Interview: 'Sunshine Superman' Director Marah Strauch Talks Docs
by Alex Billington
May 29, 2015
"If there are mountains, let's climb them. If there are buildings, let's jump off them." One of the most inspiring documentaries I've seen recently is Sunshine Superman, which premiered at TIFF and the New York Film Festival last year. It's an exhilarating and amusing and nostalgic story of Carl Boenish, one of the founders of BASE jumping, a man full of so much joy. Sunshine Superman is directed by Marah Strauch, a young filmmaker making her feature debut, but she made her mark and is definitely going places. I was lucky enough to catch up with Marah while she was in New York City for a brief visit, and I asked her a bunch of questions about how she made Sunshine Superman, and what her plans are moving forward now.
In my review from NYFF, I wrote "Sunshine Superman is one of those outstanding documentaries that is as entertaining as it is inspiring. It's a great film to enjoy, and let it affect you. Let it inspire you and connect with you in its own way." I was impressed by the work in Sunshine Superman and the way the film is so enthusiastic and optimistic. It's full of so much life and energy, which was refreshing when discussing such a deadly topic, one that most regard as way too dangerous. But that's why I love the doc. I talked with Marah about that angle, about finding that energy, and finding all the footage Carl shot. Watch the trailer here.
My first note is to say - thank you for making such a beautiful film. I have to say thank you, because it's not only a beautiful film about Carl Boenish and the world of BASE jumping and that community, but it's a film about life and being inspired and finding there's more.
Marah Strauch: Thank you. It was a hard film to make. It was really, really hard. [laughs]
What has the reaction been like? Are you relieved that it's finally done and shown at festivals?
Marah: The festivals, yeah! It's been super cool. The response has been really good. Of course, as a filmmaker you always want the response to be even better. You want it to be even bigger. And you want it to be even more people and more excitement.
But for me it's been a mixed journey. You hope everyone gets it, and not everyone gets the film. I don't think it's a film for everyone, which is something… As a filmmaker, you are like, "Well, I want my film to be for everyone." And that's a weird concept because not most filmmakers feel that way, but I really felt like with this film I wanted to be able to kind of reach in there and say, "This film is for everyone." But I think because of the topic people can be a bit dismissive.
What makes you say that about it, that it's not for everyone? Because you may not get him?
Marah: I think some people just categorically don't think BASE jumping is something that intelligent people do. So it's about convincing them that… In making the film I thought a lot about this as well, because there's such a Red Bull, kind of sporty aspect to this. I really wanted to make a film about intelligent people that decided to BASE jump, which is a challenge because people often say to me when they've watched the film, they say, "That was so surprising to me, because that would have really not interested me as a topic."
I would argue that's why it is a film for everyone.
Marah: I would too! I would love it to be. I think there's people that have such a knee-jerk reaction just to the topic that it becomes challenging for them. I mean that's fine. I think it's interesting as a filmmaker to just kind of let it go. It's my first feature, so it's also just this kind of thing of never going through this process. But it's exciting to finally bring it to the world. It took us a long time to make. It feels very satisfying to finally have it finished.
And getting great buzz.
Marah: Yeah, and getting out there, and just having people see it, and just having people experience it in theaters. Some of my favorite screenings have been in Cleveland, Ohio—these places that you can really feel that people really enjoy it just at an elemental level. And there's laughter and clapping. There's a lot of joy and humor that people are getting. I think the moments that people get the humor, that's when I get really happy. To me, if there's something I thought was funny and they think it's funny, too, I think that's so cool.
Asking a bit about your backstory - how did you get into this and how fond of BASE jumping were you before starting? How did you find Carl and the Boenish's and that story?
Marah: My dad was a pioneer rock climber. As a small child, I was dealing with him going out on climbs. I grew up in Bend, Oregon. So I grew up around that kind of outdoor lifestyle. And my uncle was a BASE jumper and an aerial cinematographer. So how I discovered the story was – he died in an automobile accident. So he died in an automobile accident and he left behind a large box of footage. And my dad gave it to me and said, "Hey, if you want any of this, whatever…" I was starting to make experimental films. I went to art school. It wasn't really… I was like an experimental filmmaker, with installations and a lot of multiple screens and stuff like that. And so, I was like, "Maybe a cool installation. Maybe something like that."
Then I started watching the footage of the people that did this activity, including my uncle, who was not in the film [Sunshine Superman]. But there's just this kind of way of looking at life and death, actually, that, to me, was really invigorating and really kind of deep, particularly my uncle. He had a very dark sense of humor which could very much be seen in these tapes.
