To comment on this story, email
ON THEIR WAY TO SAVANNAH IN 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman's forces tried to capture the Doctortown train trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Ga.
In a fierce day-long battle, they were repulsed by Georgia militia commanding the approach to the bridge with heavy artillery—the only Confederate victory during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
One hundred and fifty years later there was more violence and loss of life at the modern Doctortown Trestle, still a busy and vital rail line, now owned by the CSX company.
On Feb. 20, 2014, Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old Second Camera Assistant, was killed by an oncoming locomotive while filming a scene for Midnight Rider, a movie based on Gregg Allman’s autobiography.
According to reports, there were around 20 people on and near the bridge. In addition to Jones, they included Director/Producer Randall Miller, actor William Hurt, Unit Production Manager Jay Sedrish, and First Assistant Director Hillary Schwartz.
They were shooting a dream scene. A dream scene that became a living nightmare.
An unforeseen freight train bore down on the crew. It couldn’t stop in time. The crew tried to run.
But stuck out on that bridge—the only other way off being straight down into the river —there were too few seconds and the train was coming too fast.
In the wake of Jones’s death on that train track, and the injuries of several other crewmembers, came an international outpouring of grief, outrage, and determination that such a thing should never happen again on any film set, anywhere in the world.
A Facebook page called Slates for Sarah invited what would become a deluge of photos from film sets all around the world, featuring each crew’s familiar clapper bearing Sarah’s name in tribute.
Downton Abbey contributed a Slate for Sarah. True Blood contributed a Slate for Sarah.
As for who was at fault, that’s now in the hands of the legal system. An army of trial attorneys has descended on the normally quiet county seat, Jesup, and on Savannah, and on Hollywood, and points beyond.
Everyone’s lawyered up, and few are talking to the media. Civil actions are certain, criminal charges likely.
In Savannah, the impact will be felt in not only how many and which movies will be made here in the future, but how they’re financed and insured, and how their production is overseen so as to never produce another tragedy like this.
The story involves a former Savannah Film Services Director, Jay Self.
It will involve the next Film Services Director, to be hired shortly out of a pool of nearly 150 applicants.
It will eventually involve the entire vision of what a local Film Office should be about.
It also involves a simple, yet at the same time very complicated, question:
Could actions have been taken in Savannah that might have prevented the death of Sarah Jones?
But first we have to go down to Wayne County near the Okefenokee Swamp, and talk about trains.
Trains on film
For 30 years, longtime railroad employee and former law enforcement officer Art Miller has worked to enhance crew safety as “railroad coordinator” on over 70 production projects. He runs his own consulting firm, Rail Transportation Management Specialists.
According to Art Miller, here’s what happens when a film shoot is properly utilizing the resources of a railroad company on any track anywhere in the U.S.:
First of all, “Even rejected requests to film on a major railroad’s property go through five or six corporate executives, in departments ranging from safety to transportation to legal,” he says.
“The rejection letters I’ve gotten aren’t complicated and they aren’t ambiguous.”
Then, “When a big railroad decides to get involved with a production, many people don’t understand the amount of advance planning and coordination that’s required,” explains Miller, not related to Midnight Rider’s Randall Miller.
“Even on small projects, there are several advance visits to the location with involved personnel to review safety risks and hazards and develop a safety plan.”
During actual filming, “There would have been a small army of people there,” he says.
“On the day of the shoot, it’s not unreasonable to figure there might have been between 10-15 CSX people onsite—personnel from the transportation operations group, railroad police, safety supervisors, and maintenance of way,” Miller says.
“And if permission were granted to work on that narrow bridge—and that’s a huge ‘if’ —you’d also have railroad personnel skilled in bridge safety to install and supervise the necessary ‘fall protection.’”
Importantly, “There would have been a company officer who’d be the ‘employee in charge,’ on whose shoulders would rest ultimate traffic control responsibilities through that location. That concept arises from roadway worker protection requirements in federal regulations,” Miller says.
According to every news report, not one of those on-set protocols was in effect the day Sarah Jones lost her life.
On the contrary, more than one report quotes crew members saying they were told that if they saw a train coming, they had only 60 seconds to get out of the way.
