David Robb contributed to this story. Second in a series.
There seems to be a fear among crew members in the industry about refusing to take part when they feel something is unsafe on a set, or speaking out after an accident lest they will be seen as a problem and lose future work, ostracized from the industry they love. But that is not always the case. It has been done in the past and a few courageous individuals are doing it today in hopes of getting the conversation started in the film and TV industries for the sake of all of their brethren. Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, longtime location manager/scout Billy Fox and assistant location manager Brianne Brozey (in Local 399) who was injured on a set in March 2011 are willing to shine a light now on a very real problem in the industry.
In 1928, motion picture pioneer Hal Mohr set the standard for safety in Hollywood when he refused to take part in a stunt he deemed too dangerous. Mohr, who would go on to win two Oscars, was the head cameraman on Noah’s Ark that day, and when shown how the flood scene would be shot, he objected on grounds that hundreds of extras’ lives would be put at risk. When he was overruled by studio executives, he walked off the picture in protest. As he had feared, when 15,000 tons of water were released on the specially built set, three extras were drowned and dozens more were seriously injured. One of the extras who survived that day would go on to become a Hollywood legend: John Wayne.
The accident Mohr had warned about — at the time the worst in the history of the young movie business — would lead to the implementation of the industry’s first stunt safety regulations, according to the book Stunt: The Story Of The Great Movie Stunt Men by John O. Baxter. Incidentally, Mohr is noteworthy as well for being the only person to win an Oscar despite never being nominated in a competitive category; he won by write-in vote for A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 1936. He was the first cinematographer to win an Oscar for both black-and-white and color photography.
Location manager Billy Fox, who has worked in the business for 31 years, has witnessed numerous close calls in dangerous situations that have arisen from eager filmmakers and producers pushing the boundaries of safety to get a shot. He says sometimes even the location manager raising safety concerns on a shoot is seen as an enemy in the production’s ranks. “It’s ‘Whose team are you on?’ ” said Fox. On one feature in 1990, a planned train explosion that made Fox wary was beefed up for a bigger effect, resulting in downed power lines that blacked out a nearby town and cost the film millions in insurance costs. On another indie, he battled with the film’s director, unit production manager, and 1st assistant director over a car stunt he felt was unsafe and pulled his name from the film’s permit the morning of the shoot. “At 10:38 AM my pager went crazy. The second unit camera crew had been driven over, sustaining broken bones and a crushed pelvis,” he said.
Fox also recalled one sequence during the filming of a more high-profile movie when the director scrapped a planned driving sequence for a spur-of-the-moment “guerrilla” take. Fox said the director “had a stunt guy punch it through a live four-way intersection through a red light.” After that he never worked on another film for the director. He says that missing out on jobs was worth being able to sleep at night. “There are no grey areas in the realm of a true location professional,” he added. “But unfortunately the above the line marches to the beat of a different drummer — ego.”
Brozey’s life changed in a split second three years ago while working on a network TV series (which she doesn’t want to name). She was employed as an assistant location manager — a profession she has been in since the mid-1980s — when the accident occurred. An hour into her workday, Brozey was being shown around by one of the key location managers (she was going to fill in for him while he was to be away for a couple of weeks) when she noticed two huge metal light stands — called “mombo combo” stands — placed next to each other, used to hold two 4×8-foot flags (to block out the sun from shining into the cameras). There was one sand bag on the bottom of the stand and she thought that doesn’t seem right as it was a very windy day. Brozey was in mid-stride walking past the stand, taking notes when the next thing she knew she felt like she was being hit by a baseball bat on her neck, shoulder and back. She had been walloped by the mombo combo stand’s grip head. “Had my head not been down, had it hit my head, I was told that I would have been killed or in a vegetative state today.”
“The location manager held me and asked if I was OK. And I said, ‘I don’t know, I guess.’ When you are in shock, you don’t know if you’re OK or not. And if you leave a job, you’re scared you won’t be called back for work. So I saw the set medic and he gave me a couple of Advil and I was like OK, I was just in shock. My vision was blurry, I couldn’t see out of my left eye. We walked into another building and sat down and I said aloud, ‘I’m not doing well. My vision is blurry and I’m dizzy.’ And I asked if I could call my husband. I kept throwing up that day.” The end result was a severe concussion, an A-C separation of her shoulder (which is comparable to an injury an NFL football player might get), and several herniated disks in the cervical spine which compromised her spine and her spinal cord. “If my husband wasn’t there, I don’t know what I would have done that day.”
