Anita Busch contributed to this report. First in a series.
Local, state, and federal investigations are underway to determine who from the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider is responsible for the February 20 train collision on location in rural Georgia that left 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones dead and seven others injured. As the production community rallies around the tragedy and calls for stronger guidelines to ensure that similar accidents never happen again, a Deadline investigation that included interviews with people on the ground in and around Savannah has revealed several troubling factors preceding the afternoon when the crew of the movie, directed and produced by Randall Miller through his Unclaimed Freight Productions banner, placed a metal hospital bed on the live train tracks overlooking Southern Georgia’s Altamaha River. Was the “whatever it takes” spirit that’s fueled filmmaking for decades partly to blame for such an avoidable on-set tragedy?
The city of Savannah, GA has been hungry to grow into a contender to rival competing industries in nearby Atlanta and Wilmington since generous incentives started boosting productions locally in 2009. After a busy 2012, however, film business slowed. Last year Paramount sequel SpongeBob SquarePants 2 was the lone feature to film in the city and became the center of a local firestorm when Jay Self, Savannah’s Film Commissioner of 18 years, was terminated after fighting with the studio over permit requests he said did not adequately protect the interests of local business owners and the City of Savannah.
Self publicly accused city officials of ordering him to approve permits for productions like SpongeBob SquarePants 2 in his termination hearing statement. He told me last month in Savannah that his bosses urged him to issue permits against his concerns when an L.A.-based director came to town to make a new movie in 2012. Self said his concerns went unheeded, and the same filmmaker in question prepared to bring his next feature production to Georgia. That filmmaker was Randall Miller.
Midnight Rider And The Accident Of February 20, 2014
The Allman biopic Midnight Rider was set to be Miller’s third feature in three years in the Savannah area. He and his L.A.-based Unclaimed Freight first brought production cash flowing into the city’s local economy in 2011 with the Jim Caveziel / Chiwetel Ejiofor-starrer Savannah. The following year he came back to film the NYC-set punk period piece CBGB. By the time he returned with Midnight Rider, Miller had developed a favored position within the local industry, despite his reputation for instilling a maverick sensibility on his sets and surrounding himself with a team of like-minded production crew.
The rock biopic would have been Miller’s highest-profile project in Savannah to date; not only was Allman Brothers lead singer Gregg Allman aboard as exec producer, the film had a domestic distribution agreement with Open Road Films. Savannah’s film community was abuzz with filming slated to start in less than a week on what would have been the area’s biggest feature production in a year. Because of the tragedy that followed, the film is now unlikely ever to be made. (Above left: Photo by Mike McCall.)
On the afternoon of February 20, four days before Midnight Rider was set to officially begin filming, Miller’s primary crew was on the ground more than an hour away from Savannah for a “pre-shoot” on the Doctortown train trestle in rural Wayne County, GA. It’s a picturesque riverfront location where, 150 years ago, the Confederate army celebrated a victory over Union forces during General Sherman’s 1864 march to Savannah. Now the trestle is tucked away behind the private gates of Rayonier Inc., which operates the world’s largest pulp mill nearby on the 2500-acre property. Occasionally the site is used with permission to host Civil War reenactments. Rayonier had granted Miller’s Unclaimed Freight production access to its private grounds for that day and mill employees were expecting a film crew around the property. The company had a rep near the site, according to Rayonier’s Director of Corporate Communications Russell Schweiss, but that rep was not at the trestle when the accident occurred.
The train tracks, on the other hand, belong to transportation company CSX Corp. Miller’s company did not have permission to film on their property, Wayne County Sheriff’s Detective Joe Gardner told local press in the days following the accident, citing CSX. Location managers not associated with Midnight Rider but who know the area told Deadline they would never send a crew to that particular site because 10-15 trains barrel over the narrow waterway rail bridge daily and permissions from the property owner and railroad company could take months to approve, if they were approved at all. The region is home to other inactive tracks that would have made for safer filming, albeit without the view overlooking the river. Despite the difficult and dangerous logistics of filming at that trestle location, it had been planned for weeks, according to a shooting schedule obtained by Deadline. (A source close to the production says the day of the accident was the first day of principal photography, not the following Monday.) The schedule dated February 5 specifically states, “Pre-shoot train trestle w/William & Wyatt on 2/20,” referring to lead actors William Hurt and Wyatt Russell.
In the moments before a train en route from Memphis to Savannah surprised everyone and hurtled down the tracks at Doctortown, Hurt was onsite prepping for a scene in which his character, Gregg Allman, sees his brother Duane (Russell) across the bridge. Only a few hours of daylight remained and Hurt was expected back in Savannah that evening where he was slated to sing with Allman at rehearsals, according to one person with knowledge of the evening’s plans.
The crew waited for two trains to pass before they loaded a metal hospital bed onto the narrow bridge suspended over the river, and Hurt prepared to climb on top of it for the filming of a dream sequence. When an unexpected third train approached, some members of the crew tried to move the heavy bed off the tracks and save the camera equipment. They didn’t have time. Hurt, Miller, Jones, and several others including hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, a makeup artist (who was one of those physically injured), and the set photographer fled along the only escape route off the trestle, a narrow pathway with enough space only wide enough for one person at a time. As the train hit the bed it shattered, sending metal debris everywhere like shrapnel.
Wayne County coroner Jay Fulton told Deadline that the impact may have spun the bed, knocking Jones into the speeding train. When the train hit her, Hurt was only a few feet away. Some crew members clung to cables on the side of the trestle when they ran out of time to make it off the bridge. According to one person who spoke with multiple crew members following the accident, Miller fell in the melee and was dragged off the ground by the photographer. A number of crew members were young, film grads from Savannah College of Art & Design (known as SCAD). Autopsy results will likely not be released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s medical examiner’s office until June, but Fulton said Jones “died of major blunt force trauma.” (Above right: Photo by Mike McCall.)
By all accounts Jones’ death was an accident set in motion by the decisions that placed that crew on those tracks that day. Even without definitive answers as to who was legally culpable for shooting on the trestle, the loss of the well-liked Jones rippled throughout the film community and sparked awareness campaigns to increase on-set safety worldwide, including the viral Slates for Sarah Facebook tribute group, which collects and posts memorial messages from film and TV crews all over the world. At last month’s Oscars telecast In Memoriam tribute, her name appeared at the bottom of the screen.
For ex-film commission director Self, who still lives in Savannah and has close ties with the production community there, it’s the kind of tragedy he was afraid could happen when Miller & Co. came to Savannah two years ago.
Randall Miller, Unclaimed Freight, And The Filming Of CBGB
Production on the 1970s-80s set CGBG took place in Savannah during the summer of 2012 with Miller at the helm. On paper it was a scrappy $4M-budgeted shoot glued together with the same DIY punk rock spirit of its script. The producers stormed Savannah with an indie fervor and swept the community up along with it, striking a chummy deal with Meddin Studios co-founder Nick Gant, who had a character named in his honor. He also appeared in the film and received an EP credit as he did on the first film Miller produced in the area, Savannah, and would receive again two years later on Midnight Rider. They tapped Meddin alumni, Atlanta pros, and recent grads from SCAD to fill out their crew and corps of extras.
Miller had co-written CBGB about the rise and fall of the famed NYC punk palace with wife Jody Savin, who also served as producer. Alan Rickman, who starred in Miller’s 2008 film Bottle Shock, was cast as CBGB founder Hilly Kristal with Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint, Malin Akerman, Freddy Rodriguez, Ashley Greene, Stana Katic, and Joel David Moore rounding out the cast. Filming took place both in New York and Savannah. Miller, who also served as one of CBGB’s three producers, can be heard on the film’s commentary track talking about what he calls their “guerilla shooting” methods and notes that they stole shots on location around New York City’s subways and streets and in Central Park. Depending on the location they may not have needed permission to film, according to the NY Film Commission. There were no film permits registered to Miller’s Unclaimed Freight or CBGB in New York City, officials said.
