How Hutchins’ death became another rallying cry for film set safety
Standing in front of a grim crowd of some 300 film workers on Sunday night, a display of wreaths of flowers and photos of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins behind him, IATSE International Vice President Michael Miller spoke about the mixture of raw emotions that many felt.
They gathered in a parking lot near Olive Street in Burbank to pay their respects to Hutchins, who was killed in a tragic accident on Thursday on the set of Alec Baldwin western “Rust” – and to express their outrage.
“We are here to cry,” said Miller, who is also director of film and television production. “But I’m afraid we are also gathered with some frustration and a little anger. Anger because too often the rush to complete productions and shortcuts put safety on the back burner and put team members at risk.
Handing out black ribbons before the candlelight vigil began, nurse Margarita Velona held back tears as she spoke of the recklessness that led to Hutchins’ needless death.
“I want to see security,” she said. “It’s our livelihood. Halyna was one of us, and now a child has no mother, a husband has no wife, parents have no children.
The vigil, which followed a similar event held on Saturday in Albuquerque, sparked a disheartening sense of déjà vu.
In 2014, hundreds of film workers held a candlelight vigil and marched on Sunset Boulevard after the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was struck by a freight train on a trestle in Georgia while filming “Midnight Rider”. Several other crew members were injured.
At the time, Jones’ death was seen as a galvanizing moment for the film industry, prompting calls for greater attention to the safety of film and television productions. Now, seven years later, Jones’ father Richard is heartbroken to see another life cut short by a senseless accident on a movie set.
“In a way, that kind of relives losing my daughter, and my heart certainly goes to the family,” said Jones, who continued to push for more safety awareness and accountability on sets. through the Sarah Jones Film Foundation. “It’s just recklessness happening. If these officials just respect the human beings … for whom they are responsible, I don’t see how they can be so reckless.
Anguish in Hollywood over Hutchins’ death – exacerbated by reports of unrest on the set of “Rust” over working conditions and safety concerns – comes at a time when film crews are on the move. already on edge. This month, worries about working conditions and long working hours almost sparked a walkout from the union representing film and television crews, the International Alliance of Theater Employees.
At the 11th hour, the union negotiated a new contract on behalf of 40,000 members in 13 Hollywood locals, averting the first national strike in its 128-year history.
But reaction to the deal has been mixed, with some union members saying it does not go far enough to improve often grueling working conditions and limit long hours. Those concerns have only become more urgent over the past year, as growers have pushed teams to make up for lost time caused by closures due to a pandemic.
Some union members believe the Hutchins tragedy could influence the outcome of the ratification vote, leading some who were on the fence to vote against the deal.
“It’s a tidal wave change,” said Wendy Greiner, Los Angeles client and IATSE member. “My friends and I are all going to vote no…. People got it.
Union leaders are confident, however, that the deal will be approved by a majority of members.
When it comes to handling guns on film sets, the industry has long maintained detailed and comprehensive rules, designed by unions and employers and accessible to all cast and crew members. .
On the set of “Rust,” however, standard safety protocols, including gun inspections and safety meetings, were not strictly followed, and concerns were expressed about two accidental releases. guns, sources told the Los Angeles Times.
Hours before actor Baldwin fatally shot Hutchins with a revolver pistol, half a dozen employees of the film crew left the set to protest the working conditions, the Times reported.
Industry guidelines state that firearms should not be pointed at people, that no real bullets should be near sets, and that only the prop master or gunsmith should dispense weapons.
No criminal charges have been laid in this case, which is currently under investigation by authorities in Santa Fe.
Baldwin received the gun from assistant director Dave Halls, who said it could be safely used in the moments before the actor fired it, court records show. The deputy director was unaware the propeller pistol was loaded with live ammunition, according to a search warrant filed with a Santa Fe county court. Halls did not respond to the Times’ request for comment.
