My daughter was killed on a movie set – here’s what needs to change
Sarah Jones’s first day of filming on the Midnight Rider set felt like a milestone; the William Hurt-fronted biopic of rocker Gregg Allman marked the transition from TV to film she hoped might one day win her an Academy Award. She was positioned on a 110-year-old railroad bridge in Georgia when a train barrelled through, fatally striking the 27-year-old camera assistant with such force that her body “was not recognisable,” her father, Richard, remembers.
Seven others were injured in the crash, with the only safety warning they’d received ahead of time being that they had 60 seconds to clear out if they saw a train approaching.
February 2023 marks nine years since Sarah’s death, during which time Richard, a retired electrical engineer, has fought to improve what can often be wholly unsafe working conditions for crew. But news last week that Alec Baldwin will face criminal charges following a fatal shooting on the set of Rust has highlighted how dangerous filming without the requisite protocols can be.
Baldwin has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Halyna Hutchins, the film’s cinematographer, who was struck through the chest when his prop gun fired a live bullet; the charges could mean a five-year sentence (Baldwin has denied any wrongdoing). Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, Rust’s 24-year-old armourer, is facing the same charges.
For Richard, it’s an all too familiar story. “As someone who tragically lost a daughter on a movie set, those found to be responsible for Halyna’s death need to be held fully accountable,” he says.
Yet accountability is rarely found when it comes to the industry breaching safety guidelines, as the Jones family have discovered over the last decade. Randall Miller, Midnight Rider’s director, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing (along with his wife, Jody Savin, Jay Sedrish, the executive producer, and Hillary Schwartz, first assistant director); having originally pleaded not guilty, he agreed to a deal that would give him a sentence of 10 years’ probation with the first two years in prison, a $20,000 fine, 360 hours of community service, and the charges against Savin dropped.
The probation terms stipulated that Miller could not work as a “director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production”, but in 2020 he went on to direct film Higher Grounds – which resulted only in a court summons, and slap on the wrist. Jones attended that five-hour hearing, at the end of which Miller – who was urged to address him – became suddenly tearful, saying, “All I want to do is bring good things into the world, and make good movies that have something important to say.” Sarah’s death, and his duty to protect those in his charge, seemed less important than the art of making the film itself.
Richard believes “the people that are controlling the money” must face justice too, their being equally responsible for practices that put workers’ lives at risk. “Do they have enough money to hire the qualified people? If they don’t, then they need to scale down their vision and figure out another way of doing it rather than trying to cut from one area and save money where they should not have done so.”
The night before Midnight Rider began shooting, Sarah – an aspiring cinematographer filled with “infectious” energy – had been “a little bit surprised about it being low-budget,” commenting to her father that “some of the people asking her questions should have known more than her, and she thought that was odd.”
Hurt, who she had been “most excited about meeting,” was walking around barefoot, rehearsing his lines; wind was sweeping through the bridge trestle over the Altamaha River, holes in the structure making it unsteady. Three crew members gathered in an informal prayer circle, asking: “Lord, please protect us on these tracks,” one hairstylist recalled. After the train crashed through, traumatised crew had to collect Sarah’s body before the air ambulance arrived.
The film was never finished, though the train crash footage was edited into its only completed scene. (Miller’s attorneys argued that this was done as part of his defence, to explain why they had been on the tracks, which they had been denied permission to film on twice.) Though relatively early on in her career, Sarah’s death prompted an outpouring of grief from fellow workers in the industry – so much so that the Joneses set up a foundation in her name, raising money for student grants to pay for the likes of permits, off-duty police to direct traffic and safety personnel while filming on location.
Sixty thousand people signed a petition to the Academy asking her to be included in their 2014 In Memoriam segment, while Slates for Sarah, in which actors held up clapperboards with her dedication across them, were pictured in the hands of Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Simon Pegg; and on the sets of Downton Abbey, the Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation. One of Safety for Sarah’s major aims remains to instil ‘the Jonesy’ – a first shot of the day checking that all safety precautions are in place – onto every set as a matter of course.
An estimated 350 workers are believed to have been injured or killed on-set, making Rust a grim reminder that fatalities are less of an outlier than audiences may think. In 2017, British cameraman Mark Milsome was killed while filming a stunt for the BBC drama Black Earth Rising. He had been positioned at the end of a ramp, where a stunt car would be hurtling towards him at 12.5 metres per second – leaving him less than a second to get out of the way if anything went wrong.
It was, inevitably, not enough time when crisis struck – the car flew off the ramp, killing him by the time he reached the hospital. Douglas Milsome, his cinematographer father who has worked on the likes of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, speaking from the witness box at the inquiry into Mark’s death said that “the standards of professional stunt crew and producers, those who make key decisions, should never have allowed Mark to die that night.”
Every on-set death is “heartbreaking,” Richard says. “I’d hoped that Sarah’s death would have affected enough change so that this thing wouldn’t happen again, and it has.” He hasn’t spoken to the Hutchins family yet, knowing that “no one can tell someone how to grieve, and how to deal with such a difficult, horrible situation.”
He remains grateful for the long FaceTime conversations he and Sarah had before her death, where she showed him around the apartment she’d be living in for those few weeks of filming; for the trip they took to Spain and France a few months earlier, which left him with “wonderful memories.” But the grief can feel raw at times, like when thinking about his other children growing older, and now beginning families of their own, while Sarah remains 27. “Mentioning our surviving daughter’s age reminds me of when she turned older than Sarah was when she died. It didn’t seem right that Sarah’s younger sister would forever be older than Sarah. It still feels strange,” he says.
When Miller appealed to have his prison sentence reduced, Richard wrote a letter to the judge asking that the original ruling remained in place. “The motion states that Mr Miller’s friends and family miss him. I can understand and relate to this,” he said. “But there is a difference. Mr Miller will return home. Sarah never will.”