It’s surprisingly rare for documentary filmmakers to take on suicide, depression and mental illness, which makes Eric Steel’s “The Bridge” notable right off the bat. Because the film focuses on the best known and most picturesque landmark in the world — the Golden Gate Bridge — it is even more alluring, and disturbing. And since it goes all the way, and shows people ending their lives, it is profoundly controversial. It is a remarkable project for any documentary filmmaker, especially a first-timer (with crew) filming the bridge for essentially every daylight moment of 2004. Steel’s career encompasses stints as a creative exec at Walt Disney Pictures, editor at Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins, and acquisitions and development exec at Scott Rudin Productions. Shortly after he started his own company in 2003, Steel came across a piece in the New Yorker by Tad Friend entitled “Jumpers: The Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge.” Almost immediately, he began work on “The Bridge.” The film had its local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring, and, with the film opening this Friday in the Bay Area, Steel returned to town a few weeks ago to talk about crossing lines that most filmmakers don’t approach. [Editor’s note: Critics from Reverse Shot at indieWIRE review the film in today’s issue.]
SF360: Documentary filmmakers have long debated whether the presence of a camera affects people’s behavior. How did you resolve that question for yourself?
Eric Steel: As a filmmaker I knew that I was going to bear witness to some pretty incredible things, and difficult things. I knew that I would be in a position where I would have to make choices between telling the total truth and trying to protect people who I thought couldn’t protect themselves. For me, the biggest risk has always been, and was even before we started, if word got out about what we were doing and what we were looking for. Someone who was mentally ill, someone who was in a very desperate situation, might think that this provided them the opportunity to be immortalized on film. There is such an enormous gap between making choices about truthfulness that don’t really hurt anybody and possibly acting as an agent of provocation for something that might end someone’s life. It’s actually an easy answer once you put it in that sort of context. I really didn’t have a problem not telling the Bridge District or the Park Service exactly what I was doing. At the same time I gave them enough information and our actions in the course of the year to show them what we were doing. And I think it also showed them that our interests always were to save people.
SF360: So how did you determine your responsibility while the cameras were rolling?
Steel: The question, I guess, is, ‘Do you film people jumping or do you stop filming and try to intervene?’ The question there was easy to answer, too. We were human beings first and we had to be able to live with what we did when we went to bed at night. So whenever we saw someone climb on the rail the first thing we did was call the Bridge District. Sometimes we were able to intervene and help save people’s lives, I think in six cases with six different people and one person more than once. And sometimes you just weren’t able to do that.
I’ve heard from other filmmakers that it would have been a completely reasonable thing to say, ‘I am a filmmaker, I live behind my lens, I don’t interfere with what happens before my lens, so I don’t have to call or do anything, I just have to record.’ I guess that would have been one answer, but we never really considered that. I remember on December 28 , right before we started, sitting in what at that point was an unfinished office, with a whole crew sitting on the floor and everyone came down in the same place. ‘We want to do what’s right as human beings first, and if we don’t get the footage we don’t get the footage.’ I never once said to anyone during the course of the year, ‘Oh my God, how could you miss that? Why didn’t you get that in close-up? How could you miss this?,’ because we were out there every single day. So when people raise the ethical thing as a concern or criticism of what I’ve done, it always takes me a little bit by surprise. It wasn’t an enterprise that we took on for the hell of it. My crew and I sat out there every single day in the worst weather conditions. We had to witness unbearably difficult things. We did it because we wanted to help save people’s lives. That is how we got through it. No counseling in the world can make you feel good about what you see. But knowing that you’re doing it for a good reason, that was the thing that made us stick together and get through all this.
SF360: I was not aware, as the press kit states, that the word got out during the course of the year.
Steel: The word got out after, when we’d finished filming at the bridge in January, 2005. At that point I wrote a letter to the Bridge District saying, ‘We have this footage, and we have hundreds of hours of interviews with the families, many of whom have cooperated in this project in order to find a way to stop the suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge and to understand suicide in a broader context.’ I asked the Bridge District if they would participate and they said no. But before they said no, they leaked my letter to the press. So the firestorm that began was meant to discredit me and the project. I don’t know any other reason why they would have done that.
SF360: How can you be confident that a film designed to reduce the number of people who commit suicide at from the bridge won’t have the opposite effect? Isn’t glamorizing the bridge as a suicide destination inevitable, and won’t the film encourage people to migrate here to jump?
