Say No

I really didn’t know how to write this post. I still don’t.

I don’t know if there’s anything I can contribute to the memorials and reflections that have already been written. I don’t know what I can say that can help. I don’t know that anyone can say anything that will help.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Sarah Jones died on set this weekend.

I didn’t know Sarah, although by all accounts, she was a lovely person. Which is not to say that if she hadn’t been, she would deserve to die on a movie set. No one does.

See what I mean about not knowing how to write this post?

I want you to be safe. I want you to be willing to say “no” when you don’t feel safe.

But I don’t want to imply Sarah should have known better, or that this is in any way her fault. She is the victim. I don’t know who, if anyone, is to blame. I don’t know if that even matters, because Sarah is dead.

As a fellow blogger wrote, we’re just making movies. No one should die for their art, much less this one.

Many of you are young, and the biggest problem with youth is not that you’re inexperienced, but that you don’t understand the breadth of your inexperience. Neither do I.

I’m going to tell you a story that happened to me a few years ago. I debated telling this story, because this post should be about Sarah, not about me. But I want you to understand how close we can come to terrible accidents, how close we are to being the next Sarah.

I was PAing on an independent film. The scene in question was a character running down a street. The director wanted a shot tracking along beside her. As we did not have any kind of motorized dolly, he wanted to shoot from the open door of a van.

We did not have a permit to film in the street. We did not have the street locked down. Continuity, screen direction, and the fact that the van only had a door on the right dictated that the character should be running from right to left.

This meant the van would be driving on the wrong side of the road. A public road. Which, again, was not blocked off. And also curved blindly to the left on the next block.

The 2nd AC, who the DP had asked to drive the “camera vehicle,” refused to have anything to do with this shot. I decided to step up, as a dutiful PA, and say yes.

On the very first take, a car came around the aforementioned blind curve.

Because of quick reflexes and more than a little luck, I am still around to write this blog. But it could have easily gone another way. I could have noticed the other car a little later, or he me. Or, he could have panicked, swerved, and run into the actress. The cameraman could’ve fallen out, and under my wheels.

But none of those things happened.

And then the director said, “Let’s do it again.”

That’s when the DP came to his senses (became an “adult,” as Dolly Grip puts it), and said, simply, “No.” The director didn’t understand; nothing bad had happened, we were all fine.

“This time,” the DP said.

Suppose the 2nd hadn’t refused to drive the van. Suppose I had taken just a moment later to start the van. Suppose any tiny number of minor adjustments, and the timing of that car coming around the corner goes from “almost hit” to just plain hit.

This is what happened to Sarah, and all those injured in the senseless accident last weekend.

I want you to understand: your ability to calculate the odds of danger is very flawed. Your youth, your inexperience, your eagerness to please your superiors, your drive to make the best possible film you can– all of these count against you.

Don’t think, “What could go wrong?”

Don’t think, “If it was dangerous, someone else would have said something.”

Don’t think, “The producers and director are looking out for us.”

Here’s what I do, instead. I think to myself: If I told my mother about this later on, would she be worried? Honest to God, that’s what I do. Because no one is more concerned for your safety than your mother. Not your department head, not the location manager, not even you.

I don’t want to frighten you. Most film and TV sets are safe, and crewed with conscientious, sensible people. I sincerely hope you’ll never even face a situation where you’ll have to go against your every instinct and say no.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, think back on my not-all-that-long career, and remember all the times I was almost Sarah. I’ve been lucky, or blessed, or whatever you want to call it. Even experienced crew like Michael Taylor have stories like the one I just told.

I’m extremely sorry this happened to Sarah. I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone. I don’t want it to happen to you. Please be safe.

Please learn to say no.

* * *

Many people have written more eloquent tributes to Sarah than I have. Here are just a few:

Sarah

Trains

Sarah Was All of Us

We’re Just Making Movies

The Debt Has Been Paid

Slates for Sarah

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About The Anonymous Production Assistant 578 Articles
Yeah, right, like I'm going to tell you.

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