It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog – even for my own site. In all honesty there just hasn’t been anything that compelled me to sit down and put my thoughts out there… but as I had previously written about the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, and as two years have now passed since the incident that took her life (she was killed on February 20th, 2014), I decided to revisit my feelings on the topic and look at what has come of that loss.
Several months back, I was disgusted to hear that director Randall Miller was seeking an early release from prison, had gotten friends of his in the medical community to write letters certifying that his health was a concern (one was a chiropractor) and that he was even violating the terms of his plea deal by directing videos for the Sheriff inside the jail!
At the time, I was so angry I thought about writing… but I couldn’t bring myself to compose anything that wouldn’t just be filled with anger and vitriol against this man I had never met. It would’ve been a waste of energy and time. The above paragraph will be the only mention of him by name in this blog. If you want to read my feelings for the man and his team, you can read my previous blog on the subject here on Stage32.
Instead of talking any further about those who caused this awful loss, I’ll take this opportunity to write about the good that has come of it.
Sarah’s parents Elizabeth and Richard have ramped up their campaign in recent days and, in the last two years, the groundswell has been working. In my 20+ years in the film industry, I can’t recall a time when more people felt empowered to speak up if they felt as though something they were being asked to do was unsafe. That’s truly magical in a business where most people fear that they’ll lose their job or simply won’t get hired in the future having been labeled a “troublemaker” if they raise an issue. Many people are still afraid to speak out, of course, but I feel like it’s changing.
As a producer, safety was absolutely at the top of the list for me. Sure, the bulk of the job is seeing to creative or budgetary elements and protecting your director so that he or she is able to most effectively achieve his or her vision, but one must never lose sight of the fact that there are anywhere from 50-100+ people showing up each day with the belief that you are looking out for them.
I never took that lightly and my 1st AD’s and other department heads were always hyper-aware of what was realistic in terms of time and safety. I also tried to foster an environment where people felt obligated to ask questions and raise issues if they had concerns.
I have produced three features and a number of national commercials and can tell you that despite working on almost every occasion with limited budgets, extremely limited schedules and with any number of roadblocks popping up on a daily basis as a factor of either time or money, we never had any accidents or injuries that were preventable. I added the “preventable” caveat because, of course, minor incidents can occur… (for example, a grip on one of my sets was setting a flag in some thick foliage and was bitten by a tick).
One way we managed to ensure the safety of our cast and crew (despite shooting single-cam at a rate of anywhere from 6-9 pages a day) was to camera wrap in twelve hours. Camera wrap in twelve means that a number of departments will still wrap out for another forty minutes to an hour… leading, of course, to a thirteen hour day before they even get in their cars to drive home.
Film set hours still need to be addressed snd I won’t go on a tangent here about the issue, but despite the death of another camera assistant (Brent Hershman) nineteen years ago, and a push for the “12 on, 12 off” rule, not much has changed. If you haven’t seen it, check out the late Haskell Wexler’s WHO NEEDS SLEEP? documentary.
I guess safety has always been a big thing for me because I remember times well after Wexler and others tried to advance “Brent’s Rule,” when I’d be driving home after working sixteen or seventeen hours as a P.A. for my lousy $150/day flat-rate and literally be hallucinating on the 405 freeway… Yes, I hallucinated cats or dogs running across the 405. I chalked it up to being my brain’s way of trying to give me a jolt of adrenaline.
Even before that, it wasn’t lost on me that, as others were driving into work, I was trying to get home without crashing from a day I left home for the previous morning. In retrospect, it’s entirely crazy. I even had a friend (a big time AD now) who, at the time, had long hair, which he used to stick outside his car window. He’d then roll the window up so that, if he nodded out, his hair would get pulled and he’d be jolted awake. Who has to think about this stuff?!?!
When you’re young, it somehow doesn’t seem like such a big deal… just the cost of a life in film, you tell yourself. And yet it could’ve cost me my life any number of times!
Even crazier than that? Every time I got in my car exhausted, it wasn’t merely my own life I was taking into my hands… it was the life of every person in every car around me on that freeway or road. I’d sit there in my car at a stoplight and, suddenly, I’d “wake up” to a green light. I’d look around thinking, “Jesus, how long was I out? Did it just turn green or did I miss an entire cycle?” I’m lucky I didn’t roll into the intersection.
As I got older, I realized that it was becoming a game of Russian Roulette and, sooner or later, I was going to lose. If I couldn’t get producers to agree to pay for a room, I’d quite often pull of on the shoulder or exit the freeway and try to find a dark parking lot to take a fifteen minute power nap… but I can remember when the urge to just “get home” over-rode the fear of crashing. So, you see, safety on set doesn’t merely affect what you do while you’re on set, but what happens when you leave.
When I became a producer, those memories would serve as a reminder that I would never knowingly put my cast or crew at risk.
