Producers on the set of Rust in New Mexico, where Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed director of photography Halyna Hutchins, cut significant corners when it came to safety protocols and working conditions, according to those who were involved and familiar with the project.
Interviews with 10 production workers, documents, and emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show that those in charge of producing the Western staffed key roles with less-experienced, nonunion workers and rushed the sourcing of props, such as guns, to save money at the expense of safe and humane working conditions.
At least two property masters — who are in charge of acquiring, validating, choreographing, and overseeing all the props and department staff in a production, including weapons and those in charge of them — said that they turned down the opportunity to work on Rust because of their concerns over how rushed the project was, what they considered to be low-ball pay, and how “flippant” the producers seemed about protocols. In 2019, a prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician with the Local 44 union filed a formal complaint against Dave Halls, the assistant director on Rust who handed Baldwin the loaded gun, for violating safety protocols, specifically related to firearms on set. Crew members also walked off one of his more recent projects after he had them shoot “guerrilla”-style on train tracks in the middle of the night.
There have been a host of other missteps that workers say exemplify the systemic issues that have long plagued production and jeopardized their safety. Workers in the industry say a culture of ignoring basic standards, outsourcing to less-experienced workers, and paying unlivable wages to churn out content more quickly and cheaply is a big part of why Hutchins, a revered and admired cinematographer who was the film’s director of photography, is now dead.
“It’s literally a war zone on some of these films, and no one takes responsibility. No one acknowledges that this culture of sucking it up and dealing with it is a problem,” Maggie Goll, a prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician, told BuzzFeed News. “The lack of accountability is astronomical. It’s endemic.”
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A source close to the production pushed back on allegations that producers cut corners to save money, pointing out that it is an IATSE/Teamsters/SAG DGA union/guild–certified set, and everything was done according to union guidelines. The source also said that they had three full-set safety meetings since the film started earlier this month, including on the day of the accident.
In a new letter sent to crew Sunday night, obtained by BuzzFeed News, Rust Movie Productions reiterated that it was "conducting an internal review of safety protocols" and cooperating with Sante Fe authorities. The producers said they decided " to wrap the set at least until the investigations are complete."
Santa Fe sheriff's detectives said the shooting took place as the cast and crew were rehearsing with the equipment, which was set up by one of the film’s production assistants and the armorer. According to court documents, the assistant director picked up one of the prop guns that was sitting on a cart outside, yelled, “Cold gun!” — meaning that the weapon was safe to use — and handed it to Baldwin without knowing it contained live rounds.
For months, production workers from across the industry and part of the union International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have been threatening to strike, citing exhausting, stressful conditions that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Rust was no different, they say. Crews on the low-budget, Old West period film were working 14- to 18-hour days, staying in a dilapidated hotel an hour away from the set, and making well below standard rates while at one point waiting three weeks to get paid, according to two people familiar with the situation and reporting by other media outlets. The Los Angeles Times reported that camera operators also made a complaint about the lack of gun safety and protocol on set last weekend after two other accidental prop gun discharges.
The situation was so egregious that in protest, members of Hutchins’ camera crew walked off the set over the working conditions, a rare move that industry veterans told BuzzFeed News was a “huge red flag” that should have immediately halted production.
"A handful of members of the camera crew quit the production on Wednesday night," a spokesperson for Rust Movie Productions said. "The camera crew is not involved with props and prop safety protocols and have no interaction with the firearms used in production."
In the culture of Hollywood, you endure and protect your team, especially those who brought you into the gig, industry veterans said. It has to be incredibly dire, they added, for unionized operators to choose to abandon the job and leave their director.
Warnings about the production arose in September when Neal Zoromski, a veteran property master, told one of the producers that he had concerns about how and where they were sourcing props and personnel for the film. On Sept. 20, Row Walters, a unit production manager, reached out to Zoromski asking if he would be interested in joining the Tier 1A feature (that classification means it’s a low-budget production), shooting in Santa Fe starting Oct. 6, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News. But the low rates, slim staffing, and rushed timeline were red flags, said Zoromski, who has been in the industry since 1989, is a 25-year union member, and has worked on everything from 7th Heaven to The Day After Tomorrow.
“They didn’t seem to be playing it right from the beginning,” he said. “It felt slipshod, and the vibe was that this is a very unsafe situation, and I told them as much.”
Based on conversations with Walters and a production designer, the prop master realized that they “were behind the eight ball” and trying to prepare a project days before it was about to start. Unfortunately, that has become the trend in Hollywood, he said, to try to throw a production together in 8 to 10 days, when the “bare minimum should be three weeks.”
They were “flippant” with details about the weapons that were to be provided and shrugged off his questions about who was going to be on staff, Zoromski added. He also said they insisted they had everything they needed locally — “and that’s a great concern.”