In Savannah, Miller and his crew took over the modestly sized soundstages of Meddin Studios, turning them into the interior of Manhattan’s famed punk haven. While filming on location in the city the production’s stars attracted crowds of excited locals, many of whom were cast as extras on the film. Parts of Savannah were also dressed to a stand-in for New York’s Bowery. That’s where the safety concerns emerged, according to Self, who was the Savannah Film Office director at the time of the shoot.
One scene in CBGB was filmed at a private home that had been secured with permission by the producers, although the house’s owners were not fully aware that a piano would be dropped down a set of stairs in the process – an omission Miller laughs about on the film’s DVD commentary, saying “So this is a real house and I don’t think they fully knew that we were going to drop a piano down their staircase.” In another scene exec producer Gant’s young son runs through a field of cows, to which Miller says, “I don’t think it’s dangerous at all to have a little kid run through cows – do you think?” One CBGB crew member told Deadline the production crew “never got a single safety bulletin” including a heat advisory, despite shooting through the hot Georgia summer.
Deadline has learned about other incidents during the shoot: Producers left an unbolted broken prop bench out in public where anyone could mistake it for a city bench and risk injury; production vehicles parked illegally on city streets and insisted that the film took precedence; they knocked down tree branches without repairing or cleaning up the sites; and blocked entry to local business with set equipment, according to Self. Most egregiously, in transforming a one-way Savannah street into a Bowery neighborhood, the production illegally removed one of two stop signs without permission from the city and blacked over the other stop sign which dimmed the visibility of the white reflectors of the sign – then left the street that way when they wrapped, according to Self.
Per the Savannah Film Commission’s 2012 annual report, “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. Unfortunately, this company refused to comply with Film Office efforts to resolve these problems. This necessitated constant monitoring which consumed over 360 additional man hours, with a relative cost of over $14,800.” The project referred to in the report was CBGB.
Had the Savannah Film Office known what kind of problems the CBGB shoot would have generated, “we never would have issued them permits,” says Self, who shared with Deadline the above photos the film office took during filming to document issues with the production. Speaking with me in Savannah, he lamented the inefficacy of his efforts to bring Miller’s permit violations to the attentions of his boss, Joe Shearouse, who still oversees the commission as Chief of Savannah’s Leisure Services Bureau. Self says he voiced his concerns that someone could get hurt, leaving the city liable, in emails sent to Shearouse and city insurance agent David Paddison of Seacrest Partners, who also sits on the Board of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce and chaired the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA). Those concerns, Self said, weren’t taken seriously. Reached for comment, Shearouse flatly denied being notified of any safety issues on the set of CBGB including any knowledge of the park bench and the stop sign issue. “I don’t recall [Self] bringing that to my attention,” he said. (Shearouse is CCed on an email dated July 14 in which Paddison advises Self that since he warned the film’s producers of the possible danger, “at this point it becomes their insurance issue should someone be injured on the benches.”)
[UPDATE: Paddison, who received a co-producer credit on CBGB and told local paper Connect Savannah the credit "was more of a joke" granted in return for helping to settle issues with parking passes, also told the alt-weekly that "CBGB was sort of SEDA’s first experiment in the area of providing incentives to film companies" because Savannah lacks official incentive programs to encourage productions to invest locally and employ local SCAD crew: "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."]
Any issues with the CBGB production “weren’t safety issues, they were business issues,” Shearouse told me. He described Self as a “wheeler and dealer” whose slowness to issue permits and general failure to perform his job led to complaints from studios and producers, prompting his dismissal: “That’s why Jay’s no longer here.”
In another email dated July 2, 2012, Self warns Shearouse that Unclaimed Freight “didn’t honor the agreements they made last time. There is no indication this behavior will change. I have no power to enforce permit provisions or conditions… Our agreement puts all liability on them unless we are negligent. I see not enforcing the conditions we set as negligent, since those parameters are specifically set to avoid injury to others (physical, financial).”
