How to Build a Big Doc for the Big Screen: An Interview with Marah Strauch

"I think documentaries are about relationship building. Sometimes it takes a while."

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Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got nothin’ on the directorial debut of Marah Strauch. Sunshine Superman (named after the Donovan song whose lyrics we just thoroughly mangled above) is more than just a chronicle of Carl Boenish as he popularizes the extreme sport of BASE jumping in the early 1980s—it’s the kind of documentary hitting theaters just in time for the summer movie season, with the flare to compare to any fictional action movie found at your local multiplex. Plus it’s got a pretty hot classic rock soundtrack.

Paste sat down with Strauch in March, after Sunshine Superman closed out the Atlanta Film Festival. We discussed her intention in making a documentary that is best seen on the big screen—but one that’s also a success no matter how you watch it.

Paste: During the Q&A, you said you wanted this to be a theatrical, cinematic documentary. Can you talk about that desire and in particular its relation to the soundtrack?
Marah Strauch: I don’t know how documentaries can be on the big screen unless they’re treated with the same respect that you would treat something that’s fiction. You definitely can have the same kind of immersive experience watching a documentary. As a filmmaker, I really admire the ones that are pushing the bounds of what a documentary can be. You can’t spend as much money as you’d spend on a fiction film, but if you look at fiction films that cost as much as mine, I think our production value is pretty good. So, it’s something that was always really important to me, and the soundtrack is something I was very sure about from the beginning. Which is part of what made it a difficult film to get made as a first-time director.

Paste: What else did you do for this film that fit your desire for it to be a cinematic work?
Strauch: When I started making the film, my resources were not a lot. But I wasn’t comfortable with the way the film was looking, and that was frustrating to me. I felt like I needed to match the quality of Carl’s cinematography and his vision. His footage is so immersive and so spectacular that to treat it in a way that you would normally treat a documentary and not think about lenses or how it would be textured really felt abrasive. You’re dealing with footage that is 16mm and then putting it up against something else, and you don’t want that to feel like being taken in and out of that image.

Paste: It’s such an archive-heavy film, but it doesn’t play like just a back-and-forth between interviews and archival footage. And the integration of reenactments is often quite seamless.
Strauch: That was a lot working with my cinematographers. I worked with Vasco Nunes in the U.S., and I worked with Nico Poulsen in Norway, and we kind of came up with a game plan so that the footage wouldn’t catch your eye and throw you off as you were getting into the narrative. That was really important to me. I was having a hard time articulating that, but I worked as an editor for 10 years, so part of my sensibility about that is when you’re changing cameras, let alone changing from 16mm to… We shot with the ARRI Alexa with prime lenses. We really wanted to find something that would match the feeling and texture of film. That became really important to me as I was shooting and as I was editing and color correcting, as well.

Paste: Did you do anything to the archive footage?
Strauch: The amazing thing is that Carl shot all that on reversal stock and it has held up really well … it’s really, really, really gorgeous the way it’s kept its color. All we did was, whenever it would be a little faded we would make sure it wasn’t. We would bring it back to its original sense of quality. That was something we thought a lot about. We had a great colorist who worked on the film. That was really important. It was kind of a challenge getting it all to feel like a homogenous thing.

Paste: The film is set to air on CNN and of course it will be seen on the small screen, but even though it’s being distributed by Magnolia Pictures, which does a lot of VOD day-and-date releases, the doc is going straight theatrical. Is this something you wanted from them?
Strauch: Yes. We were very lucky that we got some early reviews in Toronto that said it was a theatrical film. I always wanted it to be a theatrical film. I think it holds up quite well on a small screen, and I feel good about it on a small screen, but I think the experience of seeing it in a theater is a very different experience because it is so immersive and this footage of BASE jumping is such a physical experience. I really wanted that to be something that people could enjoy. And people are, so that’s good.
Paste: Well, you kind of have to expect that most people are going to see a documentary on the small screen.
Strauch: (laughs) I don’t expect that. I expect the best!