As the demand for content has exploded and more companies are jumping into the streaming frenzy, studios have been creating projects in places outside Los Angeles like New Mexico, which union workers say is cheaper. Often, as union workers who have worked on New Mexico productions told BuzzFeed News, that means production companies can hire less-experienced people to fill key roles, such as Rust’s 24-year-old armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, for less money. In a podcast last month, Gutierrez-Reed — who has not responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment — talked about being new to the role after just coming off her first film, The Old Way. The Daily Beast reported that filming on that set was allegedly briefly paused because of concerns over how she was handling the weapons.
In his discussions with Rust producers last month, Zoromski said he inquired about the armorer, since it’s usually the prop master’s job to hire that role, as well as the weapons. According to emails and the call sheet, obtained by BuzzFeed News, the prop master had two assistants, one of whom was also the armorer. It was concerning, he said, that the film chose to combine those two roles into one. It compressed that person’s ability to “check the functioning guns, test them, and prepare them for use.” The call sheet also showed that most of the crew members were nonunion, meaning they were likely paid below the standard wage.
Zoromski and other industry experts also balked at the findings from a Santa Fe sheriff’s search warrant, which stated that Halls, the assistant director, picked up a revolver from a cart and handed the weapon to Baldwin. That goes against guidelines from the Actors’ Equity Association, which state that “all loading of firearms must be done by the property master, armorer or experienced persons working under their direct supervision.”
“It is absolutely beyond the pale that an AD would ever touch or grab a prop weapon off a cart and give it directly to an actor to rehearse or otherwise,” the prop master said.
Halls, who could not be reached for comment Sunday, has worked on a slew of films and shows, including blockbusters like The Matrix, in various assistant director roles since the 1990s, based on his IMDb profile. And according to the Directors Guild of America, he recently completed a safety training course mandatory for membership eligibility. But two people who worked with him on various past shows said that he has a history of disregarding basic safety protocols and measures, such as not checking weapons, not holding safety meetings, and inappropriately addressing women.
Back in February, crew members also walked off the Georgia set of another low-budget production where Halls worked as assistant director, One Way, because of what they said were unsafe working conditions and lack of pay. Angela Schroeder, a set decorator, told BuzzFeed News that the final straw for a few members was the last night, when Halls decided to shoot at an active train yard because she said the production company had not properly secured any locations. The assistant director had all of the crew working within 30 feet of at least eight dark train tracks in the middle of the night, without spotters, she said, adding that “nobody knew what they were doing.”
Halls later posted a photo on Facebook of them moving a fake body with a train in the background, calling it “the martini shot” for the last day.
The worst part, Schroeder said, was that it was around the anniversary of the death of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who was fatally struck by a train on another Georgia movie set in 2014.
In follow-up interviews with BuzzFeed News, two other people involved with the train scene said that they had planned to shoot near train tracks and it was planned, scouted, and fully vetted, as evidenced by call sheets. Eric Napier, the location manager, said that they had contacted the railroad company about filming on the property next to it.
"All filming locations were scouted, vetted, rented, and insured. I do not work on 'guerrilla' projects. I will not work with a company that does not invest the time, resources, and money to do it right," he said. "I have unfortunately worked with producers that cut corners and don't care about the crew, Thomasville Pictures is not one of those teams."
Goll, the pyrotechnician with the Local 44 union, had a similar experience with the assistant director in 2019 while working on Into the Dark, an anthology series. The show, which streamed on Hulu and was made by Blumhouse Productions — which notoriously set the standard for making blockbuster content for little money — was also low budget, with conditions and culture similar to Rust's, she said. She ended up submitting a complaint to the DGA.
Usually, when there are dangerous elements in a production, such as gunfire, stunts, or pyrotechnics, leaders on set host a meeting every morning to go over the props used and the risks, as well as ensure that there are known fire lanes and usable exits in case something goes wrong. On Into the Dark and One Way, those meetings, as well as other basic safety processes, were not happening, and crew members complained, Goll and other staff said.
“It was inexcusable that we had to basically demand those universal, common policies every single day,” she said. “It’s like that on many shows now because it’s this culture of 'Shut up, do the job, stop whining, and get it done.' Seconds are money, and the faster they can rush through things, that saves money. But we are asking ourselves now, What is that cost? And it’s our lives, livelihood, and general well-being.”
Goll said Halls often complained about and was exasperated by extra safety steps on Into the Dark, like having a gun “cleared” by a professional technician. And contrary to protocol, Halls would not inform workers when there was a weapon present, or distinguish between a real gun and a prop, until the assistant prop master demanded that Halls inform the crew every time.
A representative for Blumhouse Productions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We were being dismissed to our faces even though so many people knew it was wrong,” she said. “It’s frustrating because so often this falls on deaf ears, and people have been afraid to speak up, because when you do, you are not there in the days to follow.”
That, at least, has changed. Production workers have been speaking out about what they’ve endured on the job en masse, filling social media accounts with stories and organizing rallies. There is a new, sweeping solidarity, Goll said, because they are no longer accepting what is at stake: their lives. “We no longer want to be treated as expendable.”