Marah Strauch is set to make her feature film directorial debut with Sunshine Superman, a movie that explores the birth of BASE Jumping and the role that Carl and Jean Boenish playing his the rise of this extreme sport in the eighties.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about Sunshine Superman, getting her hands on the fantastic archival footage, and the challenges she faced while making this movie.
- Sunshine Superman has just been released on DVD here in the UK, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Sunshine Superman is a documentary about a husband and wife who invented the activity of BASE jumping in the 1980s. It is kind of a love story set to the backdrop of BASE jumping (laughs).
- Where did this project start for you? And what sparked your interest in making a movie about Base Jumping?
I am the least likely person to make a movie about BASE jumping and I am definitely not an extreme sports person in any way. My uncle was a BASE jumper and he was also an aerial photographer, who actually died in an automobile accident: after doing thousands of basejumps - a sport that people have always said is very dangerous - he dies in an automobile accident. I inherited a lot of his footage. I went to find out who the people were in this footage and found the story of Carl and Jean Boenish.
I thought it was such a compelling story, a really interesting story and set in a time in the United States where it felt like anything was possible and there was a really open and energetic culture going on; particularly in California. To me, this was really compelling and I also thought Carl's filmmaking footage that he has left behind was so beautiful that I felt it was something that I had to make sure was saved and shown.
- The movie also features Jean Boenish then and now, so how keen was she to get on board this project?
Jean has always been very willing to be on board this project; I don't know exactly why she wanted to do it. She acknowledged that I was the right person for the film. Jean is very intellectual and also someone that you wouldn't expect to be a BASE jumper.
I think that we both really connected in terms of being able to carry on intelligent conversations about books or things that had nothing to do with BASE jumping. It really did feel like a natural fit to work together on this.
- The movie is made up of some wonderful archival and audio footage, how long a process was it going through that material to find the story that you wanted to tell? And how challenging a process was it?
Carl was amazing in the fact that he recorded all of his phone messages; all of his... he had hundreds of cassette tapes. It was challenging because 16mm footage does not sync sound, so I had to figure out a way to tell Carl's story.
Really, the only thing he left behind was these amazing audio interviews - which he mainly did with himself - for me, that was the best way to piece together who this guy was. That was challenging too because I would ask myself 'what kind of imagery would I show during this audio?' Therefore, there were many parts that this film was made from.
It was really challenging. This was my first feature as a director and I was working as an editor while I was making this film; so I actually had day job. I would work all week editing other people's things and then I would edit this. This was all on 16mm and so I had to get it transferred. The whole process of getting it transferred and cutting it down to what the film would be, took a total of eight years.
I understand that that is an extraordinarily large amount of time but, because I was working full time, it was the only way that I could get it done. I had something like two hundred thousand feet of film material to work through. It was a lot. I guess the great new is that the footage is safe and digitised - so there were many other benefits to the film that were exciting.
- How does the film you set out to make compare to the film we see on the big screen? Did any footage that you found take the story in a slightly different direction than you anticipated?
There are so many directions that I could of gone because there was so much footage. I kept just wanting the story to be as narrow as possible and I kept saying 'I could go this way or I can go that way.' There's a group of guys that invented this activity of BASE jumping but I did focus as much as possible on Jean and Carl's story - I also tried to make the film from Carl's perspective and that is challenging when that person is no longer here.
The stuff that I left out was a lot, but I think there were many surprises, such as all of the photographs that I found in Norway; there were all of these amazing black and white stills, and I didn't even know that they existed when I was going through the archives. I actually had to be in Norway to find these stills. It was definitely a process of piecing together the puzzle and I was surprised all the time by what we would find. Then again, there was never enough of the personal stuff and that was the biggest challenge because that it what I was really interested.
- While Sunshine Superman is very much about Base-jumping and the excitement and thrill of the sport, it is also a love story. How tricky was it balancing this two elements of the film?
In terms of balancing the film as a love story and also a story about adventure and following your dreams, I think these were two people who were very much in love but I also think they were two people who loved creating not only the activity of BASE jumping but also filming. I think this film is a love story about these two people, it is a love story about BASE jumping, but it is also a love story about filmmaking.
For me, it is really about the passion that these people had for all three of those things. In terms of balancing it, I don't think it could have been relatable to a larger audience had it been a history of BASE jumping as most people are not that interested in BASE jumping. Most people have more of an interest in stories that they can relate to and it was really important to me that people could relate to this story.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of this year? Now you have made the leap into the director's chair are you going to stay there?
In terms of what is next, I definitely want to make more films. I am working towards documentaries and I am also working towards looking at a fiction project as well.
I really like shooting large-scale things and it would be really great to be able to create things... it is fine to find things in an archive but it would be nice to also go out and create my own footage - it may actually be a little easier (laughs).
Sunshine Superman is out now on Digital Download and DVD.