29 October 2021

Baldwin shooting highlights risks of rushed film production

29 October 2021

The fatal shooting by Alec Baldwin on a movie set has put a microscope on an often-unseen corner of the film industry where critics say the pursuit of profit can lead to unsafe working conditions.

With a budget around $7 million, the Western Rust was no micro-budget indie.

The previous best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, Nomadland, was made for less. But the New Mexico set where Baldwin shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins had inexperienced crew members, apparent safety lapses and a serious labour dispute.

For some in the business, the failures reflect larger issues in a fast-evolving movie industry.

“Production is exploding, corners are being cut even more and budgets are being crunched down even more,” said Mynette Louie, a veteran independent film producer. “Something’s got to give.”

Two security guards stand next to a worker who came to pick up equipment from the Bonanza Creek Ranch. Production of the movie Alec Baldwin was making when he shot and killed a cinematographer has been halted. Jae C. Hong/AP (AP)

The shooting happened at a busy time.

Production is ramping up following the easing of pandemic restrictions. Streaming services are increasing demand for content. And all the while, the industry is wrestling with standards for movie sets.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said there was “some complacency” in how weapons were handled on the set.

Investigators found 500 rounds of ammunition — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and suspected live rounds, even though the set’s firearms specialist, armourer Hannah Gutierrez Reed, said real ammunition should never have been present.

Attention has focused on the 24-year-old Gutierrez Reed, who had worked on only one previous feature, and assistant director Dave Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin. According to a search warrant affidavit, Halls called out “cold gun” to indicate that it was safe to use but told detectives he did not check all of the weapon’s chambers.

Lawyers for Gutierrez Reed said she has no idea where the live rounds came from. They blamed unsafe conditions on the producers cutting corners.

“Hannah was hired on two positions on this film, which made it extremely difficult to focus on her job as an armourer,” said lawyers Jason Bowles and Robert Gorence in a statement.

“She fought for training, days to maintain weapons, and proper time to prepare for gunfire but ultimately was overruled by production and her department. The whole production set became unsafe due to various factors, including lack of safety meetings.”

Veteran prop master Neal W Zoromski earlier told The Los Angeles Times that he declined an offer to work on Rust because producers insisted that one person could serve as both assistant prop master and armorer.

Still, the apparent lack of proper weapons protocol has stunned veteran film workers.

“This was incompetence, inexperience and — I hate to say this — lack of caring about your job. If there’s a whole bunch of ammunition thrown together in a box, that’s not how it’s done,” said Mike Tristano, a professional armourer.

Several Rust camera crew members walked off the set amid discord over working conditions, including safety procedures. A new crew was hired that morning, according to director Joel Souza, who spoke to detectives. He was standing near Hutchins and was wounded by the shot.

In a statement, Rust executive producer Allen Cheney said the six producers on the film collectively had more than 35 years of experience in film and television. He called Rust a “union-certified production”.

James Gunn, the Guardians Of The Galaxy filmmaker, suggested a slipshod culture could be partly to blame.

“Dozens have died or been grievously injured on movie sets because of irresponsibility, ignoring safety protocols, improper leadership and a set culture of mindless rushing,” Mr Gunn said on Twitter.

Gary Tuers, property master of Tomorrow War and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, said the shooting was “an indictment of the modern production culture, which for the last 30 years has pursued tax credits and found every way imaginable (and several that weren’t) to sacrifice crew health and safety in the name of budget consciousness”.

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