Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Debt Has Been Paid





Many of you may have seen this story, but if you haven't, you need to.

For those who don't know the details of this story, a film called Midnight Rider was shooting a Gregg Allman biopic on a train track in Georgia, and a young second camera assistant was killed, and others injured. 

Below is part of the story from a Variety article:



A second camera assistant was killed Thursday afternoon when a freight train struck and killed her on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider,” sources confirm to Variety.

Four other people were injured in the accident, one seriously. The event happened in Wayne County, Ga.

An eyewitness told Variety the movie crew was filming a dream sequence on a railroad trestle when a train unexpectedly crossed the bridge.

The crew, including director Randall Miller, had placed a bed on the tracks for the scene and was expecting two trains on the local bridge, one in each direction, when a third train arrived unexpectedly.

A whistle warned the crew members of the next train, giving them less than a minute, which was too late.


Subsequent articles have contradictory stories about whether the railroad had given its permission and was working with the company, or if just the private company who owned the land the tracks ran through had given their permission.

These are among the questions that clearly need to be answered, but as a producer and an AD, there are some specific questions that concern me.

Assuming there was a production meeting that went through each day's shooting with all of the keys, did no one ask if it was an active track? That answer was clearly yes, and the production company knew it, because they anticipated the two trains that came before the one that killed the young camera assistant.

Once that answer was yes, what was the question about why they were building a set - it seems it was a bed and some props from a dream sequence - on an active track.

One of the most disturbing things to me was a note in one of the articles that they were told that IF a third train came, it would give a warning whistle when it was about a minute away. Excuse me, IF and ONE MINUTE? What was the plan to clear the track of a set in one minute, not to mention camera and any other supporting gear?

Remember, this was a union crew with a director shooting his second feature, not a bunch of film students.  Was there any sort of safety meeting?

As a second AC, I doubt Sarah would have been at that meeting. The point, as one Facebook poster mentioned, was that other people should have had her back, should have asked those questions. The producers are responsible, and I would certainly like to hear from the UPM, AD, and location manager, all of whom should have addressed these basic questions.

There should have been numerous fail-safes before it ever got this far. Clearly, those all were blown.

An old college friend who publishes books on railroads and their history, and historic lines, adds the following:

"I've been acquiring some level of knowledge about railroading through my publishing work, and I do not believe for one second they had permission from CSX. Jesup is such an active line that in town they have built a platform for people who like to watch freight trains go by. Also, I believe there are now phone apps for monitoring the Advanced Train Control System which displays train traffic. It's what railroads use to monitor their traffic and what railfans use to know when and where the next train is. There is just no excuse for this sad incident."

The above was from his Facebook post to me.

The tragedy is that so many opportunities to prevent this were missed. I'm glad the union posted the picture of Sarah above. Looking at her, does it not look like a typical crew photo from any of your shoots? Could she not be any one of your crew friends? Could she not be you?

There are times, as line producer and AD, when I have pulled the plug on stupid ideas. There are other times when I may not have seen a risk and someone else pointed it out. 

Before we get too high-and-mighty - Let's be honest: we've all pushed the envelope at times. Making movies can be dangerous - big, heavy equipment, electricity, stunts, effects, etc. We sometimes take chances, but hopefully, when we do, we have calculated the risks and have done what we could to reduce those risks, even if it does not get down to zero.

It sounds corny, but we are a team. A member of Sarah's union posted this (part of a longer post)

"Sarah,
I didn’t know you but learned today that you were a “sister” of mine, a 2nd AC in Local 600, that you were working on a film set yesterday and that now you are no longer with us as a result. I am so sorry that your young life was cut short for something as trivial as moviemaking and so sorry that no one spoke up to say “this isn’t safe” before a train came down the tracks you were shooting on killing you and injuring seven others. I don’t really know much about the situation or what actually happened, but I am sure that you were doing your job, performing your functions professionally, secure in the knowledge that since others were doing it, things must be safe. I don’t know if you were concerned, if there was a safety meeting, if you asked and someone said, “yeah it’ll be fine” or, if like so often happens, you were moving so fast to help your team get “the shot” that you didn’t take the time to consider what was being asked of you. I don’t know a lot of things.

