A Slate for Sarah
This week’s post may seem somber — a slate for Miss Sarah Jones, a camera assistant whom I never knew (but whose lifestyle I know too well). Let’s try, however, to make it a learning experience.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Sarah Jones was a 27-year-old camera assistant who died on set — doing her job, doing as she was told. She probably made the assumption that what she was doing was safe — after all, it was somebody’s job to make sure of that. Or maybe she questioned the safety of the situation. Maybe she had a tiny inkling that everything wasn’t copacetic. Maybe she even said something. Maybe she knew. Maybe she spoke up and no one listened. Maybe. Maybe if someone had said no, maybe if they had said no loudly enough, she maybe wouldn’t have died.
I don’t know what happened. I don’t know that the situation was. I don’t know if things truly could have gone differently. What I do know is that unsafe shit happens all the time on set and because no one raises a stink (or maybe because at the end of the day everyone’s still alive), it keeps happening.
I love movies. I do. I spent half a lifetime getting to Hollywood and quit a really decent, safe, secure, salaried job to become a camera assistant. And I paid my dues. I PA’d. I took out the trash. I made the coffee. And now I’m proud to say I clap the slate and make sure what you’re watching is in focus. I get to work with people I’ve only seen onscreen. I travel to fantastic places and meet people I never would have met otherwise and I’m better for it. I get to be part of an amazing world and I have an amazing life. But I won’t die for your movie.
"Of course not!" You say. "Who would do that?" Well, let me tell you, it’s easier to put yourself in harm’s way than you would think. Or, instead, it’s harder to take yourself out of harm’s way.
Case in point: I worked on a shot once that required a prop gun with a blank being fired directly toward camera and no one — no one — had safety protocols set up, supplies for setting up a barrier, or even notified the camera team. I repeat: someone was going to shoot a gun at the camera team and nothing was being done to protect them. Yes, it was a prop weapon. Yes, it was a blank. But I had never been in this situation before and guess what? Blanks spit out dust and tiny pieces of hot, searing shrapnel. How’d you like that in your eye, person who uses your eyes for a living?
I didn’t even know what would happen, so I didn’t even know to speak up. Luckily, someone did and threw a big, fat freaking stink over it — or at least that’s how it looked to some people. ”What a whiner.” ”We don’t have time for this.” (eye rolling) “Oh, come on.” But you know what? I was so grateful. I was grateful I wasn’t hurt, grateful I didn’t die, grateful that someone had the courage to speak up and ask for what he shouldn’t have had to ask for.
I’ve done my share of speaking up too. ”Um, no, that’s not safe,” is becoming part of my regular vocabulary. But let me tell you the stupid things I have agreed to:
- Lifting a camera up a 6-step ladder that had two full apple boxes on top (You know how ladders have steps at an angle and not straight up and down? It’s so you don’t fall backward and break your neck. I almost found this out the hard way.)
- Operating a camera while lying in the middle of an unlit street at night with no permits and no lock-up.
- Pulling focus on the top of a 10-step next to a wild animal.
- Not insisting on a gun check every time weapons are on set.
- Walking half a mile to my car at night in a bad neighborhood because production didn’t secure parking closer to location and didn’t provide a shuttle.
- Driving home from set when the work day was long and I was far too tired to drive.
These might seem like minuscule details, but they’re not. One tiny mistake, one tiny twist of fate, and each time I could have been, at best, put out of commission for months; at worst, shaking loose the mortal coil.
This is not to say that it was Sarah’s job to speak up for herself. It absolutely wasn’t. It was the show’s job to secure the location and make sure it was a safe place to work. Maybe they did. Maybe the production did all it could and then the train company decided to add a train that day to the schedule and didn’t call production. But somebody somewhere knew. And then somebody died.
All we can do now is use this as a learning experience. We can remember Sarah Jones and remember that she was a hard-working, beautiful person who just went to work to do the job she loved. And we can remember her every time we speak up for safety, not just for ourselves, but for those who don’t know better and for those who feel voiceless. It’s so hard in this industry to be the voice of dissent when your job depends on being a team player and impressing those you work with. It’s hard to say “No, I won’t do that,” in a world of yes men. It’s true that if you refuse to do something unsafe, someone might not like you for it. They might even fire you. And there are plenty of fresh off the bus newbies lined up and willing to do anything and say anything for the chance at your job. But you are a human being, first and foremost. If someone is willing to fire you because you won’t do something that’s unsafe, fuck ‘em; they’re an asshole. You will get another job. You will make more money, even if you have to clean toilets or sling coffee at Starbucks. And that contact — you don’t want that person in your network. You want that person to be a story you tell your friends years from now when you’re still alive and he or she is still busy being a dick.
Here’s the long and the short of it: If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably NOT right and it’s within your rights to say no. And if it’s something that turned out to be totally safe but you felt wrong about it, it’s still okay to have said no. You might feel like a dope, but I’d rather be a live dope, wouldn’t you? And speak up for others if you see they’re not speaking up for themselves. There is no way to prevent every catastrophe, but we can look out for each other and ourselves.
It’s truly magical what movies do — as a product, they’re something to get lost in or to find ourselves in; as a medium, they’re a method of expressing the soul or providing a getaway; as a job, they’re a community of good-hearted, like-minded people who come together, create, and then leave each other, all in a whirling dance of work and beauty. Movies are amazing, but they are amazing because of the people that watch them and the people that make them. Without people, movies are nothing. People matter; you’re shot can wait ‘til it’s safe.