Paste: Did you go into this project knowing that you could depend on such a plethora of footage that already existed?
Strauch: No. I could depend on it to a certain degree. I mean, I did reenactments. I had a feeling I could depend on it for BASE jumping, because I had seen videotapes of this stuff. I didn’t know that I would come across the audio recordings. That was a big deal for me. Actually being able to hear Carl’s voice and also these answering machine messages, which he recorded for five years. That’s a gold mine when you’re a documentarian and your subject is no longer there. You don’t have a lot to work with, especially if you just have 16mm, not-sync sound. We’re talking about footage with no sound most of the time, which is very challenging. It was nice to discover these reel-to-reel tapes, and of course all of that we had to get transferred because we couldn’t listen to it, so there were hours and hours and hours of that and mag tape, which if you’ve ever worked with mag tape… There’re all these crazy formats. Betamax. We had every possible format known to man that we worked with on this film. I’m not joking. Anything you can imagine was in this film—8mm, 16mm, 35mm and every kind of video format. That was a challenge. I had some trust that it would come together and some trust that what I was finding was valuable.

Paste: What was your idea for the film in the beginning?
Strauch: I actually started out making a film about my uncle who was a BASE jumper. I made a little short about him, and in the process of doing that I discovered Jean Boenish and discovered all this footage. In the beginning, I was just interested from a visual art background. I’d made experimental art films and installation work, and I was just like, “Wow, this BASE jumping stuff is beautiful.” For me, the attraction was the beautiful footage. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I didn’t know about the story.

And then I found Josh and Dan Braun, who are my other executive producers. They’re sales agents but also executive producers on a lot of films. We had a little reel of footage, and I actually had a CD of music that I wanted in the film and a little bit of footage that I gave them. And they were like, “This is amazing.” It took a really long time to find the story, but most of it was already there. It was Carl and Jean Boenish. But [Josh and Dan] really helped me craft it. They were really good people for me to run into at that point because I had thought it’d be some kind of installation. No, we’re going to really go out and sell this thing. Of course, it wasn’t ready to sell. It would be a lot later that it actually sold, but each step of the way was really helpful in understanding the story that had never been written.

Paste: Speaking of which, I was surprised that no one had already thought to tell this story, especially with all that footage. Were you ever worried that someone else might get it out there before you finished?
Strauch: No, because I had a really good relationship with Jean Boenish, and I still do. It’s a relationship that I built with her and made sure was solid. I feel like Jean saw how much work I was doing. It was a lot of work we were both doing. … So our relationship was key to getting the film made, and really the only source of the footage is this archive and the only source for the story is Jean and the people I’ve been working with on the film. People really wanted to stick with me.

I think documentaries are about relationship building. Sometimes it takes a while. It’s a lot of trust to have somebody go into your life and look under all of the rocks and ask you difficult questions, and it was a challenge but I had very loyal subjects.

Paste: Did you find holes in the material and that’s why you went with reenactments? How did that work?
Strauch: Carl was really good at shooting these big BASE jumping moments and big expedition moments of looking for the site or doing these other activities in terms of BASE jumping, which was awesome to find. But then how do I tell a story about this man or about this relationship or these softer, quieter moments in his life? That didn’t really exist within the archive, because he didn’t film those moments.

I found a garbage bag full of footage in the studio that just said “test reels.” That was the only time I would find any image of Carl Boenish where he was not in a BASE jumping situation. There are just a couple times where you see him in the film running across the lawn or doing things where he looks like he’s making a home movie. They are very rare, though, because he didn’t film events that were at home.

The moments that I needed to reenact were moments that would make the story a more emotional, human story that was about people and not just the activity of BASE jumping. My decision was to shoot those moments. And of course during the ending of the film there were no cameras when they were going up the second time at the Troll Wall. There was no way to do that other than reenacting it. That was an easy choice. In order to tell the whole narrative, there was no way to tell that without doing reenactments.

Paste: Am I correct in noting that some of his own footage is staged?
Strauch: It’s very interesting because he was doing reenactments all the time. He was really into reenactments. Even some of the stuff when you’re watching them hike up to El Cap, all of these things, the people I interviewed would tell me he would do these things over and over and over again. Nothing you’re watching that he’s doing, besides the jump itself, is not reenacted. When he was staging this stuff with the cabs and all of that, it was the best kind of independent filmmaking, which was almost like doing a BASE jump. You go into that place, you don’t have a permit and you’re running around and you hail a cab and you’re like, “I’m going to film you, and we’re going to go around the block again.” He would just do things over and over again. He was very much a perfectionist and he really thought of himself as a filmmaker. Not as a documentarian but as someone who was making immersive stories. He didn’t like home movies. Jean would always tell me, “Don’t make a home movie.”

