Aussie David Rollins launches his documentary on the ‘Midnight Rider’ case
Lead investigator Joe Gardner in the ‘Midnight Rider’ documentary.
Just over four years ago, Australian novelist David Rollins saw news coverage of an accident where a train in South Georgia had ploughed into a film crew who were shooting a scene on railroad tracks for a biopic about Gregg Allman of the iconic band the Allman Brothers.
Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant, was struck and killed by the locomotive and Randall Miller, the director of Midnight Rider, subsequently was charged with criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter. He took a plea and was jailed for two years, reduced to one year for good behaviour.
Rollins had met Miller when his wife, writer-producer Jody Savin, asked about optioning the film rights to his novel The Zero Option. After Miller was jailed Rollins saw Savin when he was in Los Angeles doing research for another book and told her he was interested in making a documentary about the case. She was reluctant but he persevered, went to Wayne County Georgia, where the accident happened, and start interviewing people.
The result is Trial of Midnight Rider: Railroaded in the Deep South, a three-part documentary which Rollins self-funded, wrote and directed. Yesterday the film was released in 50 countries worldwide through iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google Play.
The doco rebuts media reports which alleged Miller knew he didn’t have permission from the railroad company to be on those tracks, that he went out there anyway and as a result Sarah Jones lost her life.
“The evidence I uncovered, along with the many interviews conducted, did not support that story,” Rollins tells IF. “In fact, what the evidence shows is that Miller didn’t know about the railroad’s questionable permission. It’s also clear that many lies were told to law enforcement and accepted with little or no investigation.”
During the shoot he tried in vain to visit Miller in jail, but the director later changed his mind after Rollins interviewed the presiding judge, Judge Harrison, who told him on camera that the sentence he imposed was an illegal sentence.
Gradually Rollins gained Miller’s confidence by showing him the lengths he was prepared to go to get the story.
Rollins funded the doc largely out of his own pocket and some technical support was donated by people who wish to remain anonymous. It ended up costing more than he expected, mostly because he had to keep going back to Georgia to do more interviews.
“Books are far cheaper to write, and quicker. I’m going back to them,” says Rollins, whose current novel, Kingdom Come, pits his recurring character USAF Special Agent Vin Cooper against ISIS forces in Syria.
Why did he opt for a digital only release rather than conventional release via, say, Netflix and/or cable and free-to-air channels?
“When you sell something to Netflix, you get a relatively small amount of money and, frankly, it wouldn’t cover costs,” he says. “I am taking a risk going the truly independent filmmaker route with the pay-per-view approach on iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google Play, and my sincerest hope is that there’s enough interest to at least break even.
“The trade press has written hundreds of articles about this incident over the past four years. It’s the story that keeps on giving, apparently, so I might luck out if this film catches some head space out there in download land. Once interest starts to wane on iTunes etc, maybe I’ll approach Netflix. I’ll have to see how it goes.”
View the trailer here.