‘Midnight Rider’ and the Fatal Flaws of Hollywood Safety

Midnight Rider Doctortown Trestle Sarah Jones
Mike McCall for Variety

Not since the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors during the making of  “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” 32 years ago has the world’s production community been so shaken and outraged by an on-set fatality as the one two weeks ago that claimed the life of a 27-year-old camera assistant.

The death of Sarah Jones, who was crushed by a train while filming on an active railroad track for the independent film “Midnight Rider,” has galvanized the industry and raised blistering questions and concerns about an apparent paucity of safety precautions in place to protect the lives of those who work on movies and television shoots around the globe.

Catastrophic On-Set Accidents: A History

Underscoring that unsettling notion, investigators in Georgia, where Jones was killed, have released a key detail: That railroad company CSX did not give the production permission to be on the tracks. The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the accident as a homicide.

As attorneys and their clients gear up for the inevitable onslaught of litigation, authorities are combing through the details of exactly what happened on Feb. 20 in Doctortown, Ga., attempting to establish who ordered crew and cast members — including the film’s stars William Hurt and Wyatt Russell, who play rocker Gregg Allman and his older brother Duane — to go out on the trestle to shoot a dream sequence on a metal bed that was placed on the train tracks.

Sarah Jones: She Tried to Save the Gear

The incident that killed Jones occurred despite past efforts to institute stricter safety protocols in Hollywood following the “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash. While safety rules were bolstered, there has been a steady drumbeat of on-set deaths since then. Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows 10 such fatalities in the U.S. from 2003 to 2012, but the org doesn’t necessarily record all accidents. There are yet more deaths outside the U.S., including widely reported fatalities on the set of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Expendables 2.”

Few even attract much attention anymore. But as the death of Jones spotlights, there are gaping holes in the industry’s current safety plans.
John Sheeren, a Texas-based d.p. and camera operator who himself survived a near-miss on a train trestle during a commercial shoot in the 1980s, says techs are furious. “You can probably ask any film production technician who’s been on the job 10 years, and they can probably give you half a dozen incidences where they should have been killed or injured, and just by the grace of God they weren’t,” he says.

But many crew members have been — and still are — afraid to speak up about safety concerns, for fear of not getting that next job.

Mark August, VP of the Society of Camera Operators, agrees that many young crew members don’t feel they can question things. “They look to leadership for safety,” August says. “There is the assumption that your boss is taking every precaution, and that when you are employed, you are safe. The reality is, if it isn’t safe, (you have to feel free to) speak up.”

Jones’ brother Eric says such concerns were on Sarah’s mind when he met with her two days before the accident.

“She had never worked on a low-budget film before, and she told me she was a little sketched-out by it,” Jones says. “But she got over that when she talked about meeting Gregg Allman and William Hurt.”

The groundswell of shock and anguish over Jones’ death is particularly understandable considering the lack of response and stonewalling from many of the major companies and organizations contacted by Variety to discuss on-set safety. Not one of Hollywood’s six major studios responded to requests for comment for this story. Variety’s calls to the nonprofit Contract Services Administration Trust Fund, which runs the motion picture and TV industry’s Safety Passport program, were not returned. And, through his publicist, the film’s director, Randall Miller, who was on set that fateful day and whose company is producing “Midnight Rider” (production on which has been suspended indefinitely), has declined multiple interview requests by this publication.

Among workers, the Jones tragedy has struck a profound chord, drawing intense reactions from those who might have otherwise remained silent in the past. Their common refrain has gone viral on Twitter and Facebook and can be seen on T-shirts, umbrellas and mock location signs on the streets of Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities across the globe: “We Are All Sarah Jones.”

As a second assistant camera tech, Jones was the bottom-ranking member in her department, but Sheeren says even experienced pros identify with her plight. “Everybody started in the lowest position in their classification at one point or another, and everybody knows how powerless that position is,” he says.

August says he’s encouraged to see more social-media chatter about safety, including instances of crew members taking to the Internet to air their concerns, since the “Midnight Rider” accident. He reports a director on one of his shoots calling a meeting to announce that his production had permits, invite questions and urge anyone who felt unsafe to speak up.

“That’s something you’ve never heard coming from directors or producers,” August tells Variety.

Such changes are rippling through other current productions. In Georgia, where Jones was a familiar and well-liked set worker on the CW series “The Vampire Diaries,” the crews of that show and “The Originals” are holding daily safety meetings, a practice that had been abandoned on many sets.

Eric Henson, who works on the crew  of “Vampire Diaries,” says the “We Are All Sarah Jones” sentiment is one of the most important results of the tragedy.

“She happened to be one of my best friends, but it could have been anyone, or anyone else’s best friend,” Henson wrote in an email. “Everyone from a camera operator to an electrician to hair and makeup have been in situations like that.” He praises the “Vampire Diaries” set for its safety, but adds, “That being said, this has of course been a huge shock to all of us, as many of us were close to Sarah, and safety as well as ensuring safe working conditions in the future is a daily conversation topic now.”

Increasingly, reports are surfacing of crews standing up for themselves more readily.

D. J. Phillips, a camera operator on the set of a reality series shooting in New Orleans pulled his crew off a Mardi Gras float Feb. 28 when a scene turned dangerous. Some of the cast members were drinking and got into a brawl, according to Phillips, when a camera assistant on the float got wedged between the two men. Police intervened, he says.

“We are young people in this industry, and it is very hard in these situations, if no one else is looking out for me, to speak up,” says Phillips, who adds that  he has been extra cautious since learning of Jones’ death.

Ric Reitz, president of the Atlanta local at SAG-AFTRA, urged at Jones’ memorial that her loss not be forgotten: “I don’t want to see a situation of safety on a set that goes unheeded. That is our pledge to you.”

