When Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust in October 2021, it led film and television workers to speak out about the flouting of weapons safety standards on sets. As one Rust crew member told me at the time, the film’s first assistant director (1st AD, the person who oversees a film set during production) was nicknamed “Safety Last” and never seemed to take weapons safety as seriously as crew members felt he should. Other workers in the industry recounted incidents in which they caught weapons-safety errors that could have proven dangerous and claimed they were mocked and retaliated against by producers for taking such issues so seriously.
The problem persists — and not just with weapons used in the film production itself. Last month in New York City, German director Uwe Boll was filming First Shift, an New York Police Department (NYPD) drama meant to mark his return to cinema after an extended absence. Boll has been referred to as “the most hated man in Hollywood” for his sloppily made film adaptations of video games, as well as his abrasive manner on set (a documentary about Boll is entitled Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story). He also once held a boxing match in which he fought some of his critics.
For First Shift, he enlisted Ari Taub of New York City–based Hit and Run Productions, Inc. as his line producer. On day three of shooting the feature, Taub, who runs a “prop house” that provides for film productions and was providing props for the shoot, brought a gun to a church a few blocks away from the set in which department heads were meeting before lunch. Less than a week after the incident, several crew members had been fired, and the crew was on strike.
I spoke with five members of First Shift’s crew as well as Taub, the film’s international production coordinator, and the 1st AD and reviewed recordings, emails, and text messages between the workers, Taub, Boll, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The materials show how an erratic producer and recalcitrant director, who allegedly responded to the workers’ safety concerns with retaliation, led the crew members, facing terminations for exercising their legally protected right to organize, to go on strike.
“That’s It. I’m Walking.”
During a production meeting on March 8, “James,” a member of First Shift’s grip and electric department, says that he spotted something unusual on Taub’s hip. (Boll and Taub have threatened crew members with lawsuits for discussing the working conditions on First Shift; thus, Jacobin has granted workers pseudonyms for this story.) It looked like a holster for a gun. James shared his suspicions with the 1st AD and the two asked Taub about it when the meeting ended.
“I asked Ari, ‘Can I see that?’” recounts James. Taub agreed and handed the gun to James while “very loudly” reassuring everyone in the room that the weapon was fake. But James says that while handing it over, Taub whispered a warning into his ear: “Just make sure you don’t pull the trigger.” Taub denies he said this.
“At that point, I’m realizing that it’s a full metal gun with the same weight and feel of a real revolver, and I can clearly see it has six bullets in it,” said James. He handed the gun to the 1st AD, who took the bullets out and saw they were blanks. At that point, James had had enough. “I said, ‘That’s it, I’m walking.’ I was done with the show and left the building.”
Taub disputes James’s version of events. The producer says that it was a rubber gun and that both the weapon and the holster were props for one of the film’s actors, who plays an NYPD officer. “I was there to bring a prop for the actress who plays the lead, because we were having trouble with her prop and holster on the first day,” says Taub. “I rent these things as part of what I do… and all the props were rubber, non-firing props.”
But the 1st AD confirmed to me that it was not a rubber gun: “It had brass in it, so it was not a rubber gun,” he says, noting that he is a gun owner and would not be likely to mistake a rubber gun for a more dangerous weapon. “I’m the one who unloaded it: I dropped the cylinder and ejected the blanks that were loaded into it into my hand.” The film’s prop master, who was also present, corroborated that version of events.
“I am 100 percent sure that I saw a moving-parts weapon and a barrel came out,” says the prop master. The incident particularly concerned him because he says that while the holster looked like one of his props, the gun did not. “Ari had given me access to two moving-parts weapons, which I was not going to use anyway and thus had never been brought onto set, but it was neither of those weapons. Those guns were typical pistols that a police officer would use, but the weapon he had on his person was a smaller gun. It was not a weapon that I had known about.”
There was no reason for a gun to be around crew members, and certainly not on the hip of a producer. That it was loaded with blanks does not make it safe, as evidenced by the accidental death of Brandon Lee in 1993 after the actor was shot by a blank fired from a prop gun.
