This post originally appeared in my Presidents Desk column in the May 2014 issue of American Cinematographer magazine. It marks the seventh anniversary of the passing of camera assistant Sarah Jones on February 20, 2014 and is as relevant now as it was then.
While details surrounding the death of second camera assistant Sarah Jones in Georgia last February have been well documented, it seems something important has gotten lost in the reportage. The facts, such as they’ve been related, describe a horrible and preventable tragedy. The public outpouring of grief from individuals and groups connected to the camera department has been admirable and was to be expected, yet the almost solitary nature of their expression uncovers a dark secret most of us have known for quite some time.
This industry is in trouble, and I don’t mean economically, but spiritually.
From time to time the late ASC legend William A. Fraker liked to hold court in the bar at the Clubhouse during which he would expound upon the early parts of his career in Hollywood. “Those were the good days,” he was fond of saying. “You could feel the romance when you went to work.” His emotion was palpable and those of us lucky enough to be there believed his every word. But look a little deeper and his sentiment becomes more than a nostalgic reference to the era of highballs and unfiltered cigarettes. He was really talking about the feeling of family and community that infused the movie business of his day. According to him there existed a genuine caring for one another that extended well beyond the workplace. Though a similar ethic may still be present in isolated pockets, it bears no relation to its broader predecessor. There’s no question that in the 1940’s and ’50’s and even up to the ’60’s and ’70’s society had a sharper understanding of what was really lasting and meaningful in life. On the soundstages of 2014 it’s more likely those notions of warmth and common decency will be in effect only as long as they can generate cold, hard cash.
This by no means paints an ideal picture of the past as one of rampant peace, love and understanding. There were plenty of things wrong with our culture then and there was no way for Fraker to know that it was already beginning to come apart. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can achieve any sort of Utopia simply by being polite to one another. Instead, if we’re honest, his gauzy recollections force us to confront uncomfortable truths about how we both think of and treat one another, even in the smallest of ways.
Have we lost our humanity? Just open a newspaper. For a view closer to home, consider the disdain with which so many people deal with each other on the road, in the supermarket, at the ballpark…and dare I say, on set. It’s almost as if their narcissism and sense of entitlement has drained them of the ability to see anyone else as being like themselves. Those of us who make motion pictures for a living work long and hard at jobs we love, sometimes making significant sacrifices along the way. Despite what a few might contend, we’re not curing cancer. We’re not even curing a hangnail. To the twisted individuals for whom such things as money, power, ego and prestige are the ultimate goal however, obsessive pursuit of them has acquired the importance of conquering a fatal disease. Sad as this is, it becomes frightening when you realize how widely that attitude has taken hold. I can’t imagine anyone associated with the production wished for Sarah Jones to be killed while doing her job. By themselves, good intentions mean nothing, and that’s especially true in this case. The only people who really know what actions and attitudes led to this sad event are those who were with her on that lonely stretch of southern countryside. But if you think for an instant that a certain loss of humanity didn’t play a primary role in what happened there, you might be beyond saving yourself.
Will we just make note of Sarah’s passing, bow our heads for a moment then carry on? Or will we use it – I mean really use it – to effect genuine improvement in the way we regard one another? None of us can risk the illusion of a massive change taking place due to what’s proclaimed here or anywhere else for that matter. But when you accept that our behavior is the only thing in our lives over which we have total control, the task becomes a bit more manageable. To go a step further, when you realize just how quickly our journey through this world goes by, that task becomes ever more urgent.
As directors of photography we’ve always been responsible for the safety of our crews. Since the tone of any endeavor is always set at the top, it’s time for us to also find ways to be more decent and caring not only for them but for everyone we know. It won’t always be easy; at times it will run entirely counter to initial impulses. But if our example proves worthy, it might be a start toward curing the spiritual sickness I mentioned earlier.
It would also stand as the most profound tribute any of us could offer to the memory of Sarah Jones.