Railroaded in the Deep South

Four years ago, an on-location tragedy during an independent film production took the life of camera assistant Sarah Jones – by Slade Phillips

In 2014, during the production of the Gregg Allman (of the Allman Brothers Band) biopic Midnight Rider, Sarah Jones, a 26-year-old camera assistant lost her life when a train ran through an active film set. A harrowing event, and sober reminder of the importance of on-set safety for all film cast and crew.

There have been all too many on-set film deaths that the industry has had to contend with, including Brandon Lee’s unfortunate death while filming The Crow (1994), to New Zealand native Conway Wickliffe who was riding in the back seat of a vehicle when it crashed into a tree while filming The Dark Knight (2008). Wickliff was leaning out of the window at the time of the accident because he was holding his camera filming one of the other vehicles.

Cinematographer Garry Hansen and two others were killed in a helicopter crash, in 1982, while filming a television commercial in New South Wales. In 2012 American cinematographer Mike deGruy and Australian TV writer-producer Andrew Wight were killed when their helicopter crashed and burned on takeoff in eastern Australia while filming James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge (2014).

Prosecutors maintain Midnight Rider’s director, Randall Miller, was ultimately at fault, claiming the production was trespassing when the incident occurred. In the small town of Jesup, Georgia, in the United States, a brief investigation lead to a quick conviction. The truth was found, and justice was served. Or was it? 

While attempting to answer that question, an explosive new documentary has uncovered information which clouds the official narrative and leads viewers down the rabbit hole of small town corruption and corporate negligence.

None of the evidence I’ve uncovered supports the official story,” said filmmaker David Rollins, writer and director of Trial of Midnight Rider: Railroaded in the Deep South. “The more I dug into this, the more I saw just how many failures led to this disaster.

With the release of the documentary Rollins is hoping that truth has its day. The film, which includes case evidence not previously available to the public, is a result of nearly three years of investigation and more than seventy-five interviews. The documentary includes the official depositions of law enforcement, film personnel and a variety of railroad, insurance and pulp mill executives. Rollins even made more than two-hundred hours of uncut deposition testimony and key evidence available on his website to aid future investigations.

The resulting information not only seems to blow the top off the prosecution’s version of events, but also uncovers systemic problems with the entire investigation. From an habitually reckless train crew that neglected to even attempt to stop, despite seeing the production on the tracks from almost a mile out, to the presiding judge admitting on camera that he handed down an illegal sentence.

At the end of the day we’re just a documentary crew, but I truly hope our film will make a difference and lead to a more thorough investigation into what really happened,” says Rollins. “A number of lives were forever changed that day, but most importantly, a young crew member lost her life and a family lost their daughter. I felt it would be a tremendous disservice to all those involved if the truth was left untold.

‘Trial of Midnight Rider: Railroaded in the Deep South’ is now available on VOD.

Slade Phillips is a writer based in Sydney. 

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