Movie crews share horror stories of maiming, death after ‘Rust’
Joyce M. Gilliard heard the train before she saw it.
It was 2014 and she was working as a hair stylist on the set of “Midnight Rider,” a movie about the life of musician Gregg Allman. Gilliard was standing on a railroad trestle in rural Wayne County, Ga., waiting to primp star William Hurt before director Randall Miller called for action. Also nearby were camera assistant Sarah Jones, as well as a makeup artist, a boom operator and a wardrobe person.
The scene was a dream sequence in which Hurt, as Allman, was in a bed atop the tracks. The movie’s production company had failed to obtain a permit — which would have diverted oncoming trains — to shoot on the tracks. Instead, they made a decision to film without permission: what’s known as “stealing a shot.”
Then came an earth-shaking rumble: the unmistakable sound of a train engine bearing down. Trapped on the trestle over the Altamaha River, the crew had nowhere to go. Hurt scrambled to safety. Miller, the director, tried to move the bed, fearing it could derail the train, according to the Hollywood Reporter. He fell on the tracks but was pulled off at the last minute by a crew member.
As the train’s horn blasted, Gilliard made a split-second decision to press her body against the trestle’s iron girder. “But air pressure from the speeding train pulled me back and my arm hit the stairs,” the 49-year-old told The Post. “It hit so hard that half my bone was sticking out. I was in a state of shock, praying to God that I wouldn’t die. I thought of my children and my husband. My arm was bleeding profusely. In fact, I was bleeding out.”
Then a miracle dropped from the sky: “The bed was hit by the train. A piece of its sheet fell in front of me, and I made a tourniquet. It’s almost like God said, ‘Here, daughter. Take this. Save yourself,’” Gilliard recalled. “I don’t know how long I was on the trestle. But it felt like an eternity before I got airlifted to the trauma center in Savannah. Doctors there told me that the tourniquet saved my life.”
A makeup artist broke her clavicle. Others on the track suffered minor injuries. But Jones had tried the impossible: outrunning the train. “Sarah was killed,” Gilliard recalled.
Recently, in the wake of the Oct. 21 tragedy on the set of the movie “Rust” — where Alec Baldwin stands accused of accidentally shooting cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a gun that he thought was unloaded — Gilliard’s emotional wounds have torn open again.
“This whole thing that happened with ‘Rust’ has brought on PTSD,” said the hairdresser, who spent a year in physical therapy before going back to work. “I was in a state of shock from ‘Rust.’ Then I became angry and sad and couldn’t stop crying. You don’t think you will go to work and risk losing your life.”
“Midnight Rider” remains uncompleted and Miller, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He served one year of a two-year prison sentence. But that does not explain how on-set tragedies happen.
In the case of the “Rust” disaster, theories from human error to lack of experience to sabotage abound. As for “Midnight Rider,” attorney Jeff Harris, who represents the family of Jones, believes he knows exactly what went down.
“The production had a reputation for cutting corners,” said Harris. “They stole the shot rather than getting permission to be out on the set. The railroad wouldn’t support them; they just went out there and did it anyway. The crew had no idea what was being done. Sarah was helping to work the camera. They were in the middle of the trestle and, once the train came, there was nowhere to go.
“You can run or jump to your death. Sarah decided to run.”
While such accidents are far from common, they do happen — and are frequently avoidable. According to information reported to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), since 1990 there have been 250 serious film production accidents and 47 related deaths. Between 2010 and 2019, there were at least 19 fatal injuries.
Harris does not see the numbers declining any time soon. “You have more and more companies clamoring for more and more content,” he said, referring to the growth of streaming media and the growing demand for entertainment. “There are only so many trained crews in the world, and they can get overworked” — which brings additional dangers. In 2014, a crew member named Gary Joe Tuck, working on the drama series “Longmire,” rolled his car and died after putting in 18 hours on the set.
A driving accident of another kind, it is alleged, could have been preventable on the South African set of “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.”
In 2015, stunt woman Olivia Jackson was doubling for actress Milla Jovovitch when she was called into service for a high-speed motorcycle stunt added last minute.
“There was a hurried approach to filming. Olivia was driving straight toward a vehicle that had a mechanical arm [which held a camera] and they had her doing it without a helmet,” her attorney Julian Chamberlayne told The Post. “The idea was that the camera would film her approaching and then, at the last minute, it would rise up and swing over her head. But the director gave the operator instructions to make the timing tighter so he would get a better shot. But they didn’t do the math and [account for] the human element correctly. It didn’t get lifted in time. [Jones] wound up getting hit by the camera.”
It happened while the motorcycle was going 71 miles per hour and the damage was significant: According to a lawsuit filed against the movie’s production company, “The force of the blow was so severe that it sliced through [Jones’] forearm, obliterating the bone … before tearing in her cheek, pulling the flesh back and leaving her teeth exposed.”
She lost her arm. Her spine, eye socket and clavicle were all damaged. A spine deformity, as a result of the accident, left one leg shorter than the other. “I miss my old face,” she told Daily Mail in a statement. “I miss my old body. I miss my old life.”
Adding insult to injury, she will never again work as a stunt woman — and the production company of the “Resident Evil” installment which, according to Chamberlayne, “grossed over $300 million” — has yet to reach a settlement with Jackson, now 38.
“For her to be compensated for her injury and loss of earnings would make a small dent in the profits,” he said. “The series has grossed like $1.2 billion.”
Chamberlayne believes that, “In some instances, [production companies] view crew members as commodities who receive money to come in and do a job but they are inherently replaceable. In South Africa, Olivia was blamed for negligence … And [the production company] carried insurance with a clause that excluded coverage for cast and crew. So what were they insuring? The set was closed. Who else was there to insure?”
Stuntman Larry Rippenkroeger was doubling for Bruce Willis on the set of 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard” when he wound up shattering both wrists and the side of his face.
“This was catastrophic and I shouldn’t be alive,” he told The Post. “It was a night shoot and I was climbing out a window for a scene where Justin Long’s [character] laptop blows up, then he and Bruce Willis run out a window onto a fire escape. But instead of using the normal fire escape ladder, [the production] built a ladder onto the side of the building. It was odd. I remember thinking it was sketchy because it didn’t come all the way up to where I could grasp it.”
He rehearsed the scene while holding a rubber machine gun, fell 25 feet and remembers nothing else.
“There’s a theory that I was reaching for a rung, saw a shadow, missed and dropped to the sidewalk,” he said.
While Rippenkroeger, who wrote and directed this year’s “Hot Water,” described the incident as “a true accident” and was comfortable enough to double for Willis six years later in “A Good Day to Die Hard,” he remains haunted by not knowing what went wrong — and how to avoid it again.
“When I came around and gathered that I was actually in a hospital, what made me most angry was that I could not remember,” Rippenkroeger said. “I have to accept that I will never know what happened.”
Gilliard, on the other hand, will never forget her terror.
“You put your trust into people who hire you to do your job,” she said. “But now, with what’s recently happened on sets, you have to be aware of who you are working with and not be so trusting in anybody. They’ve got to stop cutting corners in order to get shots. People make bad decisions and they can lead to lives being lost.”