As for what motivation Taub might have had for bringing the weapon to work, Max, another crew member who was in the meeting, mentioned an argument the previous day. He recalls that the disagreement had to do with getting permits for placing a camera on a moving vehicle that was to be driven across a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A crew member was unhappy with Taub for failing to file the appropriate permits for the shoot; Max said that the crew member told the producer he was already in the middle of several lawsuits and didn’t want another one. A contentious argument ensued.
“It was the day after this verbal altercation that Ari brought a gun that was loaded with blanks,” said Max. “He said it was a ‘joke,’ but from other people’s perspective, it was a show of force to get the crew member in question not to threaten him anymore.”
Other crew members, and Boll himself based on a recording obtained by Jacobin, believe that Taub is simply erratic or has poor judgment. After all, there is no rational explanation for why a producer with decades of experience in the industry would bring a weapon anywhere near crew members. As the prop master told me, “There was no good reason, so you’re left with nothing else but to question the person’s judgment, and as a result, your safety.” Said the 1st AD, who had worked with Taub on two prior films, “He thought it was funny, but in reality, it was a bad joke.”
When James left the church after the incident, he says he told the members of his department who were outside about what had just transpired. They agreed that they, too, would walk off the job. Then, the 1st AD came outside.
“He spoke to us, and he was extremely upset about the situation,” said James. “We determined that to even talk about continuing to shoot that day, we needed Ari Taub removed from the set. That was accommodated by production, and they had him leave.” A recording of the conversation obtained by Jacobin confirms those statements.
When I asked James if Taub’s behavior surprised him — after all, not only are New York City’s gun laws stringent, but guns on film sets are an especially delicate subject, not least because of the Baldwin killing during Rust — he mentions that he had worked with the producer once before, eight years ago. He says that Taub had been unprofessional then, too.
“He did things there that went as far as impersonating a police officer to try to get people to turn down their music or leave the park area where we were shooting, even flashing fake NYPD badges at people,” said James. “He went shooting without permits as well. That seems on par with how Ari is, based on what others who have worked with him more have told me.”
When I asked if Taub’s flouting of the law is unusual on low-budget independent shoots like First Shift, James said yes. “I’ve worked in this industry across the full range of types of productions, and he is the only person I’ve had that sort of experience with.” The 1st AD told me that it was enough of an outlier that he would no longer be working with Taub. “We had a pretty good relationship, but I take safety very seriously and this all was such a blatant disregard for others, especially after the Alec Baldwin situation.”
Sarah, another crew member, had been in the room when James and the 1st AD asked Taub about the gun. She was not part of the meeting and says she only learned about what had taken place when she heard the 1st AD say, “Ari just had a loaded weapon on set.” Alarmed, she exited the church. Once she got outside, she said she walked to her car and received confirmation from other crew members that what she had just heard was accurate.
“They said, ‘Yes, and we’re not filming while Ari is here,’” says Sarah. “I put my stuff in my car and said, ‘I’m with you guys.’” She then texted a representative from IATSE. First Shift was a nonunion production, but Sarah is a union member, as is James. (Union members often work on nonunion productions, particularly when times are slow in the industry.)
The following Tuesday, she says the production was set to film a scene involving guns, the details of which kept changing. Given the deadly Rust shooting, she was concerned for her safety and that of her fellow crew members.
“We had a scene coming up that involved guns firing blanks, and there was a question of whether this supply of equipment would come from Ari,” confirmed Max. “That confusion made people feel uncomfortable.”
On the day following the incident, production went smoothly, and Taub was nowhere to be seen. Production then broke for two days, during which time the IATSE locals asked crew members if they desired union representation. A show that is nonunion can be “flipped” union by workers contacting IATSE. The union then contacts the production side of the movie or show requesting voluntary recognition; a demand letter containing a standard contract soon follows, opening negotiations. Several crew members told me that a majority of the crew signed on to request representation, which led the union to begin preparing to reach out to the production company.
During the weekend, the prop master grew increasingly uncomfortable with his proximity to Taub: the two had to work together closely. He expressed his concerns and asked another member of the production team if he could work with someone else on set. “I was told, ‘No,’” he says.
When the crew returned to set on March 12, they were greeted with a request from production at the 8 a.m. safety meeting: Would it be acceptable for Taub to be there that day? His father was slated to be an extra in a scene, and given his advanced age, the producer wanted to accompany him.
