A behind-the-scenes look at filming set safety in Georgia

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Ansel Elgort, from left, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm in a scene from "Baby Driver." Photo: Wilson Webb/Sony/TriStar via AP

We’ve covered the film industry since 2008, when the Legislature passed the industry-friendly tax policies that have lured so many projects here. During visits to numerous filming sites, both on sound stages and on location, and interviews with people who have spent time on them over the years, the topic of safety has come up regularly.

It’s almost always a positive conversation.

“The opportunity of working on these long, elaborate chase elements is fun,” actor Jon Hamm said enthusiastically during an interview about “Baby Driver,” which was filmed in and set in Atlanta. “There are so many moving parts, it can be dangerous.”

But he worked on the action film with eager confidence, knowing each scene had been carefully set up, with safety top of mind. State and local entities shut down four highways and 40 surface streets throughout the filming to ensure a safe environment.

“Any time you’re in a car going 80 miles per hour going sideways, it’s fun,” Hamm said.

Missy Bain’s twins played babies in the 2011 Jason Bateman-Ryan Reynolds buddy comedy “The Change-Up,” and she was thoroughly impressed with the production’s commitment to safety. Although Bateman’s character ineptly juggled the twins on camera, a special hidden harness kept them securely strapped in during the comic bits.

“They were so great about safety,” she told us at the time. “There were scenes in the bathtub and in the sink. They had us come test the water temperature. They thought of everything.”

A spate of high-profile deaths and injuries on Georgia sets has renewed a focus on safety.

Two days after a stuntman working on “The Walking Dead” was seriously injured and declared brain-dead this month, a personal injury lawsuit accusing 20th Century Fox and others involved with the production of “Sleepy Hollow” of failing to take reasonable safety precautionswas filed in DeKalb County.

Three days after that, a jury awarded $11.2 million in a wrongful death lawsuit filed a deadly train wreck on the set of “Midnight Rider.”

This all happened weeks after a stuntman’s injury temporarily halted production of “Rampage,” an action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and “Avengers” star Jeremy Renner’s Instagram post revealing he’d injured his wrist and elbow on the set of ensemble comedy “Tag.”

Whether the coincidentally timed incidents is just happenstance or indicates any kind of trend is hard to say. Checking official records doesn’t offer much insight.

A search of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records from 1972, the first year records are electronically available, to the present shows only five film-industry enforcement reports in Georgia, including the one just launched into the “Walking Dead” fatality. All were from 2010 to the present.

Only the reports triggered by the deaths of stuntman John Bernecker, 33, on “The Walking Dead” and Sarah Jones, 27, on the “Midnight Rider” sets concern injuries. Two others list fines triggered by insufficient safety gear or practices, and one generated no fine.

A look at other states that have become filming destinations also found few OSHA enforcement reports. Two have been generated in Louisiana, including one from a 2011 fatality. A worker dismantling the set of “G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation” was operating a piece of heavy equipment called a scissor when the lift fell off a ramp, documents show. Michael Huber, 54, died from head injuries. Three reports turn up from North Carolina, none involving injuries. In California, on the other hand, there were 13 reports, nine of which were accidents, in just the past year.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, production companies have been subject to stricter OSHA guidelines requiring that any injury resulting in a hospitalization be reported. It’s unclear how compliant filming crews have been. A video clip posted to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Instagram page on June 15 discussed injuries a stuntman suffered on the “Rampage” set.

Dave Macomber got thrown from one side of this massive C-17 plane to the other. Overshot his crash pad and flew straight into the wall and knocked himself out,” Johnson wrote. “He doesn’t remember his last name, nor can he remember the name of his kids.”

That last sentence was facetious. Macomber appears in the video, mugging for the camera and cracking jokes while being tended to.

“Jokes aside, after this incident we shut down production and let our hard working crew go home,” Johnson continued. “I stayed here with Dave and our stunt coordinator … and eventually got Dave to the hospital. Brain is in tact, CT scan was clear and Dave takes it easy for a week before jumping back in the saddle. A strong reflection of how our stunt brothers and sisters will always be the backbone of Hollywood. All my luv, gratitude and respect.”

A search of OSHA databases did not find a report of the injury.

Visits to numerous sets over the years has given us a chance to observe safety practices.

 

“Parental Guidance,” a 2012 family comedy with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott, once filmed an action scene featuring skateboarding pro Tony Hawk and a number of young actors. Crews constructed a professional half-pipe for the scene involving young actors, and members of the crew watched the kids like, pardon the pun, proverbial hawks.

We watched Tom Holland film a scene for the recently released “Spider-Man: Homecoming” that involved him running down a downtown Atlanta alley while jostling out of his street clothes. Anthony Mackie sprinted across a roof a few blocks away for a scene in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War.” No issues.

The “Captain America” scene filmed on a blazing hot day, and after every “cut!” the extras who were congregated for crowd scenes were urged to seek respite in the shade. At one point Chris Evans’ stunt double handed out bottled water to keep everyone properly hydrated.

On the other hand, we’ve also heard – always off the record, as sources fear professional retribution –  allegations of unsafe practices on set.

“One time on ‘The Walking Dead,’ I had to be behind this big gate,” he recalled of a “Woodbury” scene filmed during Season 3. “The Governor (played by David Morrissey) was going to come flying through. He’s in a car. They’d go ‘Gate!’ and we had to open the gate as fast as we could. It was sort of like opening a drawbridge. I kept thinking: ‘I’m a little nervous. Am I going to be hit?’ There were times that I felt, ‘I don’t feel comfortable on this thing.’ ”

The extra pushed back while working on a scene for 2012’s “The Three Stooges.”

“They wanted us up on this slanted roof and I said, ‘I’m not comfortable doing this.’ They said, ‘fine,’” he said. 20th Century Fox Studios was fined for several issues pertaining to that movie, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show. Violations involved wiring methods, components, general-use equipment, aerial lifts and head protection. The head protection item was later deleted.

20th Century Fox Studios didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A background artist emailed us last week after the article about set safety appeared.

“Our safety and comfort are rarely a priority,” she said. “To them, we are props that eat.”