‘They feel that they’re second-class citizens.’ Filmmakers demand safety on sets after Halyna Hutchins’ death

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Over the weekend, a candlelight vigil was held in honor of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died on the set of the movie “Rust” late last week after actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun while rehearsing. Joel Souza, the film’s director, was also injured. 

Now more details are emerging about what happened. That includes the fact that the film’s first assistant director, David Halls, had faced previous allegations of failing to maintain a safe working environment on other productions he worked on. Halls was responsible for all safety issues on the “Rust” set, and he’s the one who told Baldwin the gun had no live rounds, according to an affidavit from the Santa Fe’s Sheriff’s Office. Hall was also fired from a previous movie after a crew member was injured in a gun incident. 

Bandar Albuliwi is an independent film writer and director who has started a petition to end the use of real firearms on set. He was also friends with Hutchins. Both graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory. 

His petition has caught the attention of State Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), who will introduce legislation that Albuliwi hopes will prevent future incidents like this. 

“I want to ban the use of real guns on film production sets. There's absolutely no reason why we need to have real firearms in this day and age. It's absolutely ludicrous. The rest of the world is looking at us and laughing. I've traveled the world, and people look at Americans like gun-hungry people,” he tells KCRW. 

Albuliwi’s other priority is improving working conditions for film crew members. “They feel that they’re second-class citizens. … You can’t expect these crew members to put in 14 to 16 to 18-hour days, and then literally tell them, ‘You have to dodge a bullet that's being fired your way.’ It's absolutely ludicrous and this needs to end. Our below-the-line film crew members all around Hollywood have spoken, and they're demanding some serious change right now. And they're going to get the change,” he says.   

Those working conditions have long plagued Hollywood sets and prompted other accidents, says Dominic Patten, senior editor at Deadline.

“​​The number of crew members I've spoken to over the years who told me stories of coming to work the next day and saying, ‘Well, what's wrong? Why is everyone looking so down?’ And they talk about a crew member who worked incredibly late, drove home, fell asleep driving and died. That is something that is far, far too common,“ he says. “Safety is always an issue in films. … Hollywood works on speed and efficiency. … Sometimes people cut corners in a way that we all kind of nod and go along with, but what you see here is a culture and a mentality. So like we've been discussing, there obviously is a need for a sense of change.”

Albuliwi adds that the death of Hutchins might affect the ratification of the tentative IATSE-AMPTP agreement brokered earlier this month.

“I think, honestly, it will cause some issues. If Hollywood doesn't wake up and begin giving these workers [their demands] … we're going to see something when it comes time for them to vote on this bill.”

Previous trouble on set

Leading up to the shooting, Patten says several camera crew members walked off set. In resignation letters, they shared instances when people weren’t getting paid, weren’t being housed properly, and faced safety issues.

“There is some pretty credible evidence that there were previous safety issues with discharge guns on this set — nonfatal clearly, but clearly issues,” Patten says. “This was something that was made aware to the producers. This was something that was made aware of, probably, to Halyna Hutchins, and others. The producers brought in a new crew to handle the remaining shoot of the film.”

Albuliwi notes that he’s heard horror stories from the “Rust” set about the film’s first assistant director, Halls. “He's always been trying to cut corners. He was literally yelling at one of my friends during lunch. Basically, from what I've heard, he never checked if there were live rounds. He just handed the gun to Alec Baldwin. He said ‘cold weapon.’”

Since the shooting, Patten adds new details have come to light, including the fact that armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reid removed the shell casing out of the gun before handing it over to the police. It’s still unclear whether the bullet inside the gun was a blank or live round. 

“The reality is accidents do happen. This is what happened in the death of Brandon Lee almost 20 years ago. There was a live round in a gun. That live round was removed from the gun. ... Unfortunately, the tip of the bullet remained in the gun. So when the blank was put into the gun, it pushed right up against it, and of course created a highly dangerous and explosive device unto itself. We don't know if that's what happened here. We don't know what the armorer did or didn't do.“