Helicopter crashes, out-of-control explosions, runaway trains… this is Health and Safety in Hollywood!
It was the middle of the afternoon when the emergency call came from Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. A 71-year-old man had injured his ankle “in an incident involving a garage door”. Paramedics on the air ambulance sent to ferry him to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford were amazed to discover their patient was no ordinary pensioner, but Hollywood actor Harrison Ford. His ankle had been smashed by a door falling from the Millennium Falcon, the spaceship his character Han Solo flies in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Weeks later, any initial suspicions that producers were being overcautious about their star have been dispelled; Ford had broken his left leg. No 71-year-old, however fit, rich and famous, is going to recover quickly from such an injury. Ford is expected to miss at least eight weeks of filming on Stars Wars: Episode VII.
Ford’s accident – involving, as it did, one of the leading men in the most high-profile film currently in production – was bound to make headlines. But many more have gone largely unreported. In fact, it’s the film industry’s dirty secret that accidents – even fatal ones – on film sets are shockingly common.
Statistics are hard to collate because most health and safety executives don’t file incidents under “film industry”, but it appears that between 20 and 40 people worldwide are killed or seriously injured during a film production each year — more, proportionately, than in US law enforcement, road construction or mining. (A particularly shocking statistic when you bear in mind that the majority of film employees have “safe” office jobs.)
“Certainly on lower-budget films, we suspect there is a lot of under-reporting of accidents and near misses,” says Martin Spence, assistant general secretary of BECTU, the media and entertainment union.
“Film sets are inherently dangerous,” says a producer of several blockbusters who doesn’t want to be named. “Even when it’s just a scene of two people walking across a set, there will be tremendous amounts of electricity, hot lights, ladders, heavy suspended equipment, power tools and trip hazards like cabling and carpentry everywhere.
“If you’re talking horror or thriller genres where the public always demands more thrills than ever before, you can add in weapons, explosives, chemicals, loud noises, cranes, helicopters. Factor in the constant time and money pressures, the fact that nearly everyone is freelance and working on a temporary structure, and it’s actually surprising more disasters don’t happen.”
The majority of accidents involve falls, fight sequences and trips and slips. The most dangerous work, unsurprisingly, involves helicopter crashes, which have killed 33 US film and television workers (no British figures are available) – nearly one a year – since 1980.
“Film-making is a weird world – a physical and psychological bubble,” says one crew member, who claims he was nearly killed last year when he fell from four-storey scaffolding which had no ladders or handrails and an insufficient number of walking boards, during a shoot for a big studio. He managed to save himself by grabbing a rail. In 2004 a similar accident killed a crew member of 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera.
“For eight or 10 weeks the director’s in charge of cast and crew, sometimes in a remote location, and his or her word is law,” he says. “If he wants people to do something crazy, it’s very hard for someone lower down the ladder to speak up.”
In the early days of film-making, death and injuries were almost an occupational hazard. Between 1925 and 1930, nearly 11,000 people were injured during Californian film productions; 55 died.
During the filming of 1920’s Haunted Spooks, the star Harold Lloyd lost his thumb and the first finger of his right hand when he picked up a bomb with a lit fuse which he assumed was a prop but which turned out to be real. For the rest of his career, Lloyd hid his missing fingers with a prosthetic glove. The same year, actress Lillian Gish lost the tips of her fingers to frostbite while being filmed floating on an ice floe towards Niagara Falls.
In 1928’s Noah’s Ark, 15,000 gallons of water were dumped too quickly on a crowd of extras in a studio tank. Three men drowned, another lost a leg and dozens were injured, including Marion Morrison – better known by his stage name, John Wayne.
Following this, the first film safety laws were passed, but accidents still happened with alarming regularity. During filming of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, was badly burnt during the scene when she “vanished” in a burst of flame and smoke, when the trap door that should have removed her from the explosion was late opening. Her stunt double was injured in a scene involving a smoking broomstick, while Buddy Ebsen, originally cast as the Tin Man, had to leave the production after an allergic reaction to his make-up, resulting in a collapsed lung and lifelong breathing problems.
But the public became truly aware of the dangers of movie making only in 1982 when, during filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a helicopter flying just eight metres off the ground got caught in the pyrotechnics and span out of control, killing actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, aged six and seven, who were being paid in cash to circumvent laws banning children from working at night. Morrow’s line, which he never got to deliver, was, “I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God.”
