If you watch 20/20, or if you’ve read any recent news online, you’ve heard of Randall Miller, the director of the independent film ‘Midnight Rider.’ Miller knew well that he and his crew were NOT ALLOWED to film on the train tracks and trestle at Doctortown in Georgia. In fact, he was known for breaking laws in order to get the shots he wanted. He’s filmed on NYC subways, and dropped heavy furniture down a private residence’s stairs. Unfortunately, someone finally died due to his arrogance.
Several deadly mistakes were made in the filming of this scene. “The supervising filmmakers did not tell their crew that they had twice been denied permission by CSX to be on the tracks; they also had no safety meeting beforehand and no medic, nor railroad personnel present on set,” says Deadline Hollywood. (Read the full article here: ‘Midnight Rider’ Director Randall Miller Issues Statement From Jail – Updated)
The director and producers had been denied permission TWICE due to danger. He did not put safety measures in place, such as posting production assistants in positions to watch for trains, which would’ve been easy with the use of cell phones or two-way radios. On top of everything else, when the train was coming, they only had 24 seconds to act, and everyone was hauling the camera equipment and the hospital bed, a prop, off the tracks. When the train hit the bed, it impaled and killed 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones, who didn’t have time to vacate the tracks. Why didn’t they abandon everything and run as fast as possible? We assume it’s because they didn’t want to get in trouble if the bed was hit by the train, considering they were trespassing and ignoring serious laws. Why didn’t the director, who KNEW and had IGNORED the dangers of shooting on a live train track, scream to abandon everything and run perpendicular to the tracks? They were on a trestle, which is a bridge, so there was no where to go. If they jumped to the shallow river below, they would’ve certainly died. In a sense, they were in a death trap. Not only was Sarah Jones killed, but six others were injured.
To add insult to injury, Randall Miller used the footage they shot on the train trestle and continued to produce the film. That makes me sick. He plead guilty and was sentenced to two years in jail and eight years probation, including a $20,000 fine and 360 hours of community service. I don’t think that is nearly enough punishment. He is the first filmmaker in the history of the film business to go to prison for a film-related death. He is banned from working on films for only ten years. Unbelievable.
I hear many photographers use the term, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” That means to shoot where you want, and if you get caught, apologize, instead of obtaining permission ahead of time. This can be as innocent as shooting in an orchard, which is safe, or as deadly as shooting in an abandoned building or on live train tracks. I’ve shot in a burned-out house, which we did get permission for, and we were VERY careful to stay safe. Just today I was shooting in an industrial ranch, full of piles of tires and large equipment. At least a dozen times I said, “Let’s not step on top of this, for safety.” “For safety,” is something we say to our clients a LOT.
I am so upset about this ‘Midnight Rider’ story that I had to blog about it. I have to say to PLEASE BE SAFE! If you are shooting photos or filming in a street, have assistants watching both directions. If you’re shooting on train tracks, DO NOT shoot on a trestle, which gives you no where to go if a train comes. Here in Modesto we’ve photographed in front of train cars on 9th street. They were parked and had no engine, but Mark was still diligently watching in both directions, because what if there is a mistake and a train is sent down this track and it hits these parked train cars??? It could kill someone. And please, if something dangerous comes your way, DROP your gear, props, ect, so everyone can run to safety. NO SHOT is worth someone’s life. Camera gear and props can be replaced. A person can not.
Watch a section of the 20/20 story from last Friday night here: