EXCLUSIVE: Due to ambiguity in probation documents, disgraced Midnight Rider director Randall Miller is back behind the camera and making movies – despite an involuntarily manslaughter guilty plea that many believed forbid such work for up to decade.
Deadline has learned that Miller directed the comedy Higher Grounds in Serbia and Colombia last year. The completed feature follows a vegan barista, played by Glow‘s Kate Nash, whose coffee shop is sinking, and gears up as the underdogs in the World Barista Championships. Higher Grounds was produced by Miller and his wife Jody Savin, who was also an initial defendant in the Sarah Jones death case, with charges eventually dismissed.
Jay Karandikar, Zak Kristofek and Michael Melroy Smith are also executive producers on Higher Grounds.
Some talent reps who had their clients involved in the new movie wanted to vet Miller’s current situation to direct, we’ve learned. Under terms of Miller’s probation, a probation officer would have been required to approve any travel outside of Georgia and therefore internationally.
The gig comes three years into Miller’s 10-year probation for the 2014 death of 27-year-old camera assistant Jones on the Georgia set of Midnight Rider, a biopic of Greg Allman. On March 23, 2016, Wayne County Superior Court Judge Anthony Harrison said the filmmaker is “prohibited from serving as director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production.” (Read Miller’s probation document here.)
Prior to receiving probation, Miller had spent a year in jail after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in Jones case. Sarah Jones was killed when she was struck by a speeding freight train on the first day of shooting Midnight Rider in the Peach State in 2014. Miller was released from jail on March 23, 2016, after the director’s attorney said they negotiated a 2-for-1 deal in the hallway with Assistant District Attorney John Johnson. Miller’s initial plea agreement occurred the year before. The DA’s office decided the original two-year sentence was “improper,” so the office amended it to one year. Harrison honored the agreement and released Miller based on time served.
As Higher Grounds began to gear up, reps for various actors were provided a note on April 26, 2019, from Michael M. Smith of the Atlanta law firm Baker Donelson. This is the same Smith who is an executive producer on Higher Grounds. Issued prior to production, the correspondence signed by Smith was obtained by Deadline.
“After careful review of both Mr. Miller’s charge with the Brunswick court dated March 23, 2016 and his Probation paperwork of November 1, 2018, I have formed the legal opinion: Mr. Miller is allowed to direct so long as he is not the crew member assigned with the task of safety on set,” Smith writes. “Mr. Miller is a member of the Director’s Guild of America in good standing,” Smith adds. “Mr. Miller’s is on what is termed ‘Non-Reporting Probation’ which means he is free to travel and work anywhere in world.
“I have reviewed Mr. Miller’s Brunswick, Georgia Charge sentence and his subsequent Probation paperwork to form this opinion,” the lawyer also notes in what we’ve heard were multiple opinions sought by investors on if Miller could work as a director. “I have also reviewed a letter from the Director’s Guild of America to Mr. Miller dated December 6, 2016 which clearly states that Mr. Miller is a Director’s Guild director in good standing.”
Upon examination today, Miller continues to be listed as a member of the DGA on the guild’s website. Deadline reached out to the DGA about Miller’s involvement with Higher Grounds, but we have received no response so far. Calls to Miller’s attorneys, including Michael M. Smith, and to the Wayne County District Attorneys office were also not returned.
However, the associate Producer in Charge of Safety and functioning DGA 1st AD on the production of Higher Grounds did respond.
“I embrace and share everyone’s outrage in the tragedy that happened on Midnight Rider,” Jason Allen told Deadline.
“When I was hired to be the first assistant director for Higher Grounds, it was under the strict conditions of my employment to ensure that a tragic incident like that never happened again,” he added of the DGA-sanctioned production. “With DGA assurances, I was given unprecedented, elevated, full and complete asserted authority on this production’s safety protocol. Requesting that my colleagues understand and support me as a reputable member of the DGA, who’s always strived and delivered the highest level of integrity, safety and respect of everyone in our industry.”
Another source close to the film told Deadline that nothing dangerous occurred during the production of Higher Grounds, and it was a “wonderful” experience overall.
Miller’s attorney Ed Garland told Deadline today that Miller wasn’t in violation of probation in the taking the Higher Grounds job. Garland added that it was permissible for Miller to shoot both inside and outside the U.S. per his understanding of Miller’s probation directive.
“The day that sentence was entered, the language of that sentence indicated he could continue to direct,” Garland declared of Miller’s probation guidelines.
“He’s not avoiding any terms of probation,” the lawyer asserts of his disgraced client. “He had relied upon a number of legal firms for advice on this, and the actors got their legal opinions from Baker Donelson or else they weren’t going to act.”
Miller was “only prohibited from directing if he was supervising safety,” Garland added. “There was a man in charge of safety on set, Jason Allen, and his conduct was known by the Director’s Guild. There were safety meetings every 30 minutes on the set.”
Higher Grounds was co-written by Miller and David Rollins, the latter a vocal defender of the director who, during the time of the trial, was making a documentary film about it. Higher Grounds also stars Maria Conchita Alonso, Freddie Fox, Sally Phillips and Rosie Cavaliero. Getting little traction at the time, pic was actually screened last November at the Arclight Pasadena.
Sarah Jones’ father, Richard Jones, told Deadline that he alerted Assistant District Attorney John Johnson back in March about Miller directing Higher Grounds abroad. Jones wanted to inquire if the director had violated the terms of his probation. Johnson informed Jones at the time that he would look into it. As of today, Jones still hasn’t heard back, he told Deadline.
As for Miller making his return to filmmaking overseas, Jones said: “I am not fond of the idea, but I’m not surprised either. I feel that he should be held accountable for his actions and very poor choices. I think that he needs to be held to the terms of his probation.”
Joyce Gilliard, the hair stylist who was seriously injured on that train trestle accident six years ago, said: “I’m shocked that he is able to make films again even though he is on probation and was the cause of Sarah’s death and my injury. It’s sad. I’m not happy with it, I can tell you that much.”
Jones’ parents – Richard and Elizabeth – who turned their attention to preventing similar disasters like what occurred on Midnight Rider on other movie sets, launched the Safety for Sarah campaign, which seeks to foster on-set safety through awareness and accountability, and whose Sarah Jones Film Foundation makes safety grants to university film students in their daughter’s name.