Before Shooting, IATSE Film Crew on “Rust” Walked Off Set to Protest Conditions

We examine the tragic shooting death that Halyna Hutchins, cinematographer, suffered during filming of RustLast Thursday, a set in New Mexico brought attention to safety concerns and cost-cutting in the film industry. Yahoo NewsThe crew had used the gun that killed Hutchins just hours before for live-ammunition target training. The film’s lead actor and producer Alec Baldwin later shot the revolver after he was reportedly handed it by the first assistant director, David Halls, who told him it was a “cold gun,” meaning it was not loaded with live ammunition. Halls was fired in 2019 from his position as assistant director on the movie “Freedom’s Path” after a gun “unexpectedly discharged” and injured a crew member. All of this occurred after some of those unionized. IATSEBelow-the-line crew members had left the set RustOn the day of shooting, they protested their housing, working conditions, and payment. New Mexico is a “right to work” state, so producers were able to hire nonunion replacements and continue working on the film. Dutch Merrick, a former president of the American Prop Master Association and armorer for over 25-years, is our guest. IATSE Local 44 Property Craftspersons, Hollywood, who notes, “Hollywood handles firearms every single day,” and calls the process “carefully regulated.” Despite safety protocol and expertise, he says, Hollywood crews are getting “worked to death” with 80- to 100-hour workweeks, which he suggests played into the accidental shooting.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look at the tragic shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during the filming of RustLast Thursday, on a set located in New Mexico. It’s drawing attention to cost-cutting decisions and overall safety in the film industry.

Yahoo News is reporting the gun that killed Halyna had been used by crew members just hours beforehand for live-ammunition target practice by some members of the crew, who used the prop guns, including the gun that killed her, to shoot at beer cans — a practice often called “plinking.”

The film’s lead actor and producer is Alec Baldwin. He later shot the revolver after he was reportedly handed it by the first assistant director, David Halls, who told him it was a “cold gun,” meaning it was not loaded with live ammunition. A search warrant says Baldwin was reportedly rehearsing a scene for the film and, quote, “pointing the revolver towards the camera lens” when it hit Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza.

Maggie Gaul, a propmaker and member of IATSE — that’s the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — Local 44, told CNNIn 2019, she worked with Halls as an assistant director. She said that he failed to hold safety meetings, or follow protocol when it comes to announcing firearms on set. CNNAlso reportedHalls was fired as assistant director of the movie in 2019. Freedom’s PathAfter a gun accidentally discharged and inflicted injury on a crew member.

All of this was after some of the unionized IATSEBelow-the-line crew members had left the set RustHalyna was shot and killed earlier in the day to protest their housing and working conditions. A source told Yahoo News a walkout would usually shut down the film’s production for a couple days, but New Mexico is a “right to work” state, so producers were able to hire nonunion replacements and continue working on the film. Halyna was then killed just a few hours later.

For more, we’re joined by Dutch Merrick. He’s past president of IATSELocal 44 Hollywood Craftspersons Altadena (California). He’s been a prop master and armorer for over 25 years.

We are glad you are here Democracy Now!Dutch. We are glad you reached out to us. So you are an armourer. And explain what you understand happened on this set, going — in the context of these negotiations that IATSEis having nationwide, 60,000 members. This is partly because of safety issues just like this.

DUTCH MERRICK:Good morning Amy. Thank you so very much for having me.

This is just one sign that Hollywood is in an existential crisis. Hollywood handles — we handle firearms every single day. It is safe to work on large shows that have machine guns firing. There are 10, 20 people firing machine gun simultaneously. Every year, we fire millions upon millions of blank rounds. And it’s a very safe process. It’s carefully regulated. We have to go through training and permits.

The gun is handled by the armorer from a locked safe. They then take it to the set. They’re very careful about inspecting the weapons at all times and make sure they’re clear. They only load them when we are ready to go. Only the armorer touches them. They give them to the actor. They are given the scene.

In this instance, the gun was being handled by the first assistant director. We’re trying to figure out why that happened. And the guns clearly were mishandled and not locked up, and allowed to use for actual gunfire shooting, which is — I’ve never heard of that in my 25 years in the business. It’s unconscionable that you would take your movie guns and put live ammo in them ever, ever.

