Following the February 20 death of Midnight Rider camera assistant Sarah Jones on set in rural Georgia, American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) President Richard Crudo has placed blame for the tragedy on what he calls an industry-wide “spiritual sickness.” “The public outpouring of grief by individuals and groups connected to the camera department was remarkable, but the fact that it came almost exclusively from us uncovered a dark secret most of us have known for quite some time: This industry is in trouble, and I don’t mean economically, but spiritually,” he wrote in an open letter posted on the org’s website and published in the May issue of ASC’s American Cinematographer. The American Pie and Justified DP also calls on his fellow directors of photography to effect change on their sets post-Sarah Jones to ensure the safety of their crew:
Details surrounding the February death of second camera assistant Sarah Jones in Georgia have been well documented, but something important has been lost in the reportage. The facts, as they’ve been related, describe a horrible and preventable tragedy. The public outpouring of grief by individuals and groups connected to the camera department was remarkable, but the fact that it came almost exclusively from us uncovered a dark secret most of us have known for quite some time: This industry is in trouble, and I don’t mean economically, but spiritually.
From time to time, the late ASC legend William A. Fraker liked to hold court in the Clubhouse bar and expound upon the early days of his career. “Those were the good days,” he was fond of saying. “You could feel the romance when you went to work.” His emotion was palpable, and those of us lucky enough to be there believed his every word. But look a little deeper, and his sentiment becomes more than a nostalgic reference to the era of highballs and unfiltered cigarettes. He was really talking about the feeling of family and community that infused the movie business of his day.
According to Fraker, filmmaking collaborators showed a genuine caring for one another that extended well beyond the workplace. Though a similar ethic may exist in isolated pockets today, it bears no relation to its predecessor. There is no question that in the 1940s and ’50s, and even up to the ’70s, society had a sharper understanding of what was really lasting and meaningful in life. On the soundstages of 2014, it’s likely those notions of warmth and common decency will prevail only as long as they can generate cold, hard cash.
I am by no means suggesting the past was rampant with peace, love and understanding. There were plenty of things wrong with our culture then, and there was no way for Fraker to know it was already beginning to unravel. But if we’re honest, his gauzy recollections force us to confront uncomfortable truths about how we think of and treat one another, even in the smallest of ways.
Have we lost our humanity? Just open a newspaper. For a view closer to home, consider the disdain with which so many people deal with each other on the road, in the supermarket, at the ballpark — and, dare I say, on set. It’s almost as if narcissism and a sense of entitlement have drained some people of the ability to see anyone as being like themselves. Those who make motion pictures for a living work long and hard at jobs we love, sometimes making significant sacrifices along the way. But we’re not curing cancer. We’re not even curing a hangnail. Twisted individuals for whom money, power, ego and prestige are the ultimate goals, however, treat the obsessive pursuit of these superficial rewards as being tantamount to conquering a fatal disease. As sad as this reality is, it becomes frightening when you realize how pervasive the attitude has become.
I can’t imagine that anyone associated with Midnight Rider wished for Sarah Jones to be killed while doing her job. Unless they’re followed by corresponding action, good intentions mean nothing, and that’s especially true in this case. The only people who really know what attitudes led to this tragedy are those who were with her at the location that day. But if you think a certain loss of humanity didn’t play a primary role in what happened, you might be beyond saving yourself.
Will we just make note of Sarah’s passing, bow our heads for a moment and then carry on? Or will we use it — and I mean really use it — to effect genuine change in how we regard one another? Our behavior is the only thing in our lives over which we have total control, and it’s vital to realize we’re all living on borrowed time. Our journey through this world goes by very quickly.
As directors of photography, we have always been responsible for the safety of our crews, and it is incumbent upon us to find ways to be more decent and caring not only to them, but also to everyone we know. It won’t always be easy; at times, it will run counter to initial impulses. But if our example proves worthy, it might make a start toward curing the spiritual sickness I have described. It would also stand as the most profound tribute any of us could offer to the memory of Sarah Jones.