‘Midnight Rider’ Homicide Probe Focusing on Who Put Crew on Bridge

Absence of railroad reps at shoot suggest shoot was unauthorized

The homicide investigation into the death of Sarah Jones on the set of “Midnight Rider” is focusing on who decided to put the crew on the railroad bridge where the accident occurred and how the crew got access to the property, a source familiar with the investigation told Variety on Thursday.

The answer to the second question appears to be easier to answer. A spokesman for Rayonier, the paper company that owns the land surrounding the rail line at the site of the accident, confirmed to Variety that Rayonier had given permission for the film shoot to be on its property, but it cannot give permission for  the crew to be on the tracks, which are owned by CSX. A gate in a fence on the property bears a sign saying access is controlled by Rayonier guards.

But did the CSX railroad give permission for the film crew to be on the tracks? Wayne County, Ga., detective Joe Gardner has said publicly that the railroad says it did not give such permission.

One crucial indicator of the answer would be whether there was a railroad rep on site for the shoot, because experts contacted by Variety say it is inconceivable that a railroad would allow shooting on an active rail line without having one of its own officials on site to ensure safety.

Asked whether there was a railroad official on site for the shoot, Wayne County Sheriff John Carter told Variety, “None that I am aware of.” He stressed, however, that the investigation is continuing and additional people are being interviewed. Meanwhile WTOC-TV in Savannah reported, “Union reps say it wasn’t a scheduled shooting day and no set medic or railroad safety officer was on set.”

Carter said it is not yet known whether the leaders of the production unit put the crew on the trestle knowing they did not have permission to shoot there, or whether there was some kind of miscommunication between the railroad and the “Midnight Rider” team.

“That is our question. That is what we are trying to resolve too,” said Carter.

Production on “Midnight Rider,” a biopic of rock star Gregg Allman, was suspended until further notice Wednesday.

Randall Miller is the writer-director of “Midnight Rider” and his wife, Jody Savin, is writer-producer. Their production company, Unclaimed Freight Productions, was making the picture. Meddin Studios of Georgia was providing production services. Open Road Films was on board to distribute. Allman has executive producer credit. Jay Sedrish is unit production manager and executive producer. Charley Baxter was location manager.

Cohen & Gardner, the legal reps for the production, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Carter stressed that the investigation into the death of Jones and the injuries suffered in the Feb. 20 accident is continuing, and has no timeline for completion. He said the results will be turned over to the Wayne County District Attorney. “We’re going to try to find the facts and let them determine (whether there is a case),” said Carter.

Rules for shooting on or near railroad tracks call for railroad personnel to be present and for stringent safety measures beyond that. On a bridge, those protections would include fall protection and safety harnesses. Rules are even more stringent when a production wants to put an obstruction on the tracks. “Midnight Rider” was filming a dream sequence on a railroad trestle and had put a hospital bed on the tracks when a train arrived too quickly for the crew to clear the tracks and escape the bridge. 

Jones was killed when a piece of the shattered bed struck her as she was trying to get off the bridge and knocked her into the path of the train. Other crew members suffered broken bones or other injuries from flying debris.

Hair stylist Joyce Gilliard, who had to be airlifted to a trauma center following the accident with a severe injury to her arm, posted on Twitter: “I have metals and pins holding my arm together,” and “I was hit by the train and not the debris. The worst day in my life. I will need counseling. My coworker died beside me.”

Funeral services for Jones were held on Wednesday in Columbia, S.C., with hundreds of people in attendance. Miller and William Hurt, one of the film’s stars, were there, along with about 20 crew members.

Variety has contacted assistant directors and and railroad safety experts who work with film shoots. All agree that any shooting on an active railroad track would require a railroad rep on site.

William Paul Clark, an assistant director whose credits include “Django Unchained,” “The Mechanic” and “Rambo,” said, “Whenever you’re on any location, even if you’re at a house, you have a representative from the house. You have a representative of the management company or home or whatever it is, and that’s just children playing in the backyard.” That is even more important in a dangerous environment, said Clark. “We have a safety adviser there, a consultant to make sure we’re working within the parameters of safe guidelines.” 

In the case of “Midnight Rider,” said Clark, he would have expected reps from Rayonier and CSX to be present as long as shooting was on their property.

