NYU's Snuff Film
A still from Lamensdorf's short film, Only Criminals
This week, the film department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts holds its annual spring showcase for student work, the First Run Film Festival. Beginning Thursday, and over the course of four days, more than a hundred films will be shown.
Near the end of the program, on early Sunday evening, a short film will be shown that's titled Only Criminals. According to the festival's website, the 12-minute film is about a couple of guys who come across a wrecked and abandoned car, search through it, and find a handgun.
Only Criminals was directed by John Hunt Lamensdorf, who was killed last May while working on the set of another NYU student's movie at a shoot in Georgia.
Deaths on movie sets are rare enough for professionals, but the electrocution death of an NYU student—and serious injury to another—seemed particularly tragic, and resulted in news stories both here and in Georgia.
But since those early stories, there's not only been no detailed public account of what happened on the movie set, but students and employees at NYU say there's been an active campaign on campus to clamp down on any discussion of what occurred.
The students who were on the set that day don't want to talk about it. NYU encourages them and anyone else connected to the students not to speak publicly.
Part of the reason for that campaign of silence: Several people with involvement in that day's shooting (and NYU itself) are being sued by Lamensdorf's parents, including Lamensdorf's friend, Andrés Cardona, who not only tried to resuscitate him after he was mortally wounded, but went on to finish his friend's film so it could be shown this Sunday.
Cardona, like the others at NYU, won't talk to the Voice about what happened in Georgia.
One of the people on the scene, however, is talking about what he saw.
Jason Welin is a particularly important eyewitness to what happened. The Atlanta-based filmmaker was at the controls of the aerial lift that made contact with overhead power lines and created a powerful explosion of electrical energy on the set. As Welin explains it, he contributed to the errors that led to Lamensdorf's death, but, almost a year later, he's unhappy that people believe he has "blood" on his hands.
NYU doesn't want this story told, but Welin isn't waiting for the school's permission.
Shortly after commencement last May, a crew of about 20 NYU students and local actors prepared to set off for Georgia to help recent NYU graduate Stephen Michael Simon direct a movie he was going to call Lovely Lying Lips.
Hailing from the nearby Atlanta suburbs, Simon had chosen Monticello, a Jasper County town of 2,500 souls, for the shoot.
Most of the students were from Professor Ezra Sacks's Advanced Production Workshop; they included producer Rachel Fung, cinematographer Andrew White, and the grip and electric crew of Brian Streem, Cardona, and Lamensdorf. Cardona and Lamensdorf had recently finished shooting footage for Only Criminals, which still awaited editing.
For a junior like Streem, the road trip was a chance to work on a senior's large-scale thesis film. Simon's project was being produced in NYU's premiere filmmaking class, utilizing the school's best production gear, and the crew would be renting even more equipment locally. For recent graduates like Lamensdorf and Simon, it would be the final shoot before leaving student-level work and heading into the professional world.
For the NYU students, who had spent years producing films in and around Washington Square Park, the Georgia location promised a lush and exotic break from what they were used to. But in fact, Welin says, the place Simon had chosen turned out to be "a nightmare."
"We might as well have gone to the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now," he says.
The spot is so remote that even in the Jasper County Sheriff's incident report, the place is referred to as the "old house at Clay Road."
The dilapidated house, overgrown with vines, was certainly an apt setting for some sort of movie production. (Repeated requests for a Lovely Lying Lips script or even a synopsis were denied by those involved. Cardona told the Daily News that it was "a violent film about a group of kids.") And the house was so far away from anything that there would be no obstructed views from which to shoot it.
But for all those reasons, Welin says, the old house "couldn't have been a worse location. There was no cell service. There was no electricity. They hadn't alerted [local law enforcement] that we were coming. And without the lights we trucked in, it was black as night out there."
At least, Welin believed, there was no source of electricity in the area. He turned out to be wrong about that, with deadly consequences.
The job had come at a good time in Welin's life. The 37-year-old had already spent time in the Army and as a chef before he decided to pursue movies full-time after the untimely death of his wife less than a year before. "Other than Halloween II, it was the biggest shoot I'd worked on," he says.