Investigators concluded there had been 36 safety violations and the tragedy resulted in a near-decade-long lawsuit. In the aftermath, numerous new safety codes were implemented. Over the next four years, accidents on set fell by almost 70 per cent, although there were still six deaths. While filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984, Michael Jackson’s hair was set on fire by a faulty pyrotechnic, resulting in second and third-degree burns to his scalp and body. After this he became addicted to painkillers, a condition which contributed to his death in 2009.
Since then, the litany of disasters has continued. Several stars, including Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and Bruce Willis in Die Hard, have suffered permanent hearing damage after firing guns without using earplugs. During recent filming of the third Hunger Games film, Jennifer Lawrence nearly choked to death when a fog machine suffered a “horrific” malfunction.
Unsurprisingly, far more at risk than the stars are professional stuntmen and women, with Hollywood recording 37 deaths related to stunts between 1980 and 1990. Since then, increased use of computer-generated imagery in films has meant the riskiest feats can be simulated. But stunt people remain in the front line, with many unwilling to turn down jobs for fear of being blacklisted. In 1995, respected stuntwoman Sonja Davis was killed when she hit her head making a 47ft backwards jump from a building for a scene in Vampire in Brooklyn. Friends said she’d refused the job initially, but then accepted after being offered more money, worried a refusal would render her unemployable.
In 2009, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter stunt double David Holmes was left paralysed after crashing backwards into a wall while filming the reaction to an explosion. Just last month, a stuntwoman began legal proceedings after receiving “severe” burns during the making of Face Off, an American reality show in which prosthetic make-up artists compete against each other to create the sort of prostheses found in science fiction and horror films.
But even more vulnerable are the often underpaid and overworked men and women behind the scenes. Investigations into safety standards on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings franchise and King Kong, filmed in New Zealand, revealed that one model-maker was forced off work with permanent lung damage, allegedly after inhaling toxic chemicals.
Another contractor, who collapsed after ventilation fans failed, claimed he was “harassed about unfinished work” when he came in the following day.
Most at risk are cameramen and women, who are usually closest to the action but with little of the protective gear afforded actors and stunt people. In February this year, 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed while filming for Midnight Rider, a biopic of singer Gregg Allman, starring William Hurt. The accident happened during a dream sequence filmed on a railway bridge; with no warning, a freight train approached. Cast and crew ran for their lives but Jones, known for her indefatigability, was mown down, apparently as she tried to rescue equipment.
Hurt, who quit the movie, recalled in an email leaked to the Los Angeles Times how he’d previously asked the producers “how long the crew had to get off if by some impossible chance another train came”, and was told 60 seconds. “I said, ‘Sixty seconds is not enough time to get us off this bridge.’ There was a communal pause. No one backed me up. Then, we… just went ahead.” Then the train came. “We didn’t have 60 seconds; we had less than 30.”
Jones’s parents, who lobbied successfully on social media for her death to be acknowledged at the Oscars, where many attendees wore black ribbons on their lapels in her memory, said she had confided she was worried about her superiors’ inexperience. In a letter to the American Society of Cinematographers, Jones’s father wrote: “The industry apparently needs safer film sets, which… needs to start with a rediscovery of its spirituality… If the people in charge of Midnight Rider had properly regarded the lives they controlled on February 20, would they have placed them on that railroad trestle without proper safety measures?”
The producers are now facing multiple lawsuits from Jones’s parents, as well as other cast and crew members, alleging, among other charges, that they had not secured permission to film on the track, but concealed this fact from the rest of the cast and crew. Also being sued is Gregg Allman, who insists he had nothing to do with choosing the train-track location and who had begged producers (eventually successfully) to abandon the film after Jones’s death. Midnight Rider’s director, producer and production manager have now been charged with involuntary manslaughter, and could face up to 10 years in jail.
Naturally, all big studios insist that safety is paramount. “It’s our first priority; we have a safety meeting every single day and insurance people are always on set saying: ‘You can’t do this’, or ‘Try this another way’,” says one producer.
