Recent news of the criminal prosecution and sentencing to two years in prison of film director Randall Miller in the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones on an indie film shoot in Georgia has been stuck in my brain like glue. They were shooting a scene on tracks used by freight trains. They weren't permitted. And the freight train just came up too quickly. It crashed into a truck bed, debris from which flew into the crew, killing Sarah Jones.
See, it wasn't so long ago that I was leading my own skeleton crew through the fields and back roads of Omaha on a 3-day shoot of a scene in We Pedal Uphill, the culmination of which was a 2 min. sequence featuring a parked truck on the railroad tracks, a bottle of champagne and enough dirty doings to keep us all up at night.
Here's what I remember about our shoot. I'm not sure we got a permit. But we did check in with the local film commission and they provided us with details of the freight train schedules for our particular crossing so we knew when the next train was scheduled to come by and planned accordingly. But that scene took more than an hour to shoot, even on our shoestring budget so you can imagine how much time it might eat up on a bigger production. We needed our moment to be the edge of dusk so we really couldn't afford to draw it out much anyway.
But this news of the accident in Georgia has me doing a good deal of soul-searching about just how easy it is to succumb to the temptation to cut corners, especially when working in the low-budget arena. I like to think I didn't put my actors or crew at risk but can I be so sure? We took the precautions we felt were prudent at the time while still managing to squeak out a feature film for thousands, rather than millions. And lucky for us, no one got hurt or killed.
But I am reminded of another film I worked on years before that one where lines of safety were far more blurry.