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3.21.2015

PRODUCTION TIPS: Don't be like Randall Miller - Think Safety

Filmmakers sacrifice alot for their art; their sleep, their bank account, their time, their family, their sanity, even their health. That is understandable to a degree since the need and desire to express yourself trumps the more rational necessities of life. But while filmmakers, as artists, might believe there is no limit, there really is and that is when you take someone's life in your hands. It feels morally repugnant to risk someone's life for art or money.

But it happens in film. And the reality is that it has to happen. It has to happen because without taking risks you can't "get that shot" or "finish the film" or "make the fight scene look amazing." But because there are risks to making movies, the filmmaker has a sacred duty to do all within their power to minimize the risks.  

What is truly morally repugnant is when a filmmaker risks someone's life without doing all in their power to minimize the risks. Accidents will always happen but there is a difference between the accident that could have been prevented by taking reasonable steps and the freak accident. 

Midnight Rider director Randall Miller was recently sent to jail for a tragic but avoidable accident on his set that led to a crewmember, Sarah Jones's death.

From Deadline:
Midnight Rider director Randall Miller, who two weeks ago pleaded guilty to criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter in the on-set death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones.
Jones was killed on a Doctortown train trestle on Feb. 20, 2014 when Miller and supervising filmmakers criminally trespassed and brought their crew onto live train tracks and began shooting. 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. The statement from Miller came after a damaging report on ABC’s 20/20 Friday night that interviewed police investigator Joe Gardner and prosecutor John Johnson which clearly spelled out that the supervising crew knew they had no permission and shot on the tracks anyway.
There are lessons to be learned from this tragedy based on the mistakes Miller made:
  1. Treat your cast and crew like human beings first. Care about them. Don't push them to their limit just to save a few bucks for post or VFX. Don't work them for 16 hour days throughout the whole shoot just because you think that's the norm. Balance the need to make a good film with concern for the health and wellbeing of your cast and crew. 
  2. Get permission and approval from the location you are shooting in. Coordinate with them to avoid unknown risks. Make sure the releases are signed and fully detailed.
  3. Work with the appropriate groups or individuals to determine safety issues. Get advice from the film commissioner, law enforcement, wranglers as well as your lawyer BEFORE the shoot when there is a potential safety risk. Hire trusted professionals who can manage the stunts, vehicles and pyrotechnics you need DURING the shoot. Don't cut corners with them. If you are stuck thinking about how to cut money out of a stunt or a dangerous scene (beyond what is reasonable, of course) then you should rethink whether you can reshoot that scene some other, safer way.
  4. Communicate with your crew. Notify them of safety concerns before the shoot when you are in pre-production. Notify them of safety concerns during the shoot on the call sheets, during the morning meetings and is things develop.
  5. If you are shooting a scene with a high potential for harm to cast and crew, have a medic available. If you are not shooting at a studio, have a representative from the location you are in, as well. Never hurts to have a police officer too.
  6. Scout and research the location beforehand. Get to know the place you are shooting in. If Miller had researched the train schedules beforehand, it's possible he could've known the times that trains would be on the rails. Despite having done everything else wrong, if Miller had known that little bit of information it could have saved Jones's life, since she would not have been on the tracks at that particular time.
  7. Hire responsible, professional and trustworthy crew. In his statement taking blame, Miller adds that certain crewmembers were also responsible: “The location manager, the production designer, the unit production manager, the cinematographer, assistant director and others all made mistakes that led to this, but I have taken responsibility because I could have asked more questions, and I was the one in charge." In the end, who knows? But it's not unreasonable to ask why didn't the UPM, the AD, the DP or the location manager highlight the dangers of shooting without permission, a medic or at a train yard? If you are a UPM, line producer, production coordinator, AD, DP, location manager or any other member of crew leadership, you need to point out the dangers to the producer and director. While the producer and director is ultimately responsible, they also have alot on their plate and it's possible that they overlooked things, even important ones like safety concerns. When that happens, the crew leadership should step in and advocate for safety.
It seems easier or edgier to do things your way and take a risk when you're shooting. Chances are you might even get away with it. Miller had a 25 year career and probably did things this way that whole time. But, as Miller found out, all it takes is one tragic accident and your career is over, you're in jail and your movie never gets made or seen. How easy and edgy is that?

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