But I do know this Sarah. No one had your back. If they did, you’d still be here today. The Director should have said no. The AD should have said no. The DP should have said no. Production should have said no. Your operator should have said no. I don’t know if any of these things happened, but I do know that you were out on those tracks and that means someone didn’t step up enough. You were doing what was asked of you and for that reason, you are gone.

And I am so sorry because a 2nd AC shouldn’t be the one to make the call that something is unsafe. A 2nd AC, or anyone for that matter, should not have been out on those tracks. A 2nd AC should not have died yesterday. No one should have...."
"Sarah,
I didn’t know you but learned today that you were a “sister” of mine, a 2nd AC in Local 600, that you were working on a film set yesterday and that now you are no longer with us as a result. I am so sorry that your young life was cut short for something as trivial as moviemaking and so sorry that no one spoke up to say “this isn’t safe” before a train came down the tracks you were shooting on killing you and injuring seven others. I don’t really know much about the situation or what actually happened, but I am sure that you were doing your job, performing your functions professionally, secure in the knowledge that since others were doing it, things must be safe. I don’t know if you were concerned, if there was a safety meeting, if you asked and someone said, “yeah it’ll be fine” or, if like so often happens, you were moving so fast to help your team get “the shot” that you didn’t take the time to consider what was being asked of you. I don’t know a lot of things.

But I do know this Sarah. No one had your back. If they did, you’d still be here today. The Director should have said no. The AD should have said no. The DP should have said no. Production should have said no. Your operator should have said no. I don’t know if any of these things happened, but I do know that you were out on those tracks and that means someone didn’t step up enough. You were doing what was asked of you and for that reason, you are gone.

And I am so sorry because a 2nd AC shouldn’t be the one to make the call that something is unsafe. A 2nd AC, or anyone for that matter, should not have been out on those tracks. A 2nd AC should not have died yesterday. No one should have...."


We get caught up in the moment, which is why we need to look out for each other. As this poster says, Sarah was probably focused on what she always was likely focused on - doing her job - and trusted that others had answered any of those safety questions.

Line producing my last feature there was something we wanted the sound recordist to do that he was not comfortable with - not necessarily dangerous, but not by standard procedure. He was a replacement and had not been there when it was discussed.I was in the office, and someone asked me to talk with him - which I did.

I started by asking him to explain the situation to me as he saw it. I addressed a few of his concerns, but our conversation ended - as it always does - with this: I am not going to ask you to do something that you are not comfortable doing.  In the end, we shot the scene without sound. There was no argument.

That's how the system should work.

I surely don't have all the answers here, but you don't need to be an investigator to see how many safety issues needed to be ignored for this tragedy to happen.

This has popped up on a few of the blogs I read already, and likely, will pop-up on more. Here is a wonderful tribute from a great crew site, dollygrippery.net.

I'm glad that IA posted Sarah's picture - a set photo - because, again, we all need to look at it, to see that smiling face or someone who is gone, and not just throw around words like "accident," as if it is a thing. 

It is not. It's a person. It's Sarah. It's the crew people you love.

I am tired of talking about "silver linings" and "if this prevents just one more..." We should have prevented already. Sarah didn't need to pay for other people's safety. Sarah didn't go to work that day to be a martyr for set safety.

It was Day One of the shoot. She likely showed up full of enthusiasm for doing her job, wondering what new crew members would be like, who this old guy Gregg Allman might be and would he be on set, what would the catering be like, and, like all of us, with our fingers crossed that we don't screw up.

She should never in her worst nightmares have had to think about getting hit by a train.

I am tired of wishing people rest in peace, though Sarah certainly deserves that. I am tired of reminding the rest of us that our mortal stage is just that - a stage - and that those we love do live on in especially in our hearts - though I truly believe it.

The more I write this, the more I alternate between sadness and anger, though I know neither does much good, and I'm sure that those that missed the opportunity to prevent this are feeling deep pain, a pain that I doubt will ever go away.

The Twilight Zone movie. Jason Lee. Brent Hershman. John Hunt Lamensdorf.*All the other crew and cast members killed whose names you don't know, and the countless others who were not killed but sustained serious injuries that could have been prevented.

