On Thursday, October 21, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of the film Rust when a prop gun held by actor and producer Alec Baldwin accidentally discharged, killing her and wounding the film’s director, Joel Souza.
The set had been plagued with problems prior to the fatal incident, as the production company, desiring to stick to its low budget and twenty-one-day shooting schedule, cut corners. Six camera crew members, who are part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), had walked off the set after their concerns about safety and working conditions had gone unaddressed. They quit just six hours before the fatal shooting occurred, and they were replaced by nonunion crew members. A producer threatened to call security if the union crew members did not voluntarily leave the property.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, those crew members were “frustrated by the conditions surrounding the low-budget film, including complaints about long hours, long commutes and waiting for their paychecks.” Comments from Lane Luper, a camera operator on Rust, written under a Facebook post Baldwin made to express solidarity with IATSE, which is negotiating new three-year contracts that cover sixty thousand people, suggest a production that prioritized speed and low labor costs over crew members’ lives well before Thursday.
“The producers on that movie are treating the local crew like dog shit,” wrote Luper, adding that some crew members had not received proper paychecks and were fighting for a place to stay closer to the set. One member, wrote Luper, had slept in his car because production wouldn’t give him a place to stay and he was “too tired to drive the hour home.” “Nobody on any production should have to sleep in the cold in their car at Basecamp to not die driving home,” Luper wrote.
Hutchins herself had been advocating for better working conditions on the set before the incident occurred, according to the Los Angeles Times, becoming “tearful” when the camera crew left on Thursday morning. Just two days before the shooting, Hutchins posted a photo of the crew on Facebook, captioned “Our IATSE solidarity on RUST.” She was a member of Local 600, which has set up a GoFundMe to support the husband and nine-year-old son she leaves behind.
The production was taking place on the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a popular location for film productions. According to a search warrant filed by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s department, Baldwin had not known the gun was loaded — and it cannot go unmentioned that the plot of the film itself turns upon an accidental killing. Dave Halls, the film’s assistant director (AD), had handed the weapon to Baldwin and announced that it was a “cold gun,” which typically refers to an unloaded firearm, moments before the shooting. On many sets, the AD is in charge of overseeing safety, though it is unclear why it was Halls rather than the production’s armorer handing the gun to Baldwin.
While some have attested to Halls’s competency on previous productions — one filmmaker who has worked with him told the Los Angeles Times that Halls was a “good manager” — others disagree. One crew member who has worked with Halls and requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of the incident said that while Halls “is not a bad guy,” at least one of their coworkers referred to Halls by the nickname “safety last.”
“He never did a safety inspection on the weapons, which he was supposed to do, and he would joke about how pointless it is to double-check them,” said the crew member of the production they had worked on with Halls. That description accords with statements another of Halls’s former coworkers made to NBC News, and accounts that safety meetings on Rust, too, had been scrapped.
One problem with tasking ADs with safety responsibilities is that they are beholden to the producers, making it hard for them to speak up about safety concerns, even if they want to do so.
“If ADs push back too much, they are in danger of being fired,” said the crew member who previously worked with Halls. “Producers obviously prefer ADs who will go with the flow and make things happen.”
Rust’s armorer, the person on a film shoot specifically tasked with overseeing weapons, was Hannah Gutierrez, a twenty-four-year-old fresh from her first job as head armorer on a movie called The Old Way. Gutierrez is the daughter of Thell Reed, a shooting expert and longtime consultant for the film industry. On a podcast last month, Gutierrez said of her experience on The Old Way that “I was really nervous about it at first, and I almost didn’t take the job because I wasn’t sure if I was ready, but doing it, it went really smoothly.”
That inexperience is part of the story, and not only in the sense of culpability.
“The armorer being young is relevant because if you’re young or newer, you also have less room to speak up [without being fired],” says Leah Caddigan, an independent filmmaker and former network production assistant. She added that such retaliation is currently happening “all the time” to COVID officers, the newly formed (and largely nonunion) role added to productions nationwide during the pandemic. “COVID compliance officers are getting fired for not bending the rules for the executive producers,” she says.
Indeed, many in the industry see the incident on Rust as a tragic consequence of producers’ pervasive corner-cutting on labor costs in favor of staying on schedule. In a Facebook post about Hutchins’s death, a gaffer on Rust noted Gutierrez’s inexperience but went on to emphasize that the problem lies with a production company prioritizing low labor costs over safety.
“To save a dime sometimes, you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated and dangerous job, and you risk the lives of the other people who are close and your lives as well,” the gaffer wrote, adding, “It is true that the professionals can cost a little more and sometimes can be a little bit more demanding, but it is worth it. No saved penny is worth the LIFE of the person!”
The problem of taking shortcuts on labor, and thus safety, is particularly acute on low-budget films like Rust.
Adam Richlin, a former nonunion gaffer for over a decade, described an incident on a low-budget independent film where he was employed that could’ve ended similarly to Thursday’s shooting, had that film’s key grip not stepped in at the last minute.
