Two months after the on-set death of 27 year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones, headlines continue near-weekly regarding both the embattled production of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider, and crew-workers increasingly incensed by word that the film may yet be made by the producers they consider responsible for the needless tragedy.
Jones died on February 20 while working on the film, when she was struck by a train on a trestle near Doctortown, GA. Seven other crew members were injured, one severely. Criminal charges are pending, with the central questions of a possible case being whether producers Unclaimed Freight Productions had permission to be on the tracks, and if proper safety procedures had been implemented. The incident has become a rallying cry for increased focus on crew safety in the production industry .
The latest development: on Monday, Allman filed a lawsuit in Savannah, GA, to block the production.
The suit alleges that under the terms of Unclaimed Freight’s March 2013 option of My Cross to Bear, the Allman biography on which the film is based, shooting on Midnight Rider was to have commenced by February 28, 2014. Allman said Unclaimed Freight asserts the February 20 day of shooting comprises their exercise of the option. But his suit counters that as Freight termed the day a “pre-production pre-shoot” day, their “contention is incorrect and contradicted by their own admissions and production schedule.”
Allman further argues that he was never paid the full purchase price of the option and all monies tendered by Unclaimed Freight have been returned.
A hearing to consider a temporary restraining order is scheduled for May 12.
In the days immediately following Jones’ death, crew members reported that producer/director Randall Miller and producer Jody Savin (Randall’s wife) intended to move forward almost immediately with the production, presumably shooting in Savannah as then scheduled. After that, developments came thick and fast. Highlights are listed below.
Given that Allman’s lawsuit won’t be considered for another week-and-a-half, the next entry in the ongoing narrative may not happen until then. But considering the pace of developments to-date, those following the story may not have to wait that long. Only one thing has been predictable since late February: Miller, Savin, and other production principals have been silent.
February 20: Investigations into the incident are announced by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Sheriff’s detective Joe Gardner says he’ll investigate the case as a homicide. (The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Federal Railroad Administration have since been reported to also be looking into the incident.)
February 22: Gardner says railroad owner CSX was aware the film crew was in the area but did not grant permission for them to be on the tracks. Rider executive producer Nick Gant claims CSX is not being honest.
February 24: An incident report from Sheriff Sergeant Ben Robertson says Unclaimed Freight “…had been denied permission to film on the trestle, and there was electronic correspondence to verify that fact.” When asked by CSX if the production had such permission, Rider executive producer Jay Sedrish replies, “That’s complicated.”
February 24: The Facebook page, Slates for Sarah, is created. Page members post photos with camera slates bearing tributes to Jones, with posts promoting on-set safety. The page now numbers over 71,000 likes.
February 25: An online petition urges producers of the upcoming Academy Awards telecast to honor Jones in their In Memorium segment. The segment honors industry workers who’ve died in the previous year and traditionally includes only individuals with long industry careers. By comparison, Jones had about five years of credits. The petition ultimately garnered over 62,000 signatures.
February 26: Respected industry veteran and Oscar-winning director of photography Haskell Wexler describes Jones’ death as the result of “criminal negligence”. Wexler financed and directed Who Needs Sleep? The 2006 documentary on sleep deprivation stemmed from the death of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, who crashed his car after working a 19-hour day on the 1998 comedy, Pleasantville.
February 26: Savannah’s WTOC runs a report featuring clips from the making-of feature on the DVD release of CBGB, Randall’s and Savin’s previous film. 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?” The two also brag about shooting in unpermitted locations in New York.
February 26: Unclaimed Freight announces the Rider production will be suspended indefinitely. Crew members are released but told they will be recalled at a future date. A funeral service for Jones is held in Columbia, SC.
February 27: Variety reports the ongoing investigation is focusing on who decided to instruct crew to work on the trestle, and how they got access to the tracks. The article suggests the absence of CSX personnel on the set indicates the shoot was unauthorized.
February 27: The Directors Guild of America (DGA) releases a statement saying, “those ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe set are the employers.
February 27: Miller is reported to have secured the services of public relations firm Hiltzig Strategies, and an unnamed attorney (since identified as Savannah attorney, Donnie Dixon.)
February 27: Triggered by the incident. Savannah, Atlanta, and Los Angeles crews are reported to be launching campaigns to renew on-set safety guidelines and procedures. (The first shot of the day has since started to become known as “The Jonesy” – a reminder for crew to keep safety in mind throughout the day.)
