Inside the ‘Midnight Rider’ Manslaughter: Will Hollywood Learn From the Death of Sarah Jones?
The director of the Gregg Allman biopic is serving 10 years. It’s the first time a U.S. filmmaker has been convicted of a felony for an on-set death.
The Midnight Rider crew should never have walked onto the train tracks that bright February afternoon in rural Georgia. But in the movie business, some people will do whatever it takes to get the shot.
Forty-nine minutes and 10 takes later, Oscar-winning actor William Hurt was among the lucky ones to escape from the narrow bridge alive when a freight train barreled down on the cast and crew of the Gregg Allman biopic at 57 miles per hour.
Sarah Jones, a gregarious 27-year-old camera assistant from South Carolina who loved bacon, books, and The Big Lebowski, was not so lucky. As crew members scrambled to run to safety toward the oncoming train—the only exit route to be seen, and with no contingency plan in place—Jones was propelled into the train’s fuel tank when the train struck a metal hospital bed that had been placed on the tracks for the scene. She was killed instantly.
Now, just over a year after Jones’s death, the film’s director, Randall Miller, is behind bars serving a two-year prison sentence in a historic moment for Hollywood: the first time a filmmaker has been convicted of a felony for an on-set death.
Surprisingly, the public criminal trial many hoped would bring the events of Midnight Rider and endemic industry-wide safety issues to light only lasted a day. After denying criminal responsibility for months, Miller, who has two young children with fellow defendant and producer Jody Savin, changed his plea from not guilty to guilty and took a deal that would send him to prison for two years with eight years probation in exchange for the dismissal of Savin’s charges.
Miller’s defense team was fully prepared to battle it out in court and point the finger at the fellow defendants—namely, unit production manager Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz—who they say were more responsible for the safety risks leading up to the train collision. But “his wife was indicted and there was risk, and he felt like he would accept that responsibility in order to free his wife and ensure she was back with the children,” Miller’s attorney, Ed Garland, told The Daily Beast.
Garland maintains that Miller was unfairly blamed for the tragedy by the outraged film industry, which rallied around Jones’s memory after her death and made her a poster child for everything from safety issues to long work hours. Miller took the deal after prosecutors went after Savin, putting their family’s future in jeopardy.
“Our view was that there was not criminal conduct, that these events took place as a result of miscommunications and a variety of failures in the organization,” said Garland.
It will come as no consolation to Richard and Elizabeth Jones, the parents of Sarah Jones, to hear that Garland expects Miller will be released after he serves just one year of his two-year prison sentence.
“The [Jones] family wanted a message sent, wanted him jailed for a lot more time,” Garland told me. “The sentence is two years but he will get two-for-one credit while he’s in jail and be released at the end of a year—and he was willing to do that.”
The other two defendants in the case also cut deals to escape jail time. Producer and unit production manager Sedrish entered an Alford plea and was hit with 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine. Tried separately, Schwartz was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years probation and a $5,000 penalty. Under the terms of their deals Miller, Sedrish, and Schwartz can’t serve as directors or assistant directors for a decade.
Not that anyone in Hollywood thinks the Midnight Rider Four will ever work in this town, or any other one, again.
The highest-profile tragedy to hit Hollywood since Twilight Zone: The Movie began innocently enough, at least to Miller and Co., who were indicted last July on charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass for the February 20, 2014, collision.
It was a Thursday and the first day of shooting on Midnight Rider, a $5 million-budgeted independent feature based on Allman’s rock autobiography My Cross To Bear. Miller’s cast and crew trekked over an hour from their base of operations in Savannah to the Doctortown trestle in Wayne County, Georgia, a train bridge overlooking the Altamaha River that was previously best known as the site of the Battle of Altamaha Bridge—a historic Confederate victory during the Civil War.
Miller had started his showbiz career with ’90s studio comedies Class Act, Houseguest, and The Sixth Man, but reemerged a decade later as a smaller-scale director and producer with indie dramas Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, Nobel Son, Bottle Shock, and CBGB. Although he and Savin live in Los Angeles, Savannah had become his adoptive new work home, where local city officials welcomed their production company’s business and, sources say, swept safety violations under the rug on prior shoots.
Miller embraced the perennial underdog-guerrilla spirit that gets most indie films made these days—the impulse to make the most out of spare resources, which industry pros also know tends to weed out complainers. He’d bragged in Q&As of breaking the rules by filming without permits on the NYC subway for his punk rock drama CBGB. He surrounded himself with likeminded compatriots, like Midnight Rider executive producer Nick Gant, owner of Savannah-based Meddin Studios, who had once allowed his own young son to run through a field of cows just so Miller could get a shot.
According to his lawyer, Miller had never himself been to the Doctortown train trestle before he arrived that afternoon to shoot a dream sequence in which the aging Allman sees his dead brother Duane, played by actor Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt), across a bridge.
