Filmmakers tackle safety issue. Even before `Twilight Zone' trial, Hollywood was seeking ways to make films responsibly

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Despite the acquittal of film director John Landis in the ``Twilight Zone'' manslaughter case, the high-profile trial has left an indelible mark on the movie industry. Although most in the business maintain that moviemaking is relatively safe, the death five years ago of actor Vic Morrow and two children on a film set and the scrutiny that has followed have led to more self-policing in the industry.

At the same time, it has spawned a heightened awareness of the need for safety on film sets that industry officials say would have come about no matter what the outcome of the trial.

``Hollywood doesn't really care about verdicts,'' says one producer. ``It responds very much to bad publicity.'' Adds Mark Locher of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG): ``The major impact occurred after the accident. The tragedy made everyone step back and look at what goes on.''

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In the cap to the 10-month trial, Mr. Landis, associate producer George Folsey Jr., production manager Dan Allingham, special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart, and helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo were found innocent of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the three deaths in the filming of the movie ``Twilight Zone'' in 1982.

The accident was believed to be the first in which young children were killed on a set. Landis was also the only Hollywood director to have been criminally charged for deaths under such circumstances.

The jury's acquittal of all five on all counts caught many inside and outside the industry by surprise, but no one more than Lea Purwin D'Agostino, the prosecutor in the case, who said she was ``shocked.''

Nevertheless, jurors indicated that no one could have foreseen the crash of the helicopter that caused the deaths, and thus, as one put it: ``You don't prosecute for an unforeseeable accident.''

For Landis, director of such box-office hits as ``Trading Places'' and ``Animal House,'' the acquittal means he will be able to get on with his career, though it appeared not to be slowed much by the accident anyway. Since the tragedy five years ago, he has directed four films.

Even so, the talented but sometimes brash director is not out of the woods yet. He still faces civil lawsuits filed by the parents of the two dead children. Moreover, the Directors Guild of America (DGA), of which Landis is a member, is considering whether its safety committee should launch an inquiry of its own.

As for Hollywood, the verdict is expected to have little impact on the way movies are made, but a number of changes have come about already. A joint union-management safety committee - in the works before the accident occurred - has been set up within the industry to promulgate guidelines. SAG has instituted a 24-hour hotline and safety team to deal with emergencies and has encouraged members to use the right of refusal guaranteed in contracts if they believe a scene is unsafe.

At one point during the controversy over the movie deaths, state lawmakers considered imposing tighter regulations on the industry. But the idea was scotched after many in the film community testified that such a move would do more harm than good.

Indeed, many in the business argue Hollywood is essentially a safe place to work. SAG claims accidents involving actors and stunt men have dropped in recent years - from 214 mishaps in 1982 to 66 last year. There have been at least six deaths on film sets in the last three years. ``Those of us who are out there everyday are very aware of what is going on, and we do an awful lot to ensure safety,'' says a TV producer.

Not everyone is so sanguine, however. Some critics argue that a ``code of silence'' exists among stunt people that masks the extent of the safety problem.

``It is a problem that has been there, and it is a problem that is growing as Hollywood's appetite for bigger and bigger special effects increases,'' says Gerald Kroll, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented several people injured on sets in recent years.

While many in the industry agree that special effects have become more elaborate and prevalent, they note that new technologies and greater skills among stunt people have helped offset the risks. All of which is to say the debate over film safety is likely to continue.

``I think ostensibly there will be more caution for a time. But, in effect, if they had the same shot to do again they would find a way to do it,'' says Saul David, producer of several movies that use a lot of special effects, referring to the ``Twilight Zone'' scene.

``If the audience says it wants more death-defying and terrible stunts,'' he adds, ``they [filmmakers] are going to give them more death-defying and terrifying stunts.''

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