March 2: Over 800 people attend a memorial service for Jones held at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
March 2: During the Academy Awards telecast, a picture of Jones is featured on an onscreen banner directing viewers to the In Memorium photo gallery at Oscar.com. Jones’ photo is included in the gallery.
March 4: The Hollywood Reporter posts an in-depth article on the incident, in which crew are reported to have been instructed they have sixty seconds to clear the trestle if they see or hear an approaching train. Details are harrowing, with crew trapped on the narrow trestle and the train flying by just inches away at an estimated 60mph. A prop bed placed on the track explodes when hit by the train, and a piece of it hits Jones and knocks her onto the rails, where she’s killed instantly. The article notes the day was referred to as a “camera test” day, with no call sheets provided and no medic on set.
March 7: Almost 1000 people attend a Hollywood candlelight vigil for Jones. Richard Jones, Sarah’s father, addresses the crowd, saying, “(this is) the beginning of a movement for safer film sets.”
March 9: The Jones family is reported to have hired Jeffrey R. Harris of Harris, Penn, Lowry, a Savannah law firm. Harris is expected to file one or more civil complaints related to the accident. While declining to discuss legal strategy, he does say, “There’s a lot of pressure on these producers and directors to make these films under budget.”
March 23: In his first statement since the incident, actor William Hurt, on-set that day playing Gregg Allman, recounts the instruction of having sixty seconds to clear the trestle. When he brings up his concern, Hurt says, “No one backed me up.” He goes on to say that when the fatal train appeared, “We didn’t have sixty seconds. We had less than thirty.”
March 23: Richard Jones says he believes the film’s producers, “did so many wrong things on so many levels, it’s just unbelievable.”
April 14: Sheriff John Carter says his office’s investigation into the incident is complete and that he will not pursue criminal charges. He will however present the case to the District Attorney’s office for possible further action.
April 8: A lengthy Deadline: Hollywood report recounts former Savannah Film Services Director, Jay Self, regularly clashing with producers during Randall’s 2012 production of CBGB. With the film shot largely in downtown Savannah, Self says the production frequently violated permit stipulations and caused safety hazards. Per the Savannah Film Commission’s annual report, “The unauthorized use of public and private property and repeated permit violation by one project (CBGB) generated more citizen complaints in two weeks than the combined projects for any previous year since the Film Office opened (in 1994).”
April 15: A message from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announces the Rider production will relocate to Los Angeles, with shooting to resume in June. (Jones was an IA union member.) The message notes the IA has no authority to stop the production.
April 15: In response to the IA message, the Facebook group, I REFUSE to work on Midnight Rider! For Sarah!!! is created. Members follow developments on the project and urge crew contacted by the production not to work on the film. The group currently has about 11,700 members.
April 21: The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office turns over the results of detective Gardner’s investigation to the District Attorney.
April 23: William Hurt is reported to have pulled out of the production. Reasons are not cited.
April 23: Joyce Gilliard, a hairstylist on the trestle with Jones, relates details of the incident, concluding, “This tragedy could have been prevented if safety preventions and protocols were met and people who were in charge made conscious decisions to ensure we were safe.” Gilliard was airlifted to Savannah with serious injuries to her shoulder and arm.
April 23: Jones’ death is included as one of seven case studies in The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health report, 2014 Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities. Co-worker Joyce Gilliard notes in the report that no on-set safety meeting was conducted the morning of the tragedy.
April 23: Producer Savin, speaking at a February 16 meeting of the Savannah Women in Film and Television (SWIFT), is reported to have complained about the Savannah Film Office’s oversight of her CBGB production, saying she was glad Jay Self was no longer the Film Commissioner and that, “We make movies by our own rules.”
April 24: Lakeshore Entertainment head of production Richard Wright (not associated with the Rider production) says at a California Film Commission breakfast that had the film “been shot here, there would not have been the same kind of risks that were taken.” Wright’s comment is angrily dismissed in online forums as an opportunity to discourage production outside of California, with many noting that most Rider producers and management personnel were from Los Angeles.
April 25: Greg Allman sends a personal letter to director Randall Miller urging him not to proceed with the production. “I am asking you to do the right thing and to set aside your attempts to resume the production out of respect for Sarah, her family and the loss that all of us feel so deeply,” writes Allman.
May 2: Industry outlets report Allman has filed suit in Savannah to block the production, claiming Unclaimed Freight’s option on his biography has expired, and that he was never fully paid.