Remembering Sarah Jones: A Look at Safety on Film Sets

The Following is an essay written for my English 3080 Class. 

            While the tragedies of the past have helped make work safer and compensation pay easier to get, workplace injuries are still a huge problem in the United States. In 2012 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 4,383 people died from work related injuries, and a study published my the University of California estimated that 53,000 died in 2007 from work related long term diseases, such as cancer (COSH 6). Being injured or killed while at work is still a large problem, a problem that has been recently shoved into the spotlight by Georgia’s growing film industry. On February 20th, 2014 a tragic accident took place in Savannah, Georgia during the filming of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. While shooting a dream sequence on a bridge, the crew was caught off guard by an oncoming train, and was forced to run towards the rampaging train in order to avoid being crushed by it. This accident was a totally avoidable one, born out of the producers and director of the film cutting corners in order to accommodate a small budget. Safety rules and regulations were ignored, and a young woman died because of it. This incident brings an important topic to light. While it is great that Georgia has become such a hub for film production, the state and its people are still new to the industry. Many of the people working on these small productions such as Midnight Rider are young people native to Georgia. They have not been trained and experienced safety training that is standard in California. The regulations are all there and available online, but they can only be affective when they are properly utilized by those overseeing the production. When they are not, people get hurt or even die, as in this case. Gorilla filmmaking is a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially by Midnight Rider’s director Randall Miller, but in reality all this really boils down to is ignoring the rules designed to keep people safe. In order for us to make sure that a tragedy like this never happens again, we must change the culture of “anything for the shot,” where people’s lives and safety are begin regarded as less important than getting the shot, make it so that crew feel comfortable enough on set to say that something is unsafe, and to properly implement and enforce the already existing safety regulations. There is no reason that this incident should have happened. It was completely avoidable.

Sarah Jones was working as a second camera assistant (hereafter referred to as 2nd AC) on the production of Midnight Rider when the unthinkable happened; an unexpected train was bolting towards her. The crew had been preparing to shoot a dream scene, and the shot required the cameraman to lie down on their back on a narrow bridge. In order to get this shot, the crew placed a twin sized metal frame and mattress down on the bridge. Sarah was doing camera tests when the train came hurdling towards her and her fellow crewmembers. Joyce Gilliard, the set’s hairstylist, was also on the tracks with Sarah when the train came barring down on them. When the train was noticed, they began quickly trying to get both the camera equipment and themselves to safety. However, the crew feared that the metal bed frame and mattress might cause a derailment if the train were to hit it head on, so they tried to move it out of the way. This proved to be the deciding factor. They quickly decided that it was too much and that they would have to leave the mattress if they hoped to survive, and so they did. The mattress was left, and Sarah and Gilliard ran towards the oncoming train. Neither of them made it to their intended destination, to the safety of the river’s bank. Instead, they hugged the edges of the bridge, hoping the train would pass by them and they would be left unharmed. When the train passed the sheer force cause Gilliard’s arm to fly loose from its grip on the rail and to be sucked into the train. Luckily for her, it only broke the arm instead of ripping it off completely. Sarah Jones was not so lucky. When the train hit the metal frame of the bed the debris hit Sarah, pulling her into the train. She was killed immediately.

How could this happen? Who is responsible? The short answer is the producers and the director of the film. Those in charge of the production, the producers and the director of the film, deliberately chose to cut corners in order to work around a low budget, and deliberately put their crew’s life in danger. Sarah Jones died as a direct result of their negligence. Randall Miller is the director of the film, and he is well known in Georgia for what he calls ‘guerrilla filmmaking.’ What he means by this term is that he cuts corners. He chooses to ignore the rules that are put into place to protect the safety of the crew, and to prevent accidents. He did not get a permit to shoot on the tracks that day as is standard, he did not have a representative from the railroad company on set with him as is standard, the crew did not receive a standard safety briefing, and there was no medic on set as is standard. He justifies this by spouting his role as an indie filmmaker. He can’t afford to follow all the rules, because he’s not a big studio. In one of the DVD extras of one of his films title ‘CBGB,’ he mentions that during a scene where a young boy is walking through a field while cows run around him. In the clip Miller says “…And these are cows. Those are actually cows running through a field…I don’t think it’s dangerous at all to have a little kid running with cows…” (Logana). On several other occasions he has left a shooting location in disarray, causing thousands in property damage. Miller and his team cut corners, and because of that a young woman died.

