‘Midnight Rider’ Death: Sarah Jones Becomes a Symbol as Bizzers’ Emotions Surge

Sarah Jones Midnight Rider Death

"We are all Sarah Jones," declares global below-the-line community

As the organizers of Sunday’s Oscars telecast continued to withhold word on whether they would include Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed by a train on Feb. 20 during shooting of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider,” in the show’s “In Memoriam” reel, the worldwide outpouring of grief and anger over her death continues to build.

Jones has become a symbol, and there is growing sentiment within the industry that her death and the larger issue of safety will remain hot topics for a long time to come.

Industry insiders expressed doubt that Jones would be included. The Academy is sticking with its policy of not commenting on who will or won’t be included on the televised “In Memoriam” segment. She will almost certainly be included in the more extensive list of deaths that runs on Oscars.com, but that is unlikely to mollify the nearly 57,000 people who have signed the online petition to have Jones included in the television segment.

One common sentiment among the below-the-line community, repeated on the  “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page, on a Twitter hashtag and by below-the-line crew who were shocked by the accident, is “We are all Sarah Jones.”  That reflects a general feeling that while stuntmen and special effects pros do dangerous work and are trained for the risks they face, camera assistants, production sound mixers and hair stylists rely on the first assistant director, key grip and others to keep them safe — and that some directors and producers have become cavalier about such safety.

Expressions of grief and solidarity have poured in from film sets and filmmaking professionals around the world, as planning accelerated for more memorials and tributes.

On social media, a push has been launched for stars attending the Oscars on Sunday to wear a small black ribbon. “We ask that the celebrities that we all work so tirelessly to make look great be our voice this Sunday,” says the “Wear a Ribbon to the Oscars for Sarah” Facebook page. “Wear a ribbon, and when you are asked why, tell them about Sarah.” The hashtag on Twitter for the push is #ribbonforsarah.

A moment of silence was held for Jones at the Intl. Cinematographers Guild publicists lunch (Publicists are repped by the the ICG) at the Beverly Wilshire hotel Friday. Jones was a member of the ICG. The ICG is helping to organize a memorial gathering in Atlanta for Jones, scheduled for Sunday, and will hold a candlelight vigil for her on Wed., March 5, in Los Angeles, probably from 7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The route of the march has not yet been finalized.

The “Slates for Sarah” Facebook page continues to accrue photos from sets all over the world. Photos of slates bearing messages of love and “RIP” or “Never forget” notes have come from sets in Israel, London, Vancouver and other global locations. The cast from “The Vampire Diaries,” where Jones had once worked, and from “True Blood,” posed with the slates from from their sets and posted the photos to Twitter. Individuals and companies from around the industry are also weighing in with their own photos and messages on the Facebook page.

The ICG’s Facebook page has a photo of Jones’s family holding her own personal slate, which was with her in the moments leading up to her fatal accident. The family’s message reads in part: “Our thanks go out not only to the Slates for Sarah community, but also to every hard worker that ever contributed to the industry. She considered you family.”

That affection seems to be reciprocated in Georgia, where Jones was well-known and well-liked among local pros. Emotions there are running high. Local crew people in Atlanta are frustrated and angry, feeling that the accident was preventable.

Those with experience shooting around railroads seem unanimous in their dismay at the sequence of events that has emerged since the accident and reports that the railroad, CSX, told investigators it denied permission for the shoot to be on its tracks or bridge. Sheriff’s detectives in Wayne County, Georgia, are focusing on who put the crew on the bridge, and how they got access to the property.

Nilo Otero, a first assistant director who has worked on shoots around trains, said he wouldn’t shoot on active tracks without a railroad company rep, and would put spotters three to five miles away “to look for acts of God.”

“Trains has its own set of rules,” he said. “They have to deal with scale and inertia that are outside of most people’s experience. Trains are not cars. They don’t stop, they don’t back up real easy.

“Any time I (work with trains) I have ‘Train Guy’ standing by me. If Train Guy has to go to the bathroom, we don’t do anything. Anything we have to do goes through Train Guy. If we have to change for some reason, we wait until he makes his calls and we see what’s viable. This isn’t a run-and-gun situation. You don’t try to sneak anything.”

Otero said the apparent lack of a railroad company representative on site may indicate that those running the shoot that day knew they didn’t have permission to shoot —  or to put a hospital bed on the railroad tracks, as the shot required.

Federal laws and regulations are stringent and specific on the subject, and putting an obstruction on active railroad tracks can be a violation of federal law. The line where the accident took place is considered a main line with nine to 14 trains on a typical day.

“If you can’t get permission for it, then you don’t have the guy whose job it is to refuse permission around,” said Otero. “The nature of what they were trying to do may have been something that couldn’t have been done officially.”