The crew was — the camera crew walked off the morning of, because the conditions had become so deplorable. They had been without a paycheck for three weeks. They were working 14 hours a days with little turnaround time to get home. I remember when I started the business 25 years back, I was working 12-hour shifts, knowing that it was only the beginning of a long journey. But it’s only gotten worse. Our workers work 80- to 100-hour week days and face 16-plus hour working days. Producers are only required to pay a minor penalty for working our crews through lunch. That penalty hasn’t risen in ages. So, often, shows now, to satiate the growing hunger for entertainment and the increasing quality and to produce it in a shorter time, they’re pushing our workers to work straight through lunch and work entire days, and them pay them a minor penalty. And it’s grinding our workers to the bone. And with this contract that’s come up, every worker that I’ve talked to, with few exceptions, is not happy with it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Dutch, I want to ask you about the impact of streaming videos and companies like Netflix, Hulu and Apple’s growth. What impact has this massive commodification on more and more video production had on your working conditions?

DUTCH MERRICK: Yeah, the hunger — you know, the pandemic put into high relief that people not only — they don’t wait for 7:00 on Thursday night to see Seinfeld once a week. They watch 13 episodes of a show that they like and then binge-watch it all at once. So, there’s a voracious appetite for content that Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and others are feeding. This is why the competition is fiercer than ever.

We are having trouble finding enough crew to put on these shows. This is not just for the jobs, but also to find trucks, equipment, and stages. Everything is booked. So, we’re literally in overdrive to fulfill the need. That was one thing when Netflix was just buying existing content and remaking old series. But now they’re creating brand-new content. And we’re grateful for the work, but we’re, frankly, getting worked to death to just meet the demands.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask something else, though, this issue of Alec Baldwin firing the gun, although a lot of the emphasis has been away from Baldwin, but I think 101 of gun use is that even if you believe a gun is not loaded, you don’t point it in the direction of live people. Could you speak on that? Could you please explain the rules for actors and other crew members using guns?

DUTCH MERRICK:Yes. One of my jobs as an armorer is, when I hand an actor a gun, I arrange with that actor where they’re going to point the gun. The three basic rules of gun safety that we teach are always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire; you point the gun at a safe direction, never at a person; and you always treat the gun as if it’s loaded.

From what I’ve heard, the armorer was not present during this sequence. My guess is, I understand — from what I understand, they were coming back from lunch. It is possible that they were in a rush to get back into rehearsal. It was probably quite a stressful day with many of the crew leaving and others coming in to replace them.

And Alec Baldwin, I can’t speak to what was going on with him, but I’ll offer you this. The job of the prop person, the armorer and the costumers and everybody is to create a safe space where the actor can just focus on their role and what they — the lines and getting into that space. We sort of keep them in an enclosed space, but a little bubble. And I think an actor generally learns to grow trust for the crew: “All right, you’re handing me something that’s safe.” I mean, I’m guessing they got into a rhythm. He might not have realized there wasn’t an armorer there. “OK, here’s the gun. That’s great. And what are we going to do?” And he went through the process.

It’s hard for me to speak to exact what happened, but it’s easy to imagine that he had fallen into a level of trust with the crew around him, and that first assistant director did a major no-no, and he grabbed the gun off a cart and just handed it to him. And I can imagine that first assistant director in two conflicting roles: One, he is the bottomline safety officer for the entire production, and he is the one that’s trying to get things done on schedule and get the ball moving.

AMY GOODMAN:Halyna Houtchins, who was shot and killed by the crew as they walked away that morning, stated that she felt like losing her best friends. They certainly lost their best friend. Halyna is the mother to a 10-year-old girl and has a husband in Hollywood. Do you think the set should’ve been shut down after these workers left? And o you think this could affect the final negotiation — we have 10 seconds — around the big IATSEContract and the vote

DUTCH MERRICK:Our thoughts and prayers go out to Halyna, her family, and the entire crew. They should have shut down that day. It was a disaster waiting for it to happen. It was all set up for tragedy. We couldn’t have seen it coming.

AMY GOODMAN:Dutch, it’s time to go. Dutch Merrick, thank you so much for being here. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.