Paste: How much of Carl’s footage had been seen or is or was available? Can’t people just find some of it on YouTube?
Strauch: There are people who have VHS copies of his films, and they’re putting them on YouTube. But they shouldn’t. They look bad. The actual copies look much better. Jean and I spent a lot of time restoring his skydiving footage. She will be putting that out around when our DVDs are available for the film. Those will be able to be purchased and will live on at that point. But the BASE jumping stuff has really not been out there for a very long time. It will probably show up on YouTube at some point because it was on VHS, but what’s amazing is how different it looks when it’s transferred from the actual 16mm film. I didn’t see the value of the footage until I could see it in this beautiful, pristine-looking 16mm. Because when you look at it on VHS, you’re like “ehhh, it’s okay; it’s not anything special.”
Paste: So you would see it on VHS first and then…
Strauch: Yeah, We went back to the 16mm and transferred that to HD and got it all fancy.

Paste: BASE jumping has appeared in a lot of movies since Boenish’s time. Was there ever any interest in exploring that more, or was that too outside of the biographical focus? What about his legacy?
Strauch: I wanted to make a very limited film and a very focused film. I could have gone the route of films like Dogtown and Z-Boys, which is more focused on a specific time, and then there are films like Riding Giants, where they talk to these guys and the other guys and… I didn’t want to make a full smorgasbord of what is possible.

I was more interested in the people that were doing this thing. I describe the film as a love story against the backdrop of BASE jumping. To me, that’s more interesting than a history of something that most people are not that interested in. To have something that reaches a wider audience, you have to have something that tells a more specific story. It goes back to wanting to make it as much a narrative as possible rather than having something that is just a documentary.

Paste: Is that also why you don’t address the fact that Boenish is dead until his death happens in the course of the narrative story? It’s easy to catch on that he’s dead because he’s not in the film in the present, but you let it build on a very emotional level by not stating it upfront.
Strauch: It’s a big question. How do you deal with that? There weren’t that many options. You can totally ignore it. You can tease it out, which we decided to do. I would compare it to Senna in that way because everybody knew that Senna died but you’re experiencing his life story in hopefully the most cinematic way possible. It’s something that we kind of know, but the moment it actually occurs you’ve gotten to know him, which I think makes it a stronger statement than if we top-loaded it.

Paste: The other night, you mentioned that Werner Herzog told you not to watch all of your footage. Can you tell me about your connection to him?
Strauch: I have to say, I don’t have any connection to him other than being a big fan and also taking his Rogue Film class. I love his career, which I find very inspiring. I also love his idea of very physical filmmaking, just the way he works with landscapes. In terms of the advice he gave me, I think he was just saying that I needed to get through the footage much quicker because I was going through every little bit of footage and that can be really problematic if you ever want to make a film. But that’s the road I chose. I chose to look at every little bit of footage, because I guess that’s the filmmaker I am. I didn’t go quickly, and I couldn’t have gone quickly. I understand also the idea of just getting to the point and seeing what you come up with.

Paste: What about Alex Gibney? How did you connect with him?
Strauch: He came on the project quite early as an executive producer. I’m a first-time filmmaker, and my producing partner, Eric Bruggemann, is also a first-time filmmaker. Because we were editors and Eric actually worked on Taxi to the Dark Side, we had Alex as somebody who really liked the film and really saw its potential early on. That was lovely for us. He’s been a really supportive person in the process and just a fan of the film. It felt really good to have somebody who really got it from a really early time. We couldn’t be luckier, and he was great in terms of just getting to the point whenever he would look at cuts or anything that he would help us with.
Paste: So he was pretty involved.
Strauch: Yes, because he executive produced for us and there were a lot of notes. And it was through Universal International. They actually purchased the film when I was in production, so I had a lot of notes from them. I had a lot of notes from Alex. It was very nice to have a team of people who were more experienced than me help me.

Paste: Did Universal help with having the money early on.
Strauch: They came on when I had about a 35-minute cut. So we had raised most of the budget at that point. We had basically shot all of our interviews and needed to go into shooting reenactments. It was nice to have that in place. They were wonderful partners. This was a really good experience. Independent filmmakers are often like, “Ehhh, distributors, grrrr.” But my partners have been wonderful on this film, and as a first-time filmmaker I don’t think I could be luckier than with the people I ended up working with.

Paste: It’s not all luck. The film actually feels big and like something that was made by an experienced filmmaker.
Strauch: Well, it’s also the nice thing about taking eight years to make it. I consider it my graduate school. I didn’t go to film school. You learn a lot actually making films and working with cinematographers who know more that you do. That’s one of the best things about having a budget is being able to learn from people who are more established than you.

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