‘Midnight Rider’ Death Was ‘Criminal Negligence’ — Haskell Wexler

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Iconoclastic cinematographer Haskell Wexler says that last week’s death of a “Midnight Rider” crew member Sarah Jones was due to criminal negligence.

“It’s a tragedy,” he told Variety. “She should not have died. It upsets me.”

Wexler, who won Oscars for “Bound for Glory” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” said that proper safety rules being in place could have prevented the accident.

“People can learn from this terrible injury,” he added.

Wexler also released an open letter Wednesday to “fellow workers” which said that he’s part of a group asking that Jones’ name be included in the Academy’s “In Memoriam” section this Sunday.

“Sarah and the three injured crew members were not victims of an ‘accident’ but of criminal negligence. Something that would not have happened if proper safety rules were in place,” the letter said.

Wexler also told Variety that he does not believe that Jones’ death was related to excessive hours by crew members — an issue on which the cinematographer has sought reform for nearly two decades.

Wexler also included in the letter a copy of an ad rejected by his union’s International Cinematographers Guild magazine with the title “Take a Stand in the fight against long hours” as part of the “12 on 12 off” campaign — an issue that Wexler has advocated for nearly two decades. He said that the magazine does not want to deal with what he dubbed a “political football.”

“Employers will work you longer for less money and under questionable safety conditions because it is their duty to prioritize the bottom line,” he said. “As individuals we cannot complain. That’s why we need a Union to speak for us, certainly when our safety, our health, and our very lives are at stake! Since they’ve abdicated that responsibility, please join us at 12on12off.”

Wexler’s self-financed documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” bowed to strong reviews at Sundance in 2006. The issue became a cause in 1997, when 35-year-old crew member Brent Hershman died in a car crash after working a 19-hour day on “Pleasantville.”

That pic’s crew called for a 14-hour limit to workdays, dubbed “Brent’s Rule,” but found only limited success.

Wexler spent eight years on his doc, interviewing doctors and scientists who study sleep deprivation. “Who Needs Sleep?” also includes interviews with Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, John Sayles, Sam Mendes, Billy Crystal, Annette Bening, Vittorio Storaro and the late Richard Zanuck.

Jones was a member of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, which operates as Local 600 of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Wexler has battled the local’s leadership frequently.

Steven Poster, president of Local 600, issued a statement earlier this week in which he said that when Locals 600 and 491 received the call about the accident, they  immediately sent representatives to the site.

“We are cooperating with ongoing government investigations including OSHA, and NTSB and the Local Sheriff’s office and we are providing grief counseling for the crew,” Poster said. “The safety of our crews is of paramount importance to this union and we will work tirelessly to ensure that a tragedy of this kind never happens again.There is no way we can mitigate the pain and the loss of Sarah. But we hope that something good can come out of this very unfortunate situation. It will surely shape our talks with producers in the future. There will be memorials across the country to honor the memory of beloved member, Sarah Jones.”

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  1. Lauri Plesco says:

    First of all, this was an Indie head and Im not sure he was part of 600. Secondly, the 1st AC told Sarah to just drop the equipment but it was too late. Third, this is NOT how we shoot as a standard and I dont know how this guy got this job or why the other crew allowed it to happen. Lastly, we are discussing ways to help make sets safer in Sarahs honor- the 12 on/12 off theory is a relevant topic regarding safety. No, it wasnt the issue on Midnight Riders set… we are all still working on ways to prevent this from ever happening again. Bob, I would like to know more about the safety courses you are referring to as this can be helpful. Geoff, all good points. Any film industry professionals wanting to help our cause, please go to facebooks site Safety for Sarah and asked to be included in this closed group. I am one of the moderators- you NEED to be a working film professional and the intention here is to find safety solutions. No blaming, naming.. just safety for sarah.

    We all got Sarahs picture and post in the memorium section at the Oscars and Wexler is speaking up out of rage for what happened and a mind to make change. He is correct:

    “Wexler, said that proper safety rules being in place could have prevented the accident. “People can learn from this terrible injury,” he added.”

    That is a FACT,

  2. Kurt Miller says:

    Haskell Wexler is talking out his ass.

  3. larry says:


  4. Rich says:

    Nick Gant of Meddin Studios makes unbelievably callous remarks after Sarah Jones’ death http://pagesix.com/2014/03/01/midnight-rider-producers-callous-remark-after-on-set-death/

  5. L says:

    Thank you, Wexler,for being so honest,

    • Red says:

      When I was a P.A. on a CBS tv series…i did 18 hour days/nights/ and everything in between. I found myself nodding off in deep sleep at red traffic signals. Another time, I ran into a take away to get a coffee. My speech was slurred due to lack of sleep and extreme exhaustion. The guy at the counter screamed at me YOUR DRUNK< I am CALLING THE POLICE you shouldn't be driving !!! … I told him, I was exhausted, a PA for a TV show and I need the coffee, two milks and one sugar please and thank you.

      I survived a year on that show. Some P.A.'s were in minor (luckily) traffic accidents, one innocent pedestrian was killed, as they were parked on the 'shoulder' of the road, when one of our RIG drivers also exhausted plowed into their car and killed them instantly.

