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“Worked to Death”: IATSE Film Crew on “Rust” Walked Off Set to Protest Conditions Before Shooting

StoryOctober 26, 2021
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We look at how the tragic shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during the filming of “Rust” last Thursday on a set in New Mexico is drawing attention to cost-cutting decisions and overall safety in the film industry. Yahoo News is reporting the gun that killed Hutchins had been used by crew members just hours beforehand for live-ammunition target practice. 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 happened after some of the unionized IATSE below-the-line crew members had walked off the set of “Rust” earlier on the day of the shooting to protest their housing, payment and working conditions. New Mexico is a “right to work” state, so producers were able to hire nonunion replacements and continue working on the film. We speak with Dutch Merrick, prop master and armorer for over 25 years and past president of 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.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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 Rust last Thursday on a set 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.

Meanwhile, prop maker Maggie Gaul, a member of IATSE — that’s the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — Local 44, told CNN she had worked with the assistant director, Halls, in 2019, and said he failed to hold safety meetings or follow protocol when it came to announcing the presence of firearms on set. CNN also reported 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 this happened after some of the unionized IATSE below-the-line crew members had walked off the set of Rust earlier on the day Halyna was killed to protest their housing, payment 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. A couple hours later, Halyna was killed.

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

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dutch. Thanks so much for getting in touch with us. So, you are an armorer, and you can explain what that is. And explain what you understand happened on this set, going — in the context of these negotiations that IATSE is having nationwide, 60,000 members, partly around issues of safety just like this.

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

This is one symptom of an existential crisis in Hollywood. Hollywood handles — we handle firearms every single day. I work on big shows where we have machine guns firing, 10, 20 people firing machine guns at once, and it happens safely. We literally fire millions of blank rounds every year. And it’s a very safe process. It’s carefully regulated. We go through permits and training.

The armorer handles the gun from a locked-up safe. They take it to the set. They’re very careful about inspecting the weapons at all times and make sure they’re clear. And they only load them just before we go. And only the armorer touches them. They hand them directly to the actor. And they get the scene.

In this instance, the first assistant director was handling the gun. 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 gone three weeks without a paycheck. They were having to work 14-plus hours a day with inadequate turnaround to get home. When I started in the business 25 years ago, I was putting in 12-hour days, knowing that I was cutting my teeth in the business and it would only get better from there. But it’s only gotten worse. Our workers routinely face 16-plus-hour days, day in and day out, putting in 80- to 100-hour weeks. And the producers only have to pay a minor penalty if they want to work 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: But, Dutch, I wanted to ask you precisely about that, the impact of the growth of streaming videos, of companies like Netflix and Hulu and Apple. What has been the impact on the working conditions as a result of, basically, this vast commodification of more and more video production?

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 get a show they like, and they binge-watch 13 episodes in a sitting. So, there’s a voracious appetite for content that Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and others are feeding. So the competition is fiercer than ever.

We have trouble finding enough crew to populate these shows, just to fill the jobs, finding trucks and equipment and stages. Everything is overbooked. So, we’re literally in overdrive to fulfill the need. When Netflix was buying existing content and recycling old series, that was one thing. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So —

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 talk about that? What are the rules of using guns for actors, as well as other crew members?

DUTCH MERRICK: Yeah. 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. There may have been a rush for them to get back to rehearsing. I imagine it was a pretty jarring day, having much of the crew walk off and other people come in to replace them, so there was likely a bit of mayhem.

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. So, we sort of keep them in an envelope, but a bit of a 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 may not have noticed there was no armorer there. “OK, here’s the gun. 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 Hutchins, who was killed, when the crew walked off that morning, said she felt like she was losing her best friends. Well, they certainly lost their best friend. Halyna is the mother of a 10-year-old and leaves a husband, as well, in Hollywood. Do you think that the set should have shut down when these workers walked off? And o you think this could affect the final negotiation — we have 10 seconds — around the big IATSE contract and the vote?

DUTCH MERRICK: Our hearts go out to Halyna and her family and the entire crew. They absolutely should have shut down that day. It was a disaster waiting to happen. The recipe was there for a tragedy. We couldn’t have seen it coming.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Dutch. Thanks so much for being with us, Dutch Merrick. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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