© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Sunshine Superman': A Love Story Against The Backdrop of BASE Jumping

Jean and Carl Boenish in jump down a ledge towards camera.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Jean and Carl Boenish in jump down a ledge towards camera.

Two climbers died May 16 as they attempted a wing suit flight in Yosemite National Park. Dean Potter and Graham Hunt were BASE jumping, a sport that involves parachuting from a fixed structure.

The sport took off in the late 1970s, founded by Carl Boenish, who died during a jump in 1984. A new documentary, Sunshine Superman, tracks his journey from skydiver and aerial cinematographer to the father of a new extreme activity.

"Carl Boenish was really the popularizer of jumping off of things, and they realized that eventually they needed to have a word for it," says Marah Strauch, producer and director of the film. "They jumped off of cliffs, and then they thought 'well, what's next?' "

Jean and Carl Boenish standing on a ledge preparing to jump.
/ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Jean and Carl Boenish standing on a ledge preparing to jump.

Boenish eventually came up with four categories of things to jump off of and the acronym BASE — for buildings, antenna, span and earth.

Sunshine Superman examines Boenish's life, the love and adventure he found with his wife Jean, and the continued mystery surrounding his death more than 30 years ago.

Interview Highlights

On the start of the BASE jumping movement

It was an interesting time for skydiving, in that it was expensive, you had to go to the dropzone, there was a lot of things involved with actually making a skydive.

BASE jumping — there were cliffs that were high enough to jump off of, particularly in Yosemite's national park. So Carl was doing this hang gliding in Yosemite National Park and he realized that if he could jump a parachute out of an airplane, he could also jump a parachute off of a cliff. He also wanted to film it — and I think filmmaking was a big factor in why he did BASE jumping.

On his work filming BASE jumping
As a filmmaker I was just really inspired ... he made this amazing kind of ladder that stuck out from El Cap ... it's a big cliff in Yosemite and he made this amazing ladder that came out from the cliff. And, you know, he filmed jumpers jumping off.

Carl Boenish diving down into a cityscape. For him, filming the jumps was just as important as the activity.
/ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Carl Boenish diving down into a cityscape. For him, filming the jumps was just as important as the activity.

So a lot of the stuff he was doing, he was really thinking about how to film it, and really wanting to share it with a larger audience. So it's exciting — after, you know, all these years — to finally show Carl's work, because it wasn't really shown in any capacity before this film now.

On meeting his wife Jean and their love story
The first person I actually met who told me about Carl Boenish was Jean Boenish, and I met her when I was looking for BASE jumpers to film. I didn't know the story yet when I found her. And I walked into a studio that had everything that Carl did in his life — it has his moviola intact, it had all his films, it had everything that would have been there when he was alive.

Marah Strauch, director of <em>Sunshine Superman</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Vasco Nunes / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Marah Strauch, director of Sunshine Superman, a Magnolia Pictures release.

And then she started telling me about how they met, and I realized that, you know, the BASE jumping in the film is really important to me — but even more than that I think that this felt like a love story to me, and it felt like their love story, and really against the backdrop of BASE jumping. I mean, this was something that they were doing as an activity together, it was something that they were promoting together — you know, they had created a life around the activity of BASE jumping and filming. So to me that felt like the core — and the emotional core — of the story.

On Carl and Jean Boenish's successful record-breaking jumping in 1984
It was a big deal when they went to go do the Guinness Book of World Records jump in Norway. In 1984, they'd been BASE jumping for about four years, so they'd have time to had time to kind of build this activity and promote this activity.

On the jump the next day in Norway that ended his life
People always ask me what went wrong. I was not there; there were two rock climbers there and there was a police report. But you know, I think part of the film will always be a mystery....

Nobody can say what was going through his mind, but I think if it were me, you know, I'd be really elated from this Guinness Book of World Records jumps, and I would feel like anything was possible — and maybe to the point even where I wasn't checking myself and knowing my own limits.

I mean, I think this film is about not only being able to go beyond your limits, but also knowing your limits, and also understanding when a situation might be dangerous and might be beyond what's possible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 26, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly identify BASE jumper Graham Hunt as Graham Hunter.