So a crew member was killed on a set since last time we posted. You know this already, of course, and — if you’re the type of person who reads Below the Line in general, and its labor column in particular — you have probably been reading up on, and trying to ferret out more details about, the negligence that lead to the manslaughter-like killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, a wife, and mother to a child who will now have to grow up without her. Her life was cut short when actor/producer Alec Baldwin discharged a gun that apparently contained a live round, killing her, and wounding director Joel Souza.
And for what? Initially, folks wondered if the former 30 Rock co-star was trying to emulate the gun-at-camera moment made famous in The Great Train Robbery, that sent silent film-era viewers diving under the seats (little suspecting the entire century of actual terror that lay ahead of them). Later, reports emerged that he may have been practicing with the loaded weapon, which adds even more harrowing absurdity to the incident.
As you’ve doubtlessly read, safety conditions on the set of the low-budget film were said to be deteriorating. Interestingly, the story spread as fast through non-industry, mainstream publications in the immediate aftermath than in the traditional Hollywood press. It’s hard to remember the last time a worker being killed in the service of cutting budgetary corners was given that much attention, though perhaps Hutchins’ grim and sudden departure comes at a time when everyone was primed to pay more attention to such things.
One of the weekend’s earliest exposes of set conditions on the film Rust, run by the politics-minded Daily Beast, quoting an unnamed source from the production who said “This is what IATSE was fighting about with the producer; this epitomizes that fight will be dealt with on this show. Help us make good films without dying.”
As an example of how a lot of the IA’s issues have become emblematic for the labor movement at large, Labor Notes — the online incarnation of the longstanding print publication founded by rank-and-file union members, local leaders, etc., who wanted fewer “go along to get along” settlements from national leadership — ran an article headlined “Shocking Death on Set Shows What’s at Stake in IATSE Film and TV Crew Contract Fight.”
They noted that “the pandemic had changed workers’ expectations of what might be possible. In March 2020, the film industry ground to a halt. When it resumed a few months later, health and safety protocols scaled back production capacity. Fewer people could be on set at a time, days were shorter, and crews got a glimpse of a better work-life balance.”
The article went on to say that “IATSE members appear to be emerging from the pandemic and from this contract battle with a greater sense of power,” then quoted a member of 600’s young worker committee, Fae Weichel, who called it “a turning point for IATSE.”
But of course, Hutchins’ shocking death revealed that the cultural shift away from getting it “in the can” at all costs — and generally, the lowest possible cost — will be a long time coming.
A sidebar to the article, also addressing Rust’s set conditions, said that “the day before the shooting, the first assistant camera on the set, Lane Looper, had commented on Facebook, ‘The show keeps arguing they don’t have to do anything because contract minimums don’t force them to… Most folks on my show are getting five hours of sleep a night.’
“An anonymous post reportedly by another camera team member on the same set said the camera team had resigned together from the production citing a lack of payment, of Covid protocols, of hotel rooms after long days, and of safety standards generally.”
Some of that sentiment was echoed at a vigil for Hutchins, held Sunday evening in front of the grips’ IA Local 80 in Burbank. (And we’re indebted to MPEG 700 member, and video reporter Vishal P. Singh, for the coverage.)
IA VP Michael Miller said that in addition to sharing the profound grief of friends and family, “we’re also gathered here in solidarity, with the crew of Rust, who’ve been devastated by her death, and the situations that may have led to it. We are here for crews everywhere, that share in this grief, and the knowledge that it could have been any one of us.”
He also acknowledged a considerable “frustration, after standing here seven years ago, for Sarah Jones, and sharing the stage with another family that had experienced unimaginable and unnecessary loss, that we’re here again.”
Labor Notes also recapped the tragedy of what happened to Jones, a camera assistant and 600 member, who was struck by a train when filming on tracks the producers had no permission to use: “The ‘Safety for Sarah’ movement sparked conversations about set safety across the industry, and even led to the launch of an app called ‘ICG Safety’ that allows quick reporting of set safety hazards, including long hours, to the union.”
Jones was killed in 2014, so we can see how well all this putative reporting has served as a deterrent.
All part of why we remain on the brink of a strike, pending ratification of the current agreement.
About Hutchins herself, Stephen Lighthill, ASC President, and her former mentor at AFI, spoke of her “being a really brilliant student, who came to AFI already a mother… but when we interview (potential students), we’re looking to bring in a person, not just a technician, not just an artist, but a person who will really contribute, and will bring unique experience.”
He then spoke of her particularly unique Ukrainian upbringing, seeing “reindeer out one window, and nuclear submarines out the other.”
All the uniqueness snuffed out now, of course.
Lighthill finished his own remarks asking people to “start a conversation, with all of our collaborators, whether above or below the line, about our addiction to long hours. We need to start working normal days, so we can have normal family lives.”
He also mentioned there was “no place for weapons that can kill on a motion picture set.” State Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose-area Democrat, took to his own Twitter account over the weekend to say he intends “to introduce legislation that would ban live ammunition on sets in California to prevent this type of senseless violence and loss of life.”
In closing remarks at the memorial, ICG’s National Executive Director, Rebecca Rhine, admonished people to take care of themselves, and each other, in the wake of the tragedy, reminding everyone that “trauma and sadness are never linear, or predictable.”
Neither, of course, are the times we inhabit. Hopefully, then, this latest tragedy won’t be subsumed and forgotten by the next round of collective trauma, and some small good may yet emerge from it.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”