Brozey is still in pain, wears a neck brace, has shock pains down her right arms and right leg, has muscle spasms and will soon have surgery on her neck. She has an unknown future now and may face other surgeries from the injury. “I’m so scared to go into surgery,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, but I have to have it whether I like it or not.” Given that she is still in treatment, she is currently in litigation. She cries as she recounts what her life was like before the accident and now. Before, she ran in the L.A. Marathon and had been training to run again, but those plans were dashed. “I just want people to know that this could happen to them, too, and we all must be there for each other,” she says. “If an actor or actress gets a scratch on their face, mildly or more severely, they would make sure that a doctor saw them and they would be cleared for work. But someone below the line gets injured, some productions don’t put as much effort into it making sure you’re OK.
“I’m speaking up because in the past when I did speak out, I got yelled at by different departments saying this is not your job, stay out of this. My philosophy is if I’m watching a set, I care about the people first and foremost. And how you enter is a set is how I want you to leave a set. The 399 has these safety classes and they are fantastic, and I learned many things from them.” she said. “Human life is priceless and I love this industry, and there’s gotta be a way up speak up safely and have tact about it.”
Not only does Brozey think that more safety meetings on sets might help but also suggests that safety classes be mandatory every few years. “The repetition would help brain memory,” she said. She also would like some kind of overall industry fund set up to help those injured and families of those killed as the financial toll is overwhelming after an accident. Added Brozey: “With time going on and hearing about the next injury and the next death and nothing changing. How about we all figure out how to make it not happen again? I mean, why not have them more than once a day as things change throughout the day’s shoot? I matter. We all matter.”
Brozey has since talked to Inland Empire Film Commissioner Sheri Davis at the COLA Awards about this.
“I saw her at COLA and normally she has so much energy and now she can barely move,” said Davis, who began the awards show. “I told her that she has to speak up about this. If you don’t expose the issues, how do you expect them to get better? I hope more people speak up. I think that more meetings are a good idea.” Davis said that over her 20 years on the job, “I started watching what happened on set and the location managers were the ones who seemed to know what was going on everywhere. They are the eyes of the director. My deputy director Dan Taylor and I when they come our way and don’t have a location manager on board we are very concerned. We’ve had bad experiences with the productions that don’t have them.”
Brozey also noted: “The 1st AD has command of the set and there needs to be safety meetings every day and go over everything. They usually say, this is the condition of the location and here’s things to look out for. Those meetings are very, very important. It’s nice to have them to know what to look out for. I’ve been on sets where those meetings haven’t been done, and when I’ve tried to say something, they say, ‘The sun’s going down, we gotta get this shot, come on, let’s go.’ All I know is what is the price of a life? The price of my life? I will forever be requiring help. The price of Sarah Jones’ life? I understand she was a lovely woman. What kind of creativity will not happen now because she’s not here? How do you put a value on her life, and her families’ life, and the price of a life that her children now will never have?”
Midnight Rider camera assistant Jones was a vibrant girl who loved being on set. Her friend Amanda Etheridge, who worked with her on Army Wives, told a crowd at her memorial last month how she and the bacon- and chocolate-loving Jones became fast friends. “Sarah was a superhuman, hard-working and passionate about everything she did … as an adult she could never sit still, reading seven books at a time, she would take textbooks to work and the second she had a break, she would get out her highlighter and just start studying. Sarah worked really hard hours on set so she could travel the world … she traveled Europe by herself for a month. I just think it’s important for everyone to realize that not only was Sarah a stellar employee but she was a dear friend to so many people,” Etheridge told the crowd.