“We said he was to be completely away from the crew,” says James. “If he was going to be there, he needed to be in a room with his father, away from us.”
Production agreed to those conditions. But when James got in line for lunch a few hours later, Taub was there, talking to extras and intermingling with the crew. Multiple crew members said they saw someone jokingly pat Taub down as he laughed. James then contacted the IATSE safety hotline, and the union informed him that it was already preparing to email the production company to request voluntary recognition of the union so the two sides could begin negotiations.
“Remember, I’m paying everyone’s salaries, and these are people who are in my face telling me off and telling me to get the hell off the set,” says Taub when I ask him about the incident. “I had a catering truck there, which cost me thousands of dollars, and I wanted to have my burrito or whatever for lunch. I couldn’t even enjoy my lunch because I was quickly ushered off the set.”
The concerned crew members made their views known to management: they had given an inch, and production had taken a mile. In a recording from that day obtained by Jacobin, Boll expresses his displeasure that crew members contacted IATSE. Sarah tells him that she has the right to contact a union representative if she feels unsafe.
Boll says that Taub bringing the gun to work “is the biggest mistake I’ve seen in my career.” But he argues that the crew asked him to ban the producer from the set, and he’d done that. James then notes that Taub had just been on set, and he’d heard him telling other crew members that he had never had a gun at all.
At one point on the recording, Boll says that he has done thirty-six films and none saw accidents. (That is not true: an accident on one of his films once landed six people in the hospital.) “I guarantee Alec Baldwin has done more films, and he killed someone,” says Sarah. Boll responds, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Sarah and James urge the director to respond to IATSE’s email, explaining that if the production ignores it, they may face a recognition strike that shuts down production, which is often how workers flip a show union, given that the short time period of a film shoot precludes the extended process of filing for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.
By the following day, in another recording obtained by Jacobin, Boll can be heard telling crew members that if the show were to flip, it would be sunk financially. He directed them to rescind their requests for union representation.
“When I told him that I would not be doing that, he said that it seemed like I needed to quit as I was, in his mind, breaching the contract and halting the show,” said James. James told Boll that he did not want to quit, but that if the director wanted to fire him, that was his decision. Says James, “Boll got a bit mad, though never insulting, and called another crew member into the conversation with us. We had a back and forth, and the conversation ended with that crew member being fired from the show.”
That crew member was Sarah. As confirmed by a recording obtained by Jacobin, Boll told Sarah what he had told James: rescind her complaints regarding the issues on set, or he would fire her.
“If you release me from this film, you will be financially liable,” says Sarah, referring to the penalties an employer can face for illegal retaliation. “That’s what you think,” responds Boll. “You are not willing to fulfill your signed contact. . . . You can’t talk to me like this and think that I can work with you.”
As Sarah prepared to leave the set, she says that she saw the director sitting with members of the grip and electric department, telling them to inform the unions that everything was fine and they no longer desired representation. One of those workers told me that Boll offered them an extra $50 per day if they would rescind their union representation.
“I break into the conversation, because at that point, I want everyone to know that all of the repercussions have started, and I have been let go for speaking to the union,” says Sarah. “I also make it clear that I was let go because Uwe is a punk-ass bitch.” Then, she left.
A few hours later, James received a text from Taub, which I have viewed. The producer writes, “YOU ARE FIRED,” to which James replies, “Can I ask what your reasoning for firing me is?” He received no response.
Shortly after that exchange, Taub called the 1st AD and told him that the entire grip and electric department had been let go, and if he wanted to keep his own job, he would need to call Boll and beg for his job. After taking a moment to decide what he wanted to do, the 1st AD called Taub back. “I said, ‘Where do you want me to turn my walkie-talkie in?’’’ (In a phone call, First Shift’s international production coordinator denied that Taub fired the entire grip and electric department.).
That same day as the firings, IATSE filed an unfair labor practice charge against Hit and Run Productions, Inc. with the NLRB, alleging the production had interrogated workers about their organizing activity and engaged in threatening statements concerning that activity. “There was no reason for us to be fired other than that we were trying to organize the show; we were all respectful throughout this tension,” says James. In an email, I asked Boll if he asked crew members to rescind their requests for union representation or face termination, offered them extra compensation to rescind those requests, and fired them for organizing at their workplace. He responded to each question with “No.”
