Photo: Halyna Hutchins. Recognition: Raise funds to commemorate Halyna Hutchins
The fight to keep film industry workers safe is heating up again, almost seven months since cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of an independent film rust in New Mexico on October 21, 2021. Halyna and the film’s director, Joel Sueza, were shot dead by a single live round in a firearm used during a lead actor rehearsal, and rust Producer Alec Baldwin. The live round was fired when Baldwin mistakenly released 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 Halyna’s chest and hit Joel, who was standing behind her. Joel has since recovered from his injury.
Many stories have surfaced and many lawsuits have been filed since the industry-shattering tragedy struck. The Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office has conducted an investigation and is still awaiting details about the FBI’s seizure and analysis of Baldwin’s cellphone data. Halyna’s husband, Matthew Hutchins, has filed charges against Baldwin and others rust producers. The film’s gaffer Serge Svetnoy filed charges of negligence against crew members, and perhaps most notably, the film’s gunsmith Hannah Guiterrez Reed has filed a lawsuit against Seth Kenney, the owner of the company that supplied the firearms and ammunition. The details of how a live bullet made it onto the film set are still unclear, but no one has been criminally charged so far.
The death of Halyna Hutchins comes at a very steep moment in the film industry. In the same week that this tragedy happened, the union representing film crews across the country, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), came close to calling what is arguably the largest strike in Hollywood history.
On October 4, 2021, IATSE members across the country voted to authorize a strike for the first time in the union’s history. This comes after five months of deadlocked negotiations between the union and Hollywood producers to renew their flagship contracts. The threat of a strike forced the employers to make a number of concessions just days later central demands, including a living wage for the lowest paid workers, extended rest periods and improved health and safety standards. For decades, IATSE workers have struggled with long hours, unfair wages, unsafe working conditions and very short turnaround times between workdays.
Although the independent production rust Being under a different contract than negotiated at the time, this did not stop the film’s IATSE crew members from speaking out against the irresponsible working conditions. Lane Luper, 1st Camera Assistant and Director of Cameras, spent days prior to filming constantly talking to the Production Manager about safety issues.
On October 20, 2021, after three propeller misfire accidents, no scheduled management safety meetings, and no sign of eagerness to investigate the accidents, Luper and several other crew members retired from film production. Rather than deal with the crew’s problems or demands, production management chose to hire a non-union crew to replace those who left and continue filming until the next day when the tragedy struck.
Armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed has a similar story. Reed was apparently hired with the agreement that she would only serve as the gunsmith — the person responsible for handling firearms on set — on the days the firearms were used, but then as a props assistant for the remainder of filming would have to work. This double dipping is not uncommon in the film industry, especially in lower budget independent films. Film producers are looking for ways to cut costs to expand their budgets, and those who roughly do so come at the expense of security.
Reed, who has few film credits to her credit, had constant conversations with her employer, production manager Gabrielle Pickle, about the defined boundaries of her job. Text messages appear to show Pickle insisting that Reed focus more on props when she was also asked to be in charge of juggling the firearms as an armorer.
All of this comes as the New Mexico Occupational Safety and Health Bureau (OHSB) released a detailed report on the incident on April 20. Their conclusion was that Rust Production LLC and the main security coordinator, the 1st broad security protocols. The OHSB fined the producers a maximum of $136,793 for “willful and gross” violation of occupational safety procedures.
The release of this OHSB report does not necessarily imply that any of the fined individuals have a criminal conviction under New Mexico law. However, Baldwin and Reed’s attorneys have come out separately and commended the OHSB for their work, categorically “exonerating” them in the report and stepping up their efforts against impending prosecution by New Mexico District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies .
What becomes of the prosecutions remains unknown, but what we do know is that the dangerous actions of employers in the film industry have shown that their central priority is profit, even at the cost of workers’ lives. Although this particular case has garnered more media attention, these are actually common practices, and workers across the country, from the film industry to retail to higher education, are organizing to fight back.