The “Midnight Rider” call sheet for Feb. 20, obtained by Variety, calls the day “Pre-Shoot Day 1 of 1.” It has become a common practice in film production to use “pre-shoot” or “camera test” days to grab vistas, inserts, and other miscellaneous shots at locations where it would be inconvenient to bring the entire company during a normal day of shooting. “Pre-shoot” or “test” days require a smaller crew and keep the cost for the shooting day down.

Clark added: “I can’t imagine telling people, ‘OK we’re going onto the tracks, and if you hear a whistle, you have a minute.’ That’s preposterous. Accidents happen, but stupidity? You say, ‘That’s not acceptable. Can we find another bridge?  Can we find an inactive track that we can pull the weeds out of?’ There are solutions if you just think about them.

“I love this business, I want it safe, I want it prosperous, I want to be able to go on making small films for young filmmakers, big films for big filmmakers, but this is bad for us as a community. And that’s what we have to protect: our community, our family.”

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  1. ad says:

    Ummm – it’s not BIO-PICK you MOH-RON…. Also – he seems insincere and smarmy and completely inappropriate to relay this story – our community is devastated by this unnecessary loss…

  2. CP says:

    When you’ve landed your dream job, there’s no way you’re going to say “I don’t feel comfortable doing this”, when your gut’s telling you it just doesn’t feel right. Too often the squeaky wheel that is safety conscious is ostracized by the rest as a “complainer” or “worry-wart”, so instead they remain silent so as to not get a reputation of being “difficult” all the while praying luck is on their side. This is why fines for businesses that don’t have the safety of their staff as their #1 priority exist. It’s pretty sad that you have to hit their pockets to get their attention. A woman lost her life because someone in charge was a risk taker. Pure negligence, plain and simple.

  3. Card says:

    Hey I live about 2 hours away from this shoot, and we have PLENTY of inactive tracks. Heck, I’ve done some gorilla shooting on them once. Biggest concern was wildlife, not trains! It’s not rocket science!

  4. S says:

    *I cannot figure out how to delete a comment here once it’s posted, but Variety moderators, please delete the above comment for me if you can. It was genuine concern, but I do not want to upset Sarah’s family or anyone close to the crew members mentioned. Respectfully, S.

  5. Localite says:

    For those of you who have requested the Call Sheet…..probably it has been taken in by authorities as evidence, and ongoing investigations can keep this evidence to themselves, until trials or settlement hearings take place.

    The above article reports that this day was to be a pre-shoot or camera test day, but at the site were trailers, a hairdresser/make-up person, and also William Hurt and Wyatt Russell. Wouldn’t the lead actors know that they weren’t on the call sheet? Was their presence on the site influential to the other crew?

    Was the crew told (lied to) that full permissions had been granted and there were no safety concerns?

    Was the crew told that NO permissions were granted but they would have a one-minute warning in case an unscheduled train was coming through? There are reports that they only got a 15-second warning. Also, both Rayonier and CSX knew there was a film crew there, but neither company had reps on site.

    The criminal investigations will focus on permissions and culpability.

    The lawsuits will attack the deepest pockets – CSX and Rayonier.

    Bottom line – nothing legally will be decided for years, maybe many years. But at least nobody will forget this incident. And no production crew should anticipate working on Rayonier or CSX property ever again.

    • anon says:

      who knows if criminal charges made, may come up sooner then you think, nothing is set in stone intill all facts come in, someone really dropped the ball here, they need to be held accountable,

  6. Andy says:

    Saw this comment in the message boards section of IMDB under Randall Miller (the director):

    “You openly admit to ignoring permits and unsafe work environments on your own commentary from your last film.”

    Have no idea if this is true but by chance does anyone have a DVD of his last movie? If so, please report back to vet the accuracy of the IMDB comment. Hopefully, investigators will delve deeper into this.