Then I found Carl. And he had some of Carl's films in his footage. So I watched this and I was like, "Who is this guy?" Then it took me a while to track down Jean [Boenish]. That was a whole kind of sleuthing thing because she wasn't really into the internet. Like, trying to kind of find her through various BASE jumpers. And I was really lucky my uncle was a BASE jumper. So I was able to reach out to the community and be like, "Hey, my uncle was Mike Allen. I'm trying to make this film…" So I could kind of be accepted into the community without a lot of hesitation. So people were really happy I was doing this work.
Are you a fan of documentaries? Could you see the documentary of it forming in your mind that early on at that point?
Marah: Well, what I was doing for a job was I was editing branded content in New York. So I was doing a lot of doc style stuff. And yeah, I'm definitely a fan of documentaries, and I'm a fan of films. I love films. I'm a person who grew up in theaters. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I would go to Cinema 21, which was like right by my high school. I would skip out and go to the movies.
I'm not only a fan of documentaries, but I'm definitely a huge film fan. So yeah, I saw this as a much bigger narrative as I kinda got into it, particularly Jean and Carl's story. I couldn't get away from that idea of what this film would be. At the time, I had never directed anything. I mean, I directed these shorts, which I wasn't even going to show to anybody in terms of getting financing. It took a while to get financing. It was really hard, because it was a pretty expensive film to make with the aerials and with the transferring of the footage. There were a lot of steps along the way that were quite difficult for a first-time filmmaker.
I'm sure. Did you seek guidance? Did people give it to you and you didn't feel like you needed it? Where did you fall on that spectrum of support?
Marah: I would have loved so much more guidance. I would have totally taken it…
Marah: Oh my god, yeah! I think, also, I was trying to do something that people thought was not a good idea. I was trying to make a real expensive film for my first film. I had tons of archival footage. I had never made a film before. Everybody's like, "You are not going to be able to do that." It was more like, "You should just make a little thing and then like…" But I knew that it was really valuable, what I was finding, and I also knew it was Carl Boenish's life's work. I knew that it had to be of the caliber of what he was filming. I knew that anything that I put in there that it would have to be as good as what he did.
I really wanted to do it right, and that was challenging. But we had Alex Gibney as our executive producer. I worked with these incredible Norwegian producers, Lars Løge out of Norway. And then, actually, my cinematographers that came onboard later after I had been kind of fussing with the archival footage and all this stuff. They were really mentors to me. I worked with fantastic cinematographers who really helped me articulate what I wanted. I could see what I wanted, but I'm from a visual art background. So the words to get from here to there were really challenging to me.
I showed them a lot of pictures. We looked at a lot of paintings. We did a lot of weird stuff to kind of get to the point where we were doing these reenactments. One of the keys to actually making this film successful was to take as much as people were willing to give me and to be as open as possible. And sometimes I'd be like, "No, no, no, no," and then they'd be like, "Stop that. You don't know what you're doing." When people would tell me, "No, you can't do that," then I'd be, "Yeah, whatever." And then I'd kinda leave that behind. But the stuff that was actually trying to be helpful was really important.
I learned a lot also from like sales agents, like people who have looked at a lot of films. Like Josh and Dan Braun, they are big sales agents for the doc world. They spent a lot of time talking to me about the film. I also did Film Independent, which I was a Film Independent fellow. And one of the things I had to do was this pitch meeting thing where I'd have to talk with 50 different people and I'd have to describe my film in two sentences. That actually really helped me figure out what my story was. I ended up approaching it in a much more narrative way, I think.
But also, my background is in editing. And my producing partner, Eric [Bruggemann], his background is in editing. So we could really approach this in that way. It was also a large-scale thing. We ended up working with Universal International, who were great partners and collaborators. I'll take advice wherever I can get it. I might lose some of it if it doesn't work for me. But I am really one of those people who believes in help.
Of course. It sounds like you had a great experience on this film.
Marah: Yeah. I mean it took over eight years to get made. And I was working full-time most of the time. So it was not a great experience. [laughs] But it was a great experience…
A learning experience… Well, you had enough people around you who supported you, where as someone you could go out there and, just by herself, make something…
Marah: Yeah. And I made a decision, like I was going to go to graduate school. I was like, "Do I want to go to graduate school or do I want to make a film?" And I was like, "I'm going to make this film." I could do a graduate thesis but then I was like, "Nah. I'll make this movie," because it's here and it's… You don't find good stories like this that often. It was really an unusual find.
One question I like to ask filmmakers: why now? Do you feel this is a culmination of years of work, or does it have a place in the bigger context of today, inspiring more people?
Marah: It's a hard thing to answer, because I don't know how it will fit into the larger context. But I think the film is really about questioning artificial limitations. I think more than ever, we as people, in particularly the United States, but I think worldwide, I think it's really important to question things that just seem like an absolute answer. Like, "You can't be a BASE jumper." Why? "You can't jump off a cliff." Why?
