ARUN RATH, HOST:
A disturbing tragedy in Yosemite Park this week - Dean Potter and Graham Hunt jumped to their deaths while attempting a wing-suit flight. That's one of the many varieties of BASE jumping. BASE jumping took off in the 1970s, thanks in large part to the evangelizing of a man named Carl Boenish.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUNSHINE SUPERMAN")
CARL BOENISH: There are many man-made laws that aren't laws at all that need to be broken. One is the belief that it's impossible to jump off a cliff.
RATH: A new documentary, "Sunshine Superman," tells the story of the man and the movement. Marah Strauch produced and directed the film.
MARAH STRAUCH: Carl Boenish was really the popularizer of jumping off of things. And they realize that eventually, they needed to have a word for it. So they jumped in Yosemite. They jumped off of cliffs. And then they thought, well, what's next?
RATH: Carl Boenish eventually came up with four categories of things to jump off of and the acronym BASE, for buildings, antenna, span - as in a tall bridge - and earth, as in the mountains in Yosemite.
STRAUCH: If you jump off of these four objects, then you have a BASE number, and it's an exciting lineage that people get really excited to be part of.
RATH: Boenish started off as a skydiver and aerial cinematographer, but he eventually decided that instead of jumping out of planes, he'd rather jump off things.
STRAUCH: It was an interesting time for skydiving in that it was expensive. You had to go to the drop zone. 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.
RATH: And the film, it's - one of the great things about this is that there's so much fantastic footage of all these places that he went and the jumps, like, from the helmet cameras and all sorts of other directions.
STRAUCH: Yes. And as a filmmaker, I was just really inspired to see - you know, like, he made this amazing kind of ladder that stuck out from El Cap. and, you know...
RATH: This in Yosemite - El Capitan - the big cliff there.
STRAUCH: Yes. 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. 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.
RATH: One of the lovely turns in the story is that this guy, Carl Boenish, who was kind of the quintessential sort of loaner, nerdy guy - and he meets his soul mate. Can you tell us about his wife, Jean, and the kind of window that she gave you into this guy?
STRAUCH: Well, 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 had his Moviola intact. It had all his films. It had everything that would've been there when he was alive. 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 is something that they were doing as an activity together, that 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 this story.
RATH: And it leads to this moment, just, really, I guess, the pinnacle of his life, where he has a national - international television audience for his biggest jump.
STRAUCH: Yes. It was a big deal when they went to go and do the "Guinness Book Of World Record" jump in Norway. In 1984, they'd been BASE jumping for about four years, so they'd had time to kind of build this activity and promote this activity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOENISH: It was exciting. Wow. Wow. That's a jump of a lifetime.
RATH: So he successfully does this jump for this "Guinness Book Of World Records," and then the next day - right - is the jump where he actually dies.
STRAUCH: Not to give a spoiler because, you know, somewhere within there, something goes wrong. And 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.
RATH: But there are things that are strange about it 'cause he'd always been someone, it seems from the film, who was very concerned with safety, and there are peculiarities about this. Again, nobody can really say what was going through his mind, but...
STRAUCH: 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 Record" jump, 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.
RATH: Marah Strauch is the writer, director and producer of "Sunshine Superman." Pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.
STRAUCH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.