  7. Bradley "Wiszard" Grasser says:

    Amen

  8. bb says:

    1st I would like to say it is very very sad that a life was lost to such negligence. It really is unfortunate. In a way I think it may have been more tragic if this shot went off without a hitch. It has brought a bright light to what the problems surrounding safety are in this industry theese days. But we can’t sit here and put all the blame on the above the line people here. It is my opinion that the reason things have gotten so out of control is the crews are willing to do almost anything without saying no. I don’t know the whole story here. Either this crew was mislead, at which point I would put 100% of the blame on whomever deceived them, or this crew knew they were stealing this shot. And if the crew was aware that they were not allowed on the tracks that day at what point do they share in their responsibility to say no. Without the crews willingness, the shot won’t happen. In a way the culture we have created in this industry falls on the below the line crews as well for not walking away from situations like this. Without a tragedy such as this…it would just continue to get worse and worse. I hope everyone is a little smarter from this both above the line and below the line and we start speaking up for each other. I do wonder if this crew somehow thought this was exciting..as I have seen in the past too. Even though distinct people on set are responsible for your safety…and in cases like this I feel should be held criminally responsible for asking their crew to do something dangerous and illegal… There is no doubt some of the crew that day knew what was being done was the wrong way to di it and in my opinion it is not professional to go on with the shot. If everyone knew they were stealing the shot…whomever walked onto the tracks made their own decition to trespass and break the law that day…nobody physically forced anyone to do anything. I am curious if anyone even resisted that day by thoose tracks..or just went ahead without questioning safety..isnt this just as tragic? We are talking about standing on a railroad trestle and laying items over the track. I cant think of anything more dangerous and set up for disaster. That being said it is not fair to have to choose between your job or breaking the law..and possibly loosing your life due to neglagence. If you know its wrong or dont feel comfortable walk away. Things will start to change when criminal charges are enforced for this negligence, but the real change will come when crews speak up for themselves.

    • Geoff Drake says:

      Youth, inexperience, and eagerness have often resulted in poor decision making. However, as was pointed out previously, *someone* has to be the adult in the room. This tragedy did not happen through a demcratic vote, nor anarchy; rather there was a very specific hierarchy in place, and some very deliberate choices made on behalf of the rest. No sane judge or jury is going accept “groupthink” as a defense in this case.

      • bb says:

        It is my understanding neither youth or inexperience was at play here. It is easy to let *someone* take responsibility, but that’s what got us to where we are. If someone is making a poor choice on your behalf…will you speak up, or remove yourself from that situation if you see the writing on the wall? If not theese accidents will continue to happen. I am not asking for any defence, clearly certain people hold the responsibility for safety and should be held responsible for their neglect. “Groupthink” is what allowed this to happen. But the “groupthink” here was unprofessional and allowed this to happen, when it should have been to band together and say no. If not do yourself a favor and let the group be stupid…walk away and keep yourself safe.

  9. jon says:

    The UPM and AD team needs to be held accountable. Safety, ultimately, is their responsibility.

  10. chelabella44 says:

    Sick over this tragedy of negligence.

  11. Kristen Anthony Local 478 says:

    It really is simple everyone. The producers, ultimately, or the executive producer/s are RESPONSIBLE.

  12. SLH says:

    I agree, why hasn’t the 1st AD been named in any articles. Safety starts with her and ends with her.. No permits = NO SHOOTING……No exceptions to the rule…..I’ve been a 1st AD for over 20 years and have shot on live tracks many times. They’re protocols we follow to the T. Safety meetings with the crew and the Train Site Rep who states what can and cant be done. You break the rules your off the set. Nobody needs to die for a shot..This was totally preventable and the Director, producer, UPM,1st AD all should be held liable…..They knew it wasn’t cleared…..

  13. Jimbo says:

    I am starting to find this social media blame game a little distasteful. Of course we should show our support for this poor girl and our ongoing support for her family.

    It seems that despite the fact the majority of us did not have the honour of meeting or working with Sarah, the industry as a whole is shocked by what has happened and rightly or wrongly feels as though we know her. In a way we do, she did what we do and we understand her job and why (to some extent) it happened that she was put in peril. The ‘Slates For Sarah’ campaign is an apt tribute and outpouring for this clearly, very well loved person and it strikes me that our energies (for the time being) are better spent spreading the word in this regard and awaiting the outcome of an investigation instead of speculating on who is to blame. This information will come out and at that point we must absolutely roar our disgust and ensure that prosecutions are made.

