Tuesday, November 30, 2021

How Hutchins’ death was another call for set safety

On Sunday night, in front of a grim crowd of about 300 film workers, behind an exhibition of floral wreaths and photographs by cinematographer Galina Hutchins, IATSE International Vice President Michael Miller spoke with a mixture of harsh emotions that many felt.

They gathered in an Olive Street parking lot in Burbank to pay tribute to Hutchins, who died Thursday in a tragic accident on the set of Alec Baldwin’s Western “Rust,” and to express their outrage.

“We’re here to mourn,” said Miller, who is also a film and television director. “But I’m afraid we have come together with some disappointment and a little anger. The anger that rushing too often to complete a production and cutting corners puts safety on the back burner and puts the crew at risk. “

Handing out black ribbons before the candlelight vigil began, the medic Margarita Velona held back tears as she spoke of the carelessness that led to Hutchins’ unnecessary death.

“I want to make sure it’s safe,” she said. “This is our livelihood. Galina was one of ours, and now the child has no mother, the husband has no wife, the parents have no child. “

The vigil that followed a similar event held in Albuquerque on Saturday had a disappointing déjà vu feeling.

In 2014, hundreds of filmmakers held candlelight vigils and paraded on Sunset Boulevard following the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was hit by a freight train on a Georgia overpass while filming Midnight Rider. Several more crew members were injured.

At the time, Jones’ death was seen as an inspirational moment for the film industry, prompting a call for a greater focus on safety in film and television programming. Now, seven years later, Jones’ father Richard is heartbroken to see another life cut short by a senseless accident on set.

“In a way, this is going through the loss of my daughter, and of course my heart is drawn to my family,” said Jones, who continued to insist on greater awareness and responsibility for safety on set through the Sarah Jones Foundation. “It’s just carelessness. If these responsible people just respect the people … they lead, I don’t see how they can be so reckless. “

The melancholy in Hollywood over the death of Hutchins, compounded by reports of unrest on the Rust set over working conditions and safety concerns, arises at a time when the film crews are on the brink. This month, concerns over working conditions and working hours nearly sparked a strike by a union representing film and television crews of the International Stage Workers Alliance.

At 11 o’clock, the union awarded a new contract on behalf of 40,000 members from 13 local Hollywood residents, preventing the first nationwide strike in its 128-year history.

But the reaction to the deal was mixed, with some union members arguing that it did not go far enough to improve the often grueling working conditions and curb long working hours. Those fears only intensified in the past year as manufacturers forced teams to make up for lost time caused by the pandemic’s shutdowns.

Cinematographer Galina Hutchins is featured on the January 2020 set of Nemesis in Los Angeles. Hutchins was killed by a rifle fired by Alec Baldwin on Thursday on the set of the Western “Rust” in New Mexico.

(Adam Egypt Mortimer / Associated Press)

Some unionists believe the Hutchins tragedy could affect the outcome of the ratification vote, persuading some of those behind bars to vote against the deal.

“It’s a tidal wave,” said Wendy Greiner, a Los Angeles-based costume designer and IATSE member. “My friends and I are going to vote against…. People had it. ”

However, union leaders are confident that the agreement will be approved by a majority of members.

When it comes to handling firearms on set, the industry has long supported detailed and comprehensive rules developed by trade unions and employers and available to all actors and crew members to review.

However, on the set of Rust, standard safety protocols, including weapons inspections and security meetings, were not strictly enforced, and concerns were raised about two accidental rifle shots, sources told the Los Angeles Times.

According to The Times, a few hours before actor Baldwin fatally shot Hutchins with a revolver, half a dozen workers left the set to protest the working conditions.

Industry rules state that weapons should not be aimed at people, real bullets should not be near installations, and only a master or gunsmith should hand out weapons.

No criminal charges have been brought in this case and an investigation by the Santa Fe authorities is ongoing.

Baldwin received the pistol from assistant director Dave Halls, who indicated that it could be safely used in the moments before the actor fired, as the court records show. According to a search warrant filed with the Santa Fe County Court, the assistant director was unaware that the rifle was loaded with live ammunition. Halls did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.

