The investigation into the on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins is ongoing, but over the weekend new details about the conditions on Rust have emerged which contribute to our larger discussion of set safety and labor conditions in the film industry. Rust is a low-budget production, on day 12 of a 21-day shoot. That’s not an unusual schedule for a low-budget movie, and neither are reports of safety violations on the set. Every movie comes with a lot of pressure, but when you have limited time and resources, that pressure increases exponentially. The margin of error is much, much smaller, because you do not have the resources to go back and fix things later, either with additional photography days or with more involved post-production. Rust is shaping up to be a too-familiar tale of cut corners with tragic results, not unlike what we saw with the death of Sarah Jones on Midnight Rider.
The LA Times has a detailed account of the conditions on Rust that includes reports of previous accidental discharges from prop guns which led to crew members expressing concerns about gun safety on set. There were also concerns about long commutes—rather than be hosted in Santa Fe area hotels, as initially promised by the production, the crew was expected to commute over 50 miles from Albuquerque to set every day, and I know a lot of us have grinding daily commutes, but are we all working 12+ hours days on jobs that involve gun fire? Payroll was an issue too, as were the kind of crappy labor conditions that brought IATSE to the brink of a strike just two weeks ago. On the day of the fatal shooting, the union members of the camera crew walked off set over these conditions, with one crew member observing re: previous accidental discharges: “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.”
Rush, rush, rush. How many below-the-line laborers have I heard complain about rushed work leading to troubling, even unsafe working conditions on set? Too many to count. The vast majority of exchanges I’ve had with crew workers that are about negative on-set experiences come down to rushing, leading to cut corners. (When the reports are good, phrases like “they took the time for X, Y, Z” are usually involved.) And low budget is no excuse. Plenty of low budget movies get made with safe sets that value the health and safety of the people making the movie. Because that’s what this comes down to, what every conversation about set safety and working conditions for crew is about—valuing the people who are on set every day making the movie. Not just the actors with their names in neon lights, but the gaffers and the grips and the camera operators who are grinding it out for no recognition and not-even-living wages. Movies don’t get made without them, yet they are treated as literally expendable. When the union crew walked off Rust, non-union replacements were brought in. Rather than address the issues, the production brought in scabs.
At least in the age of virtually flawless computer effects, there is little reason to keep using live ammunition on set (“live ammunition” refers to blanks as well as actual bullets). Muzzle flash doesn’t record on camera right anyway, and if you’re doing close-quarter action, such as in the John Wick movies, blanks are still too dangerous, so CG bullet effects are deployed. Alexi Hawley, showrunner of The Rookie, is the first producer to ban live fire from his set, but he won’t be the last. And for people bitching about realism on film, can you tell the fake gunfire from the real gunfire in John Wick? Maybe fanatics and experts can—although the technology is vastly improved even from 2014 and grows more seamless every year—but I guarantee the layperson can’t. Realism is the enemy of good cinema, anyway, like anyone is complaining about the fantastical style of John Wick, which is in part enabled by fake gun effects.
In the meantime, the investigation into Rust and Halyna Hutchins’ death is ongoing. Director Joel Souza, also injured in the incident, was released from the hospital and gave a statement that he was “gutted by the loss of my friend and colleague”. Alec Baldwin also issued a statement on Instagram:
Hutchins, a graduate of the American Film Institute Conservatory, has had a scholarship supporting aspiring female cinematographers named in her honor. You can donate to the Halyna Hutchins Memorial Scholarship Fund here. Our thoughts continue to be with her family and friends.