The longer, more complicated answer is the Georgia film industry. This type of tragedy happened because the producers refused to follow the regulations, but at the same time the type of mindset that Randal Miller proudly totes as ‘guerrilla filmmaking’ is a real problem in the culture of the Georgia filmmaking community. There has long been a mindset that ‘getting the shot’ is the most important thing, and that putting the crew or the extras in danger is acceptable. This type of thinking has lead to injuries and deaths, and is most prominent in the indie filmmaking community. While Miller takes it to such an extreme that he endangers everyone around him, and no one should work with him, I understand what he means. Being an independent filmmaker means you can’t do everything that a big budget studio would be able to do, and sometimes to get the shot you want you have to bend the rules of what is allowed. I’ve been on sets where the crew has been put in danger in order to get a shot. Of course on the sets I’ve been on the danger was something along the lines of sitting out the window of a moving car to get a shot. It was a dangerous situation, yes, but not exactly the same as shooting on a live railroad. This is the kind of thing that must be stopped. While it may seem harmless at the time, the very mindset that this is acceptable as long as it leads to results is what leads to tragedies like the Midnight Rider incident. The only way to stop people form being hurt, is to stop the mindset of ‘anything to get the shot.’

Hollywood has already gone through this process, and has since set up a series of rigorous system of rules and regulations to prevent such accidents. These rules can about after three extras died while working on the set of Noah’s Ark in 1928. Hal Mohr, the cinematographer of the film, protested shooting a scene showing the flooding of the world that required 15,000 tons of water being released on hundreds of extras. The studio refused to listen to him, and so he walked away from the production and they carried on without him, and three extras drowned. After this incident the industry implemented their first set of stunt safety regulations, and more and more regulations were to come after that (Busch). Georgia is new to the world of film production, and the vast majority of the productions going on here are Hollywood productions, come to Georgia to take advantage of the lucrative tax incentives that provide up to 30% of the productions expenditures in transferable tax credits (Production Incentives). The smaller, indie productions are by and large not following the same rules as the large productions, because they either feel like they don’t need to or just aren’t familiar with them.

There are situations in which the crew is placed that can be unsafe, and it is the duty of the crew to speak up and let the director know that it is unsafe. They must feel comfortable enough to do this, because when no one speaks up accidents happen. Just like on the set of Midnight Rider, the crew felt unsafe but no one spoke up, and the production moved onto the bridge, where Sarah met an unfortunate fate. This accident could have been avoided if the crew had refused to work in the parameters given by the director. Frankly, the Midnight Rider crew should have refused to work in those conditions. However people who speak up are sometimes deemed ‘hard to work with’ and have a hard time finding work afterwards or are fired. We cannot let this happen. Brianne Brozey was an assistant location manager who was injured on set in March 2011 when a large metal light stand fell and struck her in the back of the neck.

““I’m speaking up because in the past when I did speak out, I got yelled at by different departments saying this is not your job, stay out of this. My philosophy is ifI’m watching a set, I care about the people first and foremost. And how you enter is a set is how I want you to leave a set…” (Busch).It is important that crew feel that they can speak up when something is unsafe. It is one of the best ways that we can prevent future on set accidents.”

As Gilliard said in her interview with Hilary Lewis for The Hollywood Reporter, Randall Miller told the crew that they were only expecting two trains, and that the tracks should be clear for them to use now. However, if a train were to show up on the tracks, the crew would have sixty seconds (one minute) to get off the tracks. Gilliard mentions in her interview:

““Everybody on the crew was tripping over that…A minute? Are you serious?” By now, she and two other crewmembers were nervous enough that before shooting, they gathered in an informal prayer circle. “Lord, please protect us on these tracks,” murmured Gilliard. “Surround us with your angels and help us, Lord.””

An on set workday usually last twelve hours, and that is from the scheduled call time to the wrap time. Deepening on your role in the production you could be working much longer than that, something Gilliard touch upon during her interview.

“People don’t realize that we as crew members, we work at least 15-hour days, we work super-long hours, we work in dangerous conditions…“I’m hoping that after all of this, the people who are in charge let people be aware of what the potential dangers are and try to take necessary steps to minimize the risk of tragedies like what happened to Sarah Jones.”

If someone is not in the film industry, they are not likely to know an awful lot about it. This may be somewhat intentional by the industry, as it helps keep the idea of ‘movie magic’ alive. However, it also helps keep the world blind to mistreatment or workers except when something earth shaking like the death of Sarah Jones happens. “With time going on and hearing about the next injury and the next death and nothing changing. How about we all figure out how to make it not happen again? I mean, why not have them more than once a day as things change throughout the day’s shoot? I matter. We all matter” (Brozey).

