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Cinematographer: ‘Rust’ tragedy proves what we’ve known for years

Following the tragic death of my former cinematography student, Halyna Hutchins, from a prop gun that Alec Baldwin fired during rehearsals for the movie “Rust,” it’s become clear to me that the public doesn’t understand how dangerous motion picture sets are. I’ve seen several articles describing how rare it is for someone to get shot on a movie set. That’s a pretty low bar for workplace safety. How many people have been shot in your office?  

Imagine that you work a 14-hour day. That your office regularly has construction taking place in it. (No hard hats required.) Your office moves to a different, unfamiliar place from time to time. Your boss often sets your office up in remote locations where, after a long, hard day, you must drive away on unfamiliar roads in a town you’ve never seen before. You’re away from your family. You’re exhausted much of the time because you’re doing heavy, physical labor. At times, there will be real guns sitting on a tray in the office. You hope they’re not loaded, because your boss is going to pick one up every now and then and fire it at you.  

Some say they use real guns because they like to see the flinching reaction to the loud bang of the gun. Yes, but at what cost?

Movie people work in this challenging environment because they love what they’re doing. For my students, making a film isn’t a job. It’s a dream. They’ve been working toward this for years. They’re disciplined, organized, focused and hardworking. They’ve likely gotten themselves into deep debt — even to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars — for the chance to show the world the beautiful things they can do. 

I think this hunger gets used against the crew of a set. Producers and executives know how committed cinematographers are. They will put up with a lot. Crew members think of a movie not so much as a business but as an opportunity. So when confronted with someone for whom film is purely a business, they are in a vulnerable position and are easily exploited. It’s easy to exploit them. After all, there are hundreds more behind them, just as eager, just as hungry. So guess what wins in the battle between creating a safer workplace on a movie set and those looking for profits in Hollywood?

When you hear about “prop guns” on film sets, you might think that refers to replicas or rubber guns. But typically these are real guns with blanks loaded in them rather than live ammunition. We should stop using real guns in movies. 

I’ve heard it said that directors like to use real firearms on set because they lend authenticity to a movie. Some say they use real guns because they like to see the flinching reaction to the loud bang of the gun. Yes, but at what cost? As Laurence Olivier looked at a bedraggled Dustin Hoffman on the set of “Marathon Man,” he’s reported to have said, “Why not try acting, dear boy. It’s so much easier,“ after Hoffman said he had stayed up for three days to prepare for a scene where his character stayed up for the same amount of time. The only true talent in filmmaking is taking something fake and making it real in the audience’s eye. We have inexpensive, easily accessible computer graphics that do that, and they’re so much safer.

My biggest fear now is that responsibility for Hutchins’ death will migrate down to the weakest, most vulnerable people involved.

As the investigation into what happened on the set of “Rust” unfolds, I hope we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted, to think that the only thing of concern on a film set are the guns. Discussions need to be had about how many people break legs, break arms, damage their backs, get concussions or, heaven forbid, die in car crashes while falling asleep at the wheel driving home from a long day of filming? Many of these incidents aren’t counted as set injuries, and often no one is held responsible. However, they are direct consequences of the harsh working conditions on set. The great filmmaker Haskell Wexler spent the latter portion of his life campaigning to improve the deplorable work conditions on movie sets. He chronicled the appalling circumstances in which we work in his 2006 documentary “Who Needs Sleep?“ Wexler died in 2015. Not much has improved.

My biggest fear now is that responsibility for Hutchins’ death will migrate down to the weakest, most vulnerable people involved. We can take our frustration out on the armorer who oversaw the weapons. We can criticize the assistant director for handing Baldwin a firearm and proclaiming it a “cold gun,” i.e., not loaded with live rounds. We should question both of these people. 

However, the real responsibility for this awful thing lies with the culture of callous disregard for the safety of people for whom a movie set is more than a workplace. For the people who work on movie sets, it’s not just a credit. It’s not a sale. For them, it’s a dream. The very least we owe them is a safe place to work.

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