A TV reporter looks to explain a surprising tragedy on a female filmmaker’s movie shoot. 2,184 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The plane was taxiing to the gate at LAX when the text came in, instructing me to turn around. No time even to run home, shower, and change. I caught the next flight back to Albuquerque where I met the crew, a local camera guy Juan, and his soundman Pete, the same two I’d used the day before. Their minivan was still packed with gear, so I sent them ahead and re-rented the dusty Grand Cherokee that I had turned in only a few hours earlier. There was some nervous talk from the news desk about efforting a live shot in time for the New York feed. But that plan went away after I explained it was at least a two-hour drive to Taos, and another fifteen minutes to the bridge. We’d be lucky to roll on anything before losing the light.
When I had first arrived at the location the day before, the film company was shooting their final scenes. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the fifth highest in the U.S., a graceful configuration of inverted steel arches that towers hundreds of feet over desert scrub and sinister black basalt. The view extends to infinity across an immense crack in the earth’s crust, where vast open sky collides with flat scarred rock. You stand suspended on this desolate patch of two-lane highway and it feels like you’re floating over the edge of an abyss. It’s no accident the apocalyptic sight lines have graced wide-screen epics like Natural Born Killers and Terminator Salvation.
But the atmosphere on the set that day was relaxed. The light was bright and flat, the air crystalline. The road was closed to traffic and a few dozen cast and crew were going about their business, pleased to see us. There was one page in the script left to shoot. It was some walk and talk with the leads. Easy stuff. No action. Nothing too dramatic. All the heavy lifting had been done after eight weeks on location. It felt like a going away party, good vibes and plenty of practical jokes to go around. Lots of backslapping and “see you on the next one.”
They were shooting a film called Angle Of Attack, yet another dystopian sci-fi thriller about robots from the future. When I asked for a little more detail, the unit publicist gave me the usual runaround. Typical for mega-budget summer tentpoles, the script was a closely guarded secret. Still, the occasional crewmember can’t resist talking to the guy they see every night on TV. So, with the help of a chatty assistant costumer behind the wardrobe trailer, I was able to piece together the plot. It had something to do with AI turning sinister when global computer networks recruit a non carbon-based extraterrestrial intelligence from a parallel universe in 2058 to enslave mankind.
I know. Droids and time-travel. And here we are on the bridge again. But the alien connection was the twist.
The 43-year-old director and writer, Susana McBride, was a two-time Golden Globe winner with a wildly popular Netflix series under her belt. She had brought the movie in on time and on budget. From what I could tell, everyone was happy. The actors and the crew felt like they had a hit. Based on a quick assemblage of dailies, the studio was already touting a sequel. I had it all on camera in my sit-down interviews and even some spirited set interaction between takes with the stars. My producers love that. Can’t get enough.
A day later, as I stood on the bridge, it was empty of all the previous bustle and commotion. Susana, or what might be described more accurately as an unrecognizable bundle of rags, was lying face down in a basket being hauled up the side of the gorge on pulleys and ropes by volunteer firefighters.
At daybreak, some hikers had seen her jump. She tumbled six hundred feet before hitting the boulders in the river rapids that run directly below the bridge.
Why? What had gone wrong? That’s what I needed to find out.
Overnight, all my well-intentioned questions about the movie had become irrelevant. Would anything I had shot the day before shed light on it? How much of it would even make air?
Pete handed me a set of headphones and played back the video on Juan’s monitor so I could see if there was anything salvageable, like a soundbite from Susana that may have foreshadowed her tragedy. I scanned my interview with the leading man, a former MLB pitcher turned movie star. He kept droning on about the so-called documentary realism of the picture and the dialogue.
“What we’re doing here is like cinema verite,” he said. “Groundbreaking stuff.”
But as I sifted through this and the sit-downs with the other actors, my eye settled on a little off-the-cuff business. Juan happened to catch it on his own while roaming the set between takes.
Susana, a tall stoop-shouldered woman with dark hair spilling out from under a Red Sox cap, is standing by herself at the far end of the bridge, staring off into space. When she feels the heat of Juan’s lens zooming in on her, she turns and smiles, embarrassed at being caught alone with her thoughts. It sounds like someone way off camera is shouting at her, words that seem like a wisecrack, but maybe a warning to move back from the railing.
“Don’t stay there.”
“I know,” she says shaking her head. “It’s a dark place.” And nervously laughs it off before rushing back to the set.
It was mostly ambient sound, low and muffled by gusts of wind slapping against Juan’s un-baffled camera mike. Too hard to make out clearly, so I’d probably have to dump the audio. It was that noisy. But even if I could enhance it, how to make sense of what she said about the dark place? Could I really claim she was thinking about jumping? Or was she just kidding around?
In retrospect, the shot of Susana staring over the railing conveyed a sense of foreboding. But that’s about all you could really claim. I replayed it several times, trying to read it for clues to her state of mind.