The Sarah Jones Film Foundation, set up by Jones’ family, has started a program in which productions can display the “Safety for Sarah” logo in the end credits after signing an agreement to observe safety guidelines, conduct daily safety meetings and acknowledge the first shot of the day as the “Jonesy,” to remember what happened to Sarah Jones when proper safety procedures were not taken.
The agreement also allows for “anyone, at anytime, to call a ‘Sarah Timeout’ without concern for their job or reputation, should they not feel safe or need further clarification regarding a safety issue. A ‘Sarah Timeout’ will allow for a one-minute on-set pause. Should it be justified, this brief timeout may be extended until the issue is clarified or resolved.”
This agreement isn’t just for big movies and tv shows, by the way… if you’re getting ready to shoot your indie feature or short, I highly recommend you take the pledge.
Will cast or crew members actually speak up in the moment without fear of losing a job? Hopefully… but if the fear of being labeled “a problem” is too great, a group of filmmakers have also created an app for you to anonymously report safety concerns ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/set-safety/id925643982?mt=8 ).
For the first time in a long time, these things have placed real pressure on filmmakers to take total responsibility for on-set safety, so while we are collectively reeling from the loss of life and the injury to eight others on that set in Georgia, there is change happening. Positive change.
You may be wondering at this point how I feel about the producers of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS being brought up on criminal charges in the UK over the accident that injured actor Harrison Ford (http://variety.com/2016/film/news/star-wars-harrison-ford-accident-producers-charged-1201703377/ )… well, I’m curious to see how it all plays out. As far as I know, Ford didn’t press charges against anyone and, well, sometimes an accident is just an accident… but when you knowingly take your cast and crew into an area that you are not supposed to be in, you deserve every bit of punishment you get and, in the case of the director, producers and AD on MIDNIGHT RIDER, in my opinion, those at fault got off easy.
Bottom line is this: If you’re a producer, it is your job to protect the people who are working for you and, if you’re a cast or crew member who suspects something you’re being asked to do is unsafe, please, bring the issue to your department head or your First AD. It’s their job to protect you, too.
You can get more information about the We Are Sarah Jones organization by visiting their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/wearesarahjones, their website here: http://www.wearesarahjones.com, and you can sign the agreement here: http://www.safetyforsarah.com/#!safety-for-sarah-agreement/c1fyg
Shaun O'Banion will be teaching an exclusive 2-session online class for Stage 32 starting on March 2: Development: Defining The Producer-Writer Relationship - spots are limited so make sure to grab your seat now!
About Shaun O'Banion
Shaun O’Banion was drawn to the film business from an early age and got his first film industry job as a set P.A. on the Steven Spielberg series “SeaQuest DSV” after sneaking onto the Universal lot for three months and asking for jobs.
From there, he segued to features (again after sneaking onto a set - this time a James Cameron production) and began to work his way up – first as a Production Assistant, Assistant Director and later, as an assistant to actors such as Academy Award-winner Christopher Walken, Ben Stiller, Courteney Cox and David Arquette and acclaimed filmmakers Joe Wright, Judd Apatow and Academy Award Nominee Peter Hedges.
His first film as a producer was released in 2008 by E1 Entertainment. That film, DAKOTA SKYE, remained in the Top 100 on Netflix for 5 years and has become a cult hit among teens, a regular topic on social networking sites like Twitter and Tumblr and has aired on Showtime, The Movie Channel, ComCast, Time Warner Cable and Hulu.
His second film, GIRLFRIEND, stars Shannon Woodward (HBO's upcoming series Westworld, Fox TV’s Raising Hope), Jackson Rathbone (THE TWILIGHT SAGA) and Golden Globe Nominee Amanda Plummer (THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, PULP FICTION) and newcomer Evan Sneider. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 and was one of 13 films to sell to a distributor in the first week of the Festival. In 2011, Shaun and his fellow producers won an IFP Gotham Award for the film as well as a host of other awards both internationally and here in the U.S.
His latest film, THE AUTOMATIC HATE, stars Joseph Cross (LINCOLN, MILK), Adelaide Clemens (GATSBY, Sundance Channel series Rectify), Richard Schiff (HBO’s Ballers, MAN OF STEEL), Deborah Ann Woll (Netlfix Original's Daredevil, HBO's True Blood) and Ricky Jay (HEIST, BOOGIE NIGHTS). The film made it's World Premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, won the Jury Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival, played at Busan in S. Korea and at the Seattle International Film Festival as well. The film will be released in N. America by Film Movement later this year.
A member of the Producers Guild of America, O’Banion has also produced national commercials for clients such as EA Sports, Pepsi, HIVE Lighting and Chevrolet. He has also produced two episodes of Day Off with Noah Abrams (featuring celebrity chef Tyler Florence and Skate legend Tony Hawk) for the Planes, Traines & Automobiles Network which airs on the web and on Delta Airlines with 200 million unique views a year, and a live event in Los Angeles for The White House, Office of First Lady Michelle Obama along with J.J. Abrams.
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