Currently, Sarah’s death is under investigation and is being treated as a negligent homicide, but it could be months or years before charges are filed or a court date is set. After the accident, Miller called to alert Jones’ parents about the accident, and apologized profusely for what happened to her, but since then they have not had any word from the director or any of the film’s producers. For a short time the production of Midnight Rider was suspended, but the producers of the film have since moved the film’s production to California, where Randall Miller will continue directing. While Randall Miller and the others responsible have not yet had any charges brought against them, it is almost certain some sort of charges will be filled, and Sarah’s parents are looking into a lawsuit as well. Justice has yet to be served, but in the two months since Sarah’s death the community has demanded action.

Since Sarah’s death, the film community has exploded with support for her and her family. ‘Slates for Sarah,’ a movement where the AC will mark somewhere on the slate R.I.P. Sarah Jones, has risen in popularity. There was also an online petition started to get Sarah into the Oscar’s In Memoriam segment. The petition got over 21,000 signatures in one day, and was somewhat successful. While the academy did not include Sarah in the In Memoriam montage, she was honored in the form of a lower third graphic at the end of the montage. On top of the petition to get Sarah in the In Memoriam montage, petition and Twitter activists fought to get celebrities to wear black ribbons while at the Academy awards to honor Sarah. They were also very successful with this, with several prominent celebrities donning the black ribbons.

In 2012 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 4,383 people died from work related injuries, and a study published my the University of California estimated that 53,000 died in 2007 from work related long term diseases, such as cancer (COSH 6). The sad reality is that work is unsafe. We in the film industry can never truly prevent a tragedy as this from ever happening again. There will always be people in charge who value getting the shot more than their crew’s safety, and there will always be accidents. However, there are things we can do to change this, to make set life safer for everyone. What we can do is set out to educate people. Everyone who works on a film set should know the safety standards that a legitimate production must follow, and if the production they are on is not following it, they must be willing and comfortable enough to say so. The best way to stop accidents is to educate people; especially those who want to direct or produce, of the proper regulations that must be followed in order to prevent an awful tragedy like the Midnight Rider incident. Harsher penalties to those who break standard regulations should also be enforced, in order to encourage those working in the industry to follow them, even if it means spending a few extra bucks during production. As Brozey suggested, increasing the number of mandatory safety briefings could also be beneficial. In order to reduce risks there should be a mandatory safety briefing any time the production has a company move. Lastly, and most importantly, everyone must be made to follow the rules. No more cutting corners, no more guerrilla filmmaking. People are too important to be risking their lives in order to get a shot. If the director can change the shot, make it safer, than he should. Accidents are always going to happen, but with Georgia being new to film production it raises the concern that those new rising filmmakers aren’t following proper safety regulations. Everyone must follow the rules in order to prevent anyone from dying while working on a production.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “‘Midnight Rider’ Accident: Sarah Jones’ Dad Says Producers ‘Did So Many    Wrong Things'” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

Busch, Anita, and Jen Yamato. “Safety On Set: Three Workers Speak Out.” Deadline        Hollywood. N.p., 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

COSH. 2014 Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities. Digital image. The            Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

Couch, Aaron. “Lena Dunham Honors Sarah Jones: ‘Her Death Hits Close to Home'” The             Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Cox, Lauren. “Sarah Jones Sadly Missed In Oscar ‘In Memoriam’ Montage.” Hollywood Life.        N.p., 2 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Johnson, Scott. “A Train, a Narrow Trestle and 60 Seconds to Escape: How ‘Midnight Rider’       Victim Sarah Jones Lost Her Life.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 4           Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Lewis, Hilary. “‘Midnight Rider’ Accident: Georgia Filmmakers Hosting Safety Seminar in            Memory of Sarah Jones.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Logana, Don. “Studio Suspends Production of ‘Midnight Rider'” World Now. World Now, 28       Mar. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

McCaffrey, Shannon. “Death of Atlanta Woman Exposes Safety Weaknesses on the Movie          Set.” Atlanta Journal Constitution. N.p., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

“Production Incentives.” Georgia Department of Economic Development. Georgia, n.d. Web. 26   Apr. 2014.

Yamato, Jen, and Anita Busch. “‘Midnight Rider’ Director Randall Miller Attempting To Move Forward With Film In LA Following Sarah Jones Death.” Deadline. N.p., 14 Apr.        2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.

Yamato, Jen. “UPDATE: ‘Midnight Rider’ Producer Made Controversial Comments About Local             Filming Days Before Sarah Jones Death.” Deadline. N.p., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 30        Apr. 2014.

 A PDF of this essay is available here.

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