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Interview: Eric Steel

Your eye immediately finds him among the passersby. Tall, saturnine, long raven hair fluttering in the breeze, the obligatory dark glasses and leather jacket. Contemplative, almost brooding, he resembles some troubled figure emerged from rock and roll mythology. Morrison just after he arrived in Paris. Leaning forward, he looks out over the water, just another tourist taking in the famous view. Until he climbs onto the railing, spreads his arms as if they were wings, and drops from the frame.

Your eye immediately finds him among the passersby. Tall, saturnine, long raven hair fluttering in the breeze, the obligatory dark glasses and leather jacket. Contemplative, almost brooding, he resembles some troubled figure emerged from rock and roll mythology. Morrison just after he arrived in Paris. Leaning forward, he looks out over the water, just another tourist taking in the famous view. Until he climbs onto the railing, spreads his arms as if they were wings, and drops from the frame.

For a moment you forget he can’t fly.

Every year, more people commit suicide on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world. In his thoughtful, provocative, ultimately enthralling documentary The Bridge, director Eric Steel (executive producer of Angela’s Ashes) explores the pain that compels people to embark on that final plunge. Steel and his crew spent an entire year watching the celebrated national landmark. During that time they recorded 24 suicides and one foiled attempt. He has skillfully intertwined that footage with interviews in which family and friends of the dead share their grief and bafflement. The result is a work as illuminating as a searchlight, a movie that reveals the nature of overwhelming despair while compelling us to examine our own attitudes towards existence. After attending a recent screening in New York, I asked the director what he had hoped to achieve when he set out to make the film.

Eric Steel

Richard Lally: I know the New Yorker article about jumpers inspired you to some degree, but what about the subject matter intrigued you most?
Eric Steel: I think I’d have to go back, although the article was certainly the catalyst. You know I watched the World Trade Centers drop from my windows. I was maybe a mile away and yet I was very aware of the people who were jumping out of the buildings rather than dying in the inferno. When I read the article about the suicides on the bridge, I felt there was a connection somehow, that these people were trying to jump from their own emotional inferno. So that was part of it. Also, I’ve not had an easy life. My brother died from cancer when he was young and my sister was killed by a drunk driver.

So I understood that dimension of loss and the despair that accompanies it. There have certainly been mornings when I woke up thinking things were so horrible and yet never so bad that I wanted to end my life. I guess I was wondering why I never felt that way and it seemed to me that if there was a line I wanted to know what was separating me and my despair and someone else with their pain who just couldn’t take it any longer. If there’s a personal question I wanted answered in the movie, that was it.

RL: Someone in your documentary observes that they have bad days as well, but she would wake up and the sun would be shining. For the people who jump, the sun never comes up and that was clearly something you wanted to examine, that distorted perspective…
ES: Absolutely and you know it’s funny, so many of the things that you or I think or talk about, manifested themselves for me at the bridge. The idea of the sun shining, for instance. The morning that Phillip Manikow jumped off the bridge wasn’t an absolutely clear day, but it was certainly sunny and there were a lot of people on the bridge. Phillip had a disposable camera with him which he left in his knapsack before he jumped. His parents gave us the pictures he took that day and all the photographs—you see them in the film—were gray, the sky, the water, the bridge. And even thought the bridge was fairly crowded that day, there wasn’t a single person in any of his pictures. Those photos showed me it doesn’t matter whether the sun comes out or not, it’s the way you perceive things. He saw the world as gray, bleak, and somehow his camera picked that up.

RL: Early on, I had to quickly go through my notes to make sure I wasn’t watching a reenactment of events, the way you knew how to focus on an individual was so keen and prescient. Your eye must have learned how to recognize some sort of tells. What made you linger on one person rather than another?
ES: I hear that a lot. “Where did you get those stunt men to do those jumps?” We had two digital video cameras and were looking through a very long telephoto lens, so what we saw was about the size of a packet of sugar. Your eye does, unconsciously at least, pick things up and maybe we even started picking up vibrations. Whenever we saw someone walking alone, we’d glance towards him or her and try to figure out what they were up to. Over time, I guess we started seeing better. I would also say that over time our eyes told us not to look so hard, you don’t want to see all this…

RL: What do you mean by that?
ES: I hadn’t really thought about this until I flew back from London this morning. With many of the jumpers, the splash afterwards is the only indication that someone has jumped. Most of the instances when we were able to capture someone in close-up occurred in the middle of the year, April and May through to September. And I think that by April our eyes were attuned and trained, and we knew what to look for but by the end of September we might have been suffering from sensory overload. I’m not sure but it makes some sense.

RL: You had a self-imposed standard, a boundary, that required you to call the bridge if you thought someone was going to jump. Where did you draw that line?
ES: We watched thousands of people walking across so we couldn’t call for everyone we saw walking alone, looking disturbed. So for us it was simple. If someone stepped up on the rail, we were calling the bridge and that applied even if they were stepping up to pose for a picture or just to show off for a friend. And if they started climbing over we were definitely on the phone. The only time we called sooner was for the woman who was eventually pulled up by the young man with the camera. We had seen her before. She had this routine, adjusting her hat and makeup before climbing over. We recognized that as soon as she started. and called.

