Magazine article Variety

Does Biz Practice Safe Sets?

Magazine article Variety

Does Biz Practice Safe Sets?

Article excerpt

Accidents have declined, but the rush to deliver bigger stunts still courts danger

Former Los Angeles County Deputy DA, Lea Purwin D'Agostino refuses to call what happened on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie" an accident.

When the film's director, John Landis, called "Action!" at 11:30 p.m. on July 22, 1982, in Indian Dunes, Calif., a mortar explosion in the Santa Clara River sent a blinding ball of water into the windshield of the helicopter flown by Dorcey Wingo, and blasted the pilot with intense heat.

Wingo and crew members voiced concerns to production manager Dan Allingham, who assured them there would be no such issues on the next take, in which they'd be flying over actor Vie Morrow as he trudged through the river holding Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renée Chen (age 6).

"Safety first," Allingham said.

But when cameras rolled again at 2:20 a.m., a rapid succession of special effects explosions sent the helicopter plummeting into the water, decapitating Morrow and Le and crushing Chen to death under its right landing skid.

"An accident to me is something that is not foreseeable," says D'Agostino, who led the prosecution's case against Landis, Wingo, Allingham and two other crew members. "This was completely foreseeable, especially given what had happened earlier on the set."

D'Agostino was unable to convince the jury, which acquitted all five defendants of involuntary manslaughter in May of 1987, but the trial served as a wakeup call to the industry about set safety.

Thirty years after thai incident, all the major studios have safety departments monitoring their productions, as well as anonymous hotlines for workers to report concerns without fear of career-ending reprisals; in addition, onset safety meetings are required prior to any potentially hazardous shot.

"The small-budget producers all the way up to the mega $200-nii!Iion producers - they don't want to sit in a courtroom and try to justify why they didn't have the right safety processes onboard," says veteran stunt coordinator Jack Gill. "Usually, they'll say, 1If that's what you think yon need, then let's have it,' because the lawsuit later will cost them much more than whatever you're asking for."

Since 1998, the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund has maintained the Safety Pass Program to train Southern California union crews in safe work practices. Some guilds, such as the IATSE Local 884, which represents studio teachers - who not only instruct minors, but also monitor the safety and welfare of those under 16 - supplement these with their own seminars taught by experts from various crafts, covering such topics as stunts, gun safety, special effects and working with animals.

The efforts appear to be having a positive effect: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 20 fatal injuries in the motion picture and video production industry in the U.S. in a five-year period between 1992 and 1996, compared to three between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).

But the continued injuries and deaths lead some to question whether the incidents are unforeseeable mishaps or the result of systemic problems within the industry.

In addition, there are questions about safety-monitors outside of traditional Hollywood filming. With tax incentives and cheaper labor luring the bulk of feature production away from Hollywood, films are often shooting in converted warehouses and other untested facilities, with fewer experienced crew members and more lax regulations.

"When you go and rent any old warehouse, you don't know what's been there before," says producer- writerdirector Lance Hool, CEO of Sante Fe Studios in New Mexico.

As he was scouting locations in Eastern Europe in the early '90s, Hool was about to enter a building with a pregnant Hungarian film commission rep when he noticed a sign warning of radioactivity. "It turns out it was where they kept atomic material," Hool says. …

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