Outlining the events of the accident at Miller’s sentencing Monday, Assistant District Attorney John Johnson emphasized that location manager Charley Baxter had tried, and failed, to get permission from rail company CSX to access their train tracks
“When this was told to Randall Miller, Jody Savin, and Jay Sedrish, they rewrote the script to stay off the tracks,” said Johnson. According to a damning OSHA report, the filmmakers had removed two scenes involving actors riding a motorcycle down train tracks.
“All three knew that CSX had denied them permission to be on their property,” Johnson insisted.
On the afternoon of February 20, Miller started by filming on the grounds next to the train trestle with permission from Rayonier Corporation, which operates a pulp mill nearby on private property and owns the land adjacent to the tracks. Schwartz even warned the crew to stay 15 feet back from the tracks for their own safety, according to Johnson.
But what Miller really wanted, it seems, was a shot on the tracks.
Baxter had relayed CSX’s denial to Miller in an email, but Miller’s attorney says he was too busy prepping his actors to read it the day of the shoot: “[Ensuring safety] wasn’t his job.”
Had the case gone to trial, defense would have argued that Miller was not aware they were necessarily forbidden from filming on CSX-owned tracks. Sedrish later admitted CSX’s email was a “no, but not a forceful ‘No,’” according to OSHA, which fined Miller and Savin’s company Film Allman $74,900 for “one willful and one serious safety violation.”
According to Garland, Miller was told by Schwartz, who heard it from assistant location manager Stephanie Humphreys, that only two trains would pass that afternoon. So after two trains rumbled by—the second one at 3:36 PM, according to CSX records—Miller directed his crew to place the bed on the tracks and led them out onto the trestle.
“Before the filming began, William Hurt asked how long it would take to get off the trestle if a train came and was told one minute,” Johnson told the court. “When asked what to do if a train came, Hillary Schwartz told the crew to run toward the train, which was the fastest way to get off the trestle.”
Filming resumed with Hurt now on the bed, which was on the tracks. Suddenly, “someone yelled ‘TRAIN’—a third CSX train had come around the bend about a mile away straight toward them,” said Johnson. The fatal train sounded its horn 26 seconds before impact. It struck at 4:25 pm. An onboard security camera captured the chaos.
“We didn't have sixty seconds. We had less than thirty,” Hurt wrote to a friend, describing the harrowing moment in an email obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Barefoot, he ran along with other crew members trapped in the train’s path in single-file along their only route to safety.
“Two set dressers grabbed the ends of the bed to move it and Randall Miller grabbed the middle,” said Johnson, who added that the bed fell apart, pinning Miller underneath. “He got loose and dove to the walkway on the east side of the trestle where the crew members who had not been able to get off the bridge had huddled, holding onto steel beams.”
Video from the train cab broadcast on ABC News’ 20/20 shows several individuals, including Hurt, barely making it off the trestle by the time the train arrived. Others remained trapped on the right walkway, suspended above the river. When the debris cleared, eight additional crew members were injured and Jones had been run over by the train, suffering 33 external injuries and 12 internal injuries.
It could easily have been Miller or Hurt left seriously injured or dead that day, or any of the crew who had to cling to metal girders as the train hurtled by, inches away. Or nobody at all might have died when the train swept through the Doctortown trestle, relegating the egregious lapse in on-set safety to the history books as a footnote in the making of Midnight Rider.
Instead Midnight Rider remains unfinished and the filmmakers will forever be haunted by the death of Sarah Jones—like the five men famously tried for manslaughter for the horrific 1982 on-set deaths of star Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The three were killed when a pyrotechnic sequence gone awry caused a low-flying helicopter to crash into them during filming, with the helicopter’s rotor blades decapitating Morrow and Myca, and Renee crushed by one of the skids. Despite the numerous safety and labor law violations exposed in the ensuing investigation, Landis went on to helm studio comedies Spies Like Us and Three Amigos even before the criminal trial commenced, and continued to direct major Hollywood productions after he and his fellow defendants were acquitted.
Miller, Schwartz, and Sedrish won’t have that opportunity. And while Miller’s prison time brings some closure to the Midnight Rider tragedy, it hasn’t necessarily brought satisfaction to the industry. Film workers are being encouraged to report on-set safety violations without fear of reprisal; there’s even an app or two to help them do it. But despite candlelight vigils, walkathons, PSAs, and petitions like the one 62,000 signed to get Sarah Jones’s name added to the 2014 Oscars telecast, practical initiatives to prevent similar accidents from happening have so far eluded the industry’s studios and unions.
“I do not seek revenge, but rather I seek healing from all those involved, including those responsible for my daughter’s death,” Jones’s father, Richard Jones, said Monday in court. “At the same time, we cannot send a signal to the film industry that it is OK to disrespect life, to commit such selfish, dangerous acts for the sake of so-called cinematic immunity.”
“There needs to be accountability. It’s not about payback. It’s about drawing boundaries. It’s not giving permission to the film industry to be so careless with the safety and lives of their cast and crew. It is about sending a strong and powerful message to the industry that, if you are so careless with the safety and the lives you control, you will be held fully accountable.”