“Our contracts always give the railroad the right to cancel a shoot for continued and unremedied safety violations,” Miller continues. “We’ve never had to enforce that, because early on in the relationship we always make sure production managers understand it will be done safely, or it won’t be done at all.”
So with the amount of hard work, possible lost revenue, and potential risk involved, why do railroads ever give films permission to use their tracks and equipment?
“The primary reason is they view it as supporting the regional economy and especially the arts community in their service area,” Miller says.
“It’s certainly not to make money. Film work is so intermittent that the amount of money a film can pay is miniscule compared to the money the railroad receives from handling one freight train.”
In addition to feeling sorrow about Jones’s death, Miller wonders about the future relationship between railroads and the film industry.
For example, a single non-lethal incident in a 1994 shoot involving a steam locomotive boiler resulted in insurance companies refusing to underwrite any more movies featuring steam-powered trains until more regulations and protocol were in place.
Of the Wayne County incident’s impact on the film industry, Miller says:
“We don’t know what the long-term Midnight Rider effects are going to be. We can only forecast from what we know went on there. Events in the county courthouse in Jesup are going to write a lot of the history about what the impacts will be.”
Who's really in charge on set?
But who bears responsibility when there are no railroad personnel onsite? That’s an important question around which future court cases are likely to resolve, and not an easy one to answer.
The Director’s Guild Association—the trade union of film directors—has no fewer than 40 separate “safety bulletins,” on topics from helicopters to diving to hot air balloons to live ammunition to “live venomous reptiles.” For example, Bulletin 28 covers railroad safety.
But DGA bulletins are non-binding and clearly not always followed. Observers blame a widespread unwillingness to buck the desires of a director and/or producer on set for fear of being black-balled from future employment—a very real possibility in an area like Savannah, where work is intermittent and often without union protection.
David Harland Rousseau serves on the Savannah Film Commission and has years of experience on both sides of the camera as assistant director and as an actor.
“Good managers have a plan they clearly communicate to department heads, who then communicate concerns to their teams. But therein lies the challenge with the on-set mindset,” Rousseau says, speaking for himself and not necessarily on behalf of the Film Commission.
“There’s an eagerness combined with blind trust,” Rousseau says. “Risk-taking is an essential part of the craft, but it’s important to know how to protect yourself.”
The DGA recognizes the First Assistant Director as the crew member charged to “inspect the set daily for potential safety violations and report any such problems.”
But the DGA also says that “those ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe set are the employers,” i.e. the production company.
In the case of Midnight Rider, that would be the now grimly ironically-named Unclaimed Freight Productions.
And what happens when director and producer are one and the same, as was the case with Randall Miller on Midnight Rider?
On the issue of who bears the most safety responsibility on set, Rousseau explains that “Too often, crew members believe that person is the First Assistant Director, who, quite frankly, is working in close proximity to the director and cinematographer. They’re often too immersed in the moment.”
Rousseau says the key is not so much on-set safety, as pre-planning for safety.
He says “that responsibility generally falls to key personnel: Producer, Unit Production Manager, First Assistant Director, all in coordination with the Location Manager. The First Assistant Director simply cannot be everywhere at all times,” he says.
Permits & problems on CBGB
Midnight Rider wasn’t the first local project by Unclaimed Freight Productions. In 2012, the company, helmed by Randall Miller and his wife Jody Savin, made another movie in Savannah.
CBGB, starring Alan Rickman, is about the New York City punk scene at the legendary, now-defunct club of the same name.
It was also, in the words of the Savannah Film Office 2012 annual report, a movie in which “The unauthorized use of public and private property and repeated permit violation by one project generated more citizen complaints in two weeks than the combined projects for any previous year since the Film Office opened.”
The report goes on:
Unfortunately, this company refused to comply with Film Office efforts to resolve these problems... The Film Office has a strong reputation of protecting the rights and needs of citizens when permitting projects. This results in location access. Allowing inappropriate behavior erodes community support and closes doors to future productions. Outside political pressure should not interfere with the ability of the Film Office to enforce permit conditions, rules and agreements.
“This company,” of course, was Unclaimed Freight, and the “project” was CBGB.
