| Roger H Lyons, Amalfi Coast, 17th December
I took this picture on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, whilst shooting a Lynx bodywash commercial that featuring a teetering car on the edge of a high drop. The smiling man on the right was commercials director Roger H Lyons, which is not a familiar name, although you may recall his work for Levis from the 80's: Nick Kamen stripping off in the launderette. Yes, that one - voted the 6th Best Commercial ever.
The reason you haven't heard of him was because the day after I took this picture, Roger died on set, the result of an unthinking moment, very bad luck, and crucially, the removal of safety barriers in order to get the shot he wanted, leaving a six foot open gap in a parapet that led to a 120' drop onto rocks. His fall wasn't survivable - I know, I was the first one down there. I waited by his body until the paramedics arrived to confirm that nothing could be done, and the last I saw of Roger was him disappearing off around the headland on a basket stretcher under a helicopter. He left a widow and two small children, and all his moments, all the things he could and should have done, never happened. He died thirty years ago today, the 18th November 1991.
The purpose of mentioning this at all - I don't speak of it very often - was that an incident with fatal consequences has once more occurred on a film set. I don't call them 'accidents' as that has the suggestion of something impossibly wayward, random and unforeseeable. No, I prefer to call them 'Compromised Safety Mindset Avoidable Fatalities' and Roger was not the first and last to have ended their lives in this manner. This is the first time I have written about it, and I will try and share some light on what it is about the movie industry that lends itself so perfectly to situations where skilled individuals pointlessly lose their lives.
Caveat: This is my own opinion, obviously, and my knowledge relates to a twenty-year tenure in the industry that lasted until 2000. But if you work on a filmset now and recognise anything I'm talking about, then the industry hasn't changed, and this will happen again. Fatalities on film sets are mercifully rare, but each one is one too many.
Okay, let's back up a little. I was a busy crew member from 1980 to 2000, and during that tenure I was mostly Camera Crew, 14 years a Focus Puller, literally the ringside seat to the action, and along the way worked on Commercials, Promos, Docos, and features. I was 'A' camera focus on Zorro, Goldeneye, Saint and Entrapment. Saw a bit, been around the block a couple of times, I think can speak from experience.
During my tenure I saw an extra run over by a car, was on a film where Propane gas ignited under a set, have had all sorts of real firearms discharged (with blanks) in my direction, manually switched on remote cameras 50 yds from a vast quantity of high explosive, seen a stuntman split his scalp, been high on buildings without safety, hung on the outside of fast moving vehicles, filmed tanks at close quarters and had, like many camera crew members - we are always at the sharp end - my own 'Whoops, nearly died' moment inside a helicopter while filming an ad for the Territorial Army. If I'd had Roger's Amalfi Coast luck that day, I wouldn't be here now.
It's a story worth recounting, because this is exactly how people get killed. 1987, Exmoor, soldiers on manoeuvres and the shot was from inside the Helicopter just as it landed and disembark the troops. To overlap the action the helicopter was to go to about three foot in the hover, and on action descend and disgorge troops. That was the brief. I was inside the helicopter crouched out of the way with a spare film magazine in case of a reload. The director was on the helicopter intercom speaking to the pilot, and somewhere along the line it was decided that it would make a better shot if the helicopter lifted off and went into the hover sixty or seventy foot above the ground to have a better lead-in to the shot. I didn't know this, and I wasn't strapped in. After a camera reload I thought I'd take the opportunity to hop off the helicopter to have the magazine reloaded. I went to step out and yes, you've guessed it: We were high up in the hover. My next step might have been a big one, and my last. Had a laugh about it, as I recall.
But the point was this: I had happily and quite voluntarily entered an unsafe environment which might have killed me. It's possible to say: "Well, Fforde, serves you right for getting into a helicopter, you bloody fool" but that misses the point. This is not about blaming crews for their apparent lack of safety sense, but discussing what the pressures of the industry are to make us do exactly that. If I'd died that day, it wouldn't have been my fault. I was reckless, to be sure, but I didn't seek out that situation. I didn't follow a path that might have led to my death; I was in a situation where the expectation of me was that I would get in the helicopter without argument, because the shoot dictated it. Bottom line: When you go to work - any work - the company that employs you have a legal and moral duty to ensure you come to no harm.
