Normally, I try to keep things fairly positive on this blog. Not today. The tragic death of Sarah Jones on the set of “Midnight Rider,” represents everything I have grown to despise about the entertainment industry.
Here’s the short version of the story (which you can read here): a 27-year-old camera assistant is dead, and seven other people are injured, because the producers of the film she was working on decided it would be okay to shoot on a railroad trestle, at night, without permission.
We’ve all done stupid things to get a shot, but this was beyond stupid, it was criminal. If they had been filming on the tracks, the crew could have simply run away. But on that trestle – a narrow bridge the width of the tracks, high above the Altamaha river – there was nowhere to go. Worst of all, to avoid scrutiny, the producers of Midnight Rider scheduled the railroad shoot as a “camera test,” so that most of the crew – including experienced folks who wouldn’t have hesitated to speak up – would not be there. The crew members who were there – like Sarah – trusted the producers to have taken all necessary precautions for their safety. Why? Because that’s the producers’ job.
When I was first starting out in video production, an older camera operator told me, “Even if you don’t get a bit of video, but nobody gets hurt, it’s still a good day.” That is true, and it’s the responsibility of the producers to keep those priorities in mind at all times.
Instead, a handful of individuals made the decision to put other people – people who trusted them – in harm’s way. For money. Because, you see, time is money, and in the film biz, time is a LOT of money. It takes time to do things right, and when people stop caring about doing things right, corners get cut. Most of the time, it works out okay. But sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, people die.
Ray Brown, president of IATSE 479, recently posted, “JAY SEDRISH, Producer, knew they did not have a permit. JODY SAVIN, Producer, knew they did not have a permit. RANDALL MILLER, Producer/Director, knew they did not have a permit … I keep getting the question…..what can we do to prevent this from ever happening again. Here is my answer. PUT THE DIRECTOR AND PRODUCERS OF THIS SHOW IN JAIL. THEY ARE CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT AND THE EVIDENCE WILL PROVE THIS. There is an e-mail trail proving this. THEY KNEW, THEY KNEW, THEY KNEW. Stop looking to place blame anywhere else.”
As so often happens, the worst also brings out the best. There is a movement to add Sarah’s name to the “In Memoriam” tribute on this Sunday’s Academy Awards. All the nominees in the Best Cinematography category have been asked to mention her publicly as well. Most powerful of all, the Facebook memorial page Slates for Sarah stands as a moving example of the solidarity of the production community. As a camera assistant, Sarah’s job involved operating the slate (“clapper board”) for the camera department. So, in her memory, crews all over the world – many of whom never met Sarah – have added her name or photo to the slates they are using on their projects.