“Ten complaints. That’s more citizen complaints for that one movie than for all projects combined for the whole history of the Film Office through this year,” says former Savannah Film Services Director Jay Self, who served in that capacity during the CBGB shoot.
“They were shutting down streets they didn’t have permission to shut down. Shop owners were saying ‘no one can get to my store,’” Self tells Connect.
“The company would say OK, we’ll open the sidewalk, but then they would put equipment up so you couldn’t actually walk on the sidewalk.”
Self was eventually fired by the City after 18 years of service, allegedly because of issues on the Paramount shoot of the SpongeBob sequel in 2013.
While CBGB was filming in summer 2012, Self says he and members of his office “eventually had to be onsite every hour they were filming because it got so ridiculous.”
Self says there were specific safety issues during the CBGB shoot. He cites a shoot near The Lady and Sons, with a storefront converted to look like the early and later incarnations of the CBGB club.
Providing photographic documentation, Self says the film company altered a stop sign without permission, supposedly to cut down on its reflective quality—the same reflective quality that makes a stop sign more visible to drivers and pedestrians.
“I kept saying there were safety issues that needed to be dealt with,” Self recalls.
The person Self addressed those issues to, in a series of emails Connect Savannah has obtained, was his boss, City of Savannah Leisure Services Director Joe Shearouse.
“I have no recollection of Jay coming to me with safety violations,” Shearouse says of his experience with CBGB.
“I did hear later on that a stop sign had been removed or altered without permission. The only good thing was the street was closed to traffic at the time. It’s still bad though,” he says.
Shearouse is a longtime local public servant who had only recently become Self’s supervisor, during the controversial reshuffling of the Film Office in 2010 by former Savannah City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney. Prior to that the Film Office was largely autonomous, its director reporting only to the city manager.
Another key player in the CBGB story is David Paddison, an insurance executive and local economic development specialist who at the time served as board chairman of the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA).
Paddison also has a producer credit on CBGB, which he tells Connect “was more of a joke, really. All I did was basically help them settle some issues with parking passes. Essentially I just bailed them out of a jam.”
Another specific safety issue that could conceivably have resulted in injury involved prop benches in Ellis Square, apparently left behind by the CBGB crew.
Self says when he saw the benches had been left in heavily-utilized Ellis Square, he felt they not only could pose an injury threat—since they weren’t intended for public use—but also a liability issue for the City.
On July 14, 2012, Self emailed Paddison:
“Cbgb has 2 park benches in ellis that need to be moved. They are placed as if they are city benches and pose a liability.”
About two hours later, Paddison responded: “I think you are in pretty good shape as you have identified the risk and advised CBGB in writing to move them. At this point it becomes their insurance issue should someone be injured on the benches.”
Today, Paddison explains:
“What happened was the crew packed up their stuff and probably forgot about them. Sure, the City could theoretically be sued, but the City had insurance and hold-harmless agreements in place. Not that anything was going to happen with those benches, but if it did the film crew had the liability since it was their bench.”
Self’s boss, Shearouse, who was copied on the email exchange, tells Connect: “My response would be if you see the bench and you know it’s a liability, let’s pick up the bench and move it ourselves and then cite the movie company. Have it reflect on their ability to get future permits.”
But that’s precisely Self’s point: That the City’s power to withhold or revoke filming permits wasn’t actually used to enforce safety concerns.
“When you have someone with regulatory responsibility that involves safety, and you handcuff them, in my mind you have opened the door for a claim of negligence. Worse, you’ve broken your trust with those that the regulations are meant to protect,” Self tells Connect.
“That regulatory need has been stated and acknowledged for 18 years. Suddenly now it’s pulled back? Why? I think it’s the good ol’ boy network. Who knows who,” Self says.
“It’s the same mentality of wanting to do anything to make way for any need of a film company. This attitude started with CBGB and it started when certain people were involved from SEDA,” Self says.
Shearouse maintains that the bulk of the controversy on the CBGB shoot didn’t involve safety concerns, but rather a rivalry between Self and Nick Gant, executive producer on CBGB and CEO of Meddin Studios, a local rental house for film services and equipment.
