Regulations have improved conditions, but problems persist
Former Los Angeles County Deputy D.A. Lea Purwin D’Agostino refuses to call what happened on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” an accident.
When the film’s director, John Landis, called “Action!” at 11:30 p.m. on July 22, 1982, in Indian Dunes, Calif., a mortar explosion in the Santa Clara River sent a blinding ball of water into the windshield of the helicopter flown by Dorcey Wingo, and blasted the pilot with intense heat.
Wingo and crew members voiced concerns to production manager Dan Allingham, who assured them there would be no such issues on the next take, in which they’d be flying over actor Vic Morrow as he trudged through the river holding Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Chen (age 6).
“Safety first,” Allingham said.
But when cameras rolled again at 2:20 a.m., a rapid succession of special effects explosions sent the helicopter plummeting into the water, decapitating Morrow and Le and crushing Chen to death under its right landing skid.
“An accident to me is something that is not foreseeable,” says D’Agostino, who led the prosecution’s case against Landis, Wingo, Allingham and two other crew members. “This was completely foreseeable, especially given what had happened earlier on the set.”
D’Agostino was unable to convince the jury, which acquitted all five defendants of involuntary manslaughter in May of 1987, but the trial served as a wakeup call to the industry about set safety.
Thirty years after that incident, all the major studios have safety departments monitoring their productions, as well as anonymous hotlines for workers to report concerns without fear of career-ending reprisals; in addition, on-set safety meetings are required prior to any potentially hazardous shot.
“The small-budget producers all the way up to the mega $200-million producers — they don’t want to sit in a courtroom and try to justify why they didn’t have the right safety processes onboard,” says veteran stunt coordinator Jack Gill. “Usually, they’ll say, ‘If that’s what you think you need, then let’s have it,’ because the lawsuit later will cost them much more than whatever you’re asking for.”
Since 1998, the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund has maintained the Safety Pass Program to train Southern California union crews in safe work practices. Some guilds, such as the IATSE Local 884, which represents studio teachers — who not only instruct minors, but also monitor the safety and welfare of those under 16 — supplement these with their own seminars taught by experts from various crafts, covering such topics as stunts, gun safety, special effects and working with animals.
The efforts appear to be having a positive effect: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 20 fatal injuries in the motion picture and video production industry in the U.S. in a five-year period between 1992 and 1996, compared to three between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).
But the continued injuries and deaths lead some to question whether the incidents are unforeseeable mishaps or the result of systemic problems within the industry.
In addition, there are questions about safety-monitors outside of traditional Hollywood filming. With tax incentives and cheaper labor luring the bulk of feature production away from Hollywood, films are often shooting in converted warehouses and other untested facilities, with fewer experienced crew members and more lax regulations.
“When you go and rent any old warehouse, you don’t know what’s been there before,” says producer-writer-director Lance Hool, CEO of Sante Fe Studios in New Mexico.
As he was scouting locations in Eastern Europe in the early ’90s, Hool was about to enter a building with a pregnant Hungarian film commission rep when he noticed a sign warning of radioactivity. “It turns out it was where they kept atomic material,” Hool says.
Transportation also gets trickier when productions go abroad.
Teamsters drivers have Class-A licenses, safety training and are subject to random drug tests, but they generally travel out of the country only when they’re requested by above-the-line talent, according to Steve Dayan, business agent for the Teamsters Local 399.
“In Latin America, they may bring a transportation coordinator down from L.A. and subcontract the rest out,” says greens coordinator Jeff deBell. “I’ve had all kinds — from race car drivers (to) people who don’t know how to drive.”
The biggest threats might be the long hours routinely worked by crews. “You work 14-16 days constantly, it really affects your personality,” says Dayan, who sits on the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee. “It’s almost like having three drinks.”
In the late 1990s, there was a movement to establish “Brent’s Rule,” named after assistant cameraman Brent Hersch-man, who died when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed after a 19-hour work day on the film “Pleasantville.” The proposal would have limited crew members to 14-hour workdays, but it petered out because executives and the head creatives were reluctant to put a definitive, legally actionable time cap on their shooting days.
The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee has issued 40 safety bulletins outlining do’s and don’ts, but they are guidelines, not regulations. Once there are actual regulations, violations of those regulations that result in a death may automatically lead to severe charges, such as involuntary manslaughter, says Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “But these must be laws or regulations enacted by a government authority,” she adds. “Otherwise, it is not automatically involuntary manslaughter, although employer regulations can be good evidence for a negligence claim.”
While tired crews are dangerous, nothing packs more inherent risk than stunts.
