The Bridge: Eric Steel

The Bridge
"I had bought $100,000 worth of camera equipment and sound equipment, packed up all my things. I flew here to San Francisco. I applied for permits and set up my cameras," says Eric Steel in the documentary The Bridge. "They seemed like obvious candidates to film: people who were walking alone, that made them someone to pay attention to."

"I saw this gentleman on the railings, and then he just kind of held his arms out and disappeared. I thought to myself, wow, I might be one of the last people to ever see this person alive," says a woman interviewed in The Bridge. "When I talked to the highway patrolman, I said, ‘Is this a rare occurrence, or does this happen often?' He looked at me and kind of smiled and just said, ‘It happens all the time.'"

Another woman shares the story of a friend who told her he was thinking about killing himself. "He wanted to come over and spend some time and just didn't want to go home yet, but I just wanted to be by myself," she recalls. "I said, ‘No, you can't, but if you feel really desperate, you call me. I'll drop anything.' I didn't hear from him, actually, ever again."

[AD]"I watched a lot of people. Not a day went by, really, that I didn't have some hair-raising moment when I thought, maybe this person is getting ready to jump," Eric remembers. 

"I don't know why people kill themselves," a woman ponders. "And yet, it's a small step to empathize, because I think we all experience moments of despair, that it would just be so much easier not to do this anymore. But for most of us, the sun comes out, and then, oh well, tomorrow is another day."

In his studio, Dr. Phil says to Eric, "It's been said that it ‘could be the most morally loathsome film ever made.'"

 

"It's none of those things," Eric says. "I tried to make a film that was very sensitive. It was very honest; that took something that happened in broad daylight at a national monument. People were walking out onto the Golden Gate Bridge with great regularity in front of strangers, in front of tourists and ending their own life. What I wanted to do is show that to people."

 

[AD]Dr. Phil notes that there are also advocates of the film who say it started a necessary dialogue about suicide.

 

"The goal of the film was to try to spark some sort of new conversation about suicide, about mental illness, about suicide prevention, about understanding that every life has value, that every single time someone takes their own life, the effect of that ripples on in other people's lives forever and ever," Eric says.

 

"How did you get the permits to film this?" Dr. Phil asks Eric.

Eric explains that he set up the cameras on park land adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge and applied for permits through the Golden Gate Park Service. "I just had to send in a letter saying what I was intending to do during the year," the filmmaker says. "I said that I was making a video film about the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn't explain to them that I was making a film about suicide, but I did explain to them that we were having camera crews filming the bridge every daylight minute for an entire year."

"Did you mislead them about what you were doing?" Dr. Phil asks.

"You have to understand that when you make a documentary, you have to make a series of choices," he says. "My biggest fear, really, was if we set up cameras and people knew that we were out there filming and trying to capture people ending their life, that someone who wasn't thinking clearly or someone who was unwell would see this as an opportunity to end their life and be immortalized on film, and that was my gravest concern as a filmmaker and as a person, and I sort of had to skirt around that as best as I can."

 

[AD]"Some critics have said that y'all let people die so you could get the footage," Dr. Phil says.

"That's not true," Eric replies. "As soon as we saw anybody make a move, put their foot up on the rail, take their wallet out of their pants and put it on the floor, untie their shoes " signs that we knew were sort of the precursor to a fatal jump " we made a phone call to the bridge district."