I’m going to start this first by saying that my heart goes out to all who were hurt and affected by the tragedy in the Atlanta film community this week. Especially towards Sarah Jones, her friends, family, and coworkers. I know no amount of words can ease the grief they are feeling but I want them to know all of us - the whole film community - is there for them and supports them.
If you’re unaware of what happened, you can read about it here.Basically, a production was doing camera tests on a railway. The production decided to do some shots without explicit permission from the railroad on a train bridge. A train came up “unexpectedly” and hit a prop that was on the bridge. The prop’s debris injured several crew members who were running to basecamp and killed one girl when a piece of debris caused her to fall on the tracks and get hit by the train. It’s an awful accident.
And the ensuing finger pointing has been nothing but downright ugly.
This all hits too close to home for me. And I’m sure other ADs have been in these situations. Since I’m working my way up through indies as a 1st, I have definitely encountered my fair share of shady producers and even some directors who have willingly thrown their cast and crew into shitty situations.
Being the 1st AD in unsafe filming conditions fucking sucks. I’m not going to say that in any less crude terms. It. Fucking. Sucks. The 1st is stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Overall, their job is to ensure the picture gets made within a timeline and if possible, on budget. They often are a mouthpiece for not only the director, but also the entire production department. And sometimes the production department wants them to enforce things that deep down, they know are wrong. Very wrong.
When it comes to the safety of the crew and cast, no movie is worth dying for. Let me say that again: Safety Comes First. Before All Else.
Can I make that any clearer? Here’s what I’ve experienced a couple times in indies: Some producers straight up don’t give a fuck. They treat their production staff, crew, and even cast like they are expendable. Like they’re dirty diapers that can be tossed once they’ve been used. There are many producers who think they are invincible, think they can make anyone do anything by waving a dollar at them, and believe they can do no wrong. And they love to throw their 1st ADs under the bus.
I have been reprimanded for calling out safety violations on a set. I have had producers and directors go behind my back to perform an unsafe shot, not allowing me the chance to put my foot down or warn the crew ahead of time. One particular instance of this happening almost killed my entire shooting crew and myself. Simply because the director wanted the stunt driver to go ten feet beyond the safety line. He whispered it to the stunt driver as I was calling roll. And I only know that because an SPFX tech overheard it but couldn’t speak up before action was called. The stunt driver was a green guy and really wanted to impress so he went for it, lost control of his vehicle (we were filming in sand next to a trench, the safety line I established was based on lots of rehearsing and making sure the car could slide to a stop without going into the trench), and crashed into the trench our crew was filming from. The crew got out of the way at the last fucking second. The gaffer walked over to the crashed car, picked up the bumper, which was under the front tire, and yelled: “This almost was me!”
I’m surprised he didn’t walk. I’m surprised we all didn’t walk. We should have. I remember very clearly yelling at the director, “well, you got your fucking shot. Hope you’re happy.” And I was reprimanded for saying that. I was reprimanded for being angry that the director went around me and all of the crew that were supervising the safety on the show. I made the director upset because he made a poor decision and cut his 1st AD out of it. The director was not reprimanded for his actions. Only I was. Because of my tone.
That particular show had a lot of problems outside of that, all in which any time the crew’s safety was compromised, either myself or my 2nd were made to feel like we would be fired, have our careers ruined, and our paychecks stopped if we said anything about the safety violations on the show.
THIS IS NOT OK. To this day, I shudder about that show and what it could have done to my crew, many of whom are dear friends that I work with again and again. And whenever I see slimy indie producers cutting corners in regards to safety, I run the other fucking way. I want nothing to do with that. You do not cut corners with people’s lives.
I’ve certainly made my mistakes along the way as a 1st and a 2nd, allowing some sketchy situations to go down. Mostly because of inexperience. I know better now. And I have honed my own red flag radar enough to mostly avoid productions which have a disastrous producing team. But in the end, it’s up to the producers, as the overall bosses of the set, to establish a safe work environment. Producers who ridicule, threaten, and harass ADs and crews who call out safety issues on sets should have their credentials stripped immediately.
It’s really not all that difficult to work with safety regulations and still get your shots. It only takes proper pre-pro to avoid a lot of accidents on set. The last feature I was a 1st on a couple months ago had several scenes in which I had to work with law enforcement and the production team to make sure OSHA rules were met:
- A scene on a moving ferry in live waters. I worked with the ferry operator and the national coast guard to ensure the ferry would not collide with other ships.
- A scene in a live oil refinery. Crew had to wear eye and head protection at all times and we had a refinery foreman with us to make sure we were safe while climbing around the tanks, and only allowed a small amount of us to physically be in the rafters.
- Several scenes involving underaged kids riding motocross bikes through the streets. Always had a stunt double with a specialty in motocross riding on site, as well as a medic, for any of these scenes. The police were notified of which neighborhoods we would be filming around and they would often come out and check up to make sure everyone was ok. The stunt doubles also provided a proper motorcycle process rig for when we needed CUs of the young boys on the motocross bike. It all took time, but no one was injured. And the end result was worth it.
- Several scenes with fire rigs involved. We worked with the town’s fire department to ensure we had firefighters on site. They also lit and controlled a large bonfire for a scene. We also had them oversee our SPFX tech who had a fire rig in a truck. We had several small boys beating up on a vehicle, so proper precautions were taken to ensure that the vehicle had no gas tank/or presence of gas, that police and medic were right near by, etc. The biggest injury we had was a small cut on an actor’s leg, which was promptly cleaned and bandaged in a way that wouldn’t hurt continuity and the actor felt comfortable to continue to perform.
This was all for a half-million dollar drama, not even a big budget action or horror film. Even the simplest of scripts have scenes that could put a crew in jeopardy. Its not hard, and it’s really not all that expensive, to communicate with local law enforcement, fire departments, and safety agencies to create scenes that are visually pleasing and safe for everyone. It just takes time and patience. And that comes from above - from the producers. It’s up to the producers to establish those relationships and communicate the production’s needs to the right departments. Your first AD is the enforcer of these rules, but unless you’re paying them a producer rate or points on the back end, it is not up to the AD to instigate these connections. You as a producer should know OSHA rules inside and out, you should know what authorities to be contacting for your production’s needs. Then you bring your ADs up to speed and keep on them about ensuring safety on set. You make sure your ADs know how to clear guns and weapons on set, you make sure they know who to contact if there is an issue, you make sure there’s a fucking medic on every scene involving stunts. This all falls on the producers.
There are things that will happen out of our control. We won’t be able to safety seal everything without shutting down production, locking ourselves in our rooms, and hiring a security team to search everyone who comes within a ten mile radius of our houses. Accidents happen. But there’s a lot we can prevent with just a little bit of forethought.
If I seem a bit tense and angry in this article, it’s because I am fucking angry. I’m angry that a wonderful, talented person lost her life because producers were not thinking of their crew’s safety. I’m angry that her friends and family and coworkers have to go through this grief right now while the production company throws blame every which way but themselves. Producers run the show and should own up to their mistakes and learn from them, and yet, and especially from what I’ve heard in regards to this Savannah company, some producers never learn. And now it’s cost them a life.
Indie producers (not just the ADs) need to know all of the safety issues inside and out in regards to any location their crew is working on. They need to make sure all proper authorities are aware of exactly what the crew is doing. They need to make sure the crew does NOT stray from that, that “guerrilla” shots are not hastily set up without a safety check, etc. No shot is worth dying for.