The Making of the Documentary

Sometimes the story behind the story is also interesting and such is the case with how “Before They Fall Off The Cliff” was made. People often ask me why I chose schizophrenia as a documentary topic. My response is that the story chose me. In the aftermath of the McBride murders, my co-anchor Jennifer Blome had interviewed Mark McBride at length for a public affairs show and became friendly with him. Jennifer could easily relate to the McBride’s story because she has a sibling with serious mental illness. Mark told Jennifer of his desire to produce a documentary to raise awareness and help other families dealing with mental illness. Jennifer knew one of my professional goals was to produce a documentary and told Mark. That’s how we began our partnership in the summer of 1997.

I was familiar with the story because it got extensive news coverage in 1994. I knew the basics of the story were compelling: an affluent suburban family struggles with their youngest son who has a serious mental illness. On the worst day of his life, Matt McBride killed the two people who loved him the most because of paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that isn’t fully understood by mental health professionals, much less the general public. I knew Mark McBride had built some valuable contacts statewide in the mental health community. If we could get inside Fulton State Hospital and spend significant time with Matt, I felt we could tell a remarkable story. Fortunately, Mark had the foresight to hire a videographer to shoot his parents’ funeral. One of the most amazing images of the documentary is that of fourteen hundred motorcyclists in the funeral procession, a testament to James McBride’s love of Harley Davidson motorcycles and the many Harley riders who had become friends.

What I didn’t realize in the beginning was the fragile nature of Mark’s marriage… Mark abandoned the documentary for nearly a year as he tried to save his family. I figured the project was dead until Mark called me at work one morning. I listened for about 45 minutes as Mark tearfully said he had to continue this documentary to make sense of what happened to his family. Eventually Mark divorced during production of “Before They Fall Off The Cliff”.

The majority of the documentary was shot with Canon XL1 mini-DV cameras. In fact, purchasing my XL1 was a major turning point in producing the documentary. It gave me control over shooting interviews and footage. Initial footage for the documentary was shot on beta videotape by Chuck LeRoi, a former KSDK colleague. However, Chuck is in great demand and it simply wasn’t feasible to work around his schedule which took him all over the country and sometimes outside the U.S. Nevertheless, Chuck’s early support was key in getting our first documentary footage at the Fulton State Hospital.

The participation of my KSDK colleague Jon King has also been critical. I’ve known Jon and collaborated on a variety of stories since 1980 when he joined KSDK. Jon edits most of the special projects at KSDK and is highly respected by reporters and videographers for taking their work to another level of excellence. I enlisted Jon to edit some early documentary video in hopes of attracting funding. The money didn’t materialize, but Jon’s interest in the project grew to the point that he made a significant financial investment in a Mac G4 computer, Final Cut Pro editing software and a Canon XL1. Jon became our third partner and all the pieces were in place to produce a first class documentary.

A key reason this documentary was completed is the cooperation of the Missouri Department of Mental Health and Fulton State Hospital. Dr. Roy Wilson, former head of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, gave his full support to this project, authorizing unprecedented access for my documentary crew to videotape at the Fulton State Hospital. Thanks also go to Dr. Felix Vincenz, head of the Fulton State Hospital, for trusting us. During a two day visit in April 2001, documentary cameras captured a key moment in Matt’s recovery: after seven years in maximum security, Matt was transferred to medium security. Although Matt was shackled and handcuffed during the transfer, he smiled and cracked jokes because he knew he was moving to a less restrictive environment and the transfer was a symbol of his improving mental state. At one point while Matt was receiving a tour of his new living environment, Matt innocently marveled at a red squirrel; he rarely went outside during his seven years in maximum security and hadn’t seen a squirrel in years.

During that two day visit, we also videotaped Matt interacting with other hospital clients, performing his job assembling paint masks, participating in his ward government and playing drums and bass guitar in a band that is part of his therapy. In another visit, we were allowed to videotape Matt’s ninety day treatment meeting where hospital staff members gather to discuss Matt’s treatment plan. That plan includes Matt’s medication, his hygiene, his weight control and diet, his job performance and his interaction with staff and other patients.

Another important supporter and participant in the documentary is author Wally Lamb. Lamb’s number one best-selling novel I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, an Oprah Book Club selection, has striking similarities to the McBride story. After reading the book I contacted Mr. Lamb who agreed to let me use several brief passages in the documentary. In Lamb’s novel, a man sacrifices his personal life to care for his twin brother who has paranoid schizophrenia. The brother with mental illness believed he could prevent the Gulf War by cutting off his hand, similar to Matt McBride’s belief he could prevent World War III by killing his parents. In the novel Lamb wrote: And the thing is he meant well. He wanted to stop a war from happening. How can someone cause so much pain when all he wants to do is help out the world? Like the fictional Birdsey brothers, the McBride siblings have a complicated, touching and painful relationship which provides the heart of this documentary about love, forgiveness and the ripple effect of severe mental illness.

One of the goals of this project was to produce a companion website. I approached Joe Gray of  Gray Communications and Marketing, Inc. about what I had in mind for the website. During a meeting with Joe’s staff, he interrupted me, apologized and explained that he had a brother with schizophrenia. It was a pretty amazing coincidence. I wound up videotaping Joe and two other people about their experiences of having a close family member with schizophrenia.