Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.

Who Is Responsible for the Death of Sarah Jones?


[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

Have you been following the accounts of the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones? If not, read this Hollywood Reporter article, which details for the first time how the incident unfolded using descriptions from other crew members who witnessed it. Warning: reading this article will make you queasy with disgust and anger. It did me. And like many in the film industry and beyond, I keep wondering how in the hell did this happen? And who is responsible? Is it the Director? Producer? Unit Production Manager? Assistant Director? Location Manager? All of the above?

There are two schools of thought on who is ultimately responsible for a film. The first is that the director is responsible because he (or she) is the film version of the Ship Captain, War General, Leader of the Free World, i.e. the person with whom the buck stops. At the beginning of most movies there is title that says, “A (director’s name) Film.” And if a film bombs, usually the director gets the brunt of the blame.

The other school of thought is that the producer is ultimately responsible for a film. After all, it’s the producer who accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture, the producer who finds the money, and the producer who can hire and fire the director, the actors and just about anyone else. If the film is a studio movie, the only one who can fire the producer is the studio. If the film is an independent, most likely, no one can fire the producer.

But a film is the director’s vision. The director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision [Wikipedia]This means once a film is put into production every creative decision comes from the director. He consults with the department heads, but the director has the final creative word.  

Then again, the producer (or studio) has the final financial word.  A Unit Production Manager is usually hired by a film producer or television producer and is responsible for managing the production and regulating the costs of delivering the expected film or television show on budget at the end of principal photography [Wikipedia].

Let’s look at it from another angle. Before that fateful day two weeks ago when the crew of Midnight Rider assembled to shoot a dream sequence, this is what probably happened in the days leading up:

– The location manager scouted more than one train tracks and took pictures of each to show the director.

– The director chose the tracks that run over a 110-year-old bridge over the Altamaha River, in Wayne County, Georgia. At this point, if not before, the location manager would have informed him, “These are live train tracks.” To which, the director probably replied, “I want to shoot there. Figure it out.”

– The location manager attempted to get a location permit for those tracks. The permit was denied (most likely because it’s a live train track).

– The location manager informed the director that the permit was denied.

– The director, in consultation with the producer(s), assistant director and/or cinematographer, decided only those tracks would do and suggested, “Let’s shoot there anyway, guerilla-style.” (According to Hollywood Reporter article, he’s done this before.)

– The producer then approved this decision to shoot on a live train track without a permit.

– The crew was informed the morning of the shoot where they’d be filming that day, and what they should do in event a train came hurtling towards them, i.e. “run for your life.”

On top of that, these additional things DID NOT happen:

– The producer didn’t ask for a schedule of the trains that use those tracks, or calculate how often they come through.

– The producer didn’t inform the train company there would be a film crew on the tracks that day.

– The producer didn’t insist a production assistant was stationed a few miles away to keep a look out for approaching trains (which might have given the crew more than 60 seconds to get out-of-the-way).

– The producer didn’t give the crew a choice of whether or not to participate in this risky scheme.

– The producer didn’t hire a set medic or railway safety personnel (the latter, probably because he knew they had no permit). 

The bottom line is they never should have been there in the first place. The fact that they went ahead anyway and took no extra precautions is what really gets me. It’s unthinkable and unforgivable because it could have been avoided. If only someone had said, “No film or director’s vision is worth putting people’s lives at risk. These are not the only train tracks in Georgia. Let’s shoot somewhere else.” (I know for a fact that every producer I’ve ever worked with would have absolutely said this to me.)

Time will tell who is ultimately held accountable for this tragic fiasco. The director Randall Miller is also listed as producer, along with 11 other producers, co-producers and executive producers. 

Meanwhile, a bright, energetic, hard-working young lady is dead — and for what? 

RIP Sarah Jones.

Author: nivaladiva

Freelance writer and independent filmmaker.

16 thoughts on “Who Is Responsible for the Death of Sarah Jones?