He had spotted a Craigslist ad for a lighting job, and agreed to work for $350. He was excited about the project, "and happy to work with all these kids from NYU."
Welin was recruited for the job by NYU student Rachel Fung, the film's producer. In student film, it's the director who usually funds a project, and the producer is often a friend who takes care of logistics so the director can focus on working with actors. [Disclosure: I graduated from this program a decade ago and have met Sacks, but have never met any of the principal figures in this story.] In this case, the director and his father, Stephen Robert Simon, set up a corporation called Pen Pals Productions to be the film's legal entity in the state of Georgia.
Welin told Fung that he'd worked on 50 productions by that point, and she took him on as a gaffer, to help with lighting and electricity for at least two nights of exterior shooting. Those nights would involve working with a large gasoline generator, a "12K" (a 12,000 watt light), and a "condor" lift—a type of aerial platform that can rise 40 feet above the ground.
Speaking to an insurance investigator last summer, Welin said that he told the students about his "six-year experience in the Army—setting up and breaking down and moving generators." But he also said he had no formal electrical training, and that the students never asked him if he did.
One of the students who'd be working as a grip with him was Lamensdorf, a slight-framed 22-year-old. He'd recently graduated, his thesis film, Only Criminals, was in the can, and he looked forward to starting a real career after his summer trip with friends, crewing Simon's film.
A longtime acquaintance of Lamensdorf, who ran into him during graduation week, says, "I'm really glad we had that moment to reconnect. John was one of the most intense, smartest guys I ever met." They'd previously had a falling out—the friend was glad they got to wish each other well in life right before he headed abroad and John left for Georgia.
Also heading south was Brian Streem, a student who had one more year left at NYU. According to the sheriff's report, Streem and two others loaded up a 20-foot truck outside 721 Broadway, filled it with NYU equipment, and drove to Georgia. Around the same time, art director Raquel Cedar rented the condor lift from NES Rentals in Georgia.
When Welin met the crew in Monticello, despite being impressed with their budget and equipment, he was not impressed (he says, now) with their overall approach to safety.
They "could have picked some place a lot closer to Atlanta to shoot," he says, quick to note that he doesn't blame Simon or Fung for any of their actions. "As filmmakers, we learn from our mistakes," he adds.
But, he also says, "the mistakes here were quite costly"—and some of them had been avoidable.
Welin says he was concerned that there were no streetlights around the "old house on Clay Road." The recent pouring rain had turned the Georgia earth to mud, hard to drive on and dangerous to lay wires upon. The local authorities had not been notified they were coming.
And, to Welin's knowledge, he was the only crew member certified in CPR.
On May 27, the first night of shooting, things did not go particularly well.
"It rained considerably," Welin says. "We had to stop what we were doing, and go inside the house," which was "condemned. It was not a physically sound structure to be in. Water came in through the ceilings and floors."
Eventually, the rain stopped. Welin spent that first night "up on the condor lift, with the 12K light. I sat up there for hours, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and watching them shoot." There were so many flying bugs dive-bombing the 12K that it was hard for him to hear. Still, he describes some parts of the evening as fun and exciting.
When they wrapped, the crew "did something incredibly genius," says Welin. Driving a truck away from the set, "they'd forgotten to disconnect the umbilical to the generator. When they pulled off, they sheared off the connection to the generator, plus knocked over some lights and stands." He spent the next few hours getting an electrician out to the set, who jerry-rigged the generator with available materials so that the crew could keep shooting. An electrical junction box was damaged and had to be replaced. (Though it caused some initial confusion in the investigation, it appears these fixes played no role in the subsequent accident.)
The crew only had a few hours to crash at their motel before being back on set. By four in the afternoon, Welin was busy getting the condor in place for that night's shoot. Cardona, Streem, and Lamensdorf all joined in the effort of laying out cables and setting up lights.
According to the Daily News, who interviewed Cardona in a short piece that ran after the incident, Cardona "said the electrician [Welin] the students hired in Georgia told them the overhead wires were telephone lines, but they were actually power lines." When the sheriff interviewed him later in the hospital, Streem said the same thing.