RL: Were you able to call for each jumper?
ES: We weren’t always able to. Through the lens you could see about fifteen feet across from left to right at any given time and the bridge is two miles long. Sometimes we missed one and we called only after we noticed the splash in the water.

RL: I was fascinated by the young man who reached over to grab the young woman. He talked about a momentary detachment while he was peering through his camera. For an instant, she was nothing more than an image he was recording but then he realizes this is a human being about to die and he acts. Is he in any way voicing what you experienced watching these people jump?
ES: That’s probably why we included so much of him in the film. When you watch him, he looks at the back of the digital camera and looks at her, almost as if he had to believe what he was seeing, take another look at it in hard form before his mind responded. And there that same sense for us, a little bit, even though we were out there looking for this. I can tell you the first time I saw someone climb the railing, I couldn’t believe this person was going to jump. I thought, “There’s a man climbing.” But as soon as he was on the rail, I was on my cell calling the bridge. You see him in the film. He’s on his own cellphone talking and smiling one moment, not doing anything unusual. When he went to jump, I stood up and the camera tilted down so quickly that he fell through the frame.

RL: As they testified for the camera, many of the surviving friends and relatives of the jumpers unintentionally turned this into their story, describing how they were angry or hurt or feeling guilty over this act. It was as if the suicide’s decision to no longer face the pain of this life forced those left behind to confront the pain in theirs, to cope with emotions they might not have experienced that deeply before…
ES: That’s so much of what the story is about, the people left behind. The irony of the bridge is that when someone jumps, this ripple is left in the water and the boats go out and pull up the body if they find it and when they leave the bridge looks exactly as it did before. Traffic is moving, people are walking or jogging, the boats continue going underneath. But for family and friends that ripple never vanishes. Many of them are left stuck having to always play back portions of their lives in reverse, looking for those “what if” moments to find something they might have done to change the outcome. They have all these hard to manage emotions swirling—guilt, anger, despair, sadness, love—like some weird chemical reaction, one against the other all the time. And I think we gave many of them the opportunity to express these things for the first time.

RL: The Manikows seemed so well adjusted, especially the father, to having lost a son and yet I had the nagging sense that no one could be that well-adjusted, that they weren’t facing the loss square-on…
ES: I think you’re right about that. There is a calm on the surface and that’s their mechanism for coping. But in the meantime you see the little dog on the couch and the father starts talking about something. Then the dog bites his finger. What follows is playful but the man and the dog are practically wrestling. Everything above his hands is placid, but below it’s ferocious in a way. His emotions are so pent up. But the mechanism of coping requires that. Clearly they loved their son deeply, they’re angry at him for leaving, they’re sad over missing him. All these things at once.

RL: You were able to create more of a narrative spine for the documentary by continually returning to the dark figure of Gene on the bridge. You had him lurking in the back of our minds throughout…
ES: Yes the film was designed around the experience of watching Gene. The film is 93 minutes long and I filmed him on the bridge for exactly 93 minutes. He’s the first person you see on the bridge and the last person you see. I watched him and he did exactly what every tourist does. Started on the south side, beautiful sunny day, walked all the way across then came back, stopping to enjoy the view.

Then, when he reached the exact position where he had started, he turned around, sat on the rail and jumped. Not once during those 93 minutes until the very end when he put his foot on the railing, did he do anything to indicate he might go over. I was certainly anxious at times watching him but I never had any reason to call. He never crossed that line. Others who didn’t jump, whom we watched much longer, gave us much more anxiety. So it was designed to bear witness to those last 93 minutes as I had. The idea of bearing witness is central to whether the film works for you or doesn’t. In order to make people think about suicide I do believe you must be a witness to it. The act is so hidden, so removed into the shadows, we can pretend it really isn’t out there. But when it happens it broad daylight on a national monument, it forces you to confront it.

RL: How did recording these deaths alter you and your perspective of existence?
ES: I think mostly it made me realize that what we see or what we show people outwardly is often a complex disguise for what is happening inside. It was never the person on the bridge crying or pulling their hair who jumped off, it was the person laughing on their cell phone or jogging or riding their bike. It said to me that what we see and what we show people can easily be a well-crafted masquerade. It’s not enough to ask someone, “How are you?” You have to go much deeper.

I’ve always felt very connected to family and friends but this made me wonder whether I was connected enough. This movie is about connectedness and compassion as much as it’s about mental illness and suicide. The man who reaches over and grabs the woman was the only one who reacted that way the whole time we filmed. So for me the more disturbing images are the jumpers standing on the ledge and watching the people above them walking past or jogging by, ignoring what was happening practically right in front of them. They made me realize that we’re all capable of being more connected and observant and careful with the people around us.

The Bridge got an exclusive release on October 27th with a wider release to occur in the weeks to come.

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