And this is where the culture of moviemaking is so worrying, and why these fatal incidents crop up again and again. Due to the very nature of the film industry I had self-selected myself to take that risk, and that other person, the one who would not have dared step into a helicopter on a foggy day in winter without any sort of safety briefing, had self-selected themselves not to be there.
So what is it about that the film industry that has an unconscious selection process that favours those of a more 'gung-ho' mentality? Firstly, don't let anyone tell you the movie industry isn't glamorous - it is. It's great fun, exciting, full of the buzz of camaraderie, often well paid, offers a great deal of travel and connects you to the rarified world of showbiz. Okay, sure, it's hard work, your social life and marriage can take a hit, and when it's raining and some dipshit of a director wants you to go for another take 'just to see what happens' it can be a tad annoying. But when you are shooting on locations around the world and working with stars of the silver screen, it takes some beating. It's a place you want to be, and it's a place you'd like to stay. You want to do the best you can, and be the best at what you do.
Admirable. Who doesn't want be as good as they can be? But there's a dark side to all this, for moviemaking is expensive. Really expensive. Schedules can be tight, and producers and directors are under immense pressure to get the picture in on schedule and on budget. With the massive amount of expensive crew involved, time really is money, and the sort of crew you need to have around you are the ones who not only have the experience to get it right pretty much every time, but when time is tight they need a crew to go the extra mile - to 'wing it' if needs be and cut corners to deliver when the sun is dipping below the horizon and there's only time for one more take. The shot is everything, and we're all looking to the next movie. Do a good job on this one and we can be on the next. Crew members who are unwilling to push things a bit may not be invited back, and we want to be invited back.
So this is where we find ourselves. Tight budgets, tight schedules, and with a crew self-selected to take risks if required, or more precisely, have risks imposed upon them with expectation of no complaint. Not every movie is like that - most are not - but when the pressure is on to push things further than good sense might indicate otherwise, you don't want to be a bad sport, you don't want to spoil that party, don't want to be the one who said: 'Hang on, do you really think this is a good idea?'.
I said that once to a director on a film we were shooting in Spain, ten years after Roger died. The director wanted an actor to turn the propellor of a light aircraft with his hands, a serious no-no in the aviation world: propellors thought 'safe' routinely take limbs off every year. I persisted. We didn't do the shot that way, but I'd transgressed the unwritten rule, and was made to feel that I'd just shat in the director's pocket. I'd said 'No' and you really don't do that. I'll never know if that was the reason I never worked with him again, but it might have had something to do with it. You're there to help the director to do what they want to do - not to tell them what they can't. Point out safety issues and you could quickly be shuffled to the back of the pack.
The vast majority of film sets are not dangerous places, and with skilled technicians, adequate budget and schedule, good leadership, sound preparation and a correct appraisal of risk, even apparently dangerous work can be completed without incident.
As it should be.
But when those things mentioned above are not in place, or compromised, then a cascade of small events start building, each exponentially increasing the risk factor at each step: Time pressure, cost-cutting, a crew eager to please, a random event that upset the schedule earlier in the day, location availability, actor availability, a new crew member unfamiliar with usual practices, a foreign location, a reduced crew, a misunderstanding, a change of mind, a poor decision, the inertia and momentum of the moment, and most crucially, no-one there on the outside looking in to say: 'What the hell are you doing? Stop. Right. Now.'
Once that cascade of pressures are in play, then all it takes is a flip of a coin and - someone's dead and everyone is now standing there shocked, wondering not just what the hell just happened, but just how fucking easily it could have been avoided. Worse, all the warning flags were there all the time, but either we didn't see them, or strenuously tried not to, or were occluded from our sight by the shot, or the schedule, or those higher up the chain of command, or just by us trying to do the best we can for the director, because that's what we're there to do, because that's what we've always done. Gone the extra mile.
Being the best you can be might actually be the last thing you'll be.
That cascade of events has a lifetime of consequences. The loved ones first and foremost, not only in dealing with the loss but trying to find closure. The how and the why and who - if anyone - can be held to account. The crew who witnessed it also have to deal with it. Crews are tight-knit affairs, you work with your friends. It never leaves you. Thirty years on I can still see Roger pedalling the air as he fell. They all do that, I'm told.
Jasper Fforde, 18th November 2021