A little more than two weeks after camera assistant Sarah Jones’ death on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic, “Midnight Rider”, the incident is affecting the film industry in ways both positive and, well… as questionable as the circumstances that predicated the tragedy.
As reported here on March 1st, Jones was killed on February 20 when she was struck by a train on a railway bridge near Jesup, Georgia. The ensuing Wayne County sheriff’s homicide investigation revealed that “Rider” producers were denied permission by railway owner CSX to shoot on the tracks. The production company Unclaimed Freight and director Randall Miller haven’t definitively stated whether they’d secured permission, with executive producer Jay Sedrish replying to the lead investigator’s question on the subject by saying, “That’s complicated.” The investigation is ongoing and no criminal charges have yet been filed.
What then has resulted? First, some of the highs:
An online petition requesting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences include Jones in their In Memorium segment on the March 2 Oscar telecast gathered over 62,000 signatures. Jones wasn’t included in the segment, but an onscreen banner with her name and picture informed viewers where they could view the complete In Memorium gallery. Jones is featured there. Some Oscar winners and attendees wore black ribbons to commemorate her.
A Facebook page, Slates for Sarah, featuring photos of camera slates from productions around the world that bear tributes to Jones, currently has 68,000 likes. The page links to the website, A Pledge to Sarah, that asks readers to pledge to promote greater safety on film sets. The site also lists phone numbers for crew to call with safety concerns, and a selection of industry safety bulletins – including one governing shoots on railways.
The “Rider” production has been put on indefinite hold. But the film was to shoot for 24 days in nearby Savannah, Georgia, commencing the Monday following Jones’ death. Many members of Savannah’s tight-knit production community belong to the industry groups Savannah Filmmakers and/or Savannah Women in Film and Television. The groups are arranging a seminar on set safety, tentatively scheduled for later this month. It’s an event typical of renewed industry focus on the subject.
A March 7 candlelight memorial march in West Hollywood was attended by over 500 industry workers. Jones’ parents, Elizabeth and Richard , spoke afterwards, with Richard saying, “Do not have a reason for another father to stand up here and to give this talk. No one’s daughter, no one’s son, should ever die again making a film.”
And now, some lows:
The Hollywood Reporter announced on February 27 that director Miller has secured the services of an unnamed law firm and Hitzik Strategies, the latter which the Reporter refers to as a “high profile PR firm”. In another Reporter piece posted earlier in the day, the Directors Guild of America says, “those ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe set are the employers.” In the same article, the Directors Guild of Canada cautions, “Directors need to be aware of potential jeopardy in asking for unplanned shots requiring access to property outside the contracted work zone.”
On March 1, New York Post entertainment news site Page Six posted an article in which Nick Gant, another of the film’s executive producers, is said to have posted a Facebook comment on Jones’ death that was “so callous and inconsiderate he quickly removed if from his Facebook page.” The article didn’t include the comments, and the writer offered no evidence that Gant actually posted them, stating he didn’t see the post and citing only a source who claims Gant took it down on the advice of friends. An earlier Variety article updated on February 21 with comments from Gant quotes him as saying, “We are spending too much time trying to place blame on a horrific accident.” While that in itself seems callous (if not self-serving), Gant did follow with, “Sarah’s actions probably saved other peoples’ lives.” Gant’s Facebook page currently shows no postings dated after February 8.
Filmmaker Magazine posted a March 2 article titled, “Accidental Death of Sarah Jones Raises Awareness of Film Production Safety”. Speculation re: the work of Miller’s PR firm resulted, with readers claiming the word “Accidental” suggested there’s no one at fault. Filmmaker subsequently changed their title to start with “On-Set”, with a statement acknowledging the pending homicide investigation as the cause.
A February 26 news report on Savannah, Georgia’s, WTOC includes Randall’s and producer/wife Jody Savin’s behind-the-scenes DVD commentary on their previous film, “CBGB”, also shot in Savannah. The two joke about a scene in which they drop a piano down a set of stairs without the knowledge of the location’s homeowner, and another where they have a toddler run through a field of cows. Says Randall, “I mean, I don’t think it’s dangerous at all to have a little kid run through cows, do you think?”
So two-and-a-half weeks later…
Lessons learned, it seems – but lessons that couldn’t more antithetical. One one hand, they’re resulting in tangible actions aimed at improving the well-being of an entire industry’s laborers. On the other, they’re not atypical to that same industry – a business where media spin is a highly-valued asset. But the question on everyone’s mind remains unanswered: were Sarah Jones and the “Rider” crew supposed to be on those tracks? Those on the positive side of the equation haven’t waited to act. Those on the negative? Silence, the services of a PR firm, and lawyering up.