corner so it's more important for me to share what I've gained from BASE jumping, not necessarily as a sport itself but just ways to inspire other people to have similar opportunities in their own lives and learn from this and only do good and have good effects.
NFF: Marah, what lessons do you think we can learn from Carl’s life?
Marah: When anybody would say something was impossible [to Carl] he would say, “Why?” And he would go the next step to actually innovate. And I think what I learned from Carl was that always when there was a roadblock figuring out a way around it, which is very inspiring to me. For me that’s the lesson that I took away. I personally didn’t have any particular lessons that I was hoping [to impart] in the film. But I do hope that people enjoy it. I created it to be a very immersive experience that hopefully people can have in theaters and really enjoy.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.