Steel: Well, the bridge already has a copycat problem. Twenty four people, two dozen, take their lives there year after year after year after year. And that’s a significant number. The number may go up, it may down, I’m not sure that’s a result of the film or not. But the way to stop the problem is not to not show the film. The way to stop the problem is to put up a suicide barrier at the bridge. I think the Bridge [District] has managed to avoid doing that largely because written press doesn’t have the same power as visual, unedited, rough footage of people ending their life that can be played over and over and over again until something is done. It’s been easy for the Bridge [District] to wait out the bad press. They waited out the bad press when Tad Friend’s article came out and pretty soon people forgot about it and there wasn’t a big clamor for a barrier at the bridge. But when they heard that there was visual proof and video evidence and undisputed footage of people climbing over and ending their lives, I think they were terrified and mortally embarrassed, as they should have been. And they suddenly felt compelled to call meetings and undertake this study of a barrier issue. I still believe they are waiting for the storm to pass. And that in the period that this study takes to come to a conclusion about whether they can actually build a barrier, they are hoping that people will forget that there is this footage out there of people jumping off.
SF360: So in your view a barrier is the only solution. Do you think it’s inevitable?
Steel: I think the barrier is the solution at the bridge. I think 24 people take their lives on a two-mile stretch of road year after year after year. The people responsible for that road need to do something to make sure that 24 people don’t die next year. If every other week someone threw themselves in front of the cable cars they would stop running the cable cars until they figured out a way to stop this. But the Bridge District is a group of appointed officials who don’t feel this obligation. They really don’t seem to care. That being said, I’m fully aware that stopping someone from ending their life at the bridge is really an endgame move. It’s the very last second before someone ends their life. The movie shows that these people have been struggling for a very long period of time. They’ve left many clues, [and] intimated what their plans were to end their life. As a culture and a society, I think we should feel more responsible for what happens to people all through their lives. The Bridge [District] is really only responsible for what happens there, and they need to be responsible and put up a barrier. We need to be more responsible for strangers on the street, for people in our family. Some people you can’t ever save, but you have to be willing to reach over the ledge and grab them and try to pull them back. The most shocking footage isn’t the people jumping off the bridge. The most shocking footage is when someone climbs up onto the rail or the joggers jog by or the bike riders pedal by or people walk by and they turn around and look and they know exactly what they are seeing, and they keep going and do nothing.
SF360: Were there moments or sequences in the editing process that were particularly challenging for you, ethically? I’m thinking of how you presented Gene, a man we see on the bridge at different points in the film, and then at length near the end.
Steel: We probably could have made a more shocking film, I guess. We could have made one that had more dead bodies. Gene’s death, that was real time. I watched him for 90 minutes. The one scene that we took out of sequence was the scene of him sitting on the rail, which we put in the beginning in this sort of Hitchcockian way because that’s what created the suspense. The movie wasn’t meant to surprise you. You’re meant to be caught in this situation that we were caught in. You’re watching it for 90 minutes knowing pretty much that he’s going to get on the rail. We never slowed any footage down, we never sped anything up. We used dissolves occasionally; the man [who] climbs over who’s a crystal meth addict, he was on that rail for 40 minutes. But we showed you the phases of it. Other than that there really weren’t any tricky moments…. I think some of the urge to accuse me of tampering with ethical lines may have something to do with the fact that people are uncomfortable seeing suicides. We would really rather not see it, and yet we’re drawn to it because we know we need to see it. But rather than say, ‘Gee, we need to do more,’ the quicker response is to say, ‘Uh oh, this person violated something. He did something wrong. Otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing this.’ We didn’t do anything unethical to gather this footage. We sat there with our cameras for a year.
SF360: How have you changed in the course of making the film?
Steel: In the act of sitting and watching the bridge for an entire year, there are a great many days when nothing happens and you ask, ‘What did I do that for?’ It’s rare that you get so much time to think. I did come away feeling more connected to my life and to the people around me; certainly more connected to the people that I interviewed in this film. I feel like my family has grown and multiplied. I realize we’re capable of much more caring than we probably allow ourselves. The problem with caring for people is that it comes with the risk that you’ll be hurt. I think all of us have gone to great extremes to protect ourselves from that. The risk is that people suffer because they don’t care enough. I think for me there is something very rewarding about knowing that film has power. There is something in the images that film captures, and the truth that they show, that when you get down to it there is nothing like it in the world. It makes me proud to be a filmmaker.
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