Sixty Seconds to Escape: How Sarah Jones Lost Her Life at Work
Like so many people working in the film industry, I have been thinking about Sarah Jones the last few weeks. Sarah’s job was second assistant camera. Her job entailed the transport of camera and lenses, helping the focus puller get the measurements to get the focus correct and slating the take in addition to other duties. She was killed on train tracks on February 20 in Georgia during the filming of Midnight Rider, the Gregg Allman biopic. As they were setting up to shoot a scene on train tracks running across the bridge, they actually sat down and had a prayer circle. Not a safety meeting, a prayer circle. Now I’ve been in the film business over twenty five years as a stunt woman and also work as a locations person and I can attest to having many a safety meeting before a stunt or a scene with special effects but this is the first I’ve heard of a prayer circle. Not only did they not have permission to shoot on the tracks, they didn’t know the times of when trains were scheduled to pull through. They knew this was unsafe.
This makes me cry and feel anger at the same time. No safety meetings, no medic, no permission. This was doomed from the start and completely unprofessional at every level. Hair stylist Joyce Gilliard, who was severely injured on the film, said there was no call sheet.
I have worked for some of the top location managers in the film business from Scott Logan to Kristi Frankenheimer to Kyle Alexander. None of these professionals would have allowed a film crew to shoot on an active bridge. Even if the location manager did secure the unsafe location,(which is not the case) no level headed department head would have considered a live track to be a viable option. I’ve been on enough sets to know that the call sheet is not always a bible, it can be fluid depending on what the DP and director decide on a camera angle. In this case, there was no call sheet, crew was told it was a test so they were essentially lied to. This is a travesty of injustice.
So the question we have all been wondering is how did this happen? How did the production get to the point where a train is barreling down the tracks with crew members running for their lives towards the train? With bits and pieces of debris being thrown into their faces? Carrying heavy camera equipment? With sixty seconds to get off the tracks? Where was the safety person like the ones that always visit our sets in Los Angeles? Is this part of the “new Hollywood” in the south where financial cuts affect crew members safety? If the location manager informed the people in charge there were no permits, who decided to ignore that and send the crew out to the tracks? Why was there no medic?
This is not an LA vs. Georgia piece. I just want to understand how this happened. I think it’s fairly clear someone tried to steal a shot and their luck ran out. Just wait until the footage is released.
This doesn’t even feel like an accident more like pure negligence. The show must go on but not at the cost of human life. As my dear friend, stunt man Bernie Pock told me long ago as we stood on the roof of a building outside of San Francisco, about to do a double fall, “Hannah, the film negative is small. Your life is not worth a few frames of film.”
David Whyte, in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, writes that in our work we find an imaginative treasure that we hope will give us self-respect, independence and the ease we desire. In our work we feel wanted and chosen. He shares that to be excited, to be wanted specifically for work, and to feel that dream come true, helps bring us fulfillment. David’s research helps to convey the multilevel discipline involved in doing good work is the road to happiness and the pilgrimage to self-respect. Sarah Jones, a spunky and determined girl, understood this.
Here is what I saw when I exited Stage 12 at CBS/Radford last week on our comedy show, Brooklyn Nine Nine. One of the beautiful aspects of the work we do is becoming a family, spending twelve to sixteen hours a day together. Sarah Jones, a passionate young woman who loved books and took off to travel when she wasn’t working, always had a camera to record her experiences from hiking mountains to diving in oceans. Sarah lost her life in a day’s work. This tragedy is going to have us look closer at how we make films and what we require to keep us safe. Maybe now it’s time for that prayer circle for we lost a family member.