JESUP, Ga. — Director Randall Miller may be the first director to serve jail time for an on-set accident, but as he began serving his sentence on Monday, his attorney pushed back at the idea that his client was reckless.
Ed Garland, whose Atlanta firm Garland, Samuel & Loeb represented Miller and his wife, Jody Savin, said the director wound up being a “poster child” for the problems of on-set safety even though he pinned the troubles on “a whole series of miscommunications and assumptions.”
“The way the system is set up, particularly if you are a smaller operation, you are totally dependent on a whole series of people to do their jobs, and these people come together at the last minute,” Garland said. “And then they have to operate as a well oiled machine. So the director, like the actor, is to be protected against danger because he’s focusing on the creative moment. That system didn’t work. He was put in danger. Misinformation flowed down. It broke down in little pieces. So the system needs to be better, and we wound up being the poster child.”
Miller plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing charges, just as a criminal trial in the case was set to begin. He was sentenced to two years in jail and eight years probation.
His wife, producer Jody Savin, also faced the same charges, but those were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
Camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and eight others were injured in the Feb. 20, 2014, train accident on the set.
Garland’s comments were a contrast to those of John Johnson, the special prosecutor in the case, who offered a narrative of the accident to the court that characterized the actions as “stealing the shot,” even if that meant putting lives at risk.
Miller did not address those comments when he entered his plea, but his attorneys told Judge Anthony Harrison that they took issue with some of the conclusions, although they did not specify what they were in court.
Outside the court, Garland said that on-set safety responsibilities do not lie with the director.
“Mistakes get made, and these should have been prevented, and because he was the director — who was not in charge of safety,” Garland said. “There are all kinds of other people in charge of safety under the contracts — he got the blame.”
“But you couldn’t have a better human being than this man or his wife or someone who is a total credit to the film industry. This is a great tragedy. He is willing to accept responsibility because the problem happened on his watch, even though it wasn’t his job.”
A key issue in the case was the lack of permission to shoot on the train tracks that day, when a train unexpectedly came as the production was shooting on a trestle. CSX Transportation said that it never gave the production permission to shoot at that location.
A question was who knew what and when. Had the case gone to trial, a key witness was expected to be Charley Baxter, the location manager who was in contact with CSX Transportation about securing permission to be on the railroad tracks. CSX sent the production two emails, one saying that it did not allow filming on its tracks and another saying it could not “support” a shoot there.
According to Garland, Baxter did tell investigators that he sent an email to Miller that conveyed CSX’s response, but the director “was locked up in the bunker trying to deal with William Hurt and other actors and trying to get them ready for the first scene. He never saw it.”
Baxter did not show up on the set that day. His attorney has said that he stands by his conduct.
Garland said that Miller would not have plead guilty had prosecutors not also indicted Savin.
“So what do you do — put your wife in jeopardy, or do you just bear the burden?” Garland said.
Miller and Savin’s production company set up for the movie, Film Allman, is challenging almost $75,000 in fines issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for willful safety violations. A hearing is scheduled for later this month, but Garland said that “in all probability in light of this, we will find a way to resolve that.”
Executive producer Jay Sedrish also plead guilty to the charges on Monday and was sentenced to 10 years probation. Still unresolved are the charges against Hillary Schwartz, the first assistant director, and prosecutors were working with her attorney on a possible plea agreement on Monday.
Garland said that Miller would serve his sentence in Wayne County.