Fatal Accident Fuels Safety Concerns On Hollywood's Sets On Feb. 20, Sarah Jones was killed in an accident on the set of the film Midnight Rider. But Jones wasn't a stuntwoman who might expect to face a high degree of danger — she was a camera assistant.

Fatal Accident Fuels Safety Concerns On Hollywood's Sets

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Director Lars von Trier takes on sex and death in ways that deeply disturb moviegoers. But the business of moviemaking itself can be disturbing. The process can be chaotic and even dangerous. Sometimes, people die. The most recent case in America was Sarah Jones.

Jones was a 27-year-old camera assistant, and a month ago, she died while working on the set of the film "Midnight Rider." The film had been shooting at an active train trestle in Doctortown, Georgia, when an oncoming train killed Sarah Jones and injured several others.

David Cohen is a senior editor with Variety, and he's been reporting on the case. He says on the day of the accident, the film crew was shooting a dream sequence and had placed a metal frame bed on a train bridge.

DAVID COHEN: And they 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. And as it happened, for whatever reason, they heard the whistle, and they didn't have a minute to get off the bridge.

The train struck the bed, which then became shrapnel. Some of that shrapnel hit members of the crew and broke their bones. One large piece of shrapnel struck Sarah Jones, who was the second camera assistant, and hit her hard enough to knock her into the path of the oncoming train. And she was killed more or less instantly.

RATH: You know, a point of controversy here is whether the production had permission to shoot on those train tracks. What do we know about that?

COHEN: We know very little about that, and that is one of the key questions upon which this case will turn when it comes to lawsuits and criminal charges. The railroad has insisted that they did not give permission for them to be on that trestle or those tracks and says they have an email chain to prove it.

The production says that the email chain continues past CSX Railroad's denial, and that there was something that seems to imply permission or something like that. Those emails have not been made public.

RATH: Can you talk about the reaction you've been hearing from people who work on sets since this accident?

COHEN: There have been fatalities on film sets before, and some relatively recently. But this has hit people in a very different way, and I think for a good reason. Usually when people are killed or badly injured on sets, it tends to be stunt men who are paid to do dangerous work and go into the work they do knowing the risks that they're taking.

But this is a second camera assistant. And as someone explained to me, everybody in the business started on a bottom-of-the-ladder job like second camera assistant. Everybody who works in production, whether it's a cinematographer or a sound mixer or assistant director, understands how powerless that person is.

There is a feeling that in the push to get shots made in an era of a bad economy and limited resources, that productions are pushing harder and harder and that safety is less and less of a consideration. And technicians, camera people, sound people feel across the board that they are being put in danger regularly and an accident like this isn't shocking for that reason. It's only shocking that it was such a horrible one.

RATH: So, David, do you think the death of Sarah Jones is going to have any kind of effect on how movies are made?

COHEN: Yes, I do think that the death of Sarah Jones will have an effect, if only because it will empower people to stand up for themselves a little bit more. The danger every one experiences, even very, very experienced crew people on a movie set, is that no one wants to say no because they feel like if you say no, they won't hire you next time. And what we're already hearing is that more people are saying no and more people are saying: Wait, stop, think.

RATH: David Cohen is a senior editor with Variety. David, thank you.

COHEN: Thank you for having me.

RATH: The local sheriff's office is still investigating the incident, as is the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those investigations are expected to take at least several more weeks. The production of "Midnight Rider" is on hold indefinitely. This is NPR News.

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