 We use terms like "war stories" the way sports announcers use words like "hero" for athletes when there are so many other heroes out there who put their lives on the line for others. What we do should not be war. It should not come with sacrifices, Movies are entertainment, not a noble cause to give life or limb for.

We have enough names. We have enough faces. With Sarah, let's just say: Enough.


EDIT: Subsequent stories have confirmed what I already knew - that the production comoany did not have the permission of the RR company.

EDIT 2: There has been much deserved outrage from the crew community, as well as some beautiful tributes, including the one linked in this post from dollygrippery.net which everyone needs to read.
Here, I link an article by a wonderful First AD in her blog "It's a 1st AD thing...", where Michelle, as usual, tells it like it is from an AD perspective. I shared one of my own bad incidents from my AD days in the post above.

If you've been a first AD, you have been in the situation Michelle describes.

EDIT 3: I have tried not to keep putting up new posts, but putting updates here. A genuine outpouring of love has resulted in a movement/FB page - Slates for Sarah. Spontaneously at first, and then in reaction to the FB page, thousands of industry folks from small indies to "Glee" and other episodic shows have shown love for Sarah in messages on their slates and posted them on that Facebook page.

From that page, the idea of having Sarah Jones' name added to the In Memorium section of the Oscars this Sunday has arisen. If interested, email slatesforsarah@gmail.com or visit slatesforsarah.org or sign at this site here.



* I know someone who was involved in Lamensdorf's death, and sadly, he has learned little.

N.B. - The Facebook comments above were posted on a very public social media, so I assume the posters wanted them seen by others. I did not reach out to them for permission - but also did not share their names.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The South Beach Job - Part 2 - We're Straight


Jive Lady: Oh, stewardess! I speak jive.
Randy: Oh, good.
Jive Lady: He said that he's in great pain and he wants to know if you can help him.
Randy: All right. Would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?
Jive Lady: [to the Second Jive Dude] Jus' hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da rebound on da med side.
Second Jive Dude: What it is, big mama? My mama no raise no dummies. I dug her rap!
Jive Lady: Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don' want no help, chump don't GET da help!
     -Airplane and the Jive Lady

We arrived in Miami still looking for a hotel room and a permanent office as well as needing to fill our staff.

We checked into a hotel off the strip, where I proceeded to work out a deal with the manager, promising more rooms rented, as well as renting an office space in the hotel.

Cutting a deal means offering something the other person wants. We would have hip hop celebrities. She (the manager) was not impressed. Miami has a bustling music scene, so they were not impressed with celebrities. I was able to offer a large number of days - it got me a deal, if not a great one. The office would not be available to us immediately.

Until that time, we would work at Lex's office. The first thing one noticed when walking into his office was a large mural that celebrated a very high-profile social and free-speech victory over "the Man." Lex, once part of an iconic hip-hop group, was now a mini-mogul, with his hand in different entertainment enterprises.

Lex was what one might call a straight-up guy, which is a big factor in why we got along. Whether it was sitting on his porch as he described how to jack the cars that passed, or describing a night out at a strip club as he bragged about placing a call to a cell phone in a place where, well, a cell phone was not meant to be, Lex was not only completely comfortable with who he was and his reputation, he loved it.

The script was rather loosely structured, which was fine for what would be one in a series of party movies with a lot of women around a pool shaking their butts for the camera.

Already into my forties and having grown up in NYC, I didn't think of myself as naive. Still, I soon learned many things about hip hop culture which I didn't know previously.

One day at "auditions" for dancers, one of the girls waiting looked at the girl auditioning and made a comment I didn't understand. I soon learned that "natural vs enhanced" did not stop at breasts. There was a drug one could inject into their butt that would make it wiggle more. When I inquired further, the girls waiting were more than happy to explain it in great detail, and how they could tell the difference between a natural shake and one which had been achieved through chemicals.

I also had a limited knowledge of the artists we were looking to cast, and their music. Early on, we reached out to the host of a very popular hip hop and Black music show on MTV (even at this point, the very White network felt more comfortable departmentalizing their music than just having it share the spotlight with music with which they were more comfortable). This host was more than happy to be a part of the movie, mostly because Lex was famous for his parties, and few wanted to miss it.