Welin says he never claimed to be an electrician, but he admits that he was wrong about the wires. "From the ground, I had mistakenly thought they were phone lines. They weren't shielded, and it looked like telephone lines or coaxial cable lines, [not] high-power lines." He notes that "we did take care in trying not to position ourselves too close."
By nightfall, however, the condor was very close to being right under those wires. The 12K had a large metal frame connected to it, containing a silk diffusion screen. From a photo in the local newspaper, The Monticello News, it appears the frame protruded several feet.
Cinematographer Andrew White was giving directions on how to position the light. From the base of the condor, Cardona's job that night was to help guide Welin. With the generator working again, it was sending power up 40 feet above the ground to the 12K. It also sent juice some 300 feet away, to a small light that was being set up behind the house.
Lamensdorf was setting up that 1,000 watt light. He was receiving directions on how to position it from Raquel Cedar, who was inside the house. He was utterly unaware of what was happening on the other side of the building.
After hours of setup, the camera was ready to roll. With Welin atop the condor, "Andrew White was directing us to move the 12K, so that we could begin shooting," he says.
"After that, I am relying on Andrés to guide me. The 12K is behind my shoulder. The [control panel] for the condor is in front of me. [The lines] were behind," Welin says. He would later admit to an insurance investigator that "once I got up there and I saw that [the lines] weren't shielded, I wasn't sure what they were." But he thought "the initial positioning of the condor—gave us several feet," and "the margin for safety was, you know, was there."
Except it wasn't.
"Andrew is saying, 'Move it a little this way, move it a little that way,' " Welin says as he moved laterally. "Then I get word from Andrés, who said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, you've made contact with the wires. Bring it back.' "
"At first I thought everything was OK. I tried backing off," says Welin. But "then we made contact again."
And with an explosive noise, all hell broke loose.
From the base of the condor, Cardona told the Daily News, he "saw what was like a lightning bolt."
Up in the basket, Welin was much closer. "The power surged, went through the condor, blew the spotlight." The silk diffusion screen caught on fire. "One minute, it's bright as day," and then "there was no light, except for the ambient light of the stars and the moon."
Everyone was screaming in an isolating darkness that would last almost 40 minutes before any help arrived.
"The thing was," Welin says, "Andrés left me up in the air." Cardona had turned off the generator and then sprinted away. "I don't blame him. He was off trying to see what had happened with his friends." Plus, he adds somberly, after the explosion, "people assumed I was dead." But as 14,400 volts of power surged through the metal bucket he was occupying, Welin—wearing rubber-soled shoes—wasn't harmed at all.
Welin had lost power to the condor, but managed to restart it. He lowered the lift to about 15 feet from the ground, then jumped the rest of the way. "There were frantic screams over the radio that John is hurt, that Brian is down," he says. Several small electrical fires were smoldering around the set.
According to the sheriff's report, a crew member named Brennan McVicar was "standing approximately 15 to 20 feet away from" Streem. He heard a "boom sound, and the lights went out." Streem, now, "was on the ground, shaking." Both of his arms were severely burned; he was conscious, but unable to speak.
Behind the house, the film's art director, Raquel Cedar, told the sheriff's deputy that she "observed Mr. Lamensdorf shaking and then fall on the ground." By the time she got outside, "he was bleeding from his nose and mouth." Cardona found Lamensdorf unconscious. He frantically started CPR, telling the Daily News, "I just started breathing into his mouth and pumping his chest." As Lamensdorf coughed and went into spasms, Cardona became covered in his friend's blood. "I feel like we got him back for a second. He was kind of coughing and choking, and then I lost him again."
It would be a grueling 37 minutes, according to the lawsuit filed by Lamensdorf's parents, before an ambulance would arrive.
"Remember, we were in a cellular vacuum, where the service was spotty at best," Welin says. And even when a call to 9-1-1 got through, the ambulance crew was confused about how to find the accident scene—an abandoned house that had no visible address—on an unlit road, without any lights.
