Marah Strauch Talks ‘Sunshine Superman,’ Taking Risks
A mass of humanity falls through the air thousands of feet above the ground. They latch onto each others’ hands and arms, together maneuvering in the sky taking the shape of a giant snowflake. This mesmerizing image, from Marah Strauch’s radiant documentary Sunshine Superman, encapsulates what the film is all about. The film is about skydiving and BASE jumping, yes, but it’s truly about the tight human bond between filmmaker and late pioneer of BASE jumping, Carl Boenish, and his wife, Jean. It’s a sort of documentary romance movie that works two-fold as a thrilling extreme-sports profile.
I spoke to Strauch about what it was like to get to know a deceased man through archival footage over the course of eight years, as well as her experience making a film in today’s indie landscape. Sunshine Superman opens tomorrow, June 5th, in Toronto.
Carl considered himself a filmmaker first. How would you describe his filmmaking style?
He was really interested in capturing the joy of BASE jumping and skydiving. He was an innovator in aerial cinematography. He was strapping cameras to places nobody would have thought to put a camera. I think his style was very simple and direct, and I mean that in a good way. There’s an innocence and playfulness to the way he made films that I think is really charming. There’s a great reenactment in the film that a lot of people think I did, but actually he did it. They were escaping from a building, running down the street.
I think the reenactments you did make were integrated very smoothly. Were you trying to mimic his visual style when you made them?
I didn’t want to create big, theatrical reenactments. I wanted them to feel very personal and not aggrandizing. I wanted them to be really simple and direct, so in that way, I guess I was [echoing his style].
The movie’s not about extreme sports so much as it is about the human bond between Carl and Jean. Was that your vision from the beginning?
The footage is beautiful, but I think the human love story between Carl and Jean became really interesting to me when I met Jean Boenish. I started to really understand their love story. I describe the movie as a love story with BASE jumping as a backdrop. That’s how I always thought of it. I definitely think it’s more about people than BASE jumping.
Carl talks about the spirituality of BASE jumping and sky diving for him. Is filmmaking spiritual for you?
Huh. I’ve never thought about that. I’m not a terribly spiritual person, which is kind of odd because I just made this film. For me, filmmaking is an obsessive activity. I think of it as something that’s very physical and something you don’t take lightly. It’s something that’s a very passionate activity, and whether that’s spiritual or not, I don’t know. 16mm film is something that’s so transcendent to me, almost like it’s spiritual. [laughs] I’m not sure why that is, but having that 16mm film makes for a special experience. I guess it’s nostalgia. Part of what’s great about filmmaking is being around all these people who are doing things that are so interesting. It really puts you in a different place. I don’t know if it’s spiritual, but it’s definitely a journey.
What was it like seeing the movie on a big screen for the first time?
During post production you’re watching it and paying attention to every little thing that’s wrong. [laughs] You’re just like, “Oh my god, my film sucks!” We premiered in Toronto almost a year ago, and it was an amazing experience to watch it with an audience. I think it’s a really theatrical film, and I hope people see it in the theater. It’s a big-scale experience and a very physical experience. I liked watching the audience’s reactions. It was everything I wanted it to be.
It’s a foreign thing to most people, the idea of getting to know someone who’s not with us anymore over the course of eight years. What was that like?
It was a challenge. It’s like being a detective. I think the challenge was making a film about a dead person that was a theatrical, fully immersive experience. We were trying to show a full character portrait of Carl, and looking at it in retrospect, it was an odd idea to do that. But it was clear that he was the central character of the film. As much as possible I would have him narrate and tell stories. He left a lot of audio of himself. A lot of it is on cassette tapes, so we have this film coming out across the country where a lot of the audio is from cassette tapes! The film’s held together a bit with rubber bands and glue. People compare the film to Man On Wire, saying Carl’s not Phillippe Petit, but he’s no longer with us. It’s a different thing. All of the audio is archival. Cassette tapes. [laughs]
Was there a point in the process of making this film where you felt down and weren’t sure this would all come together?
Oh man, I think that still happens! [laughs] Filmmaking is really hard, particularly you first feature. There are a lot of things people don’t tell you about that process. All the parts that have to do with money are the hardest parts. Financing, distribution. Those parts are the least enjoyable. The actual making of the film is a wonderful thing. I hope filmmakers get to do more of that. The other stuff is discouraging, but all you can do as a filmmaker is make the best film you possibly can. Everything else is pretty much out of your control. The business side is frustrating and almost stopped me a couple times. But something Carl taught me, actually, is to ignore artificial complications. If you’re not getting financed, you’ve just got to keep looking. You have to go that extra mile. There were time when I thought about not making this film or any films at all. But then I thought, this man’s legacy wouldn’t have existed without his film, so that’s the biggest payoff.
Can you remember a time when you took a big risk and it paid off?
I think making this film was a big risk. I ran up all my credit cards to make this film. I put everything in. Whether it pays off financially or career-wise I don’t know, but it’s been an amazing opportunity to make this film. When I was financing the film I went to the European film market and said, “I need to finance this film now.” I got it financed over there, so I took a lot of risks. It’s paid off in the sense that it’s satisfying to have completed the film.
Any words of advice for other independent filmmakers?
I think you have to be willing to have your film be a success or not. That can’t be the deciding factor going forward. You have to make film for the love of making film. You have to be involved in this because you can’t do anything else. You need that passion. If you start to not feel that passion, give it a day or two and it’ll probably come back. When people think you’re crazy, which people did when I was making this film, they’re probably right, but you should keep going! [laughs]