Sarah Jones died on the set of ‘Midnight Rider.’ Why many are upset director is working again
In February, Richard and Elizabeth Jones marked a grim anniversary: It had been six years since their daughter was killed on a film set.
In 2014, 27-year-old Sarah Jones was working on the movie “Midnight Rider,” about rock star Gregg Allman. On the first day of shooting, a scene set up on a historic railroad trestle outside Savannah, Ga., went awry. Crew members were left only seconds to get off the tracks as a freight train barreled toward them, killing the young camera assistant and injuring several others.
Authorities said they did not have permission to be on the tracks. The film’s director, Randall Miller, served half of a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and was released in 2016. The tragedy sparked an international campaign, led by the Jones family, to promote greater safety on sets.
So the Joneses and others were shocked to learn recently that Miller had made another movie, signed off by the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. “Higher Grounds,” which Miller, directed, cowrote and coproduced with his wife, Jody Savin, is a comedy about a vegan barista fighting to compete in the World Barista Championships. The film, which has yet to find a distributor, was shot last year in the U.K., Colombia and Serbia but only recently became publicly known.
“It does make me angry,” Richard Jones said last week. “I’m just in disbelief that he would be so bold.”
Authorities in Georgia, a major hub for filming, contend that Miller violated the terms of his probation and are seeking a warrant for his arrest. In 2015, a judge stipulated that Miller was prohibited from serving as a director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production during the 10-year probation period. A hearing date has not been set.
Miller’s return to work has revived debate about Hollywood’s commitment to film set safety and raised questions about whether those responsible for accidents are held accountable.
“It really breaks my heart that he was able to do this under the radar,” said Joyce Gilliard, a hairstylist who worked with Jones and who was also injured in the 2014 accident. She was left with post-traumatic stress disorder and pain after reconstructive surgery necessary to fix her broken arm.
“We lost Sarah Jones. There are other crew members that are out here also who have to live with this tragedy.”
Los Angeles-based Miller said in an interview that he believed he was allowed to work as a director.
“I was advised by my counsel that I was allowed to direct as long as I was not the one in charge of safety. That was the plea that I agreed to,” Miller said. He added that he did not keep the production under wraps.
“Everywhere I go, I say who I am, I talk about the tragedy and how I want to do things differently and help make film sets safer throughout the industry,” Miller said. “I can’t change the past. I cannot bring Sarah Jones back, but I am committed to making positive change in the world.”
The DGA did not respond to a request for comment, while SAG-AFTRA declined to comment. Miller said that in wake of the accident, the DGA had put him on leave for a year after he served his prison sentence. He added that the union was fully aware of Miller’s history regarding “Midnight Rider” and that it agreed to be a signatory as long as the first assistant director on the project was in charge of safety and provided details of their safety plans.
“I would love to see this be the norm on all movie sets,” Miller said. “This should be held up as the gold standard of set safety.”
But many in Hollywood were angry to learn that Miller was back at work, which was first reported by Deadline.
Many members of the IATSE local 600, which represents camera professionals and cinematographers, “expressed concern and outrage,” Local 600 President John Lindley said in a recent note to members.
“There are some decisions that are so egregious that those who make them and express inadequate remorse, forfeit their right to a second chance,” Lindley said in his letter, which was obtained by The Times. “Randall Miller made such a decision when he broke the law and placed Sarah in harm’s way simply to complete his movie. It is disappointing to say the least that his new project, Higher Grounds, received support from our industry.”
Members of the DGA also had raised concerns about the decision on a recent Zoom call attended by more than 100 members.
During the call, Jason Allen, a DGA member who oversaw safety on “Higher Grounds,” was grilled about his role on the film.
“It was not an easy decision to work on this movie,” Allen said in an interview. “But considering the terms of my employment granted by the DGA to have complete, undisputed authority over the production’s safety... I decided to take on this endeavor.” He said he has since received “overwhelmingly positive support” from his colleagues.
In 2017, Jones’ family was awarded $11.2 million in damages by a Georgia jury. Richard and Elizabeth Jones have been campaigning since their daughter’s death to improve safety on sets. They launched a nonprofit called Safety for Sarah, to raise awareness and provide grant funding to film studios about safety.
“I feel very strongly that the DGA should expel Mr. Miller from its membership,” said Richard Jones. “They really need to send this message to the industry that this is not what we are about. Safety should be an integral part of who they are.”
Serious injuries and deaths on film productions continue to occur in the industry, often because filmmakers seek to cut costs or capture dramatic shots.
In December, an Atlanta jury awarded $8.6 million in damages to the family of stuntman John Bernecker, who was killed in 2017 on the set of the TV series “The Walking Dead.”
Stuntwoman Olivia Jackson lost her arm in an accident on set during the filming of an installment of “Resident Evil” in 2015. Two crew members of the Tom Cruise movie “American Made” died in a plane crash during production in Colombia in 2015. And in 2018, stuntwoman Joi “S.J.” Harris died after performing a motorcycle stunt for the superhero sequel “Deadpool 2” in Vancouver, Canada.
Jeff Harris, an attorney for the Jones family in its wrongful death suit as well as the suit brought by the Bernecker family, said that Miller could carry on working highlights a lack of progress in set safety.
“It’s important to us that this not just be about Randall Miller,” said Harris, of the Georgia-based law firm Harris Lowry Manton LLP. “The DGA helped him do this, so they apparently aren’t learning the message of the Jones and Bernecker cases. That’s the bigger issue.”
Olivia Jackson was left with life changing injuries after an accident on set. She is fighting for compensation and the rights of film crews.
Meanwhile, the Jones family has been pushing to establish new protocols for filming to improve safety.
“If we save a single life, even if we never know it, that’s OK,” said Richard Jones. “It will have been worth it all.”
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