Guardian of the Golden Gate
I was stood on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. It was dusk and I couldn’t quite believe I was actually here making a film about a remarkable man, on a subject that was uncomfortably close to home. For those who are unaware the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as being a tourist hot spot is the USA’s most popular location for taking ones own life. The immense height of the bridge means that only about 1% of those who leap survive.
The film I was about to make was the culmination of weeks work and meticulous planning. It formed one of the final tasks of Muse Film School 2017, a learning project I had been involved with for over 6 months. As a team of six we were each tasked to find a remarkable person within the San Francisco area.
Judgement day finally arrived as team San Francisco were to vote on the strongest story that would ultimately form the plot for our film. It was a little after midnight when I jumped onto the zoom call. I was incredibly nervous about the potential outcome of the teams decision as I had a hunch which way the vote would go. It wasn’t long before I faintly heard Patrick (MUSE creator) say “Ok Briggs gets it!” I was proven correct. A huge knot built up in my stomach and for the first time during Muse Film School, I doubted myself, I doubted whether I could continue being involved in this project!
Complex Mental Health
The character at the heart of our story had been chosen. Kevin Briggs was our man, a former Californian Highway Patrol Officer, who during his service was responsible for helping over 200 troubled souls from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge to their death. Now retired Kevin started Pivotal Points, an organisation set on helping those with mental health and crisis issues. The content of our chosen story was a little too close to home.
For several years I have suffered with complex mental health issues. Medicated and with a lot of love and support from my family, I’m able to live a fairly normal life, whatever normal is. In 2012 my mental state hit a crisis point and at the time I felt that I had no other choice than to take my own life. Thankfully my attempt was interrupted. The delivery driver who knocked on my studio door will never know how grateful I now am for his timing that day, as without that portrait delivery I simply wouldn’t be here now.
I remember the day I was due to fly to SF like it was this morning. I’ve never been keen on goodbyes so saying goodbye to Katie my wife, my two boys, Ollie & Fred really was tough. Mentally I was not in a good place and I really wasn’t relishing the thought of putting myself through this painful process.
Mental Health Management
I mange my mental health on a day to day basis in simple small steps. This was the process I adopted that morning, pack my bag, load the car, say goodbye, reach the airpot, park the car, get checked in and so on… I have this deal with myself that if I feel uneasy at anytime I have the freedom to bale out at any stage. Even after arriving at SF international airport I needed to go to the Virgin desk to ask about flights back to the UK over the next few days. This strategy calmed me somewhat and it’s one I have adopted a number of times.
Meeting up with the team and heading up to Sonoma, California to find our air B&B settled me a little and to be honest the working schedule over the next few days was so manic that I felt pretty strong and not at all vulnerable. Unbeknown to me though that the following day however was to be a monumental and one that was certainly going to have a big impact on my life. As we were a fresh team it was decided we would do a couple of team interviews to get us all galvanised and well drilled. Jay our director would be the interviewer and two members of the crew were selected to be interviewed. It was at this point everything changed for me as myself and Wendi our editor had been selected to be interviewed.
In order to tell the best possible story, whether it’s part of a film production or book, a huge amount of pre production has to take place. It really is the pillar to every stories success. Muse film school wanted us to experience this pre production process, so as a group we were encouraged to interview each other and really dig deep into our personalities and life experiences. To be honest this process made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and initially I was reluctant to allow anyone to delve within me. As a former Royal Marine I’d been programmed a certain way, or so I thought….
Wendi was the first to be interviewed, she was naturally very nervous as she sat in the hot seat and told her story about her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. Next up was me and that classic feeling of fight or flight was kicking in, at that point flight was definitely the strongest emotion. Suddenly I felt incredibly insecure, I wanted to be at home where I felt safe.
After what can only be described as an internal storm, I pulled myself together. Fuck it I thought! It was time to stop running away and stand and fight, time to take on this illness and not allow it to define who I was and what I wanted to be. It was time to open up, time to tell my story and perhaps tame one or two of my demons. Walking towards the interview chair felt a bit like how I would imagine a prisoner on death row felt. Sitting in the chair the first thing I noticed was how warm it was under the lights and how much the chair squeaked when I moved (made a mental note to myself to change the chair prior to Kevin’s interview). Two cameras were set to my left and Jay our director who was going to interview me was slightly hidden to my right next to the sets key light. The crew were all in place and were all incredibly silent, this added to my inner tension. This was it I was about to bare my soul, no turning back now, no running!
It’s Time to Talk
The interview literally went in a flash. Jay delved deep and I responded. Being asked searching questions gave me the opportunity to properly open up for the first time in my life. At the conclusion of the interview the team congratulated me whole heartedly and you know what, it felt amazing. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d heard it said a million times before, that the secret to helping depression and anxiety was to talk. Surely not, how could the simple act of talking free me from these spiralling thoughts? Well I had just experienced the benefits of talking, of letting go and sharing. What I have since learnt is that doing this once is relatively easy, opening up on a regular basis is a whole new ball game and one I’m still learning. Us men are deeply programmed and for me it is definitely a work in progress.
Talking Really Does Help
Filming of Kevin’s story progressed over the next 3 days and it was a wonderful experience of how to fuse storytelling and filmmaking together. The film was premiered in Portland in March 2018 along with four other films made by members of film school 2017. I even managed to take the stage at the premiere and shared my story about why I didn’t want to make this film.
Telling meaningful stories is something that I want to explore further. I’ve had a wonderful career as a wedding photographer, shooting in some of the worlds most amazing locations, now is a new chapter in my life. I will always be grateful to the Muse team for the wealth of storytelling knowledge I now have. The film of my story below is if nothing else raw and honest. If it can encourage one person to talk and not get themselves into such a dark place, then I guess it’s all been worth it.