Here’s a successful woman in her prime, in full career. She’s doing what she loves. She doesn’t seem in any way depressed. Happily married to a star litigator at O’Melveny & Meyers and parent to twin boys at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Susana had regularly turned up on Top Ten lists of the most influential women in Hollywood. She was acclaimed in EW and Vanity Fair and on shows like The Talk and Ellen as a role model, the quintessential industry professional who artfully manages to navigate the cutthroat waters of a high-energy business with the demands of modern-day motherhood.
Angle Of Attack was to be her second feature. And a complete departure from her first film, a gentle art-house drama set in Maui about a lonely isolated single mom with unrequited longings for her daughter’s teenage nanny. But scripting and directing an effects-laden feature for the big screen and on this scale was a whole new rodeo.
For me, it was time to dust off my news hat again because the story had taken a tragic turn and I was no longer reporting entertainment. I’d need to fill it out with the predictable elements of every small market story I’d done on the way up. Talk to the cops, the coroner, round up reaction from friends and co-workers, neighbors, witnesses. I was back to doing the old legwork and running on deadline. If it bleeds it leads. Only, in this case, I was stuck on a bridge in the middle of nowhere with no one from the movie to feed the howling lampreys back at my shop.
The producers and talent had left town the night before on the studio jet. By now, everyone else connected with the film was checking out of their hotels and heading to L.A. So, I settled on the only crewmember still on site, a young guy with the kind of Rasta dreads and baked complexion you might mistake for a surfer if we weren’t a thousand miles from the beach. This was Larkin, the location manager, tasked with tidying up loose ends before wrapping the location. When I walked over to him with Juan and Pete rolling on the fly, Larkin was busy checking the work of some local laborers. They were repainting a section of bridge that the set decorators had changed for the film. He didn’t want to be bothered. But I pleaded with him to talk to us.
“She was a dedicated professional,” he said. “Well liked by everyone on the picture. She had everything to live for.”
I motioned for Juan to cut. He walked back to the van to change batteries.
“Off the record,” I said to Larkin. “Was she sick? Maybe a drug problem?”
He glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. “Oh, you want the story behind the story?”
Here it was. The dirt. I could feel the truth emerging.
“She was a dedicated professional. Well liked by everyone on the picture. She had everything to live for.”
The rescue trucks had attracted gawkers. One of them claimed he had seen someone on the bridge with Susana when she jumped, but it turned out to be bogus. I interviewed the usual police and fire talking heads. The PIO told me they get several jumpers a year, more than a hundred since the bridge was built in 1965. It’s a magnet and they’re wearied of it. I ducked into the bathroom at the visitor station, removed my sunglasses, patted my face dry, and touched up with a little pancake. I stepped outside and Pete was ready with a radio mike that he pinned to my lapel.
We did two stand-ups. The first was a wide shot of me walking directly at camera and setting the scene. The second was a close-up at the railing. I pointed to the spot were Susana had leaped from the bridge. Taking a moment to look away and then back into the lens, I asked the viewers to imagine what might have been going through her head when she peered down at the river and made the decision to jump.
Funny thing. When I stole that glance over the side of the bridge, it was like looking into a long black tunnel. And something inside me broke loose. I’m not saying it’s unlike the feeling people talk about, that insidious impulse to yank the steering wheel over on a twisty mountain road, or jump from a high building, some yearning for ultimate freedom. But I’m also saying it was different.
A whole tide of dissatisfaction welled up. Pain mixed with regret. I felt angry, irritable. Pissed that I’d caught this story. And where I’d gone with my career. At 50, I’m a shill for the Hollywood publicity machine, still chasing planes and sucking up to celebrities. I know the producers are shopping around for someone younger to replace me. All I really care about is being on TV and making enough to keep up with the alimony and feed my two spoiled kids. My lawyer can’t get me out of a simple DWI. The diverticulitis is killing my appetite. My 401(k) has never recovered from the crash. The scratches on my Porsche keep reappearing where the body shop buffed them out.
It was getting towards dusk as I sat down in the back of the minivan to write and track the story. A satellite truck from the local ABC affiliate was standing by in Santa Fe to feed the package. At the top of the hour, our show would lead with breaking news. The story would go out in primetime to millions of homes, coast to coast.
I was right behind the crew on U.S. Route 64, with the full glare of the falling sun in my rearview mirror, when I felt around for my shades and realized I’d left them at the visitor station. At the three-way signal I pulled a U. On the way back to the bridge I had to dodge birds that kept diving at the windshield of the Jeep. I thought about Susana, the suicide birds, and the rabbits that play chicken with your car’s headlights at night by dashing across the pavement at the last possible second. Why does nature turn on itself?
I’m alone at the bridge now. I jot it all down here to help sort things out. Just notes, not intended for anyone else. Is the dark place inside me, or somewhere out there? I need to see it again to know for sure. If for some reason I go from bad to worse, maybe when you find this, you’ll understand something I don’t. That railing is in the way. It’s blocking my view. I could climb over the side for a better look.
But that can wait. A text is coming in.