I think it's a really important time to question things in our own lives and really follow our own intuition about the right things to do in our own lives. And I think Carl was really authentic. I think this is a great time for people to remember to be authentic.
What, ultimately, is your goal with the film? Do you want it to be Carl Boenish's legacy? Do you want it to be a film that inspires? How do you want audiences to take it now that it's out?
Marah: You know, it's so interesting. I've never had an ultimate goal.
I know, it's another question that doesn't really have a direct answer.
Marah: I think for documentaries, people also think you should have an agenda or you should have [some kind of message] that you are trying to get across. I wanted people to have an amazing theatrical experience with this film. I wanted… Some of my biggest questions were about death. I think you touched on it [before]. I was really interested in what it's like to really examine the possibility of your own death pretty much on a daily basis, which is what some of these BASE jumpers are doing.
To me, I think that that was somewhat at the core of what I was interested in, in the film. I don't know what the takeaway will be. I think for me I wanted to talk about things that interested me, which were: how do you have a successful coupling? Things like that. It's very interesting to me how successful Carl and Jean's relationship was. To me, I think it's a love story, not only about two people, but about the activity of BASE jumping or the activity of having a dream of any kind, which to me is really a love story in and of itself.
How much of the footage from Carl's films were you able to find? And is there any hope that we could one day see them again, whether on the big screen or elsewhere? I know there are GoPro videos aplenty nowadays, but how much other Boenish archival footage is out there?
Marah: There's amazing amounts that is still out there with Carl's films. One of the great things we did while we were making the film, though, is we transferred like HUGE amounts of it to digital, which I made as a really conscious choice. We ran a Kickstarter very early on where part of the emphasis was getting the stuff saved, because it's… in 16mm. It's mostly reversal stock. It's a little flimsy in terms of how it's going to hold up. So we made sure to transfer [it]…
And he made these things he would call film poems, which are beautiful. They are amazing. They are so cool. We transferred all of this stuff, so it does exist. And Jean Boenish and I are still working with preserving this footage. And it's an ongoing process for me. I'm very committed to making sure that this footage is watchable, because it's so good.
I almost thought about - why not just have a Boenish Film Festival and show all his old BASE jumping films and then you get to see the documentary about him.
Marah: It would be amazing. If anyone wants to show it at the theater beforehand, it would be amazing. I mean it's very different aesthetic and very different kind of way that he was seeing things. I mean it was in the early to late '70s…
That's what's cool though…
Marah: Yeah. It's so cool. And it's all film. Oregon… Some of the soundtrack music for his films is amazing. I couldn't quite work it in. But it's awesome and really is worth seeing. So that's a great idea.
I want to watch these.
Marah: I'm open to it. I'll have to figure out a way to do it.
If all else fails, just put them on YouTube and link them from the site. Though that's probably if all else fails.
Marah: Well, I think for Jean Beonish it's also about seeing them in the right way. And I think Carl was really professional. Not that YouTube is not professional. I kinda slipped myself up on an interview where I was like, "Carl would have hated Go Pro's." Carl would have not hated Go Pro's. Carl would have thought, "Here's something people can use to take home movies." Carl was very into professionalism and he considered himself a professional filmmaker first. And he really liked to show his films in the best way possible and really would have been very excited to have them showing in theaters the way they are showing. But that's it. They'll be around. They will be shown.
I'll be on the lookout for them. What are your future plans from here? Where do you want to go? Do you hope to direct more documentaries or jump into features?
Marah: I'm in the process of looking at a number of different films. I'm open to both documentaries and fiction. I have a science fiction Icelandic book that I'm possibly adapting. I'm not going to tell you the title. But I'm super excited about it. And I'm really excited about potentially working in the narrative space.
I think for me, I would like to be a person that goes back and forth between documentaries and fiction. I don't see too much difference, I think similar to a filmmaker like Werner Herzog, or James Marsh, or Sarah Polley. I think you can always go back and forth between documentaries and fiction, and that's what I would like to do.
To find these great archives and then also find a story that goes with that archive is somewhat challenging. You have to kind of hit the jackpot. So I'm waiting for that jackpot. But meanwhile, I am also looking for other projects that maybe I can decide what it will be.
Is this inspiration for more filmmaking something you developed working on this or is it something that you've always wanted to do since you were a kid?
Marah: I think I've always wanted to do, but also always done, because I don't think we have to make a living at something to do it. I've always really enjoyed making things, whether it be painting, or sculpture, or writing, or whatever. I really need to make things. So if I'm not making film, I'll be making something else, because it's innate in who I am as a person.
Thank you to Marah Strauch for taking the time to speak with me, and to Josh for arranging.
Marah Strauch's Sunshine Superman is now playing in select theaters from Magnolia, so check your local listings. For more info visit the official website. Find my rave review from NYFF here. Thanks for reading.