The crew was told that if they heard a whistle, they’d have a minute to clear the tracks, but in fact had much less, perhaps as little as 15 seconds, according to crew members who were present on the bridge that day. Otero said, “Even if you’re getting down and dirty with this, you still use your brain. You can’t say ‘We’ll hear a whistle and we’ll get out of the way.’ Especially if you’re going to put something on the track.”

(Tim Gray contributed to this report.)

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  1. K g Ramsey says:

    O-M-G, seems like a preventable horrible tragic accident that took young Sarah’s life

  2. Jon Raymond says:

    Money is the root of all evil.

  3. Rich says:

    Nick Gant of Meddin Studios makes unbelievably callous remarks after Sarah Jones’ death http://pge.sx/1d8vI5C this guy always lives up to his reputation.

  4. Smooth says:

    The only thing that should be said to Miller is “Good riddance and don’t drop the soap”. Miss Savin, I’d like for you to meet Bertha, she’ll be your cell mate for the next 25 years. There’s no excuse for this, end of story.

    • anon says:

      don’t forget all the other producers they all had to ok the shoot, and I am sure wanted it done their way. too I think they all should answer for their carlesness

  5. The Watcher says:

    “location man,” are you an operative of Hiltzik Strategies, the catastrophe mitigating strategic public relations firm hired by “Midnight Rider” director and producer Randall Miller and his wife/partner Jody Savin?

    • location man says:

      Nope. Never heard of Hiltzik Strategies. But I did see the clip of Randall Miller and Jody Savin laughing about putting an infant’s life in danger in “CBGB” and then boasting about filming guerilla-style without permits. It’s on their DVD.

  6. Dan J. says:

    1. No permit to be on the tracks or trestle.
    2. No medic on set.
    3. No plan in place for properly notifying crew of oncoming trains.

    Producer/Director, Randall Miller
    Unit Production Manager, Jay Sedris
    First Assistant Director, Hillary Schwartz

  7. location man says:

    Randall Miller is a talented veteran filmmaker who shoots interesting and unusual movies that nobody sees. When news first broke of Sarah Jones’ death, the media referenced how his “Bottle Shock” was self-distributed. A charming and nuanced film, it helped launch the career of the future Captain Kirk and Jack Ryan actor Chris Pine. Director Miller’s most recent effort, “CBGB,” again attracted Alan Rickman — but made a little over $40,000 at the box-office.

    Had the “third train” not come along on February 20th, actors William Hurt, Eliza Dushku, Bradley Whitford, Wyatt Russell, Charles Dutton, et al would be showing up for rehearsals and takes — as if nothing had changed — to make a potentially brilliant bio-pic about the life of Gregg Allman. And Allman, whose life had already been marked by a series of tragedies, could proudly view his legacy on the screen. Director Miller might have elevated his career, Open Road might have had a sleeper hit, and all the viewers would have watched a dream-sequence of a hospital-bed on a train-trestle, thinking “how’d they get that shot?” But the unexpected happened, and a valuable life was lost.

    The Sarah Jones tragedy is mostly a story about Hollywood desperation. It was desperation by those in charge “not to say no” and be perceived as “not a team-player.” It was desperation by the crew to please their employers, and not be “stuck in the mud,” even if it meant stepping into a potentially dangerous situation. Desperation is natural to a business that’s “only as good as your last film,” but in the last 10-20 years, it’s only grown worse and worse and worse in a fear-based industry. My fellow location managers, shocked and saddened by the senselessness of it, also grumble that the railroad operators will make what was already a difficult process to shoot now nearly impossible.

    So yes, safety on the set will be re-evaluated as a result of Sarah Jones’ death. And Haskell Wexler is to be lauded for taking a strong stand. But unless Hollywood can truly address the desperation that hits every level of our business, then problems will come back again and again. We’ve all been there; we’ve all gone through conflicts that are the nature of any film shoot. In fact, there’s an aspect to the “run-and-gun” style that’s condoned, and even rewarded. Roger Corman built an empire of new filmmakers embracing it (although to my knowledge didn’t kill anybody). And Robert Rodriguez built a brand-name using it. It’s the thrill of creativity unbound — and unless some common sense contains it, it becomes reckless.

    If those in charge knowingly broke the law — to put their subordinates in danger when they had a duty to protect them — then several people may be looking at lengthy prison-sentences. Millions upon millions of dollars will be awarded to the Jones family and other victims. If the insurance is voided, then that process will complicate a legal system for years to come. Ultimately the outcome of this incident may depend on what teeth the Wayne County DA or Georgia authorities have. Or whether some politician might want to go “light on Hollywood” to not disturb the tax incentives. But Randall Miller is no John Landis. On February 20, 2014, his career along with several others effectively ended.

    All in a desperate decision to “get that shot.”

    • H. says:

      “(location managers) also grumble that the railroad operators will make what was already a difficult process to shoot now nearly impossible.”