“Most of the problems on CBGB came because of the conflict between Nick and Jay. It wasn’t so much that there were permitting issues, but that I had to spend a lot of time refereeing between the two of them,” Shearouse says.
“I’d say both were at fault many times.”
Shearouse says he became skeptical of Self’s frequent suggestions that the City use its “leverage” over the film crew by withholding permits.
“If you don’t have a legitimate reason to not issue a permit, then you have to issue the permit,” Shearouse says. “If you issue a permit and then discover a problem, you can then pull it. But you can’t arbitrarily just say ‘I don’t believe they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do.’”
Paddison says he felt that on at least one occasion Self wrongly revoked parking permits for the CBGB crew which made their job much harder—one of the “bumpy spots” he helped them with which he says resulted in the producer credit.
“One day the film crew had 23 parking passes. Then the number was suddenly and arbitrarily reduced the next day to four,” Paddison recalls.
“A lot of people asked why our Film Office intentionally did something like that. There were lots of local agendas.”
On July 1, 2012, Self’s frustration grew to the point that he emailed Shearouse:
“We are now in a situation where our remaining concern is to manage loss and liability to the City ... I see not enforcing the permits we set as negligent, since those parameters are specifically set to avoid injury to others.”
Looking back, Self tells Connect:
“I’m not saying the City has liability for the train incident. But they certainly didn’t set a very good example of how they expected people to work on the previous project,” Self says.
“It wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, surprise me if Randall Miller and others on his team thought they could return and get away with anything they wanted again. Why wouldn’t they?” Self says.
In the days after Feb. 20, many critics pointed to various public statements made by CBGB/Midnight Rider director Randall Miller which in hindsight could put safety issues in a different light.
In DVD extras for CBGB, Miller talks about allowing a small child to roam in a field of cows to get one shot, and another scene in which a piano was dropped down a staircase in a private residence.
“This is a real house, and I don’t think they fully knew that we were going to drop a piano down this staircase,” Miller laughs on the DVD.
Self says, “The thought process behind what happened on that train track is no different than throwing a piano down a set of stairs without the owner of the home knowing. It’s a willful disregard for the property and welfare of others.”
In a now widely-circulated YouTube video, during a panel discussion Miller seemingly boasts about filming in the New York City subway without permission.
“We were not supposed to be there,” he says in the video. “There were people shooting us with iPhones and we were like, ‘stop that.’”
Another person in the video laughs, “We thought we were really, really stealth.”
Unclear statements after the Sarah Jones tragedy don’t help dispel this impression.
For example, early reports say the crew was told they were just doing a “camera test” on the track that day—getting the shot and the equipment ready for another time when the actors and full crew would be present.
But Connect Savannah has obtained a hard copy of the “call sheet” for Midnight Rider, the document which tells everyone where they’re expected to be on what day and at what time.
The Midnight Rider call sheet specifically calls for the presence of actors William Hurt and Wyatt Russell on set Feb. 20. By definition, actors aren’t needed at a camera test.
In his early days, railroad consultant Art Miller was a law enforcement officer. He says he’s had a few encounters with “guerrilla filmmakers.”
“They always say they didn’t know. Having been a deputy sheriff for 11 years I generally dismiss that. They generally know what they’re doing,” says Miller.
“Guerrilla filmmaking on a railroad is totally unacceptable because of the safety risks, and is usually met with a law enforcement response,” he says.
“If you don’t take a hardline approach, it’s like an infection. If one filmmaker gets away with it, others will try it,” Miller says.
“As a railroad company officer, when you encounter guerrilla filmmakers, you want to make sure you deal effectively with the perpetrators. They are lawbreakers.”
Perhaps complicating things is the fact that the Savannah Economic Development Authority had a direct stake in the production of CBGB.
Paddison, former SEDA chairman and a CBGB producer, defends not only his role in the production, but SEDA’s.
“Part of what I was doing as a producer is to find out what makes a city film-friendly—how to build a great film industry instead of just having a great film location,” Paddison tells Connect.
“Everybody loves Forrest Gump, and everybody loves ‘The Book.’ Some of the biggest reasons Savannah enjoys all the attention we enjoy right now come directly from the publicity gained through those projects,” he says.