    I have no expertise apart from my own experience in our industry but I do think the reason we empathise so acutely and feel so strongly about what has happened is that regardless of whether you have worked in this industry for a year or 50 years the chances are you have been on shoots or sets and thought to yourself “This isn’t quite right, someone could get hurt here”. I know I have and I didn’t speak up.

    I do think however that until an investigation has been held, our combined energies would be better spent in continuing to show love for Sarah’s family and regret at their loss instead of dividing into camps of “the producer is to blame” “the location manager is to blame” “the director is to blame” “the train company….. and so on and so forth. Let’s find out who is actually to blame and if this was an incident caused by neglect or greed or disregard for human life, instead of a genuine accident, then certainly we have an obligation to make sure those responsible are subjected to the most severe punishment permissible and by doing so hopefully deter any actions in the future that have the potential to end in the same tragic result.

    • Geoff Drake says:

      It’s important to keep the heat on law enforcement right now, so they understand the outrage, and file the proper charges against the correct people. Sounds like there’s an awful lot of CYA tactics going on to designed to deceive and obfuscate, and many people who would like the whole story to “go away”.

    • cc says:

      sounds like damage control to me , let me get this your saying we understand to some extent why it happened.? and she put herself in peril ? sounds to me like you are trying to lighten the blame on who deserves it I said sounds like damage control. . people need to talk about it, so they don’t forget that’s the way to change things, and people need to be angry and demand change.. prayers to this beautiful girls family

  14. Andrew Patterson says:

    As a member of the filming community in the Southeast Region and a member of locations department for over 9 of those years, it saddens me to see all the posts from friends who knew this young woman. It saddens me even further that her family doesn’t get to hug her nor hear her laugh any more. I know from personal experience through several shoots that a rep from the railroad must be there while filming or you don’t have permission! It’s obvious to everyone who knows how this works and something that should be focused upon for films. No matter how important the shot, safety first! It’s always a known rule by industry professionals, that is perhaps the underlying statement that this industry needs more professionals instead of people wanting to be in the film business. I’m sorry to the Jones’ family and friends.

  15. anon says:

    sad, my prayers to the family I cant believe the big name actors would still want to do this movie, I think it would be career suicide.it is so shameful what happened, any other movies they may play in everyone would never forget this role in midnight rider, and it would follow them when trying to get other roles I will never see this movie if they make it, I just feel there are some things you just don’t re;visit this is one.

  16. P Campea says:

    I have been waiting a week to hear who the 1st AD was theres got to be a call sheet somewhere

  17. This story saddens me so. It wouldn’t be the first time a production has gone Guerrilla. A similar situation happened (with no death or injury resulting thankfully) to a friend of mine stunt driving in Canada. Budgets and work availability being super tight no one admitted fault and nothing was done although there were other instances of similar tactics on the same production (BIG name attached). We should never walk onto a set with this possibility lurking. Please take head and document these infringements. Notify your union and press the issue. The problem is that no one wants to blow the whistle and be ostracized/lose work. I will keep following this story and my thoughts go out to the family.

  18. Alan D. says:

    Was there a Safety Memo regarding working around trains attached to the call sheet? There is an Industry Safety Bulletin #28 which deals with this very thing.

  19. stopandcare says:

    I want to see Call Sheet. Does Variety have it published ?

    • D Mac- Toronto says:

      Never mind the call sheet, who signed an agreement with the rail company to be on the property and who directed the company in that direction if there was no agreement ?? No mention of a Location Manager either, no point in finger pointing. It is very cut and dry, put the producer and the production legal department on the hot seat ASAP !!!

    • J.E. Vizzusi says:

      “If a Director calls for a Rehearsal or in this case a non-scheduled Shoot Day, there may not be a full Call Sheet for the crew.” Or worse.. they could of planned it that way.

      • Alan D. says:

        Sorry, but there is always a call sheet for any kind of shoot day. And principal actors make a shoot day, ipso facto, a production day, with medic, unless of course tricky accounting relating to number of official shoot days is involved, as in low-budget contract qualifying.

  20. Brian Blagowsky says:

    I would bet that not only the key personnel new they didn’t have permission, but also the rest of the crew – and that’s why they scheduled to shoot on the tracks on a “test” day. They thought they could pull a fast one, and they screwed up.

