How Tragedy on the Set of The Twilight Zone Movie Changed the Way Films Are Made

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July 26 2012 7:34 AM

A New Dimension of Filmmaking

How tragedy on the set of the 1983 feature-length adaptation of The Twilight Zone changed the way movies are made.

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New Safety Bulletins were issued after each mishap. When legendary stuntman Dar Robinson died in a remote area after rupturing his spleen in a stunt during the shooting of Million Dollar Mystery, on-set ambulances became mandatory. The process continues today. “With every accident comes more regulations,” says Pam Elliott, production manager at Special Effects Unlimited, a longtime provider of explosives and other effects for Hollywood. “Every time someone gets hurt, we learn, and rules are put in place to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The insurance industry made sure that safety provisions stuck. Before The Twilight Zone, insurance companies didn’t view the movie business as a source of profit: Given how unsafe film sets were, the likelihood of a payout was just too high. Afterward, the industry’s commitment to improving safety, along with increasing budgets, made Hollywood a better risk. Soon, getting affordable rates to underwrite shoots became a basic part of the movie-making business. And that meant dancing to the insurance industry’s tune. “The insurance companies want to know everything,” Elliott says. “They want your resume, the resumes of everyone participating. They want to see your licensing, a list of materials, the number of people working on each shot, the distance they will each be from the explosive, the number of fire extinguishers available on set. Then the fire department comes out to look at what you’re doing, and they have a long list of safety criteria to meet, too. It’s a pain in the butt, sure, but that’s the way it is.”

Perhaps the biggest evolution took place in the field of risk management. “The Twilight Zone accident created my job,” says Palmer, who has assessed the risk involved on shoots ranging from Titanic to X-Men to Speed 2. “It was a sea change in the movie industry. No one in risk management was ever on set before then.” As opposed to insurance, which finances risk, risk consultants attempt to avoid it, or at least control it. Risk managers like Palmer become involved in a film long before principal photography begins, scanning scripts for issues, starting with the location. “If you want to shoot in the Caribbean during hurricane season,” Palmer says, “you’ve got a problem, unless you have a specific plan in place to protect the production.”

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On set, Palmer’s job is to step in when crew members want to play it safe but feel their careers would be in jeopardy if they spoke up. “I can’t be terminated by the director or producer. ... That takes the pressure off the crew because it can be intimidating to be the one to stand up and say ‘hold on.’ ” Had Palmer or one of his colleagues been on the set of The Twilight Zone, Dorcey Wingo’s concerns might have stopped filming. “Wingo was a remarkably talented pilot—but he wasn’t a movie pilot,” Palmer says. “Senior movie pilots would have taken their helicopter and gone home.” But the potential consequences weighed heavily on a guy who wanted to have a showbiz career.

(And Landis had bullied his way through The Twilight Zone: According to Outrageous Conduct, the director grew frustrated as lighting the fatal scene grew difficult. The job required grips to climb scaffolding thirty feet in the air while being buffeted by rotor wash from the helicopter. When some techs hesitated, Landis demanded, “Is there somebody on this electrical crew who’s not too chickenshit to do the job?”)

The rise of computer-generated imagery has taken a lot of the danger out of stunts, especially stunts involving explosions. But movie sets can still be dangerous places. While filming the recent superhero flop Green Lantern in Louisiana in July 2010, pyrotechnical effects worker John Franco was injured by a van that was sent hurtling through the air as part of a shot. According to Franco’s negligence lawsuit against (ironically enough) Warner Bros., director Martin Campbell added the stunt during shooting, meaning it wasn’t in the script. Franco alleges that the van was damaged in rehearsals but was used within the hour in the name of expediency. Sure enough, it broke apart, causing Franco “lifelong-affecting (sic) injuries.”

Hopefully the safety regimens put in place after the deaths of Morrow, Renee, and Myca 30 years ago will keep any accidents from befalling the cast and crew of another Warner Bros. production that the studio hopes to mount as soon as it has a viable script: a remake of The Twilight Zone.

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