There has been an enormous amount of industry press regarding the death of 27 year old Atlanta based Assistant Camera Technician Sarah Jones. Jones was killed in a train accident while working on the set of the feature film Midnight Rider. Directed by Randall Miller and starring William Hurt, Wyatt Russell and Eliza Dushku, the film was in production in Georgia, but has been suspended until further notice.
According to sources, the crew was setting up to film a dream sequence that involved placing a bed on a set of live railroad tracks. Jones was killed and several others injured when a locomotive came through, destroying the bed and sending debris flying about the area. As a result of this absolutely unnecessary situation, work ethic and safety discussions have popped up left and right. Both union crew and non-union freelancers are pissed off beyond all possible recognition. As they should be. If you didn’t think crew and producers got along before, the teetering relationship between these two sectors are worse than ever. As this incident could be the start of rules and regulations and incredibly strict laws that affect the Future of Film and the ability of future filmmakers to create their works, it’s time for me to chime in.
Midnight Rider is a biopic of musician Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers and the production, which is based out of Georgia, was comprised of both local and LA crew. There isn’t a lot of information at this point on the details of the situation ‘nor is it clear who is at fault, although there is a lot of rumor that the producer’s weren’t allowed on the tracks and were attempting to “steal a shot”. Unfortunately everything I’ve been able to find is hearsay, but I have no doubt the details will come out soon. I will go as far as to elaborate on what is known, if any of what most people are saying is indeed true, the future of guerrilla filmmaking is done, at least on this side of the pond and we’re likely looking at some tough reform regarding film permitting laws and even tougher punishments for filmmakers outside of the Hollywood system of filmmaking, whose productions might depend on risk to some degree.
It’s not just the chatter among professionals and freelancers either, journalists and long time, well respected professionals like cinematographer Haskell Wexler have gone public, dubbing the incident as “criminal negligence” and others like him are calling for reform. But reform of what and against who? No one, except for those directly involved, know anything and they’re not talking. I think it’s incredibly dangerous to hold the entire collective of the film industry and independent film producers accountable as if every person is part of a larger problem.
This specific case is so damned hideous and so phenomenally unnecessary, it absolutely needs to be handled at the individual level. The story is exacerbated by opportunistic, story hunting journalists like Sheelah Kolhatkar, who wrote of the incident in Bloomberg Businessweek, asking whether or not Jones’ death will be a “reckoning for filmmakers.” There is no one solution to take care of the lot of us who “steal shots”. So many of the great cinematic moments in Hollywood history were stolen shots, sure it didn’t involve the risking of the lives of cast or crew, but you can’t generalize. There is a difference between putting your crew on a live railroad trestle and planting a tripod at Rockefeller Center without permission.
The Director’s Guild of America (DGA) said in a statement about the situation, “In response to general inquiries about safety on set, it is important to understand that while addressing safety concerns is a collaborative effort, involving competent and qualified safety personnel, DGA members, and other crew members, those ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe set are the employers.” Additionally, the DGA’s sister organization, the DGC (Canadian jurisdiction), also chimed in saying, “This is a stark reminder that it is truly a false premise. There is no immunity. Instead, there is jeopardy, risk and the potential for lost lives.” Although there is always “potential” for lives being lost in any live location environment, there are options for producers to ensure the absolute most safe conditions possible.
In the grand scheme of filmmaking, regardless of your budget or other resources, heavy research and networking in appropriate sectors should always be done. Railroad shoots are not anything new and there are actually specialists who advise productions on how to pull off shooting on and near railroad tracks and in live rail cars. The most basic amount of industry wide reform would be to require the acquisition of these professionals before allowing cast and crew to go near such environments. That’s the most basic solution and makes the most sense.