“Yet the film industry here continues to be dysfunctional. SEDA is trying to understand the barriers to having a more vibrant film industry here,” Paddison says.
Paddison is forthright that SEDA did provide financial backing for CBGB—though he’s not bullish on that ever happening again in quite the same way.
“CBGB was sort of SEDA’s first experiment in the area of providing incentives to film companies. One thing Savannah lacks is a real incentive for them, on par with what the state offers,” Paddison says.
“SEDA has been looking for ways to help film projects based on local investment, based specifically on the number of local SCAD people the film will employ,” he says.
“We called it a ‘grant,’ but it was really more of an effort to create a revolving fund that would then be paid back to SEDA out of revenue generated by the film,” Paddison says.
Doesn’t his description of such a grant also fit the definition of an actual financial investment?
“Yes, it was,” answers Paddison.
“Our intent is to help build an industry here that will employ local people on a regular basis, which currently isn’t the case,” he says. “We have so many SCAD graduates here. These are incredibly smart and talented young people,” he says.
“We want them to be able to stay here and find consistent work in the film industry here. But currently it’s very difficult for them to do that.”
Citing the extraordinary success of TV and film production in the Atlanta metro area, Paddison says, “They’re just going crazy. We do millions of dollars of business here, but Atlanta is doing billions.”
But some critics echo Self’s concerns that it’s precisely that race for more dollars that is compromising safety.
“For many in the industry following the Midnight Rider case, what happened in Georgia is a manifestation of a too-common lack of regard for safety in an industry in which economic pressures are growing and oversight can be lax, especially on shoots in states intent on luring productions with incentives,” opines the Hollywood Reporter.
Future of the Savannah Film Office
Mike Vaquer was the very first chairman of the Savannah Film Commission and played a key role in creating the position of Savannah Film Services Director. He helped hire Jay Self, the first person to hold the title.
“The whole concept of the Film Office does need to be revisited, but not whether we need one,” says Vaquer. “The issue is where should the Film Office fit in the hierarchy of the City.”
Vaquer says when the Film Office was originally set up, “we were very careful to make it a direct report to the city manager so as not to get caught up in interdepartmental squabbles. But it also needed to be part of the government hierarchy in order to have the authority to work with other governments,” he says.
“It needs to be a government function, because only a government has the authority to shut down a public street.”
The concept of the Film Office originated during Don Mendonsa’s tenure as city manager. Vaquer credits the subsequent city manager, Michael Brown, with helping make that vision a reality.
But Vaquer says the recent reorganization under Brown’s successor, Rochelle Small-Toney, made the Film Office’s position much less tenable.
“It’s important for the Film Office to have a level of quasi-independence. I think that’s what was lost in the last iteration,” he says.
“We have to get back to the roots of what it was designed to do. So the director doesn’t have to run things up flagpoles to the city manager every time there’s a question.”
While Jay Self warns of the downside of SEDA’s involvement—in his view, a recipe for conflicts of interest, safety compromises, and political interference—others see potential advantage in a future expanded role for SEDA or some other outside agency in assisting the Savannah Film Office.
Alderman Van Johnson, for example, has gone on record suggesting that the entire funding for the Savannah Film Office go straight to SEDA, and for SEDA to perform the whole function itself.
Most importantly, some say, it’s time to separate the permitting function from the marketing function.
“People need to be reminded that the Film Office was originally established not to attract film, but to protect the residents of Savannah,” says Joe Shearouse.
“The Film Office was created in the wake of Forrest Gump. We wanted to avoid any more situations where residents were all of a sudden told by a film company ‘we’re shutting down your street,’” he says.
“By the nature of what film companies do—they’re in town for a limited amount of time on set for a limited number of hours for a limited number of days—what they are doing is the beginning, the middle and the end for them,” Vaquer says.
“They’re not always overly concerned that Johnny can’t get into his usual space in the parking lot to go to work because their food truck is blocking it.”
Paddison adds, “It’s hard to be both regulator and concierge. The glitzy part is the sales job. But the crappy part is permitting. If you insist on keeping the sales function and the permitting function in one office, eventually films will quit coming here.”
