On a live film or television set, there are two rules: Don’t piss off the talent, and safety first. Crews must adhere to strict guidelines set forth by governing bodies such as Motion Picture Association, Occupational Health and Safety Association, and more–not to mention common sense–while on-set to ensure that “safety first” is upheld. This was not the case in the tragic and completely preventable death of Assistant Camera Sarah Jones.
The Feb. 20th incident occurred outside Doctortown, GA., when the cast and crew for Midnight Rider were shooting a dream sequence on a 100-year-old train trestle. The film was a low-budget independent piece about 1970’s rocker Gregg Allman. In the film, Allman is portrayed by William Hurt, who was starring in the scene being filmed that day. Sarah Jones was acting as a 2nd AC, working with producers, talent, and camera operators to get the perfect shot. She was on the trestle when they were alerted to the train’s approach, but was not able to escape in time.
At first glance, it may seem like this is a tragic accident: time just wasn’t on her side. This is totally and completely false.
This was an accident, yes, but an accident that never should have happened. For starters, the production should have gotten a filming permit and location release from CSX, the company that owns the railroad. Midnight Rider was permitted to film near the railroad but not on it, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Having done this, a CSX operator and crew would have been present during filming to alert the crew of the day’s schedule and to have open communication with any trains operating the railway that day. That’s how it should have happened, and the fact that something as simple as a filming permit is behind a death of a crew member has Hollywood up in arms.
Ignored rules turn deadly
CSX has reported that it did not grant permission to the film to use the trestle. But Midnight Rider used it anyway.
How can a director,line producer, production manager, production coordinator and more working on this film have allowed the shoot to occur without a permit? This is tantamount to telling someone to eat chicken that hasn’t been cooked. It’s the first thing you do when setting up a shoot–not just because it will protect you from being sued for trespassing, but because it is a safety ordinance.
Apparently, though, the lead crew members of Midnight Rider were either too busy, too dumb, too cheap, or too lazy to be bothered with safety.
According to eyewitness accounts from Feb. 20th, the crew was informed that, should a train come down the tracks, they should run. That was their safety plan: Run.
As someone who has worked on a live set for both scripted and unscripted programming, I can wholeheartedly tell you that if you’re safety blanket is “run,” you need to get the hell out of there. That is not an environment you want to be in.
Unfortunately, though, for every one job in production, there are 1,000 people eager and willing to do it better and for less pay. There is an immense amount of pressure on crew members and producers to “get the shot” because if they don’t, there are a thousand others who will. So crew members can’t really just up and leave if they feel uncomfortable about the evacuation plan.
I am assuming that it is this pressure to keep their jobs that prevented anyone on set that day from saying, “Wait, wait, hold on…this seems a little reckless, doesn’t it? So, we’re just going to shoot on a working train track? Without anyone here from the railways?” In addition to wanting to keep their jobs, Midnight Rider‘s crew, like Jones, love filming. They’re creating dynamic, living art. It’s exciting and fun and people who do this job wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Another reason why they can’t really just up and leave if they feel uncomfortable about the evacuation plan.
As much as Jones loved her job, it is not fair that she died for it. She should still be doing what she loves, but because some people didn’t think a permit was necessary, she is dead. A life is lost, and the lives of her loved ones are forever shaken. Not only is it tragic, it’s infuriating.
Hollywood needs to do more than wear Black Ribbons at The Academy Awards to compensate for this tragedy. They need to enforce permit regulations and safety codes on any set — low-budget or blockbuster.
Crew members need to step up and vocalize if they feel unsafe without having to worry about losing their jobs. There are lots of things that need to happen, but in a fast-paced industry that has become more about the dollar than the people earning it, I doubt any of those things will come to fruition.