Without support from his Bureau chief, Self also directly questioned Unclaimed Freight’s risky production plans. “Miller’s canned response,” Self says, “was ‘We’re trying to make a movie here’… There were a number of issues where the CBGB crew, all the way to the top including the director and producer, were breaking rules set forth in their permits. My bosses, including Mr. Shearouse, were not inclined to hold them to their agreement or to industry standards. For some reason local politicians and officials get stars in their eyes — and they do so at their peril and at the peril of their own citizens.” According to Shearouse, “If I was so negligent, Jay had been a city employee for 20 years, he knew how the chain of command worked and could have gone over my head to the city manager.” Self has not filed suit against the City of Savannah over his exit — at least, not yet. Read the emails below.
Self ran the Savannah Film Office for 18 years. Prior to that, he worked for its equivalent in Tennessee. Billy A. Fox, a veteran location manager and scout of 31 years whose credits include Reservoir Dogs, Sneakers, and A Few Good Men, worked with him decades ago when Self was at the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission. What does he remember about working with the film commissioner in Tennessee? “Jay Self cared about safety issues,” said Fox. “He really did things right.”
Runaway Production, Local Crew, And ‘The Broken Window Theory’
Many cite a lack of safety oversight as one of the issues of runaway production. As filming has retreated from L.A., other states have come up with tax breaks and rebate programs to lure productions, and Georgia is no different. Business picked up in Savannah after 2009 when the state’s 30% tax subsidies started drawing out-of-towners for feature shoots. The next year Robert Redford arrived to film his period drama The Conspirator, bringing a star-studded cast to stroll the squares set alongside Spanish moss-covered Victorian homes. The city’s production biz growth is so relatively new that Savannah doesn’t have its own local union — it falls under the jurisdiction of Local 491 out of Wilmington, in neighboring North Carolina.
But Savannah’s feature film production dwindled in the past few years, dropping from nine film shoots in 2012 to the lone SpongeBob shoot last year. Midnight Rider would have been Savannah’s first movie production in 2014, but the sparsely staffed film office, which currently employs one and a half full timers, leaves active recruitment of filmmakers to the state’s tourism board. William Hammargren, Self’s former assistant who has served as Savannah’s Film Commission interim director since October, told me the Midnight Rider shoot had requested three permits to film only a few scenes in Savannah. He said because of the remote nature of the location, they may not have needed permits to shoot in Wayne County at the train trestle location; calls to the Wayne County Board of Tourism’s office which oversees this have not been returned.
Flagging business is a worry for Savannah and for Meddin Studios, which made waves when President Obama stopped in for a visit and photo op in 2010. Last summer the company filed for Chapter 11 after Gant publicly blamed two client productions that failed to pay their outstanding bills, knocking Meddin into bankruptcy. With film and TV productions drying up considerably in the area, Meddin’s fiscal health has been in precarious balance. Yet Gant says he negotiated his EP credit on Midnight Rider in exchange for cutting Unclaimed Freight a deal on equipment fees.
Gant denies that he was closely involved in the production of Midnight Rider. But he has a history with Miller and Savin, with whom he’s worked on — and received exec producer credits for — all three of Unclaimed Freight’s Savannah-based productions. “I formed a great relationship with Nick Gant,” Miller told the Savannah Morning News when he and Unclaimed Freight returned to Savannah and rented out Gant’s Meddin Studios for CBGB. Shearouse said that he had to mediate more than once between Gant and Self, and that Gant called local elected officials to complain about Self prior to his firing. Gant told me he’s never seen Miller or Savin cut corners on their films and claims no knowledge of Midnight Rider‘s Doctortown shoot plan, who tipped the producers off to the location, or who was ultimately responsible for filming on the tracks. He did, however, insist that “Randy and Jody had never been there.”
Production vets I’ve spoken with wonder most of all where location manager Charlie Baxter was the day of the accident. A location manager’s duty is to secure sites and permissions for filming, and to be present through a shoot. According to a Wayne County Sheriff’s report, Baxter, a veteran of dozens of studio films, was told by a CSX employee via email that they did not have permission to be on the trestle. CSX would not confirm this to Deadline, but said that it was continuing to work with investigators. Baxter was conspicuously absent from the Doctortown trestle.