“It’s far cheaper to carry out advance checks than to risk a multimillion-dollar lawsuit or insurance premiums tripling. Everyone on set is always telling each other: ‘This is a hot spot’; ‘Watch your back.’ Assistant directors, who are mainly in charge of safety, get very angry with anyone who, for example, is fooling around during a stunt, and ban them from set.”
Despite this, many crew members tell of safety concerns being overlooked, with all but the most powerful afraid to speak out. “I complained about safety standards with my manager and he didn’t speak to me for the rest of the shoot, probably because he was covering his own back,” says the crew member who fell from scaffolding. “This was last year and since then I haven’t worked. In an industry where nearly everyone is self-employed you daren’t stick your neck out.”
“It’s absolutely true that the nature of freelance employment means no one wants to be a troublemaker,” says Martin Spence. “But, in my experience, those who do stand up and say ‘No’ gain a lot of credibility. There are idiots out there, but there are also decent producers, who will respect that.”
Recently, a video went viral from the British set of a low-budget film He Who Dares 2. It appeared to show a flying door narrowly missing an actress after an explosion. Message boards were filled with anonymous posts from film workers describing similarly dangerous incidents they’d experienced or witnessed, not to mention numerous complaints about low or no pay, and appalling working conditions.
“I can’t stress enough how quickly things can go wrong on a set,” wrote one. “People constantly get hurt, when everyone is doing their best to create a safe environment. When someone, especially higher-ups, decide to be reckless it becomes like playing Hacky Sack with a bag of unstable chemicals.” The film’s producer promptly had his lawyers take the clip down, and reportedly threatened crew members tempted to talk with legal action.
In the UK, BECTU is concerned by a proposed parliamentary bill that would leave most self-employed people, including those in the film industry, completely uncovered by any health and safety regulations.
“Right now [the Health and Safety Executive] virtually never makes proactive spot checks on set,” says Spence. “I’m sure they’d like to but they don’t have as many inspectors as they’d need. The only time they visit is when there’s been a near miss or some other incident.”
While some crew members demand statutory shorter hours, others rely on overtime earned during long days. Others worry that lobbying for tighter regulations will simply result in even more filming being outsourced abroad. “Already no one wants to shoot in the US, because it’s so unionised and overtime rates are so high,” says one director.
On some occasions, budget restraints have forced actors to perform stunts themselves. In 1988, British actor Roy Kinnear died after falling from a horse in The Return of the Musketeers. Kinnear, 54, expected a double to be used for the riding sequences but, at the last minute, he wrote to his wife, Carmel: “Oh, gosh, darling. I’ve been called on to do a stunt.”
“Actors are inclined to take undue risks with their lives,” Carmel said later. “They are frightened. Time is money. They don’t want to hold production up. They don’t want to look silly in front of other people.” The film’s director, Richard Lester, whose credits included Superman II and A Hard Day’s Night, was so distressed he retired from film. The movie, however, was still released.
Indeed, no matter how tragic the fallout, the show nearly always goes on. Actor Brandon Lee died aged 28 while filming The Crow in 1993, when he shot himself with a gun meant to fire blanks. The film’s firearms expert had earlier been sent home. Filming continued, with Lee’s fiancée’s and mother’s blessing, using a stunt double, and it became a cult hit – in part because of the ghoulish associations.
The Twilight Zone movie was released to mixed reviews and only modest financial success. Its director, John Landis, who was eventually cleared of involuntary manslaughter, went on to direct hits such as Trading Places and Coming to America. (The courtroom was especially charged – at one point the prosecutor hissed “murderer” at Landis as he walked past.) But the film’s co-producer Steven Spielberg ended a long friendship with him, saying the accident “made me grow up a little more” and left everyone who worked on the movie “sick to the centre of our souls… No movie is worth dying for.”
At Pinewood, concern about Ford’s health coexisted with worry about the millions of dollars potentially at stake if the shoot was delayed for lack of its biggest star. Some speculated Ford would be filmed from the waist up, and, in the meantime, producers frantically altered schedules to keep filming on time.
“The phrase you hear all the time is, ‘Just get the job done’,” says the man who survived the scaffolding fall. He has had only one safety briefing in five years of working on big shoots. “I nearly died on a huge-budget movie but there was no, ‘How are you?’ just, ‘How soon can you be back at work?’ It’s showbusiness; the cameras don’t stop turning for anything.”
Post shared from The Telegraph.