    • bb says:

      Absolutely. If the crews knew they weren’t permitted and didn’t have any safety measures in place, sadly they share in the responsibility for what happened that day.

  21. J.E. Vizzusi says:

    “Ok, not a scheduled shoot day. With keys on the set? Ok, a prep day. With Lead actor on the set? It really sounds to me like they attempted to steal the Railroad Track Shot and then come back and shoot Atmosphere and around the Tracks where they actually had permission to be. These incidents almost always are extremely difficult to prove criminal intent. The Producers Lawyer up heavily then
    distance themselves from Director and everyone else. Many cases end up to be Wrongful Death Suits settled out of Court.

    • JRP says:

      I don’t think it’s hard to prove criminal intent if director Miller was actually there on the tracks [read this elsewhere]. If CSX has the e-mails to prove they denied permission to film on this exact trestle [as a CSX employee told the sheriff]…this is a situation where the railroad specifically DENIED them permission to film at this exact location, they filmed there anyway WITH the DIRECTOR present, & someone died & others were seriously injured because of it.

  22. Steve Grider says:

    I have worked on projects involving trains before. We ALWAYS had a railroad rep on site for our safety.

  23. MJ says:

    Let’s not forget Nick Gant of Meddin Studios who was the first to defend himself for putting his crew on the tracks and strongly asserted that they had permission from CSX and even went as far as accusing CSX of lying, referenced above.

    • JRP says:

      It’s easily proved, IF the e-mails that CSX claims deny permission truly exist. If they don’t, why would a CSX employee tell the sheriff not only that the film did not have permission but that they had e-mails proving it? There’s no reason to even mention email, unless you’ve got it.
      Also, this isn’t just the sheriff or OSHA, it’s also NTSB, and NTSB does NOT play. I’ve read summaries/skimmed a few NTSB reports & if there is a minute mistake on the part of the transportation co. it’s in there. To lie about emails-when the NTSB is going to look at all of their communications-is not something CSX would do.

  24. Alan D. says:

    One of the first films ever made was a train pulling into a station. The first dramatic film was “The Great Train Robbery.” We know how to do this. Freight trains do not appear out of nowhere, and the sad truth is that this death is one of the most, if not THE most, avoidable disasters in American film history.

    • J.E. Vizzusi says:

      You are so right Alan, this is not Rocket Science – like planning a trip to the Moon! The basic mechanics of working with Railroads on shoots big and small have been handed down since the Silent era. On the sets I have been involved with Trains on we even had the Engineers help us plan Distance and Speed from him (the Train) to the Camera and the Actors. Safety First is a must, then get the Shot!

  25. Elmer Vargas says:

    Agreed i would also like to see the call sheet

  26. jonesatlarge says:

    The case will be intentionally convoluted by the guilty trying to shirk punishment, but it’s simple, really. Criminal negligent homicide charges should be brought against Producer/Director Randall Miller, unit production manager Jay Sedrish, 1st assistant director Hillary Schwartz, and any additional producers that knew the production was shooting on the tracks with no permit.

  27. John Tintorie says:

    It would be a great service to the industry for Variety to publish the call sheet that you acquired from the day in question.

    Thanks.

    • Georgia AD says:

      As an AD I am asking this same question and I have been. Why isn’t she being talked about at all? William Hurt was there working as well as another actor. The 1st would have been then. She needs to lose her DGA status.

      • SLH says:

        I agree, why hasn’t the 1st AD been named in any articles. Safety starts with her and ends with her.. No permits = NO SHOOTING……No exceptions to the rule…..I’ve been a 1st AD for over 20 years and have shot on live tracks many times. They’re protocols we follow to the T. Safety meetings with the crew and the Train Site Rep who states what can and cant be done. You break the rules your off the set. Nobody needs to die for a shot..This was totally preventable and the Director, producer, UPM,1st AD all should be held liable…..They knew it wasn’t cleared…..

      • D Mac- Toronto says:

        I would like to add to this, I am a Location Manager in Toronto. There are specific things that need to be in place to be on location specifically dealing with trains, if there was principal cast then this was not gorilla shooting, this was full on. Start from the top of the production food chain and work your way down, there should be more than just the 1st losing their status. Jail time more like !!!

    • H. says:

      Yes please, both front and back of the call sheet…

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