      HUSH HUSH….no in the papers…and not allowed to discuss it at work. YA….the TV Show was called DUE SOUTH.

  6. A sound guy says:

    As much as I respect and admire Mr. Wexler, his work and his unrelenting quest for decent working hours, I find his comments on this unfortunate. They come across to me as self serving and off topic. This tragedy is about safety on the set not about long hours and lack of sleep.

    • Geoff Drake says:

      Safety can certainly be tied to overly long work hours, so I can see the tie in. As a friend said to me, “Nobody makes the best decisions in their 16th or 18th hour of work.” Safety is yhe umbrella under which the whole discussion over Sarah Jones’ senseless death is taking place. At 92, Wexler should be lauded for caring about conditions which the unions are ostensibly in place to prevent. Besides, he gave an interview, he didn’t write the article.

      • A sound guy says:

        No anon, I don’t wish to bury anything. I’ve been an IATSE member for 43 years and I have ordered my crew off of sets that weren’t safe. I’ve lost jobs because I’m a squeaky wheel when it comes to safety. Apparently, there are others here who agree with me. I am in complete agreement with the goals of 12 On/ 12 Off but this tragic incident has nothing to do with that or ICG magazines refusal to print his ad. I stand by my assertion that Wexler’s were ill timed and OFF topic. As my friend and colleague who was on the tracks at the time and was himself injured has requested, let’s not be too quick point the fingers or to ask for the rope.

      • anon says:

        Off Topic why because you want too bury the truth and the important issues ??

  7. Michael Berryman says:

    Haskell, my dear friend..This is Michael ‘Ellis’ Berryman. We worked together on ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. Thank you for you voice in this regard. We who work in the entertainment industry are family. Please, everyone must speak out, so the intimidation to get the ‘shot’ never causes another death. I salute you my friend, and to Brandon Lee..’Safety should never be second choice’. And to all on set…come home safely to your family!

  8. uninvolvedandpartialtofactsnotconjecture says:

    Wexler is using this unfortunate incident to get publicity for himself and he’s own cause.

    This is a cheap gratuitous link to a serious incident with a tabloid style headline to focus on himself and sone quick publicity..

    Not only should he be thoroughly ashamed of himself but Variety should be ashamed of itself too for printing such an obvious publicity stunt.

    • Geoff Drake says:

      OR…it could be that has valid and relevant experience shooting in, on, and around trains, and is fully vested in improving set safety. I don’t know—but if he can contribute anything at all towards flushing idiots like these out of the business, then he has my vote.

      • criminalinvestigator says:

        If he had any experience then he certainly does not talk about it – if you read the article – he is fishing to link his cause (as noble as it may be) to this tragedy – and the tabloid journalistic headlines are shameful when he almost immediately directs attention away from the issue to himself.

        RIP Sarah – you didn’t need to die.

  9. Bob says:

    I’ve been in the movie biz for 36 years ,and all studio employees have to take safety classes for equipment safety , haz mat ,confined spaces a various other classes depending on you job . The classes are taught that if it’s unsafe say no . My complaint is that the people that put you in harms way Do not have to take any off these classes

  10. Geoff Drake says:

    It’s very difficult to read this chain of events as anything other than “criminal negligence”. After being denied access by CSX, the producers sought permission to be on the closest private property adjacent to the track/trestle they wanted to shoot on, and very purposefully led them into disaster without informing them that the railroad had no clue they would be there.

    I understand that there was a “B” camera crew, and parts of that crew were involved. Does anyone know if they were set up to film. If so, I hope law enforcement was able to secure the evidence before it disappeared.

    On Monday, I spoke with the DA’s office for this district. At that time they had no charges to work with, but said they are watching carefully. With OSHA and the NTSB involved, hopefully these low-lifes will bear the full brunt of local, state, and federal prosecution, and have plenty of prision time to reevaluate their egos.

    • location man says:

      It’s been reported that Sarah Jones was lugging the camera and equipment, and it has been impounded for evidence. What is not clear yet is whether one of her superiors ordered her to “save the camera,” which would be a natural command on any set — however stupid it sounds after the fact.

    • Localite says:

      In a report on another website, it was said that a digital cameral was rolling when the fatal train arrived, and that camera had been impounded by the local sheriff’s department as evidence.

  11. GKShimada says:

    This negligence starts with the head of the camera crew (the D/P) and goes all the way up the line.
    There is no excuse for this to happen. Too many crew members have been killed performing their duties and every time we shed a tear and sweep it under the rug hoping that everybody forgets what caused it. The responsibility is shared the the camera local as well as the producers and directors. This is worse than criminal negligence….it’s plain stupidity.

    Members of Local 600, grow a backbone and stand up for not only your rights, but your life. I remember Jack Tandberg and several others…Now we shall remember Sarah…don’t let her be swept under the rug.

  12. Her death had an explanation: the delirium of a satisfied talent. That was the explanation of friends and family, also found on her obituary. But there is a much more exact explanation; Sarah eluded herself; she saw a gesture of love where there was only an alteration of ingenue vanity. And after having got everything she wanted, which was her absolute love for filmmaking, it escaped from her, since offering her heart was the only thing supposed.

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