A shocking ending came about earlier this week as director Randall Miller agreed to a plea deal which sent him to prison and an executive producer to ten years probation in the tragic case involving the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones. Both were charged with involuntary manslaughter after Ms. Jones died while on location shooting the movie, “Midnight Rider”. This admission that there was fault at the highest levels of a production is an almost unprecedented verdict for the film industry.
As with many other businesses, this verdict speaks to the “Buck stops here” belief that the people at the top are indeed responsible for the people who work below them. Even if the director himself was not involved in the incident, he and his team should have taken all the needed steps to make sure everything involved in the location and shoot were safe. Working in any sort of active environment involves putting your life in to the hands of those around you and sadly in this case, the people at the top did not hold up their end.
What has been reported is that the production team failed to get the needed permit to shoot on an active train track and instead were attempting to “steal” a few shots. They had been informed that no trains were expected during their time there and should one be on the way, they’d have at least one minute to remove the gear and get to safety. Instead, a train did indeed come as they were on the track and they did not end up having enough time to get to safety. Some of the props involved were destroyed, which sent debris flying at the crew. Several pieces struck Ms. Jones, knocking her in to the path of the train which ended her life.
Obtaining a permit is an often tedious and expensive part of film production. To shoot in crowded, active locations requires that the place is secured, that traffic and general populations are diverted and that the crew has total access to get the shots they need to complete their project. These permits can sometimes take weeks or months to secure and in some cases they can initially be agreed upon only to have something fall through after a schedule has been locked in.
Time is money, as the saying goes and any sort of delays in production can lead to a film or project going over budget. As such, there is constant pressure to get the shots when they can for as cheaply as possible and this is what often leads to “stealing” shots. Essentially, it means a crew goes in and gets the shots without a permit, sometimes without certain safety guidelines in place for the sake of time and budget costs. It’s a tradition as old as the industry itself, with corners forever being cut to keep everything on schedule.
There is also a sometimes uncomfortable truth that the crew on a set can be the invisible soldiers of a project, the people who show up early, work late and are asked to put in more time and energy than they are capable. Their safety is not always at the forefront of a project, especially one with hundreds of moving pieces. Any large scale production will have a director and a whole team below him or her who does their bidding to make sure the various departments and personnel are ready. The people at the very bottom of this power dynamic are expected to just do their job and not make waves.
Granted, this is not the time to ask for a crew to be pampered. Most people are more than happy to just show up and do their job without special treatment. Yet in times like this, it is of the utmost importance to remember that they too need to be taken care of.
In this world of high pressure to deliver a project that turns a profit, what cannot ever be taken for granted is the safety of the backbone of the production. People who sometimes put themselves on the front lines of danger to get the shots need to know that their safety is being considered heavily. Whether that means taking more time to make certain every permit is secured or just budgeting more money for the safety and security of the crew, changes need to be made to ensure that everyone involved in these projects are considered.
By all accounts Sarah Jones was a wonderfully talented and dedicated worker and above all else, her death is all that really matters here. Her family have lost someone they love dearly at far too young an age in a freak accident. The parents and family have spoken to how much she loved what she did and that they grieve as much for what she had in front of her as what she had already become. Her death, hopefully can spark an important discussion and perhaps change in the way that many movies do business. As her brother noted he hopes her death is not in vain. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family.