One source with knowledge of that day’s events said Baxter did not show up to set that day in protest of the shoot. His attorney Kirk Schroder of Schroder Fidlow in Richmond, VA would neither confirm or deny that. “He stands by his conduct in this matter,” Schroder said. “He is certainly heartbroken over her death. He is fully cooperating with investigators and we can’t confirm or deny anything you’ve heard because there is a confidentiality agreement.”
“Charlie Baxter was very responsible when I worked with him,” said one filmmaker who employed him as a location manager on another film. “We also shot on a train track in our movie and it was a live track, but we knew that there was no train coming. It wasn’t a busy track. We were given a certain time that we could shoot the train track and had the train schedule. There was a time of day we had to shoot it and had to be done by. That’s what so weird to me, that no one [on Midnight Rider] knew that schedule.” In the aforementioned film, the crew actually shot a moving train on a track. “In my opinion, there is no way that Charlie Baxter would allow them to shoot on a track he didn’t have permission to shoot on.”
Also responsible for on-set safety is a film’s 1st A.D. Hillary Schwartz, who also served as 1st A.D. on CBGB, was the 1st A.D. on Midnight Rider. The unit production manager is also tasked with set safety. On Midnight Rider that role went to another Unclaimed Freight alum and frequent Miller collaborator, Jay Sedrish, who previously UPMed and executive produced CBGB and Savannah. Miller, Savin, and Sedrish did not respond to Deadline’s requests for comment. Schwartz could not be reached for comment. Following the tragedy the majority of the cast and crew of Midnight Rider have declined to discuss on the accident with most media outlets, but are understood to be participating in the investigations.
Those ongoing investigations by the various agencies involved could take months, so liability for the accident has not been determined. Agencies on site include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. Union reps from IATSE Local 491 and IATSE Local 600/International Cinematographer’s Guild had members on crew and are also assisting investigators. IATSE reps have declined comment. Criminal and civil lawsuits are anticipated to be in the works.
While in Georgia I stopped in to see Gardner at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. The incident occurred on the side of the river that divides Wayne County from neighboring Long County, making him the case’s local investigator. Weeks after the accident, Gardner had already interviewed several people but was still trying to reach all members of the crew. Some had left Georgia to return home. Some were injured and severely traumatized. Also, “everyone’s lawyers are slowing down the process because they all want to be present,” Gardner said.
It’s not just those associated directly with Midnight Rider who are hesitant to talk about what happened on that trestle. Crew members and others in the local film community are afraid to go on record for fear that their careers will be ruined in a small pond where crew have to take what opportunities they can get, and rocking the boat can mean soured relationships, a bad rep, and no more work.
That fear, and the stream of subsidy-chasing producers that will continue to seek film incentives in competitive states outside of NY and L.A., mean other film communities should pay attention to what happened in Georgia. L.A.’s lack of a remedy for production drain continues to leave the door open for other states offering tantalizing incentives to enterprising productions looking to save a buck. Some industry watchers have turned the tragedy into an opportunity to suggest L.A. production pros might not have said yes to the questionable conditions that Midnight Rider’s crew submitted to — many of them recent SCAD grads or, like Jones, based out of Atlanta.
“There are a lot of safety rules in place,” said stuntman Conrad Palmisano, a member of the SAG/AFTRA Board of Directors and a longtime member of the union’s Stunt and Safety Committee. “The problem is when they ignore the rules that are in place.”
“It’s not a question of location or quality of local talent, it’s a question of management cutting corners and taking risks,” said Self. “It’s the broken window theory. People get away with small stuff and they assume they can get away with bigger stuff. They do things for a film but don’t think about how it could all go wrong.”
At a March 7 rally in his daughter’s honor, Jones’ father Richard reminded the nearly 1,000 in attendance of the toll that disregard for lives on set takes on the family, friends, and peers of victims like Sarah Jones: “Do not have a reason for another father to stand up here and give this talk. No one’s daughter and no one’s son should ever die again making a film. Never.”