“On this movie, they didn’t have an armory person,” says Richlin. Instead, the producers tasked two young production assistants with finding prop guns for a scene in which two actors place guns in their waistbands. “They came back with two pistols, but they were real guns, with real clips in them. It was only during rehearsal that our key grip decided to take the pistols from the actors, inspected them, and saw that there were real bullets.”
At that point, the grip went to the producers to explain that the guns could not be used. Rather than thanking the crew member, the producers viewed him as a “rabble rouser,” recounts Richlin. The next week, the crew returned to set, only to learn that “the producers and writers thought it was so hilarious we were taking this so seriously that they wrote in a scene with a character using a harpoon gun,” says Richlin. The key grip took that weapon, too, and the scene was never filmed.
More than just an issue of weapon safety on sets — which was revamped with increased measures following Brandon Lee’s death in 1993 on the set of The Crow — crew members say that the key issue this incident should highlight is the corner-cutting on labor in favor of a pursuit of speed and profits. They connect Hutchins’s death to the conversation about hours and scheduling on set that has been raised to a fever pitch as IATSE negotiates new contracts with the studios.
“This situation became deadly because a gun was involved, but these labor issues are constant and ongoing,” says Richlin. “We’re seeing crew members who are dying after leaving work and driving home on long days. Producers don’t care. They will replace you the next day and keep moving. They will burn down the entire village to get their thing done, and leave it smoldering behind them.”
“It boils down to the business model from up top assuming a set amount of unsustainable costs and practices that trickle down to these inhumane results. Lives are lost like this, but lives are destroyed with these long hours that prevent normal human life from happening,” says cinematographer Tim S. Kang, who was friends with Hutchins. “The expectation of content delivery must change in terms of time and frequency if we want to have any semblance of fairness for the artists and craftsmen who produce the commodity that media companies sell. The fault lies with these unrealistic expectations based upon faulty, forty-year-old practices that do not respect the time and work necessary to produce said commodity.”
It remains to be seen if the incident will affect IATSE members’ votes on whether to ratify the tentative agreement the union recently reached with the studios. Some members say they intend to vote no on the contract, the full details of which have yet to be shared with the membership, and Hutchins’s death has amplified the urgency of the issues members have raised the alarm about, adding fuel to the fire at a moment when workers in the industry are no longer willing to accept a status quo that jeopardizes their health and safety.
Catherine Repola, the only formal leader of an IATSE local covered by the contract who did not recommend ratifying the last agreement in 2018, has now encouraged her local to ratify this one. In an email sent over the weekend to Local 700 members — one of the largest locals covered by the agreement — Repola wrote, “If you feel we didn’t get enough, believe me, I agree with you, but we got the best we could without striking, which was the goal.” She concluded by noting, “Ultimately, you will make your own decision on how to vote and whatever the majority decides, I will remain proud to stand with you.” It is far from impossible for the membership to vote down the contract, even if all the union’s formal leaders recommend ratification — the ten thousand workers at John Deere who are now on strike did precisely that — but it will be an uphill battle to do so.
After camera assistant Sarah Jones — like Hutchins, a Local 600 member — was fatally struck by a freight train in Georgia while filming Midnight Rider in 2014, many in the industry spoke of the need for changes. In that incident, Hillary Schwartz, the film’s AD, was found guilty of manslaughter and criminal trespass and sentenced to ten years’ probation. But not enough has been done to force production companies to lay out the resources to ensure safe working conditions: Hutchins is the fourth camera crew member to be killed on set in the United States in the past ten years. Speaking at a vigil for Hutchins in Burbank on Sunday night, Jones’s father said, “It’s just a carelessness that is taking place. If these people in charge just respect the human beings . . . that they’re in charge of, I don’t see how they can be so reckless.”
While the investigation into Hutchins’s death is ongoing, many workers in the industry say the production company is ultimately culpable for the tragedy.
“The production company’s negligent attitude is primarily at fault here, no matter the exact mechanism of what happened,” says Kang.
“This is not a freak accident,” says Caddigan. “Multiple steps of safety fail-safes had to be purposely ignored in order for a person to get fatally shot and another person to get injured.”
Baldwin’s culpability, too, is less as the actor who accidentally shot Hutchins and more as one of the producers who created the unsafe working conditions that led to her death.
“There are producers who, whether intentionally or through gross negligence, are responsible for what happens,” says Richlin. “Producers get paid a lot of money, but they also take on a lot of risk. There are some producers who take that role seriously and some who don’t. If Alec Baldwin is going to take that role, he’s been in film production long enough that he needs to take responsibility for that.”
“[Hutchins’s] nine-year-old son will grow up for the rest of his life never being able to talk with her again,” says Kang. “Her husband has to pick up the pieces as international news outlets blast her name and face in relation to the actor and producer of this workplace that killed her.”