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Director Joel Sousa, who was also injured in the crash on Thursday, told authorities the day started late because they were trying to hire another crew after the cameramen left the set. According to court records, workers sent letters to producers complaining about overtime and compensation.

The affidavit also indicates that Sousa and the other crew member were unsure if the weapon had been checked before being handed over to Baldwin.

Production company Rust Movie Productions said Friday in a statement that it “has not been informed of any formal complaints about the safety of weapons or props on set,” and that it will conduct internal due diligence and liaise with authorities.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s incident, attention has been drawn to the relative inexperience of the 24-year-old gunsmith from the film, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who, prior to Rust, had worked as chief gunsmith in only one film.

Gunsmith Mike Tristano, who has amassed hundreds of on-screen credits over his 35-year career, including Saw and The Purge, said he has seen an alarming decline in professionalism on set as budgets have been squeezed and crews are subdued. increase in pressure.

“It used to be a business of only professional people,” Tristano said, noting that a license is not required to work as a gunsmith in New Mexico. “Now it’s a hobbyist’s business, because nobody wants to pay for professional people. I guarantee you, if my team and I were in this movie, this girl would be alive today. Because we have such a tight ship and our security protocols are such that this will never happen. “

Tristano once worked with Baldwin on the 1999 film Fat As Thieves and said he “never had a problem with him” when it came to gun safety on this set.

Since Hutchins’ death, many have asked if even stricter security protocols are required.

“My initial reaction was impossible if it hadn’t happened on set, unless existing protocols regarding how to handle firearms are ignored,” said attorney Jeff Harris of Harris Lowry Manton, who represented the Jones families and the stuntman. John Bernecker. who died on the set of AMC’s The Walking Dead in 2017 following wrongful death lawsuits.

“The more I study this case, the more I think that maybe we really need to strengthen some of these areas so that this never happens again,” he said.

Others argue that increased safety measures will not be enough to prevent accidents as long as the crews are forced to work in the grueling conditions of the pressure cooker.

“Even if you put in the protocols, you still have the opportunity for such terrible things,” said Bill Dill, a filmmaker and professor at Chapman University who studied with Hutchins at the American Film Institute a few years ago. Conservatory.

“Filming is a dangerous place. They are also places where people make a lot of money, ”Dill said. “When you get such a bad combination, there may be conditions on set that are not tolerated in the factory.”

Hutchins’ death leads many in the cinematic community to ask why firearms that can cause injury or death are still used on set, given the safer alternatives available.

In recent days, film and television have begun to revisit the use of real weapons, and a California lawmaker has called for a complete ban on firearms on set. ABC’s popular procedural program, The Beginner, for example, banned the firing of real weapons on the show in response to Thursday’s deadly shooting.

On Sunday, actress and director Olivia Wilde expressed her support for the idea, tweeting: “Hollywood: It’s time to create the Galina Law that will ban the use of real firearms on set and create a safe work environment for everyone. involved.”

Independent filmmaker Graham Skipper, who has directed and produced a number of low-budget gun-based genre films, including 2017’s Sequence Break, said compelling on-screen gunfire effects can be easily created in post-production at a lower cost than firing blanks. … and without the attendant risk of physical harm.

“I see no reason to have real firearms on set,” Skipper said. “One person at the computer with the most basic editing software can make face flashes. We’re not talking about dinosaurs here in Jurassic Park. “

Producer Kim Sherman, who worked with Hutchins last year on the independent sci-fi superhero film Nemesis, said the concerns raised by her death go deeper than gun safety, the sometimes brutal economic imperatives of the film business.

“The people who actually do this thing are putting their bodies in jeopardy, and the people who have money don’t care if these bodies accumulate,” Sherman said. “It’s systemic. And right now, IATSE has the opportunity to do something important that will not only affect our industry, but also affect many industries facing similar challenges. ”

Times authors Mag James and Mark Olsen contributed to this report.

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