Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Rust Tragedy Highlights Labor Tensions in New Mexico

The electricians, cameramen, makeup artists and other crew members who form the backbone of the New Mexico film industry are having their busiest year in history.

Lured by lavish tax breaks and an insatiable demand for streaming, studios filming everything from Bachelorette Party to star-studded films are flocking to the state. According to the New Mexico Film Board, 48 productions were underway in August alone.

The local brigade has more than doubled its work force since a few years ago, leaving the state’s relatively small pool of skilled labor depleted and debate over whether more can be done to protect workers from physical injury at work.

These concerns took on new urgency after cinematographer Galina Hutchins was killed on the set of Rust, where the film crew repeatedly voiced concerns about safety regulations and other working conditions in the days before her death.

More than a dozen New Mexico crew members who spoke to The Times said that working conditions that they had long accepted as standard practice – more than 12 hours of work, long trips in the dark – have worsened as producers try to finish shows faster and more. cheap.

“It’s getting worse and worse, faster and more dangerous,” said Kim Trujillo, a customer who recently worked on Netflix’s Messiah and US’s Biggest Loser. “This is not brain surgery, but this is the level of pressure we are exposed to.”

Netflix’s new Albuquerque studios and other large-scale productions in the state have attracted many unions, making it difficult to hire an experienced team for indie films, film workers say.

The local branch of the International Stage Workers Alliance, which represents the downstream team, is struggling to cope with the growing number of productions, disappointed members say. The State Occupational Safety and Health Agency does not regulate opening hours or travel times. And lawmakers have shown little appetite for curbing the pace of development in an industry that has become a key source of revenue.

In some ways, the manufacturing boom in New Mexico was a surprise stroke of luck for workers who now have more stable jobs than they did a few years ago, said John Trapp, a former vice president of IATSE 480 and construction coordinator, whose merits include Roswell, New Mexico ”and the upcoming Fox series“ The Cleaner ”. The pandemic has returned some power to workers, he said, allowing them to command at a faster pace.

But, according to him, “you have to pay for this money rain, and this is the rest of your life.”

According to Matthew Ellis, a builder and set designer, people who watch TV avidly may not realize how dangerous producing these shows can be.

His teams work with forklifts and other heavy equipment, electrical systems and heavy rigging, suspended 50 feet in the air. Extreme New Mexico weather conditions can play a role, including heat waves, freezing temperatures, thunderstorms, and winds strong enough to knock off the scenery.

When manufacturers strive to be faster and cheaper, security may be “the first point to blur,” he said in an email.

Similar complaints about long hours of operation and pressure to make up for the pandemic’s delays have taken center stage in the protracted contract battle between IATSE and major studios. 60,000 union members, including dressers, makeup artists and fitters, voted overwhelmingly to authorize the strike, which was averted two weeks ago by a preliminary contract agreement.

When the first winter snowstorm hit Albuquerque last October, one production survey in the area dealt a financial blow and sent everyone home, Trujillo said. But the film she was working on was moving forward, she said, adding that she could not name the film because it was bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

The temperature dropped to 19 degrees, she said, breaking the record set in 1916. The cast and crew worked outside for hours, their heads wet with snow, and out loud they worried that they would get sick or someone would get hurt.

The film crew ordered a crew of about 100 to march forward with the company at dusk, pack their equipment, and drive about 15 miles east on icy roads to downtown Albuquerque. So much snow fell, Trujillo said, that workers needed help starting their machines and clearing ice from their windshields.

According to Trujillo, on the way to the city center, one of the crew members ran into an icy spot and pulled off the highway. As soon as she arrived on the second set, shocked and clearly upset, she resigned.

“Anyone could have died on the road that night,” Trujillo said. “But the production office treated it like business as usual. It’s like this perverted sign of honor, which, in spite of everything, must continue. “

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IATSE 480 representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

New Mexico Governor Stephanie Lujan Grisham told The Times last week that everything she has seen so far about the Rust set suggests there are “many problems.”

“The biggest failure on the front-end is that they did not follow these security protocols,” Lujan Grisham said. “If in any industry there is an opportunity to purposefully or inadvertently not follow the requirements, do we want to do something that makes it impossible for these tragedies to develop?”

Another problem, she said, relates to workers who “are not qualified for what they do.”

IATSE 480 lacks union members to fully staff every production facility in New Mexico, especially when several major productions are being filmed at the same time, ”said Trapp, a former union vice president.

In August alone, crews worked on the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things and Roswell, New Mexico, the first season of the new Fox crime drama, the second season of ABC’s Big Sky, several indie films, and a western starring Christoph Waltz. Starring Willem Dafoe and Rachel Brosnahan.

During times of tension, Trapp said, it is customary for producers, especially for indie films, to fill their teams with employees from a “redundant list,” the union’s list of less experienced non-union workers.

While on-set safety matters, the most dangerous part of the day is the drive home, according to crew members. Many can recall a case when they or a friend fell asleep while driving, waking up only when they turned off the road or returned home, not remembering about driving.

According to federal data, New Mexico is the third most fatal state in the country in terms of driving per mile, with a death rate 40% higher than the national average. Drowsy drivers face the same violations as drunk drivers.

In 2014, Teamsters driver Gary Joe Tuck, who worked 18 hours a day on the Netflix series Longmire, died after falling asleep while driving and flipping his car on a highway in New Mexico.

Two years ago, a makeup artist was driving along the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains at 3am to get to 3:30 am on the first day of a sci-fi series called Alt, two crew members told The Times. … She fell asleep while driving and hit the back of another car, police told local media. The passenger was ejected from another vehicle and killed.

The ghost of a late night drive home prompted the crew to leave the Rust set a few hours before Hutchins was killed. The film crew originally paid for hotel rooms to reduce the time it took to commute home on Interstate 25, a rural four-lane freeway with a 75 mph speed limit.

At the start of the second week of filming, the film crew was told that it was no longer possible to shoot at night, said Lane Looper, a department head. The team objected, telling producers that the night trip was too dangerous.

“I need to get up early and go to work,” Jonas Huerta, a digital communications technician, wrote in an email to the production manager. “My work is very demanding on physical activity, and by the time I turn around, I am no longer completely exhausted. I found myself pecking or taking a nap on the side of the road to get home safely. “

A spokeswoman for the producers said the hotel rooms have been provided to the cameramen and other film crew. But the IATSE contract requires producers to provide rooms only if workers spent more than 13 hours a day at work, or if an individual crew member lived more than 60 miles, she said. The Albuquerque crew lived 49-54 miles from the set.

Rebecca Roose, deputy cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of the Environment who oversees worker safety, said her office has no jurisdiction over working hours or commuting.

Exhaustion is so common that crew members exchange tips on staying awake and on the alert while driving, ”said Vinema Chávez Quintana, a wardrobe dyer who worked on Breaking Bad and Army of the Dead. a film about the robbery of a zombie Zach Snyder.

She keeps a bag of emergency food seeds in the car to stay awake. And on the days when she works late on set, she prays to her Pueblo ancestors to keep her safe, asking them, “Don’t let me die tonight.”

Times contributors Julia Wieck, Mag James, and Ryan Founder contributed to this report.

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