Director Joel Souza, who was also injured in Thursday’s crash, told authorities the day started late because they were trying to hire another crew after the cameramen left the set. The workers had sent a letter to the producers complaining of long hours of work and compensation, according to court records.
The affidavit also states that Souza and another crew member were unsure whether the weapon had been checked before it was handed over to Baldwin.
Production company Rust Movie Productions said in a statement Friday that it “had not been made aware of any official complaints regarding the safety of weapons or props on set,” and would conduct a review. internal and would cooperate with the authorities.
Since Thursday’s incident, attention has been drawn to the relative inexperience of the film’s 24-year-old gunsmith, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who had served as the senior gunsmith on a single film prior to “Rust.”
Gunsmith Mike Tristano, who has amassed hundreds of onscreen credits including “Saw” and “The Purge” over a 35-year career, said he has seen a worrying decline in professionalism on the sets, because budgets have been reduced and teams have been placed under increasing pressure.
“It used to be a professional matter,” Tristano said, noting that no license is required to serve as a gunsmith in New Mexico. “Now it’s an amateur business because nobody wants to pay for professionals. I guarantee you if my crew and I were on this movie this girl would be alive today. Because we are managing such a tight ship and our safety protocols are such that this can never happen. “
Tristano has worked with Baldwin once before, on the 1999 film “Thick as Thieves”, and said he “never had a problem with him” regarding gun safety on this set. .
After Hutchins’ death, many questioned whether even stricter security protocols were needed.
“My initial reaction was that there was no way this could happen on a movie set unless the existing protocols related to how you handle guns were ignored,” Harris attorney Jeff Harris said. Lowry Manton, who represented the families of Jones and stuntman John Bernecker, who died on the set of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” in 2017, in wrongful death lawsuits.
“The more I look at this case, the more I think maybe we need to strengthen some of these areas to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Others argue that heightened safety measures will not be enough to prevent accidents as long as crews continue to be forced to work in grueling pressure cooker conditions.
“Even if you put protocols in place, you still have the possibility of horrible things like this happening,” said Bill Dill, cinematographer and professor at Chapman University, who had Hutchins as a student. several years ago at the American Film Institute. Conservatory.
“Film sets are dangerous places. These are also places where people make a lot of money, ”Dill said. “When you get that wrong combination, there are conditions allowed on a movie set that wouldn’t be allowed in a factory. “
Hutchins’ death has made many in the film community question why firearms capable of causing injury or death are still used on film sets, given the availability of safer alternatives.
In recent days, film and television productions have started to reconsider the use of live weapons, and a California state lawmaker has called for an outright ban on guns on film sets. ABC’s popular “The Rookie” proceeding, for example, banned the shooting of real guns on the show in response to Thursday’s fatal shooting.
On Sunday, actress and director Olivia Wilde expressed her support for the idea, writing on Twitter: “Hollywood: Time to create ‘Halyna’s Law’, which will ban the use of live firearms on film production sets and create a safe working environment for everyone involved. “
Independent filmmaker Graham Skipper, who has directed and produced a number of low-budget genre films involving weapons, including 2017’s “Sequence Break”, has said that compelling onscreen shooter effects can be achieved. easily created in post production at a lower cost than blank printing. and without any of the resulting risks of physical damage.
“I don’t see any reason for us to have real guns on set,” Skipper said. “A person on a computer with the most basic editing software can do mouth flashes. We’re not talking about the “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs here.
Producer Kim Sherman, who worked with Hutchins last year on the independent sci-fi superhero film “Archenemy”, said the issues raised by his death went beyond gun safety. right down to the sometimes dehumanizing economic imperatives of the film industry.
“The people who actually make the thing are putting their bodies at risk, and the people who have the money don’t care that those bodies are piling up,” Sherman said. “It’s systemic. And right now, IATSE has the opportunity to do something important that will not only affect our industry, but affect so many industries facing similar issues.
Times editors Meg James and Mark Olsen contributed to this report.