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.

 

Bibliography:  BusinessWeek.com | Slates for Sarah Jones | Indiewire | The Hollywood Reporter | The Guardian | Variety | Connect Savannah |

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Dan Kowalski March 14, 2014 at 2:32 am

    That's interesting that there is a company specializing in coordinating productions with railroads but what you really need is PERMISSION to shoot on railroad tracks and other dangerous places. When a production gets permission to shoot on railroad tracks someone from the railroad spends the entire day with the shoot and this person has a walkie talkie that communicates to dispatch. This persons knows when trains are coming and can also ask for permission to do stuff not originally agreed to.

    From what I read Midnight Rider's leadership team knowingly lead the production crew and actor into danger when they went onto a rail road bridge to steal a shot which also involved placing objects on live tracks. The crew went along with this because they assumed that the people they were working for were professionals. The director who lead the team, the AD who planned the logistics, and the producers who stood by (and also lied to the union that it was a camera test day so, probably, no reps would visit the set) are all liable for what happened.

    Overall I do not think this will change much because this was a violation of procedures and common sense. Yes, you can shoot scenes on public streets and in private buildings. Yes, you can still steal shots and get away with it and yes, your crew will most likely follow you as long as what you're doing is not over the top illegal (like breaking into a place to get a shot).

    There are regulations that you need to and should follow because of common sense. If you're shooting on a public street and fake guns are involved then you should alert the city and get permission. If you're placing a camera on a moving car then you probably should hire a police officer to be on the scene to make sure traffic is not live. I did a shoot once where a guy was shot on the street with a taser and we had to spend $1000 for a cop to be there.

    A good deal of indie filmmakers never worked on a film crew outside of film school so they don't have a full understanding of what a professional crew goes through and why there has been so much backlash. Basically it boils down to three things; some locations are dangerous, some job requirements are dangerous, and the work hours are incredibly long. You might be working on a movie that's shooting in the worst project in the city or you could be in a building that's being renovated with asbestos and rat shit everywhere. You could be asked to mount a light that's five feet off a building's roof rather than right on it because that's what the DP and director want. So now you need to build a rig, hang off a building, work with heavy stuff, make sure you don't fall to your death, and make sure you don't drop anything because then someone else might die. All because the angle of the light needs to change 5 degrees. And the hours are the worst out of any other job (although film crew is paid well for what they go through). I once worked on a Beyonce video that was a 22 hour day. i then had just enough time to go home, shower, and go to the next job without any sleep.

    Overall it's the nature of the business that drives all of this discontent. A piece of media is it's own individual thing. Owning a production company is completely different from owning a retail store where everyday is more or less the same. A film project is created either for hire or it's created with the intent of making money through theater sales, television, vod, etc. Every working day is different and at the end of the day the most important questions for the people in charge are; did we shoot our required scenes and did we shoot them the best way we could? This is a business where the quality of the individual project drives everything and the humans that work on them are means to an end. Professional crews know this. That's why overtime, doubletime, and prevailing meal penalties exist.

    So how will things get better? Filmmakers should stop cramming so much into a shoot day and they should manage the time on set better. I once worked on an indie film where the director did 20 takes for one set up on a dinner conversation and he never told the actors or crew why he wanted to go again. A film director should know what they want and be able to communicate it. Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest filmmakers ever with movies that were made 65 years ago that still feel fresh today. I read that 'Psycho' was shot on a shooting schedule that had 8 hour days.

  2. Nick Bandouveris March 14, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Insane. Preventable on nearly every level of production. However, you're 100% correct – never film on or near a train track unless the railroad company REPRESENTATIVE is there. Every crew member has the RIGHT to inquire about this!!!