Every few years or so, a spectacular accident focuses national attention on the often dangerous working conditions on TV and movie locations. In 1982, a helicopter crash during the making of The Twilight Zone: The Movie killed two child actors and one of the leads. In 1997, an young assistant camera operator named Brent Hershman, a father of two, died after falling asleep while driving his car home after a 19-hour day on the set of Pleasantville. In both cases, the movie business experienced a sort of public shaming. Ultimately, little changed.
Now the Hollywood Reporter has published details of the latest tragedy: a horrific train accident on Feb. 20 that led to the death of 27-year-old camera assistant, Sarah Jones, and injured five additional workers on the set of a movie called Midnight Rider. It remains to be seen whether this will catalyze any change or merely present an opportunity for the movie industry’s elite to pin on black ribbons.
According to Joyce Gilliard, a stylist responsible for tending the hair of star William Hurt, she and others on the crew knew things weren’t right from the moment they arrived at the remote location two hours outside of Savannah, Ga. Spanning the majestic Altamaha River was a narrow, 110-year-old railroad bridge and trestle.
Film sets are operated as strict hierarchies. Those in charge issue orders and workers lower on the chain don’t question authority; even pointing out that a microphone is dangling into a shot can prompt a reprimand when the wrong person does it. So when Randall Miller, Midnight Rider’s director, instructed his crew members to go out on the trestle to prepare for the filming of a dream sequence, those who were feeling anxious kept quiet.
At one point, someone in a position of authority warned the crew members that they’d have 60 seconds to run out of the way if a train were to show up. “Everybody on the crew was tripping over that,” Gilliard told the Hollywood Reporter. “A minute? Are you serious?” She and two colleagues prayed before the shooting began.
When a train arrived unexpectedly, carnage followed. Jones was struck and killed and others, including Gilliard, were seriously injured. Competing investigations are being conducted by local Georgia law enforcement, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Because movie and TV productions tend to run on a standard 12-plus-hours daily schedule, crews are often populated by overtired zombies operating complicated equipment and carrying out stunts. Safety can be a secondary concern to the artistic ambition of directors and producers confronting ever-present pressure to control costs. “We’re not finding a cure for cancer, we’re making entertainment for people,” says Haskell Wexler, an Oscar-winning cinematographer who has made improving industry working conditions a cause. “People, shouldn’t die, or get sick, or shouldn’t lose their families just so you make a movie or TV show.”