Vaquer says there will likely always be tensions on the permitting end because of the inherent nature of filmmaking.
“It’s common for film companies to agree to whatever they have to agree to in order to get their permits,” he says.
“You’ll tell them, OK, you can do thing X but we can’t let you do thing Y. They get the permits and announce, lo and behold, we just can’t complete the film without thing Y,” says Vaquer.
“Unfortunately that kind of thing happens pretty often.”
Shearouse says if he were asked for a recommendation he’d say the Film Office should remain part of City government.
“But we do need somebody to be a marketing agent, and that could be SEDA. Someone with contacts with film producers actively marketing to get films to Savannah,” Shearouse says.
“Currently if we get a phone call from a producer interested in Savannah, we will certainly take the call and market Savannah. But what’s missing is somebody reaching out first and contacting that film producer.”
Without commenting on SEDA’s investment in CBGB, Shearouse says the expenditures involved in wooing out-of-state filmmakers would be more properly handled by an agency like SEDA.
“If you bring a producer to town and want to take him out to dinner, all of a sudden you’ll have a City department submitting reimbursements. You know there will be criticisms of that,” he says. “But if you’re SEDA you can do things like that and people accept it as part of business.”
But Rousseau cautions that, especially in the wake of the Sarah Jones tragedy, the City should take care to retain and take seriously its safety oversight role.
“I have to say, the permitting process used by the Savannah Film Office has been remarkably effective in helping filmmakers and City departments identify safety concerns and allocate proper resources where necessary,” he says.
Production on Midnight Rider has been indefinitely postponed.
In 2013 Jay Self was hired as head of corporate affairs of the Medient Studios in Effingham County (no affiliation with similarly-named Meddin Studios.) They plan to begin shooting a horror movie, The Damned, in Savannah later this year.
Two weeks ago, the application period closed to fill Self’s old job as Savannah Film Services Director. Until then, interim director William Hammargren holds the spot.
Joe Shearouse is assembling an advisory committee to help narrow down the nearly 150 applicants. From there, the recommendation of Shearouse and the committee will head to City Manager Stephanie Cutter, who has the final call.
Mike Vaquer, first head of the Savannah Film Commission, wishes them all luck.
“The job requires a unique set of skills to respond to the unique and often unreasonable demands of the film industry, in what amounts to an open set,” says Vaquer.
David Paddison remains on the SEDA board, but there’s a new chairman: Robert E. James, president of Carver State Bank.
In the film industry at all levels, there is a palpable sense that Sarah Jones should not have died in vain.
Just as the last shot of the day is known in film parlance as “the martini shot,” there’s a move afoot, promoted by social media, to call the day’s first shot “the Jonesy”—a constant, daily reminder that safety is the most important thing of all.
“What happened on that train track was a horrible tragedy that could conceivably have a major impact on the film business in our region,” concludes Paddison.
“We have to come together as a community to decide if we’re going to let that moment define us, or if we’re going to move forward and identify ways to build film and digital media infrastructure to support a better future for Savannah and our film industry,” he says.
After the death of Jones, Rousseau and others at the grassroots of the local film industry did just that, wasting no time taking the initiative in bringing safety to the forefront.
A new combined effort by the groups Savannah Filmmakers and SWIFT (Savannah Women in Film and Television) organized a seminar called SAFE-T (Safety Awareness in Film, Entertainment, and Television).
Some suggestions coming out of that March 29 event held at the Coastal Georgia Center downtown include productions being required to attach a safety plan to each permit, and requiring filmmakers to identify a “Safety Agent” on the call sheet for each shoot—“an on-set ombudsman of sorts,” Rousseau explains.
“This is a low-cost way to ensure effective communication that meets the need for a safer set, while also making sure things run efficiently and on time,” he says.
Rousseau says the response so far has been heartening.
“Students are asking very specific safety questions related to their student films. They’re sharp, and they care,” he says.
“Pros are forming relationships with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) representatives to learn how they can make their departments safer,” Rousseau says.
“From our perspective, safety is everyone’s concern. On every job site. At every level. Things will only change once people take ownership of their roles on set, and start looking out for one another,” he says.
“And you know what? It’s already having an effect. The culture is changing. Slowly....”