      This is such an arrogant and ill-informed comment in an already odd posting. Since when have professional and established railroad operators like CSX who have to abide by stringent internal and Federal safety standards for their own employees and move massive amounts of freight in a timely and economic manner been in the business of catering to film crews? Railroads are heavy industrial environments that are exceeding dangerous. After doing numerous railroad shoots the closet comparison I could make in respects of speed, noise and power is the deck of an aircraft carrier which I have filmed on three times. It is a difficult process for the railroad because from a logistical and safety standpoint it is nearly impossible to accommodate a film crew on a main line. Especially a film crew putting set decoration directly onto the trestle and tracks of a main line. Are you kidding me? Let’s find a picturesque spot on an abandoned line or lightly used line, there are plenty of those all over the South.

    • Janet Melody says:

      This reads as if written by a member of Hiltzik Strategies, the public relations consulting firm that Randall Miller hired on the 28th. All the references to actors in but no mention of the injuries occurring on Miller’s past films. Notice the careful twist to place blame on a ‘desperate’ crew and how they were stepping into a potentially dangerous situation.

      How would the crew have known it was dangerous beforehand and why would they have been desperate?

      • location man says:

        Janet: the crew-members would have known it was dangerous because it was a LIVE TRACK. And they would have been desperate (as in, “don’t complain, you’re working”) because everybody is afraid of losing their job — especially in a tight-knit community such as Georgia. There’s no twist here to place blame on subordinates — if all we’re hearing is true than it was those in charge who misled, and possibly several people are likely to go to prison as a result. Don’t know about injuries on Miller’s past films, but please enlighten us.

    • PG says:

      You wrote the best comment yet on this. Very true, and very sad.

    • Richard says:

      The myth that there was an unexpected train is that-myth. Regardless of what the producers/director/1st AD thought they were looking at for a schedule, you cannot get schedules of freight trains. NTSB and TSA regulations do not allow those schedules to be published, to prevent someone from attempting to derail a train (say one carrying anhydrous ammonia) in a populated area. If they had any actual schedule it would be of passenger trains only.
      Around Atlanta, and across the south part of Georgia, there are plenty of unused tracks and bridges. That shot could easily have been obtained, with some research, time and not a lot of money.

      • The Watcher says:

        “location man,” why would producer/director Randall Miller choose to shoot illegally on an unsafe, and now DEADLY, live train track when CGI and unused tracks are available?

        Also, I’ve not seen any discussion of “surreptitiously” provided train schedules. Who are you getting your mysterious suppositions and mind-reading (“…with the train operator thinking…” ) from? With all of this inside information, you should then know quite well why CSX denied the filmmakers’ request to shoot ON the train tracks on which Sarah Jones died and 7 others suffered broken bones and other injuries.

      • location man says:

        It’s been suggested that the producers were surreptitiously getting a schedule — which CSX might have innocently provided — with the train operator thinking they would be filming “near” but not on the tracks. As numerous train personnel have posted, this is not AMTRAK! Freight trains run whenever they need to, when they are loaded, when they need to be unloaded, and on a main line like this one up to 14 times a day. That’s why to shoot on a live track, everybody in the film business knows you would definitely need to have a representative from CSX

  8. stopandcare says:

    # ribbonsforsarah on Devious Maids took on a different twist. Instead of black our wardrobe department made ribbons with a giraffe print . Sarah’s favorite animal was the giraffe! Ted, I’m sure you’ve visited Slates For Sarah Visit StopandCare and you’ll se other photos . One of the ribbon our girls made!

    • The Watcher says:

      Why would producer/director Randall Miller choose to shoot illegally on an unsafe, and now DEADLY, live train track when CGI and unused tracks are available?

      Also, I’ve not seen any discussion of “surreptitiously” provided train schedules. Who are you getting your mysterious suppositions and mind-reading (“…with the train operator thinking…” ) from? With all of this inside information, you should then know quite well why CSX denied the filmmakers’ request to shoot ON the train tracks on which Sarah Jones died and 7 others suffered broken bones and other injuries.

      • location man says:

        1 – why would Miller shoot illegally? Stupidity is one theory. Probably provided a “look” that he felt he couldn’t otherwise afford to get. Am curious if that bridge had any significant meaning to Gregg Allman or was in the auto-biography..

        2 – Am getting my information from others’ posts and friends of Sarah’s. This was a case where they thought they had it all figured out, and were horribly wrong.

        3 – Surely CSX wouldn’t approve a small-budget film to shoot on live tracks, on a trestle, over water, with up to fourteen 6000-ton stacked freight trains crossing each day. Even Ridley Scott would have had a tough time staging that scene.

  9. hannay2014 says:

    There is absolutely no excuse for putting anybody in harms way on a shoot. In my 46 years as a producer and executive, and with more than 60 productions to my credit, I have crossed that line once. On 1974 shoot a stunt actor was injured when a motor cycle went out of control and crashed into him. I was not on location, but have always considered myself responsible for what happened. It bothers me still. We should all grieve for the loss of Sarah Jones’ young life, so full of promise.

    David Hannay

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