Lex loved to play, and one way he would tweak me was with a rather attractive - and very young - assistant of his, who was my link to the artists. She turned up in the doorway of my make-shift office at Lex's before we moved into the hotel office and asked if she could be of any help. She showed up wearing what could only be described as hot pants - a fad from the 70s which had long passed, but which still had it's desired effect in terms of outlining the female form.

"Lex really appreciates everything you're doing, and he asked if I could come over here to thank you personally," she said, posing in the doorway with a big smile and a hands-on-hips pose that has been clear since the days of Betty Grable* and needed no translation.

Known for her legs, US servicemen in WWII clearly also appreciated that baby had back.


"Thank Lex for a very tempting offer," I replied to a lady who was easily young enough to be my daughter "but tell him I'm going to have to pass. Do let him know it was a very very nice offer."

In all situations, when turning down a genuinely-offered gift, Miss Manners would clearly insist on being gracious - and, yes, I do love the image of Miss Manners answering this inquiry.

"You sure?" she asked. "I never mix work with pleasure," I responded. "That's so crazy," she exclaimed, as she laughed and went sauntering away, making sure that the outfit and the walk made clear exactly what I was passing on.

Lex was closer to my age (only three years younger) than the age of our director, Jimmy, who insisted on trying to be something he was not. Lex and I got along really well because neither of us tried to get over on each other, which was a nice break from a situation where everyone was trying to get over on someone - the artists on their managers, the managers on the record company, the record company on everyone. Lex knew this terrain well, but, at least with us, when he wanted something, he was clear about it, and we dealt with it from that perspective.

Much as "Done and done" had become the catch-phrase on my last feature, Lex and I had our own short-hand. "We straight?" the question would get the response "we straight!"** That would say everything about where we were on an issue, very often having to do with money and where it was going.

To this day, I have a great deal of respect for a guy who was not just street-smart, but very very bright with a good understanding of human nature. Everything he does that "shocks" is calculated, and he is still a successful businessman who does a lot of giving back, and has helped a lot of other folks up, all the while never forgetting about Number 1.

That's a balance not every artist has.

We definitely got past politically-correct conversation very quickly, and sometimes that was fun.

One of my favorite moments came with this same female assistant. We were going over the artists we were trying to book, and, as previously mentioned past some of the bigger ones, I was not familiar with them many of them or their music,

While Lex, his assistant and I were straight on important matters, when discussing artists I should have known but did not, I felt more like Randy than the Jive Lady in Airplane.**

She laughed when I blanked on about the fourth artists in a row.

"That's what you get for hiring some Cracker*** from New York to produce your movie," I joked.

She went into mock shock expression and said, "Don't you say that JB."

"You're our favorite Cracker from New York!"



Any excuse to show the one. the only, the incomparable James Brown is good by me. (Would love to know the literal translation of the Japanese subtitles for the intro). I do love the "secretary" at the end.





*If you're wondering how a reference to a pin-up that helped boost the moral, among other things, of our fighting heroes during World War II made it's way into a post on a hip-hop artist, welcome to my blog.

**Ironically, the two expressions mean very much the same thing - that all is settled and it's time to move on.

***I chose this definition from the Urban Dictionary, leaving out the rude added commentary. "Slang word used to refer to those of European ancestry. The word is thought to have either derived from the sound of a whip being cracked by slave owners, or because crackers are generally white in color."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The South Beach Job - Part 1 - How Bad Can it Be?


"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."
- Anton Chekov

Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to set down rules of drama, and Robert McKee* was certainly not the first. Before we were encouraging young screenwriters to “Save the Cat”** the great Russian playwright and storyteller Anton Chekov, has come to be known as “Chekov’s Gun,” and it’s a principle most dramatists and theater directors know, and certainly familiar to many filmmakers.

Similarly, if a character in a movie says “How bad can it be?” or, more ominously, “What could go wrong?” you know the answers are very and everything, respectively.

So it was on a Spring day in 2000 that two people walked into my home office (I was living in a loft space where I actually had a separate office at the time) to discuss a job that would be shot in Florida in the upcoming weeks.