The ambulance went to an incorrect location before it finally arrived at the house on Clay Road. The mud was so bad that one of the rescue vehicles got stuck and had to be pushed out. An area was cleared so that a helicopter could land and airlift Streem to Grady Hospital.
Lamensdorf was pronounced dead at Jasper Memorial Hospital shortly thereafter.
For Welin, "seeing John being wheeled out on a stretcher" transported him immediately to the death of his wife, not even a year earlier.
For many NYU film students, it was the death of something less tangible, too.
"I was shocked and horrified by the accident, both because of the loss of a colleague and also because of its impact on our sheltered, invincible student-film bubble," says one student. "We could do whatever we wanted prior to that moment. We never actually got hurt, or did anything dumb. We always took risks, but never really believed anything bad would happen. . . . And here was poor John, who wasn't doing anything dumb or taking foolish risks, and he was struck down by a jolt of electricity."
The next day, several faculty members from the Tisch School of the Arts, including professor Ezra Sacks, flew down to Georgia to counsel the students and retrieve NYU's equipment.
NYU moved quickly to get its students and equipment out of the state. An investigation was started by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but a report hasn't been issued. According to an OSHA representative, the organization realized it had no jurisdiction since the injured parties were students, not employees of NYU. And although OSHA has been contacted numerous times by attorneys and others for information on the case, it isn't releasing any.
"Once we can't open a case, we don't store any evidence," an OSHA spokesman tells the Voice. "The notes were probably shredded, and the digital pictures would have been deleted."
The Jasper County Sheriff's report indicates that it was the sheriff's office that advised NYU to get its equipment off the site quickly—"The equipment was at an unsecured location and I would not advise [them] to leave it," says the report.
The students were also quickly whisked away—so quickly that some of them were never interviewed in the sheriff's office investigation. The local district attorney, meanwhile, never filed charges in what local authorities seem satisfied was just an unfortunate accident.
If NYU came to gather up its surviving students and check on their welfare, no one seemed very interested in what had happened to Welin.
"Basically, I'd been cut loose," he says. "No one knew what to make of me. I wasn't a student. Was I an employee? Was I a volunteer?" Never paid the $350 he was promised, he says he didn't feel right asking for it after the accident. But he's clearly irked that no one followed up on his condition.
"I was left out to dry. No one ever followed up with me to see how I was doing," he says. "I know I am the least of their concerns. But at the same time, it doesn't sit well when you've got one guy killed, I was almost hurt, someone else was almost killed, and no one followed up with me."
This is one reason, he says, that he didn't mind talking about what happened, which included discussing the incident with an attorney working for the Lamensdorfs. "There was this poor family, who just wanted to know what had happened to their son."
Then, last month, he was served with formal notice that the Lamensdorfs had named him as a defendant in their lawsuit.
"That's great, that's just fucking great," Welin says. "I already feel bad enough that people are saying I have blood on my hands, and now to be sued? It really makes you feel like a piece of shit."
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Georgia, by Michael and Kathy Lamensdorf. They are suing on behalf of their son, and his estate, for medical and funeral expenses, pain and suffering, and for "the full value of the life of the decedent John Hunt Lamensdorf."
They've named as defendants not just NYU ("to deter similar conduct in the future"), but NES Rentals (for renting an "aerial lift to inexperienced college students") and professor Sacks personally. (In the suit, the Lamensdorfs acknowledge that NYU's film school was once ranked the nation's best by U.S. News & World Report.) Also named: Welin, Pen Pals Productions, Simon and his father (for producing the film), and Lamensdorf's classmates Fung and White—and Cardona, who was covered in their dying son's blood as he tried to revive him. (Streem, who was injured in the accident, was not named in the suit.)
Welin was stunned that he and the students were being sued, and he places the blame squarely on the university. Claiming that NYU doesn't have "one dedicated safety course, as I understand it, in a four-year film school," he thinks the Lamensdorfs should direct their anger there.
