Eric Steel is a Yale graduate who’s been active in publishing and producing for some 20 years now, but has only just made his own feature debut as director with “The Bridge.” Inspired by an article in The New Yorker (“Jumpers,” by Tad Friend), Steel set out to record the phenomenon of suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge, shooting it daily for an entire year. In an interview with The Japan Times, Steel discussed his reasons for making the film, and what he’s learned about suicidal impulses.
I heard the film was inspired by a magazine article you read, but was there anything else?
I was at my desk in New York when the World Trade Center was hit by the planes, not that far away, and I was very aware that certain people had chosen to jump from the inferno rather than die in it.
When I read that people were jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge with such regularity, I guess I somehow made a connection, that people who jumped off the bridge were trying to escape some kind of emotional inferno.
Did you have any personal experience of suicide?
I think, like most people, the idea had come in one ear and out the other, but never really found harbor there. I’ve gone through considerable tragedy in my life: my brother died, and my sister was killed in a very short period of time, so I think I understand despair.
There were moments where I’d wake up in the morning and wonder why I didn’t feel more suicidal.
I guess I never saw the people who we focus on in the film as being that emotionally different from me.
How long did you have the cameras trained on the bridge?
There were cameras running, every daylight minute, for an entire year. There were two sets of cameras, one on the north side and one on the south; each set had a camera set on a wide angle lens, to capture the widest shot of the bridge. Those are the shots where you see the small splashes under the bridge. And the second camera at each location had a very large telephoto lens on it, and that camera was manned all the time.
It must have been freaky watching people up there pacing back and forth, and wondering whether they were just pacing, or thinking of doing it . . .
Really, I can say this without hesitation there wasn’t a single day, not even a single shift, when the camera operator wasn’t concerned that he might be watching someone thinking of ending their lives. Luckily, most of the time, after a few minutes or a few hours, they either walked off the bridge, or met up with a friend, or maybe they changed their mind. But the intensity of working at the bridge really could knock you out. You’re trying to keep it together emotionally and get the footage, but also realizing that your first duty is to be a human being; if we could save someone’s life, that was more important than getting the shot. We had determined, before we started shooting, that the moment we saw someone step up on the rail, we were gonna call the authorities.
What’s your own personal opinion why the bridge attracts so many jumpers?
I think part of it is the beauty of the place, part of it is the fatality. It’s well-known that if you jump from that height, you’re gonna die. Part of it is the ease, climbing over that railing, it’s only as high as this table. Part of it is, once it starts, it just keeps growing.
And also you just disappear.
Yeah. And people choose this because, unlike almost all other means of suicide, this takes place in broad daylight in front of strangers. There’s something incredibly powerful about the idea of you stepping over onto the ledge, and some random person hauling you back. In a metaphorical way, you look into the abyss, and maybe get pulled back. It’s a way of testing your own desire.
The most common reaction among those who lost someone to the bridge, as displayed in your film, is incomprehension. Do you think it’s possible for any of us who aren’t in that mindset to ever really understand it?
You never know what people are feeling, even someone you’ve known your whole life, who’s mentally stable. We’re never going to know what someone else is feeling, or thinking. But it’s incumbent on us — on everyone — to go that extra distance, to look more closely, and listen more carefully, and maybe act more aggressively.
You know, so much of what we do is based on instinct and hunch and intuition. If you’re worried about someone, you’re worried for a reason, even if they go about their life as if nothing’s wrong. The strange part is, we’re conditioned to ignore that. We value independence, privacy — we’re afraid of intervening in other people’s lives. Much less when it’s a life or death issue, I guess. We have to get out of the mindset that everything looks the way we see it — it isn’t so. It looks the way every person uniquely sees it.