Sarah Jones remembered
On-set death of camera assistant felt 'across the world'
Sarah Jones' death in February while working on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider, outside Savannah, has been treated as a tragedy, a crime, and a scandal. But one thing is certain: It's the most high-profile production accident in years.
"The impact is not just in Georgia. It's really across the world," says Craig Miller, co-president of the not-for-profit coalition Georgia Production Partnership, which advocates on behalf of the industry. "The awareness of a safe set and the responsibility that falls on everyone as a member of the crew to have safe sets is the key thing that came out of Sarah's death."
According to an investigation by The Hollywood Reporter, Jones, an "indefatigable" 27-year-old camera assistant, was killed by a passing train while Rider shot on a trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County. The scene was a dream sequence: The crew had set up a twin-size metal-framed bed and mattress in the middle of the tracks. And then they heard a train coming. Debris from the collision — crew members, including the director, first tried to move the bed before leaving it to scramble for cover — may have knocked Jones from safety and propelled her into the path of the train.
Another crew member, hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, fractured her arm against the passing train. The first thing Gilliard saw after the train passed was Jones' "mangled" body, which had been struck both by debris and by the train itself, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
In total, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says eight crew members were injured. Star William Hurt, on the set when Jones was killed, left the project in late April. The ensuing investigation eventually included the Wayne County Sheriff, OSHA, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but the charge surfaced quickly that Jones' death was the result of negligence.
"This was no accident," said Ray Brown, president of the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union local 479 in Atlanta, to THR.
CSX Transportation, the company that owns the trestle, tracks, and easement, says it had denied the film's request for access — twice. "The production company had previously been denied permission to film on the trestle, and there was electronic correspondence to verify that fact," states a Wayne County Sheriff's report obtained by the media.
The L.A. Times reported that two trains had already come along the tracks on the day of Jones' death. But the crew had been told not to expect a third. Officials told the L.A. Times that no railroad representative was on site.
Rayonier Performance Fibers, which owns the land around the tracks and trestle, reportedly says it had granted permission to the production.
Midnight Rider was written and produced by husband-and-wife team Randall Miller and Jody Savin, and directed by Randall Miller. According to Deadline Hollywood, Savin, Randall Miller, producer Jay Sedrish, and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz have all been indicted for involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. They have all pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go to trial on March 9, 2015.
In August, OSHA cited Randall Miller and Savin's production company, Film Allman LLC. "It is unacceptable that Film Allman LLC knowingly exposed their crew to moving trains while filming on a live track and railroad trestle," said Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels in a statement. (Before the accident, the crew had reportedly been told that should a train come down the tracks, they would have 60 seconds to get clear.)
In May, Jones' parents filed a wrongful death suit against a variety of individuals and entities involved with the film, including Randall Miller, Savin, distributor Open Road Films, and executive producer Gregg Allman. Jones' parents told THR that the suit would double as a fact-finding tool, to better understand what decisions were made that led to their daughter's death. "We don't want this to happen again. That's kind of the bottom line," says Jones' father, Richard. "What needs to happen to make sure that's the case?"
Craig Miller says that safe sets have always been the philosophy of good producers and unions, but "now they're sort of working as a group to ensure that everyone, actors, and crew members and all the support people that work on films are safer on sets."
Randall Miller, Savin, Sedrish, and Schwartz have not spoken publicly. The Jones' family attorney did not reply to a request for comment for this story by press time.
Hundreds gathered in the city March 2, at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. According to THR, union leader Bruce Doering read from a letter he'd received, sent by a young woman: "Sarah, you're the first example I had of a female camera assistant. You stole my heart. I will aim to be someone you can be proud of."
Jones, a South Carolina native, got her start as an intern on Lifetime's "Army Wives."
Almost as soon as Jones died, a petition began to circulate asking that she be included during the Oscars' annual "In Memoriam" tribute. It garnered more than 60,000 signatures and Jones was honored during the ceremony. Filmmakers Malcolm Clarke, Mark Sanger, and Glenn Fremantle wore black ribbons in her honor during their Oscar speeches.
The locally produced television drama "The Vampire Diaries," which Jones worked on, dedicated its Feb. 27 episode to her Jones' memory. Star Ian Somerhalder tweeted at the time, "Tonight's episode of the Vampire Diaries is dedicated in loving memory of our Cosmic Sister Sarah Jones."
The crews of both the "The Vampire Diaries" and sister show "The Originals" organized a walk-a-thon on Oct. 5, in Atlanta, just weeks after Jones would have turned 28. Combined with similar walk-a-thons held in Santa Monica and New York, more than $35,000 was raised for the Sarah Jones Film Foundation, which is dedicated to improving on-set safety.
Thanks to the Facebook page "Slates for Sarah" and corresponding hashtag, tributes came pouring in from productions near and far. Craig Miller, in the course of his work, will travel to several states a year. "I've yet to go to a state where they didn't know about Sarah Jones," he says.
"We are all a community ... What good comes from this? At least there's a legacy that Sarah has left behind that other sets will be safer," he says.
There is one more thing: a new movement, a sort of "organic tribute to Sarah," Craig Miller says, among productions across the country to name the first shot of each day and use it as a moment to gather together and talk about safety.
Supporters call it "the Jonesy."