  1. What a horrible and completely senseless tragedy.

  2. Terrible, I heard about this and thought, “what a waste” I now have a bit more of background and it makes me really angry. This sounds so preventable. RIP Sarah

  3. Niva, thank you so much for writing this. I had no idea how preventable this was – I assumed that all the prepartory tasks you described had happened, and that this was one of those unfortunate events where a number of mistakes combined into a tragedy. Finding out that it was entirely preventable is astounding.

    And… it’s good to see you posting again!

  4. First, yes, what happened is sad and tragic and preventable. This director made a major, tragic error. The producer shares the same shame. But as anyone who has ever actually worked on a set knows is it is actually the first AD’s responsibility. The director is not a ship captain no matter what Wikipedia says; he has people for that. The person he has for that is the 1st AD. A good 1st will not allow the director to try a shot if he thinks it will endanger anyone. The director’s job is to tell a story. The 1st AD’s job is to help facilitate that in safe manner. Sarah would be alive if the 1st had explained that shooting guerilla style on railroad tracks is dangerous and stupid. RIP Sarah.

    • Not only that. but isn’t the 1st A.D. also usually the safety officer on a set?

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. You’re right about the 1st AD. By “captain” I wasn’t implying that the director is in charge of every single aspect of production, rather that he/she has the final word in creative decisions. Additionally, I’ve always felt like it’s the director’s energy that sets the tone for the entire set. Maybe it’s the 1st AD who sets the tone, but I’ve been on sets where the director was an A-hole, and others where the director was a mensch, and the energy on set was really different. The mensch director also had a fabulous 1st AD, who matched his energy and style, and both were super vigilante about safety on the set.

  5. I watched the Oscars and heard mention of Sarah, but I had no idea how she died!
    I can not imagine the terror she must have felt, and everyone else involved, too.
    Poor judgment and lack of cross checking / due diligence.
    Just awful ….

  6. I have always thought it a bad idea for a Director to also be one of the Producers.

      • The Director needs to be creative, imaginative and pushing the bubble of what is cinemagraphically possible.

        The Producer needs to be there to decide what can be accomplished in a day, what makes sense with their budget, what would be abusive to the crew and what is safe.

        It is just one example of why we divide roles into different positions and departments. Yes many people are capable of doing the job of several roles, the important question is can they do it safely.

        It is also why the 1st AD runs the set, because the director is focused on the actors, on creativity. The 1st AD’s charge is to check off with other department heads and make sure everything is safe. But a 1st AD is only as good as the UPM and their team of AD’s and PA’s. A bad UPM can easily make an AD’s job impossible. Too thin a crew, too little sleep and problems can become the norm.

        Directors and Cinematographers will always want more than the budget allows, it is their job to reach for the stars. A good Producers job is to convince them how to find the stars with both feet still on the ground.

      • Thanks for articulating. I imagine that most Directors who produce have other producers to handle production while they’re directing. But I understand your point. I tend to be wary of actors who direct and/or produce for similar reasons, even though plenty off successful films have had both. I think it’s a matter of having the right team, folks who share not only your aesthetic, but also can cover for you and take care of the crew so you can focus on what’s at hand.
        Thanks for your comments.

  7. But it is also about relationships, roles and personalities. If someone is a fellow producer, alongside the Director, they are less likely to tell him/her no. They are an equal not a subordinate. The adversarial role of Producer and Director is a dance that can be quite useful in ways, if both are professionals. The good dance keeps the Director from trying to create shots that exceed the budget, and the Producer from damaging the art of the film.

    Actor/Director/Producer overlap is a problem that currently affects crew safety. Sure there are greats who can do it, but all too often everyone is afraid to tell those who can’t, that they can’t.

    • Agreed. It takes a special type of discipline to be able to separate two (or more) roles, and respect the authority of your peers even though they might technically be your equals. It’s all too easy for the overlap to result in ego-tripping which puts everyone at risk. I don’t know if that’s what happened with Midnight Rider, but I seriously doubt that no one recognized or mentioned the enormous risk/danger of shooting on live train tracks. The question in my mind is who (if anyone) tried to prevent it, and who blatantly ignored it.

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