It's been two years since Sarah Jones was killed on the set of "Midnight Rider," the biopic about Gregg Allman that was being shot in Georgia.
The 27-year-old camera assistant was part of a crew that was shooting on an active train trestle without permission. When a freight train rolled into the area, Jones was killed and several others were injured.
Jones’ death brought widespread attention to movie set safety, particularly on low-budget productions like “Midnight Rider” that might skirt rules and regulations to get an unauthorized or unsafe shot. The campaign to keep movie sets as safe as possible continues.
Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, are playing a central role in that effort. They have a non-profit called Safety for Sarah, and they also are working on a documentary called “We Are Sarah Jones” that is intended to raise awareness about safety issues for crew members.
The couple recently traveled from South Carolina to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives, union officials and filmmakers, and they visited several sets to talk about their efforts. They also stopped by The Frame's studio for an interview with John Horn.
Elizabeth, can you talk a little bit about Sarah herself? What kind of person was she?
Elizabeth: She was a fun person. She loved travel, and by the age of 27 she'd been to probably four or five countries. We knew she wanted to get into the camera business, though we thought it was post-production.
After she did an internship with "Army Wives," she realized that she wanted to be a camera assistant. She wanted to handle the camera, handle the big stuff, and she wanted to show that she had the gumption to do that. Camerawork is normally a man's job, but she was able to do it, and she was proud of that.
Did you ever think that what she was doing was dangerous?
Richard: No. And maybe that's part of what struck a nerve in the industry — there's no reason for what they were doing to have been dangerous. We understand that certain stunts in the industry can be dangerous, but then again, it's astounding how safe the industry has made stunts.
There's a tremendous amount of upfront effort and planning before the actual stunt is done. She worked on "Furious 7," and she'd tell me about all these different preparations they'd do for one shoot. So it can be done. But that day, it was such an unnecessary death. It was so preventable.
You've pushed for a way in which crew members can report an unsafe working condition without having to fear the loss of their job. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Richard: Part of what we want to do is to empower all people on sets, no matter what position they're in, to be able to speak up if they feel like there's a dangerous situation. There's an initiative that we're really just [unveiling] — the Safety for Sarah End Credit Program. If [producers] sign up for it, one of the items they agree on is to allow any cast or crew to call a Sarah timeout, which gives them 60 seconds to raise concerns about safety.
That's an important item to empower all people on the set to be able to speak up, [because] it's inherent in the industry that if a crew member makes a fuss, they might not get fired, they just may never get another call. So it's really a challenge.
Having lost a child, and having decided to use that loss as a starting point for what you're working on now, how did you move from grieving to action? And how long did it take you to figure out that this is what you needed and wanted to do?
Richard: We've been approached by so many in the industry asking us to be a voice for them. It's obviously not something we chose, but we do feel a calling, in a sense. It's never been a question to us, it's simply what's in front of us.
Elizabeth: Sarah wrote a paper in high school, which she started by writing: "I believe all things happen for a reason." She lived by that. And I believe that, when she passed on, it became our commission to make this a better world in the film industry. That's what we're commissioned to do.
Richard: This isn't about Sarah Jones. She's gone from this world and we can't get her back. But if she can make a difference and save another life, that's what we're trying to accomplish. It's about the living.