The two fit into the “Somewhere Man” category***. If you work in film, you know what this is: someone mentions a name, and your immediate thought is “I know that name from somewhere” but can’t remember what category they fall into.

The next step is to go through how well you know them. Was it a Film Encounter of the First  Kind, where you heard the name? The Second Kind, where you met them at some odd networking event and immediately forgot them after you took their card? Or, was it that valued “Third Kind”**** where you actually worked with them on a job?

It turned out to be a version of the second kind. We had mutual contacts in the business, and had spoken on the phone once or twice regarding a project that never happened.

While most of my career was features, these two folks had done mostly music videos, something that I only did on occasion. This was why they came to me to co-produce and line produce.

At this point, I have to invoke the pseudonym rule, although in this series, folks who will not be bothered by real names will be used (you will see where this goes later in the series).

Let’s call the director Jimmy and his girlfriend, who also was his music video producer, Jane. Jimmy was an Irish-American kid out of Boston who did his best to seem as if he came from the ‘hood,’ which he most certainly did not. Anyone can wear their baseball cap backwards.
Still, he was good at diercting music videos, and this is what got him the contact for the movie.

An iconic hip hop artist who lived in South Beach had contacted him about doing a movie. As it turned out, the “movie” would basically be a feature-length music video - think “Purple Rain” with a lot less plot and genuine acting set in South Beach and not Minneapolis.

The hip-hop artist - we will call him Lex - had convinced a record company to finance this, He would be paid an artist fee, as well as be compensated for services he provided (such as use of his offices in South Beach).

For those who haven’t worked on music videos, music companies (at least at that time) would typically do a draw down that was something like this: 1/3 during prep, 1/3 at end of shoot, 1/3 when delivered. While draw-down’s happen on features, this set up would be almost unworkable for us, as a larger portion of the budget is spent when equipment and other costs are paid at the beginning of principal photography. We worked out a slightly better draw-down, but still had to get to Miami on our own dime and wait for the first payment, so we worked it through Jane’s production company, which footed the bill for costs until the first payment came in.

Jane was originally not going to involved as producer, but as I was not about to front money to shoot the film, she and her company came on board, and she came to Miami as one of the producers as well.

What happens when you take a feature producer with little experience with music videos, a music video director with no experience with features, that director’s girlfriend and producer alternately watching out for him and chastising him, and a hip hop artist whose favorite pastime is getting over?

Throw in South Beach culture, a hurricane, the Met's Playoff, three pimps from Detroit, a BIG hip hop artist, and, well, more South Beach,  and what can happen?

 As the comedy trailers suggest, hilarity ensues.

Although “Living in My Oblivion” may be my first official “blog,” it was actually this shoot that inadvertently got me started writing about my career. From early on in prep, I started writing a small group of friends back home a series of emails describing what was going on, and those emails soon turned into a story that these film friends insisted I needed to share. Before Blogger and Wordpress, etc., there was a site that had people post stories on things they knew about, and that is where these stories first appeared.

When I wrote those, I took them from the emails, which, sadly, have long been lost to dead computers and too many moves. As such, I will need to share “The South Beach Job” from memory, which, at my age, gets a little tricky. However, so many of the details of that shoot still stay with me that I trust not too much will be lost.

It is with this assurance that I place this figurative rifle on the wall with the assurance it will most certainly go off.





* A former business partner made Robert McKee's "Story" his bible for writing, making it a hated item for me.
**As overly-complicated as McKee's "Story" is, in my opinion, the catch-all "Save the Cat" is too simplistic. There are certainly great writing guides - but I think these two are over-rated. Spare the hate email - just my take on the idea that any one book can make anyone a writer.
***Somewhere Man - forgive the Beatles’ reference to "Nowhere Man." The whole 50th anniversary  on the Ed Sullivan Show was so badly mangled by the Grammys that I'm still trying to figure it out.
****Apologies to Steven Spielberg.

N.B. This is a story that is hard to obfuscate, as the local and the description of some of the artists narrows down the field. For that reason, I will use real names for folks who would likely laugh if they read this.

The title reference is to all heist-gone-wrong movies.