In December 2010, Scott McLean, a stuntman doubling actor Ed Helms, suffered critical head injuries when his head smashed into a moving car while shooting a scene for “The Hangover Part II” in Thailand, and last October, an explosion on the set of “The Expendables 2” in Bulgaria killed one stuntman and seriously injured another.
On Sept. 1, 2010, in Hammond, Ind., 24-year-old Gabriella Cedillo was injured while working as a non-union extra on Paramount’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” A flatbed truck was pulling a stuntcar for a rollover stunt, and a piece of metal from the rig smashed through the windshield of the Toyota Scion being driven by Cedillo, who was being paid an extra $25 to drive her own car for the sequence.
Indiana OSHA ruled the incident an accident and issued no citations. Though Cedillo’s attorney Todd A. Smith still disputes that finding, the org stated in its report that the production “used all safety practices put in place by OSHA standards.”
A Paramount spokesman said in a prepared statement: “This was a tragic accident and our thoughts and prayers remain with Ms. Cedillo and her family. Safety is a top priority on our productions, and our filmmakers work alongside safety experts throughout the process.”
CGI can enable many heart-stopping pieces of action to be simulated on computers, but some filmmakers are still hungry for authentic onscreen action, and so are many stars.
Advances in stunt rigging have enabled actors such as Tom Cruise to do more of their own stunts. But the long list of stars hurt doing stunts in recent years — including Halle Berry, Daniel Craig, George Clooney, Justine Timberlake and Ryan Reynolds — suggests that mishaps can still occur.
“I think directors and actors can definitely fall into pushing it too far, and accidents happen,” says Angela Plasschaert, VP of risk assessment for Plasschaert & Associates, which creates and implements safety programs for films and TV.
The pressure to finish on-time and on-budget can sometimes create a tendency to rush, though experienced pros know that the first priority is safety. Below-the-line workers agree that the being rushed is one of the biggest threats to safety. And, according to stun
t pros, the worst thing you can be rushed on is Take 2.
“Things change after you’ve done it once,” Gill says. “The ramp gets a little weaker, the car gets a little weaker. You need to make sure that you’ve really looked through everything judiciously the second time around.”
A crew member who asked not to be identified describes one successful director as “rush-rush-rush. He’ll show up on the set and say, ‘Why isn’t this ready?’ He does a lot of yelling, and that tends to get people scurrying. But I don’t think the people he hires compromise safety just to appease him. I’ve heard an effects guy yell back to just wait, (saying): ‘We know what you want. We’re going to make it safe, and then we’re going to do it.’?”
Despite all of the industry’s efforts, safety is still sometimes dependent on the crew’s willingness to stand up to the filmmakers.
Retired stuntman Joe Canutt recalls how on the set of “The Wild Bunch” in Mexico in 1968, director Sam Peckinpah coerced a terrified special effects engineer into rigging a bridge demolition over the Rio Nazas with enough dynamite “to blow us onto dry land,” forcing Canutt to step in and insist the director reduce the firepower.
If “The Wild Bunch” or “Twilight Zone” were filmed today, the hazardous elements (explosions, helicopter, etc.) and the actors could be shot separately then digitally composited into the same frame in post, negating the risk.
In May, Cedillo received an $18.5 million settlement for the injuries she suffered on “Dark of the Moon,” which have left her with permanent cognitive deficits that will require her to have full-time assistance for the rest of her life.
In the “Twilight Zone” case, Morrow’s daughters, Carrie Morrow and Jennifer Jason Leigh, received a reported $900,000 settlement, while $2 million was paid to each of the families of the two children, who had been hired illegally and hidden from safety officials on set.
“I often wonder how the children would be now,” D’Agostino says. “They’d be adults with families of their own. But I don’t think all of Hollywood is to blame. When you consider the types of movies that they make — the incredible special effects, the violence — it’s amazing how safe they are.” Guild guides
If a SAG-AFTRA member feels the set they’re working on is unsafe, they’re advised to do one or more of the following:
n Inform the producer or first A.D.
n Advise the stunt coordinator.
n Immediately contact SAG-AFTRA’s National Stunt & Safety Department (323-549-6855 during work hours, or 323-954-1600 after hours and weekends) or the local SAG-AFTRA office. There’s also a 24-hour safety hotline on the SAG-AFTRA membership card.
n Contact their talent agent What: Thirty years after “The Twilight Zone” tragedy, stunt and crew safety is still a big concern.
The takeaway: Guilds and unions have worked hard to create safe environments for crews but there are still concerns about stunts and even some overseas locations.