NYU should "increase their safety. Name a scholarship after [John]," says Welin. "But to go after Andrés and me? What is that going to do? I'm a broke-ass filmmaker!" he says. "And Andrés, he's just a kid! What are they going to take from him? That's really crossing a line."
Back at 721 Broadway, how NYU has dealt with the death of one its students depends on whom you ask. (But don't bother asking NYU directly—it's clearly not something they want to talk about.)
Officially, NYU stated shortly after the accident, "This is the first time that anyone can recall a student being seriously injured, let alone killed, on the set of a student film. It comes as a great and grievous blow to our community." They urged students to make use of university counseling services.
But within the Tisch School of the Arts, there's not much indication that the incident occurred.
Several students who knew Lamensdorf say that it's as if NYU, knowing that most of John's friends had graduated, hopes no one will remember that his death happened.
"He deserves better than to be forgotten," says one friend.
It's understandable, with litigation pending, that NYU might not want to discuss specific issues about what happened in Georgia. But students say they're surprised that the school isn't at least talking publicly about all the changes in safety policy that have been adopted since the accident. "The school never mentioned John's name in connection with new policies and anything of that sort," says one student. "They have been excruciatingly careful to give as few reasons as possible" for doing anything differently.
But significant changes have come at a production level, even if no one will say out loud why they're happening. Purchasing insurance for student film shoots is tricky under the best of circumstances. After the accident, the film school faced the prospect of being dropped by one of the few carriers who would insure their projects.
"The school began cracking down on the scale and size of film shoots," says one student. Non-NYU crew members (like Welin) are no longer allowed to work on crews, even with a waiver. Students can only use equipment from NYU. One student tells the Voice that NYU "instituted safety review boards, and massive, nightmarishly bureaucratic processes which films must go through before a film is approved."
Not surprisingly, "Students hate it," one film major says, noting NYU has "also done a very poor job of implementing the new rules. Teachers don't know what is and isn't allowed."
The Voice approached multiple film teachers at NYU, who said they didn't know about, or were not allowed to say, how safety policies have changed.
One student says that a special guest instructor was brought in to their production course last fall to give a lecture on electrical safety. But NYU seems so concerned about not admitting that the Georgia accident was the reason for all the attention to safety that the professor didn't even bother to tell the guest why he was there.
The presentation reached the height of awkwardness when the guest unwittingly made a bad joke about being electrocuted, to the horror of several students.
Some professors, now concerned that they could be sued, are overly cautious. One student told the Voice about a course in which students were "warned that if they had a cigarette smoking onscreen in their films, and no paperwork to prove the act had been supervised by a fire marshall," or if "there was evidence that they'd used a ladder without permission, they would fail the class."
NYU declined to answer whether they have added a dedicated safety course to the the curriculum, or whether they've continued to teach safety in an ad hoc manner.
In the year since the accident, Jason Welin has gradually returned to working as a freelance filmmaker. After recovering, Brian Streem has returned to NYU, where, according to his Facebook page, he is set to graduate this year. Andrés Cardona finished editing Lamensdorf's Only Criminals, while he, Stephen Michael Simon, Rachel Fung, and Andrew White wait to see if the lawsuit goes to trial.
Lamensdorf's early films live on via YouTube, and Only Criminals will travel on the festival circuit this year.
His death has had a sobering effect on the NYU film community. Everyone seems to know something about it, though they might not know the whole story, and no one talks about it openly.
But for one student, the message to act more cautiously is plain: "I've seen all sorts of dangerous stuff done by young, fearless students," the student says, including watching two students tie in illegally to a power line. "They looked it up online, and one of them held a two-by-four at the ready, to knock the other loose if he were to get electrocuted."
The two-by-four wasn't needed, but since the Georgia accident, the student says, "I look at every future project in a different way now. I fully understand the risk I take, and the risk I assign to those who work with me and to those who follow my directions. Safety, and making sure we don't try to 'get away with it,' is a much bigger deal. If I see something dumb happening, I'm going to stop it right away. If 'getting the shot' or 'making the day' is going to involve an inordinate amount of risk, it's no longer a good idea the way it used to be."
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