David McNew/Getty Images
A candlelight march honors Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was killed by a train in February while shooting the film
A candlelight march honors Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was killed by a train in February while shooting the film Midnight Rider. David McNew/Getty Images
There's growing concern in Hollywood over film crews' safety, as crews feel mounting pressure to push their limits on set. The call for attention to the issue amplified after the death of 27-year-old Sarah Jones.
On Feb. 20, the camera assistant was killed in an accident on the set of the film Midnight Rider, a biopic about the musician Gregg Allman.
The crew had been shooting a scene on an active train trestle in Doctortown, Georgia. According to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, police got a report of a train hitting people working on the film. Jones was killed, and seven others were injured. The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the case, as is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The film's production has been put on hold indefinitely.
David S. Cohen, a senior editor at Variety, says the crew had been filming a dream sequence on the train trestle, and had placed a metal bed on the tracks. The crew, Cohen says, "had been told that there might be a train coming and if they did hear a train, they would hear a whistle, and they'd have a minute to clear the bridge."
When a train began approaching the film shoot, Cohen says, it surprised the crew, arriving much more quickly than expected. Crew members did not have time to move the bed from the tracks.
"The train struck the bed, which then became shrapnel," he says.
With the multiple investigations still ongoing, there are several unanswered questions, including whether or not the crew had obtained permission to shoot on the train tracks, and exactly what safety precautions had been taken.
But even as the results of the investigations are pending, the accident has forced a discussion of safety on set.
Jones was briefly mentioned during the "In Memoriam" segment at this year's Academy Awards, and hundreds attended a memorial walk and candlelight vigil in Los Angeles on March 7, where they paid tribute to Jones and called for a greater attention to safety. There have been other notable deaths on set in recent years, such as the death of stuntman Kun Lieu during filming of The Expendables 2 in 2011.
But Jones was not a stuntwoman. She was a camerawoman, and that has broadened the debate. Unlike stunt positions, second assistant camera and other crew positions do not inherently involve a high degree of danger. But Cohen says crew members feel that film productions are pushing the envelope, and sacrificing safety as a result.
"There is a feeling that in the push to get shots made, to get shows done in an era of a bad economy and limited resources," says Cohen, "that productions are pushing harder and harder, and that safety is less and less of a consideration."
Cohen says that crew members also feel enormous pressure to accept potentially dangerous conditions on set.
"No one wants to say no," he says, "because they feel like if you say no, they won't hire you next time."
Still, Cohen says, the incident has already prompted people to speak up more frequently about safety issues on set.
"What we're already hearing," he says, "is that more people are saying no, and more people are saying, wait, stop, think."