Photo: Halyna Hutchins. Credit: Raise Funds In Memory of Halyna Hutchins
The fight for safe conditions for workers in the film industry is heating up again, nearly seven months since cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of independent movie Rust in New Mexico on October 21, 2021. Halyna and the film’s director, Joel Sueza, were shot by a single live round in a firearm that was used during a rehearsal by lead actor, and Rust producer, Alec Baldwin. The live round was fired when Baldwin mistakenly let go of the revolver’s hammer after attempting to position the firearm in the camera frame for Halyna, who was operating behind the camera. The live round was described as having pierced through Halyna’s chest and hitting Joel, who was standing behind her. Joel has since recovered from his injury.
Since the industry-shattering tragedy occured, many stories have emerged, and many lawsuits have been filed. The Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office has been undergoing an investigation and still awaits details from the FBI’s seizure and analysis of Baldwin’s cell phone data. Halyna’s husband, Matthew Hutchins, has filed charges against Baldwin and other Rust producers. The film’s gaffer, Serge Svetnoy, filed charges against crew members for negligence, and perhaps most notably the film’s armorer, Hannah Guiterrez Reed, has filed a lawsuit against Seth Kenney, the owner of the company that provided the firearms and ammunition. The details of how a live bullet made it onto the film set are still murky, but nobody has been criminally charged as of yet.
The death of Halyna Hutchins comes at a very precipitous time in the film industry. The very same week this tragedy occurred, the union representing film crews across the country, International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), was on the verge of calling arguably the largest strike in Hollywood’s history.
On October 4, 2021, IATSE members across the country voted on a strike authorization for the first time in the union’s history. This came about after five months of stalemated negotiations between the union and Hollywood producers to renew their flagship contracts. The threat of the strike forced the employers just days later to concede to a number of key demands, including a living wage for the lowest-paid workers, increased rest periods, and improved health and safety standards. IATSE workers have been fighting for decades against long hours, unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and very little turnaround time between work days.
Even though the independent production Rust was under a different contract than the one being negotiated at the time, it did not stop the IATSE crew members on the film from standing up and speaking out against the unconscionable working conditions. Lane Luper, 1st Assistant Camera and head of the camera department, continually spoke out to the production manager about safety issues for days leading up to the shooting.
On October 20, 2021, after three prop misfire accidents, no scheduled safety meetings from management, and no sign of eagerness to investigate the accidents, Luper and a few other crew resigned from the film production. Instead of addressing the issues or demands of the crew, production management opted to hire non-union crew to replace those who left and continued filming until the next day when the tragedy occured.
Armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed has a similar story. Reed was seemingly hired with the agreement that she would serve as the armorer — the one responsible for handling firearms on set — only on the days the firearms were being used, but then would have to work as a Props Assistant for the rest of the filming. This double dipping is not uncommon in the film industry, especially with lower-budget independent films. Film producers look for ways to cut costs to extend their budgets, and those who do it crudely do so at the expense of safety.
Reed, who has only a few film credits under her belt, had ongoing discussions with her employer, Line Producer Gabrielle Pickle, about the defined boundaries of her job. Text messages appear to show Pickle insisting that Reed focus more on props assisting when she was also being asked to be responsible for juggling the firearms as the Armorer.
All of this comes as New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau released a detailed report of the incident on April 20. Their conclusion was that Rust Production LLC and the chief safety coordinator, 1st Assistant Director David Halls, failed to follow industry-wide safety protocols. The OHSB fined the producers for a maximum of $136,793 for “willful and serious” violation of workplace safety procedures.
The publishing of this OHSB report does not necessarily implicate any of those being fined as having been convicted criminally under New Mexico law. However, attorneys for both Baldwin and Reed have separately come out and praised the OHSB for their work in categorically “exonerating” them in report, fortifying their efforts against looming criminal prosecutions by New Mexico District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies.
What is to come of any criminal prosecutions remains unknown, but what we do know is that the perilous actions of employers in the film industry have demonstrated that their central priority is profit, even at the expense of workers’ lives. Although this particular case has received more attention in the media, these are in fact common practices, and workers nationwide from the film industry to retail to higher education are organizing to fight back.