Every person I know who has ever worked on the crew of a movie – starting with myself – has at some point witnessed the cutting of corners, the rushing that prompted carelessness, and the indifference to long hours and safety complaints.
Trust me on this.
Nevertheless most of us were never employed on a production where anyone was shot and killed by a supposed “prop gun” discharging. That was the fate of the late cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the low-budget movie Rust this week when star/producer Alec Baldwin’s gun fired, murdering her and wounding its writer-director Joel Souza.
Still, you don’t have to witness violence and human carnage to understand you are in a situation where it can easily happen. The fact that you might dodge a bullet this time, or even hundreds of times, does not mean you will necessarily be so lucky the next time.
I’ve worked on movies with stunts in a river, where real wolves attacked people, where veteran pilots did somersaults in makeshift vintage airplanes and where guns were fired and bombs exploded. Loudly.
Truth be told, I never felt exactly safe but I did believe, given the circumstances, that the risks were…mitigated.
Most of the time.
But not all of the time.
For instance, the river movie, non-union with a SAG contract, had young actors in inner tubes with stunt people nearby. But, let’s face it, that didn’t guarantee their safety if the weather suddenly turned on them or someone slipped on one of the many sharp rocks beneath them.
The wolf movie, a union deal, had a wolf wrangler. But once I got a look at the animals this didn’t seem particularly safe to me. The wolves were going to be encouraged to viciously attack and the first thing you have to know about wolves (Note: As one of the wrangling assistants told me) is that they’re essentially wild animals that are not as trainable as dogs. So, well, I wasn’t on the set on those four nights except an early check-in prior to the scene.
The veteran pilot film used a guy who did stunts professionally for hundreds of air shows. Many of the crewmembers were magically enthralled, so much so that between takes he took some of them up in that rickety plane.
Are you kidding, I thought, on this non-union movie. And promptly I was branded a chicken and laughed at by the entire production.
Well, cluck, cluck, cluck, I answered back. This was not a risk I was willing to take.
And when a few years later this same pilot died doing a stunt on Top Gun I didn’t at all feel like gloating. Though I did feel good about my decision.
As for the guns and explosions, this was an all-union crew and everyone was given earplugs, goggles and reminded constantly to keep their distance. There were so many advisors and stunt people and active military personnel that it was probably the safest I ever felt on any movie set. Ever.
And yet, most of the crew was still nervous…and happy we didn’t have to be in the scene or shoot it. Though someone (Note: Actually more than one) did and was.
This begs the question of what exactly is safe?
Well, clearly nothing is 100%. Danger can randomly happen at any moment and so can death. So we try to minimize our risks or, if we like the rush or are feeling particularly angry or perilous that day, maximize them.
Movie sets have rules and regulations for this very reason. This is why people are not often seriously injured and usually don’t die.
It is for these same reasons that most people don’t die in tragic accidents. Society operates within parameters and has laws enacted to keep people somewhat safe. Depending on your political views, there are not enough, or too many, or maybe they’re enforced too stringently or laxly.
But given the status quo they at least give us a playing field in which we can operate. Unless we are operating in a field akin to the wild, Wild West, located in a town with a wan or lazy or cost-cutting sheriff with a corrupt governmental power structure bent on supporting him. (Note: Or her, because let’s not be sexist. Though I’d bet we’d all be safer under female sheriffs).
The carnage on the set of Rust was a horrible confluence of events still being unearthed for public consumption and legal scrutiny. But this much we know.
– Six members of the camera crew resigned several days before the tragic shooting due to unfit working conditions, replaced by non-union members.
– Safety protocols, including gun inspections, were not being enforced.
– Three prop gun misfires occurred prior to the fatal shooting. And just several days before it happened, Mr. Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired TWO rounds from a gun he was assured was not loaded with any ammunition.
These facts have all been confirmed by numerous crew members, with text messages supporting those facts.
There is also a police investigation underway and no doubt an army of lawsuits pending that will unearth even more of the facts.
Given the additional fact that IATSE, the union covering crew members in which I still pay dues, almost went on a massive strike last week to improve many of these conditions, and is soon to vote on the tentative agreement reached by its reps, there will also be a renewed industry-wide push towards parameters and playing fields that are significantly, or at least a little safe-ER than before.
None of this will bring back a mother, wife and treasured family member like Halyna Hutchins.
It will merely be yet another marker of a likely avoidable tragedy had we taken a bit more time to err on the side of caution instead of cost-cutting and wan-ness. Civility instead of the Wild West, unbridled deregulation of our time tested standards of behavior.
Nothing is entirely safe. But we need to take the time and the actions to do better. A lot better.
And not just in show business.
A great tragedy for our business.