IATSE picketed the production the next morning, and many of the original crew members did not cross the picket line. Some workers who had been hired to replace those who had been fired saw the picket and refused to cross it. But only a few days of filming remained, and thanks to a cobbled-together replacement crew, First Shift wrapped on March 19.
“That Kind of Sounds Like Extortion”
In the days since the firings and subsequent strike by First Shift’s crew members, several crew members say Boll and Taub have threatened them with defamation lawsuits. An email seen by Jacobin from Boll shows the director threatening Sarah with a lawsuit; another text I viewed describes a crew member being asked to testify on Taub’s behalf in future legal proceedings.
James told me that in addition to threatening to sue him, Taub has indicated that he will withhold payment for gear that he and his business partner rented to First Shift unless James recants his allegations. In a phone call with James’s business partner, Taub “said that basically, the only way that we would be paid for our gear being on the show would be if I somehow got the union and the NLRB to drop the investigation,” says James. “That’s not something I would want to do or even could do. Maybe I’m using an extreme word here, but that kind of sounds like extortion.”
The Hollywood Reporter published an article about the dispute on March 31 in which the episode involving the gun is described as ending “without incident.” The article, which does not quote any crew members, notes that Taub “denies all charges against him and his company and says he will be taking legal action against the complainants.”
In an email to the industry outlet, Michael Roesch, the film’s executive producer, writes: “What we can clearly say is that at no point was there a set safety issue. . . . We did not use even a single blank round in the entire film. All shots will be digitally added in post. All shooting days were completed without incident and without overtime.”
In the Hollywood Reporter article, Boll characterizes the charges as “‘completely baseless’ and aimed at defaming him and sabotaging his film.” (Perplexingly, in his comments to the outlet, he focuses on the matter of whether a dog used in the production was properly cared for — an issue that only one of the five crew members I interviewed mentioned to me, and then only in passing.) First Shift’s problems have not discouraged the director: the film is now in postproduction, and Boll has plans for several more movies.
Gino Anthony Pesi, one of First Shift’s actors, told the Hollywood Reporter that the film’s crew members are seeking to do “whatever they can to sabotage what little left we have to film on this very modest, low-budget project.” But in speaking with me, all of the crew members said that they are only concerned with ensuring that producers do not think of themselves as above the law when it comes to matters of workplace safety.
Taub told me that he believes certain crew members sought positions on First Shift with the express intention of flipping the show union. “There are people who get themselves embedded into crews for independent, nonunion films, and their objective is to make the film union,” he says. “It turns out that they were not just there to make a movie, but to flip it. Their goal was to find a way, and safety violations, based on what happened on the set of Rust with Alec Baldwin, was the perfect one. They concocted a story that is based on lies to get the union angry enough to picket our film.”
But the production was paying crew members rates above the union standard, meaning that union members like James and Sarah knew that they would not receive higher pay were the film to go union. Both of them deny that they had ever intended to flip the show, noting that turning a show union is “exhausting.” Plus, several crew members who had every reason to stay quiet about issues on set nonetheless sought help from IATSE. As the prop master told me, “My concerns were not addressed by production, and the only one who would listen to me was the union. At that point, I had no other choice.”
“In filmmaking, there’s so much attention on the director and on the actors, and a lot of people don’t realize that the ones who suffer for the entertainment, especially when there are safety concerns, are the crew,” says Sarah. “They don’t get the support that people in front of a camera or people who are doing the interviews or people who receive the awards are getting, so their voices are not heard. But it is the crew who are often the ones losing their lives.”
“We’re trying to send a message to other filmmakers who think they can come into New York City and skirt around the rules on safety,” says Max. He continues:
In the industry, when you show up to work, every day has the potential to be different. When you walk onto set, you’re trusting that the producers are going to take care of everybody’s health and safety, so to find that the production is playing games with safety by taking unnecessary risks and violating safety laws is terrifying.
It puts everyone in a difficult place where they have to decide if they are going to quit a job that’s unsafe and walk away from a project that they have committed themselves to at the expense of turning down other projects. They have to wonder if they can walk away from this project because they have rent to pay. We believe that nobody should have to make that decision, that everyone should be able to walk on set and not fear for their safety. No one should be in a position where they have to choose between surviving on set and surviving off set.