The actors’ union isn’t alone in making such a vow. A website called PledgeToSarah.org asks on-set pros at every level to promise that “from this day forward, a safe set will be my first and highest priority. I pledge to look out for the safety of those around me and in turn will expect others to do the same.”

Stephen Martin, who works on films as both an actor and as a crew member, and who created an “I Am Sarah” graphic that posted on the “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page, says what happened to the young camera assistant could have happened to any crew member. “We should not have to go to work worrying about if the right permit was pulled or if the conditions are unsafe,” he adds.

After the “Twilight Zone” accident, the first assistant director was made responsible for on-set safety. Under the Directors Guild of America’s basic agreement, those duties include: “Conduct a safety meeting on the set with cast and crew as required by the Company. Inspect the set daily for potential safety violations and report any such problems.” It’s common on sets for the first a.d. to joke, when giving safety instructions, “If something happens, I’m the one who’ll get sued.”

Variety reached out to the DGA for information on what disciplinary action, if any, the guild might mete out to a first a.d. who had failed to live up to that responsibility, but the org deflected attention away from itself and its members when it came to discussing the issue of safety, issuing a statement: “It is important to understand that while addressing safety concerns is a collaborative effort, involving competent and qualified safety personnel, DGA members and other crew members, those ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe set are the employers.”

Chris Clark, a 26-year-old Atlanta best boy-lighting technician who was a friend of Jones, argues that there is an inherent problem when it comes to the multiple duties assigned to assistant directors. He gave a speech before Local 479 of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, posted on YouTube, calling for the industry to take action on improving on-set safety in the wake of the train accident. He believes that an on-set safety officer should be tasked with overseeing such measures.

“It’s a conflict of interest to have an a.d., who is in charge of scheduling and shooting (and) looking out for the director’s best interest” to be responsible for crew safety, Clark tells Variety. “That should not be their job.”

OSHA, which tracks accidents on sets within the U.S., reveals that there have been 73 “catastrophic accidents” — i.e., incidents that have resulted in serious injuries — from 2003 to 2012.

The last fatal on-set accident recorded by OSHA came in November 2011, when scissor-lift driver Mike Huber suffered a fatal head injury while striking the set for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” in New Orleans. However, there have also been fatalities outside the U.S. that OSHA does not track.
Harland Braun, who represented director

John Landis after the fatal “Twilight Zone” accident, observes that movie sets can be treacherous and unpredictable due to unforeseen circumstances and the fact that conditions vary from production to production. “It can be dangerous because of the unexpected and the lack of repetition,” Braun says.

At the Cinematographers Guild memorial for Jones in Atlanta, below-the-line pros crowded in to tell Variety their own harrowing stories. Each could remember a close call, a safety measure overlooked, a corner cut. Among them was Clark, who pointed to the generators that major productions rely on, noting that their copper wiring is a draw for lightning strikes.

“We have lightning meters that light up when there is static electricity, and I have seen them light up like a Christmas tree,” Clark recalls. He says that when lightning gets within three to five miles, a set will shut down. But he thinks that’s cutting it too close.

Exactly whether corners were cut on “Midnight Rider” remains to be seen, but according to the Wayne County Sheriff’s office, which is conducting the investigation, authorities have so far found no evidence that there was a railroad company representative on site to ensure safety and control trains — a situation railroad experts describe as inconceivable for a properly permitted shoot on active tracks. The crew was told it would have 60 seconds to get off the track once it heard a train whistle, but ended up having only around 30 seconds, not enough time to clear themselves from the bridge — or the bed from the tracks.

Nilo Otero, a first a.d. on filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s action movies, among other projects, tells Variety: “Things start out with what I call the ‘J’ word.” ‘We’re just going to do this. We’re just going to get this little shot.’ Then things get more complicated, and the next thing you know you’re in a full-blown shot and you don’t have your proper circumstances in place.”

Lori Balton, a former location manager as well as scout, says she’s experienced the pressures that can lead to a decision to “steal a shot,” and adds that she’d rather producers call her overly cautious. “We’re responsible for following the filming permit that grants the crew access to a location,” she explains. “That’s our job.”

Meanwhile, the survivors of the “Midnight Rider” accident, many of whom have chosen to stay out of the public eye, are living with memories akin to those of combat soldiers. Some will require PTSD treatment, and one union official, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak, doubts that some of his members will soon be able to return to the get-it-faster pressure of a film or TV shoot.

William Paul Clark, a first assistant director whose credits include “Django Unchained” and “Rambo,” says one reason Jones’ death hit such a nerve is that her job description does not come with the inherent dangers of, say, a stuntman or an f/x specialist. “This is a second assistant camera person,” Clark says. “This is not a person who’s being paid for her expertise in dangerous situations. She’s in charge of the slate and communicating with the script supervisor and getting information to the editor. That this happened to a technical crew member, as opposed to someone who is trained for such things,” he adds, “is a tremendous tragedy.”

Henson says some assistant directors have come to him with a suggestion of how to memorialize Jones on film sets forever: calling the first shot of the day “the Jonesy,” just as set slanguage for the final shot of the day is the “martini shot” and the next-to-last one is called the “Abby” (after a famed assistant director).

The reason for using the naming convention for the days first shot? “To remind us to take a look around and make sure we’re working safely with the right precautions in place before the day really gets going,” Henson says.

Jones’ father, Richard, who spoke at her memorial, would no doubt support such a suggestion.

“I ask you to see to it our daughter’s life is not lost in vain,” he said, “that you see to it that this does not happen to someone else’s daughter or son.”

Dave McNary and Alexandra Cheney contributed to this report.