There have been hoards of accidents on film sets over the years, some resulting in fatalities, others in serious life-altering injuries. In 1982, Vic Morrow and two children were killed on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie when a helicopter crashed into them. Director John Landis and four others were charged with involuntary manslaughter and acquitted after a nine-month trial; the accident led to more stringent safety standards. In 1993, Brandon Lee was fatally wounded on the set of The Crow when a prop gun dislodged a bullet into the actor’s abdomen during filming. The death was ruled an accident and no one was charged. During a car stunt on Paramount’s Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, extra Gabriela Cedillo suffered permanent brain injury when a steel cable snapped and struck her head. While filming Expendables 2 in 2011, stuntman Kun Liu was killed and another critically injured after a stunt explosion went awry. Last year, stuntwoman Lisa Hoyle and her husband Robert Jakubik filed a lawsuit against Sony Pictures and others involved after suffering an open head fracture injury following a car crash stunt on the FX series Justified. We tried to get others from the industry to speak up, including another person horribly injured, but none would.
In 1980, a stunt that went wrong on the set of the Burt Reynolds-Farrah Fawcett comedy Cannonball Run propelled 24-year-old stuntwoman Heidi Von Beltz into the windshield of an Aston Martin as she rode in the passenger seat during an automotive stunt. The car had mechanical problems and no seat belts. Instead of weaving through a line of oncoming cars it crashed head-on into another vehicle, breaking Beltz’s neck and leaving her a quadriplegic for life. After six months in the hospital, she filed a wrongful injury suit and won a $4.5 million jury award.
“It’s much better now,” she told Deadline. “I hear from a lot of stunt people who say that it’s so much safer today; that it’s more professional and calculated, and that there are fewer accidents.”
Even so, she said, “If you’re not comfortable with a stunt, don’t do it, and speak up.”
Rallying around Jones’ memory, the production community has encouraged workers to be unafraid to question authority, voice concerns and refuse to take part on set when faced with potentially dangerous filming situations. “It’s going to be the actions that we take away from this that is going to make a difference…no one should die making movies or television. Period,” IATSE VP Mike Miller said this month (watch the video below), drawing applause while addressing a mass of Sarah Jones supporters at a union-organized memorial. “No worker should ever be afraid of speaking up or speaking out, reaching out or refusing to participate if they feel they are in an unsafe situation.”
Will that ever happen given the current culture of filmmaking?
Despite the increased emphasis on taking a stand for safety on set, the industry is short on actionable solutions. OSHA and union measures to provide crew with safe means of raising their concerns put the onus on individuals to speak up, often at the peril of their careers. If, for example, a crew member working 16 to 18 hours days takes producers up on an offer to sleep nearby at a hotel room instead of driving dangerously under the effect of sleep deprivation, that person may opt out rather than risk having it held against them on future jobs.
“This is a sort of a poison pill in the entertain business — [the sentiment is] if you can’t cut the mustard even if the mustard is detrimental to your health, safety, and family life, you don’t belong in the business and there are plenty of people who will take your job,” said Oscar-winning DP Haskell Wexler.
Wexler spearheads the grassroots 12 On/12 Off campaign created to shine light on industrywide health and safety concerns, issues he addressed in his 2006 documentary Who Needs Sleep? He hopes the media attention from the Midnight Rider tragedy leads to wider examination of attitudes toward safety on sets across the industry: “Sarah Jones’ death in this avoidable accident should open our minds to the wide disregard to health and safety of all film workers who are obliged to accept whatever employers ask of them, even if of questionable human value.”
On a Facebook page, Brozey posted the Deadline story about Sarah Jones’ memorial and under it wrote:
“No one should ever be hurt either! And if one is injured…production should step in and help. Either way, we ALL are responsible for each other’s backs and fronts. As I have stated before when I worked a permitted union show…that day there was no one for my back literally. I face surgery in few weeks and I am scared. I do not wish to point fingers or label who and what as all this does is cause a fight and certainly does nothing to solve the problem. I would like to see my forever existence that is now riddled with surgeries and constant pain and forever diligence to stay strong be propped up and supported by my story, Sarah’s story and those like ours. I pray our lives and stories live on so our experiences do not die on the vine. Please let us all make a difference in our industry. These unnecessary deaths and permanent injuries need to be stopped or at best reduced. My on-set injuries were avoidable. We should not be afraid to say something when we see something even when it is happening in another’s department, union or non. I have stayed quiet too long. I cry watching my dear husband sob in private as he hurts for me when he sees me in agony. As I face my life saving surgery…I cannot stand by and do nothing. Please everyone, be safe and let us not forget Sarah Jones, Bree Brozey and those like us! Thank you. Safety for Sarah and Safety for us All!”
David Robb contributed to this report.