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This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I woke up at 2 a.m. today thinking about Sarah Jones. Odd, since I never met the woman. Jones, a sweet-faced second camera assistant on the ill-fated Midnight Rider, lost her life on the very first day of production in a terrible train mishap. Like a lot of folks in the Hollywood community, I have been furious, frightened and jarred by the reports. How could this happen? Who is to blame? How do we make sure this never happens again?
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Department suggests this accident stemmed from a “stolen” shot, attempted without permits. While we need to wait for all of the information, I keep thinking about Sarah and her beautiful smile. It made me think of my own kids, who have both grown up around movie sets. What if it had been my kid or yours?
In my experience with more than 30 years in this business, movie productions are incredibly safe environments. In the vast majority of situations, even with the most dangerous stunts, serious precautions are taken. Any time I’ve been around stunts, the location has been scouted repeatedly, safety rules have been announced numerous times, and there is incredible attention to detail. This is why you don’t “steal” a so-called “gag” (stunt).
The responsibility for safety on the set falls to the first assistant director, the unit production manager and the line producer. ADs and UPMs are required to take a comprehensive safety course. When a director’s appetite for a shot collides with those rules, it is the responsibility of the AD and/or the UPM to step in and say no. Any seasoned director would not overrule them. In this case, that balance of power and who made the decision to move forward will be at the crux of the investigation.
Early in my career, while making Courage Under Fire, we shot a sequence with Lou Diamond Phillips‘ character driving his Mustang into an oncoming train to kill himself. This all took place on nonworking tracks, and the appropriate authorities oversaw every detail. Before the stunt, we shot Denzel Washington‘s character bailing out of the car and walking off the tracks. Then, with a dummy at the wheel, the car collided with the train. The blowback pushed the Mustang 50 yards back down the tracks, and while Denzel was supposed to be further away, the actor in him told him to stand close enough to get him and the car in the shot. It scared the hell out of me.
In our industry, there is a macho ethic to do whatever is necessary to make the best movie. It is not uncommon to hear boastful anecdotes about how scenes were grabbed late at night on the fly. Usually, it’s on small movies, where there is not enough money to do it right. Clearly that has to change. Every time we lose a fellow worker, as in the horrific helicopter tragedy of The Twilight Zone in 1982 or here, our business looks sloppy and irresponsible. We have to be more diligent — from the lowest-budget indie to the $200 million blockbuster.
Growing up, I was a huge Allman Brothers fan. One of their classic blues tunes was “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.” In the awful case of Sarah Jones, this time it is our cross to bear.
David Friendly is an Oscar-nominated producer.
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