Something strange might happen at the Oscars this Sunday night. At some point during the evening, as the Hollywood glitterati are giddy on the excitement of the awards a sober moment will come. That is when the Academy will remind everyone of those who are no longer part of the cast, the famous actors who have died in the past year.
The Screen Academy have tried for years to stop the audience from applauding after each actors face appears because some get louder appreciation than others and it was turning into a kind of popularity contest. So now they have a big name singer who performs as the visual litany takes its course up on the big screen – with a huge round of applause at the end. The sober moment is short lived, there’s a lot to gallop through during the evening.
There is always some speculation about who will be included, given the short space of time. They have Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Gandolfini, Peter O’Toole, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Joan Fontaine, Roger Ebert, Ray Dolby, Ray Harryhausen, Paul Walker and Elmore Leonard among others to choose from.
The cherry on the icing will be whoever the Academy decides will be the last face in the slide show. This is not as easy as it may seem. Hollywood is so petrified of making a mistake, that this decision will have been examined in minute detail. Shirley Temple is probably the front runner in most people’s minds; but you just never know.
The problem with the glitterati is that a word wrong, a seating arrangement miscalculated and egos can be damaged sending publicists and agents into apoplectic panic. The Academy probably made their minds up a week or two back and all the technical arrangements will be in place.
But now they have a PR problem.
Last Thursday a film crew were on the first shot on the first day of filming a movie called “Midnight Rider” a biopic of the Allman Brothers rock band, staring William Hurt when something utterly terrible happened.
The scene was a dream sequence involving a bed on a Railway Trestle bridge near Savannah, Georgia. The crew, it seems, had permission to be near the tracks, but not on them. After two trains the crew were expecting rolled through they set up the bed and their cameras in the middle of the rail track on the enclosed bridge and began filming.
At some point a third train whistle announced its approach and in less than a minute, several hundred tonnes of freight train came rumbling onto the bridge at 60 mph. The engineer saw people and objects on the track, he hit the brakes and brought his shuddering monster to an agonising slow halt half a mile further up the track.
When the crew saw the train bearing down on them, they frantically tried to haul all their stuff off the line and try and get off the bridge. As the train smashed through bed and equipment on the rails, debris hit members of the crew, injuring some of them and knocking one young woman into the path of the train. 27 year old Sarah Elizabeth Jones, the 2nd camera assistant was killed, and the makeup girl was seriously injured just escaping with her life.
Sarah’s last words were “I can’t carry all this stuff”
The County Sherriff and medics arrived and took control – the bridge is now a crime scene. Over the days it is emerging that the production company had asked for permission from the railway company to do the scene but it was denied to them. So someone high up in the crew decided they would do it anyway.
Normally if you shoot on a railway track, there would be whole raft of safety measures in place and technical personnel from the train company in charge. Every detail would be discussed and agreed in advance. There would be an on-set medic and an ambulance. None of that happened. When the producer was asked by the sheriff if he had permission to film on the tracks, he replied “that’s complicated”
This was not some independent fresh out of college production, it had LA money with Stars to match. The truth will out in due course and it’s as clear as the words of the Eagle’s song: Somebody’s going to emergency. Somebody’s going to jail.
Sarah’s death has galvanised film crews across the world and the entire industry to air their grievances about safety and working conditions. The industry press and social media are buzzing. It is quite usual for us to be working 12 to 14 hour days, six days in a row for weeks on end. There are now calls for new safety rules across the film industry, which may even include shorter days, and people want it to be called Sarah’s Law. A film crew are people who are thrown together to bring to the screen stories that enrich or enrage our lives. We put up with all manner of undesirable conditions to finish the job – because we love what we do. But nobody should die for it.
Many Industry people are requesting that Sarah be in the Roll call of the departed at the Oscars, just like the big names. Of course, it would be a hell of a thing were it to happen but it probably won’t. It would upset the horses. There are two things you never want to see made; sausages and movies.
Sarah Jones was the 2nd Assistant camera operator. Her job is to run the camera for the Director of Photography who will be busy looking down the view finder. The frame rate, the aperture settings, the smooth running of the camera is her responsibility. When the DOP needs to change focus quickly, as characters move around a scene, Sarah would be helping with that. Before each take she holds up an electronic slate in front of the lens which contains the Scene number, Shot number and Take number. This information is vital to logging the growing material that the editor must assemble later on. They used to be called a Clapper Board, but things have moved on.
Friends of Sarah Jones started a Facebook page four days ago called “Slates for Sarah” where film folks are invited to put her name on a slate, photograph it and upload it with a message.
Well ! The response is ballistic. At the time of writing, over 60,000 people around the world have contributed. The crews of major TV shows and feature films in production have put Sarah’s name on their slate. The outpouring of sadness and solidarity is overwhelming.
When, at the end of a film the warm glow of the house lights fade up, you walk away as the, seemingly endless credits of people doing jobs that no one has ever heard of by people you will never meet roll up the screen, remember this – they are all just like Sarah and the 60,000 people who have joined her posthumous Facebook page.
The film industry has some strange habits and rituals. At the end of the day, the last shot is known as the Martini shot, because the next shot will be out of a glass. The last shot before lunch is the Orson Welles, and the penultimate shot of the day is the Abby Singer.
Abby was a very efficient Assistant Director in the 1950’s who would be able to anticipate when the Director would be finished on a scene; he would already have mobilised most of the crew so that the move would be half done before the director even knew it. When asked by the crew how many more shots today Abby? he would invariably reply, ‘This shot and one more‘ He was always right. Hence the 2nd to last shot.
The ill-fated dream sequence on a rail track in Georgia, when feckless producers allowed the crew onto that “live” Railway track last week was the first slate, the first shot and the first take of Sarah’s last day. Many in the business want the first shot of the day to be known as the “Sarah Jones”
Nobody knows now what the ramifications of Sarah’s death , but there will be some and for the better. Crew members who used to trust that the execs had everything covered will be more cautious in future and maybe be more confident in challenging orders that put them and their friends in danger.
On the Slates for Sarah page one cameraman quoted her last words “I can’t carry all this stuff” and followed it with “we will take it from here” - Let’s hope so.