Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sarah Jones.

I've been mulling over in my head the past few days how to write this post. What to say. How to say it. What it all means...

I wanted to say something insightful. Meaningful. Beautiful.

But the truth is, I'm at a loss. I still don't know what to say. How to say it. What kind of structure or format to use to give it life.

So I'm just going to ramble. All these thoughts and more have been going through my mind this past week.

Sarah Jones will be missed. I didn't know her. Never met her. Never heard her name until last week. But I mourn her passing anyway. She was one of us. She toiled away below the line; one of the many thousands of unsung heros of the film industry. Those who help enlighten and entertain the rest of the world without ever being in the spotlight; without any more acknowledgement for a job well done than a paycheck. She was one of us. A family member I had yet to meet.

She deserved better. Her death was 100% preventable. It wasn't an accident. It was negligence. It was entirely stupid. I don't think I have to go into the reasons why. It's pretty obvious which idiotic decisions were the ones that led to her death, which makes this whole thing even more shocking. THE POTENTIAL FOR SOMETHING TO GO WRONG WAS. SO. OBVIOUS. I first heard about the incident when a co-worker showed me a Google image of the tracks and trestle.

"See this?"
"Do you think it'd be a good idea to be working on those tracks if it was live?"
"Do you think it'd be a good idea to be working on that truss?"
"Good. Because someone thought it'd be a good idea. And then a train came trough when they were shooting. Some crew members got sent to the hospital and a girl died."

Those were all the details I knew at that point. But I knew enough to see that the whole situation was stupid. I was thousands of miles away and looking at a satellite image on a damn iPhone, and even I knew the situation was as stupid as it could get. Who in their right mind there thought it was a good idea? That it was worth the risk? Why didn't anyone speak up? Why didn't anyone stand up for their fellow brothers and sisters? Somebody failed her. And it wasn't just the Producers, AD or whoever it was that told them to set up the shot on the tracks. It was also everyone on that crew who saw the potential for danger and didn't say a damn thing. It was everyone who continued to work on those tracks after two trains had already barreled through. It was everyone who didn't care enough to ask the appropriate questions; everyone who thought they were immortal to life's tragedies. We're supposed to take care of our own. We failed.

And what angers me even more is the fact that this wasn't some "student film" or someone's "passion project" where the majority of the crew is just starting out and trying to get their foot in the door. This was a fucking professional project with an experienced crew, production team and studio backing with notable talent attached. They make movies for a living; it's not a hobby. If anyone should have known better, it was them. All of them.

While I don't necessarily agree with the campaign that's been going on to get Sarah Jones an "In Memoriam" mention in tonight's Oscars, I do hope that her passing will be mentioned during the broadcast. The majority of us do the jobs that we do because we love movies. We love this industry. We're passionate about what we do. We wouldn't be able to survive in this business if we didn't. And most of us are hurting right now. We lost part of our family in a tragically senseless way and if tonight progressed as if something wasn't missing; as we didn't have a hole in our collective hearts, then it'd be like a slap in the face. It'd feel like nobody "important" cares about what we go through. We can't pretend this didn't happen. We can't pretend that movie making is all fun and games, despite what the general public may believe. Our jobs, what we do, and the sacrifices we make are just as important to a piece of film as what you see on screen and now would be a good time for the "glamorous" part of the industry to acknowledge that.

And I'm sad to say that she will be forgotten. Unless you knew her personally, the majority of us won't remember her name in a few years. Who, without looking it up, remembers the name of the kids who were killed on The Twilight Zone?* And even more recently, who remembers the name of the camera assistant who crashed his car and died after too many hours working on Plesantville?**

The truth is, a few years down the line, we may remember the incident, but we won't remember the name, which saddens me. For most of us, we'll refer to her as "that girl who died on the train tracks". For those that come into this industry after us, they won't know who she was at all.

But hopefully, her legacy will live on. There are rules already in place to prevent tragedies like this, but those rules were obviously ignored. The only saving grace in all this is that hopefully stronger and more stringent rules and regulations will be in place so something like this won't happen again, ever. Maybe now, it'll be harder for those in charge to say "yes" to stealing shots and putting crew in dangerous situations. Maybe now, it'll be easier for those of us below the lines to say "no" when something is unsafe.

I don't know what will happen in the future. I don't know who will be held responsible for her death and I don't know how they will be punished. I don't know if Sarah's death will actually change the way we work on set. But I do know that most of the safety rules we have now are written in blood. Somebody had to die or become seriously injured (and/or prompt a lawsuit) before any of the powers that be would acknowledge there was a problem. I just hope Sarah's passing wasn't in vain. I hope that whatever may become of all of this, that her story is what prevents this from happening again.

R.I.P. Sarah Elizabeth Jones.

*Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
**Brent Hershman.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly. Thank you for articulating them so well.

Michael Taylor said...

I agree with much of what you say here, but not your contention that the name "Sarah Jones" will be forgotten anytime soon. Too many crews put that name on too many slates -- I believe "Sarah Jones" will remain a touchstone every time some idiot producer or director tries to save a few dollars by putting his/her crew at risk by going for a shot under circumstances that are clearly unsafe.

Granted, I did not recall the names of those two kids killed in the "Twilight Zone" disaster, but as someone who was in the early stages of my industry career when that happened - and it hit Hollywood like a bomb -- I can tell you that very few people knew or remembered their names in the immediate aftermath... but they all knew Vic Morrow's name. So does everyone else in the business to this day, even succeeding generations who have no idea who he really was as an actor. The name "Vic Morrow" came to symbolize what can go wrong when an obsessive director loses all sense of perspective and pushes much too hard.

In a similar way, I think "Sarah Jones" will become an industry touchstone for this generation. Which is not to say idiot producers and directors won't make stupid decisions in the future -- they will. You can bank on that... but now a DP, gaffer, key grip, lead actor, or anybody else on the crew will be able to ask "Do you really want another Sarah Jones here?" -- which might be just enough to turn the moment and prevent another senseless tragedy on set.

Or not -- there are no guarantees in this business. But in that sense -- and as much as I hate this hackneyed phrase -- I don't think Sarah Jones died in vain. Her death was a horrible tragedy for everyone involved, but I believe some good will emerge from the ashes.

As for the Oscars, I would have liked to see a lot more black ribbons in that glittering crowd, but at least there were a few -- and for all its faults, the Academy did acknowledge Sarah Jones. If they hadn't, it really would have been a slap in the face to all of us who work below-the-line.

A.J. said...

Anonymous - Thank you.

Michael - I hope you're right. I hope her name doesn't become a forgotten footnote over time. But as someone who came into this business well after the Twilight Zone disaster, I can tell you that most of my peers would ask you, "Vic Morrow? Who's that?"

The same goes for Brent Hershman. According to Haskell Wexler's documentary "Who Needs Sleep?" Brent's death hit this industry like a bomb; much like I suspect Sarah's death hit us. Articles were written about him in practically every major national magazine and newspaper at the time. And a petition for "Brent's Law" circulated around every set, union and guild, collecting thousands and thousands of signatures... And yet nothing's become of it. The movement lost steam and/or was swept under the rug.

To me, it seems like history has a tendency to remember the incident but not the person. On set, and in life, we talk about the "Twilight Zone incident" and not Vic Morrow; "The guy who wrecked his car and died on his way home to see his daughter after a 19 hour day" and not Brent Hershman; and, on a broader sense, "Columbine" but no one remembers the names Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

But there's a major difference between Sarah's needless death and Brent's: technology. Whereas Brent's movement was largely based on word of mouth, Sarah's is based largely on social media, allowing those of us thousands of miles away to instantly be connected to the cause and contribute to her memory and future legacy. I think that's the wildcard factor here and I hope her name will continue to build momentum and steam and not fizzle as fast as it started, as some things online tend to do.

I do think her death will lead to better judgement on set. But it remains to be seen whether we'll turn to production and say, "Do you want another Sarah Jones to happen?" or "Do you want to be like Midnight Rider?"

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I don't mean to suggest that the name "Sarah Jones" will live on in eternity here in Hollywood or beyond -- nothing lasts forever in this industry -- but I do think her name will resonate over the next decade or two ... which is about how long Vic Morrow's death haunted this town. In my industry circle at the time, Morrow's demise was a much bigger shock than the tragic (and equally preventable) death of Brent Hershman. Given the brutal pace of episodics, the latter accident seemed all but inevitable -- it was going to happen to somebody sooner or later -- while the Twilight Zone disaster came as a bolt out of the blue. But I've no doubt that in Haskell Wexler's world -- camera -- Brent's death hit much harder. You're right, though, not much good came from his death. Producers will occasionally offer hotel rooms to crews on drive-to locations after a very long day, but given the harsh reality of cable contracts, the lack of sleep situation has probably gotten even worse since then.

Your generation of film workers may not know anything about Vic Morrow, but you can bet that the producers, directors, and department heads on every crew for twenty years after the Twilight Zone accident couldn't forget it -- and who knows how many other tragedies were avoided because of that awareness?

That's an utterly unprovable assumption, of course, but I think it's valid.

I think Sarah Jones will be remembered in a similar manner, if only for the next decade or two. Maybe every new generation of industry workers has to have its own Vic Morrow or Sarah Jones to remind them what can happen when getting the shot becomes too important.

Besides in Hollywood, ten or twenty years really IS an eternity...

KF said...

Well said AJ. I have always enjoyed your insights.

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