‘Rust’ Tragedy Hasn’t Improved Hollywood’s On-Set Safety – and Crews Worry They’re Expendable
If you work in Hollywood as technical crew, you know the name of actor Vic Morrow, killed by a helicopter during a stunt gone wrong on the 1983 feature “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Or Brandon Lee, the son of actor Bruce Lee, struck and killed by a prop gun while filming 1994’s “The Crow.” Those stories have resurfaced following the indictments of Alec Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed for manslaughter after a fatality on the set of “Rust.”
A broadly held belief among below-the-line crew is that no one cares about their safety. Yet in interviews across the industry, TheWrap found that the problems facing production staff are deeper than mere apathy. The insularity among Hollywood’s many guilds and unions leads to finger-pointing when something goes wrong. Unclear lines of responsibility, with key managers sharing the burdens of both maximizing safety and minimizing costs, don’t help. And a culture of long hours, accentuated by the reasonable desire of some crew members to maximize overtime pay, contributes to the problem.
“We’ve normalized this to a really concerning degree in our industry,” said a crew member who worked on the 2022 Paramount feature “Babylon,” which allegedly involved 16-to-19 hour workdays and a crew member crashing their car because of it. “There’s this mentality of, ‘Well, this is just the way things are.'”
The complex, intertwined challenges of on-set safety leads crew members to feel that talent and management see them as expendable, faceless laborers whose lives are only focused on when — like in the case of “Rust” — a celebrity is directly involved.
Even just attempting to talk about crew safety is rife with peril and meets a wall of silence. Many insiders were only willing to speak to TheWrap if granted anonymity because of their need to preserve ongoing industry relationships, fearing they would lose work if they spoke out. Several didn’t wish to have their jobs described for fear others might be able to ascertain their identities.
The presumption is there is an inherent risk for everyone who steps foot on a set that they’re already aware of. And, at the end of the day, Hollywood remains a landscape where if you aren’t an A-list star, you’re nobody.
“The heartbreaking thing is we actually love what we do,” said the “Babylon” crew member. “I often compare it to an abusive relationship where we give this thing everything because we love it so much, and we just get beat up.”
“The whole ethos around the industry is that it’s [a] cowboy Western… and it’s dangerous,” explained another industry insider who has worked in film and television since 2011.
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The many tribes of film production
When cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was struck and killed by a bullet from a prop gun discharged on the set of the independent feature “Rust,” criticisms abounded about the set’s lack of safety, something that’s still being discussed today in the wake of indictments against Baldwin, the star and producer who discharged the gun, and armorer Gutierrez-Reed. But to hear from crew members throughout Hollywood, Hutchins’ death is another example of the ongoing fears they have every day they go to work.
Many people who spoke to TheWrap saw the response to the accident as just another way for Hollywood to pay lip service to crew safety without actually doing anything. Stephen Farber, author of the book “Outrageous Conduct” which focused on “The Twilight Zone” case, told TheWrap that “there hasn’t been a model of safety on-set.”
Much of that has to do with the isolation of the individual guilds and unions that oversee how a set is run, from the electricians to the production designers, prop masters and cinematographers. Each focuses strictly on their own individual craftspeople, not sharing information regarding safety or unsafe environments with the other unions.
“This has been going on for years,” said a craftsperson who has worked on several prominent features including “Furious 7.” “You could argue the ‘Rust’ thing was the public version of what happened on the train trestle in Atlanta.”
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That person was referring to the 2014 accident that took the life of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones. Jones was struck by a train while working on a trestle in Georgia during shooting of the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider.”
Some thought the “Midnight Rider” accident would be the moment people might start to care about below-the-line crew being harmed or killed on a set. One source affiliated with IATSE Local 44 said Jones’ death showcased the divide between industry veterans and younger up-and-comers. “You always have the old guard individuals who do everything by the book, [who feel that] this job is not worth dying or getting screwed over. At the same time, you have all the same people who are like, ‘This job is super important. We’re so lucky to have it. You do what you need to to get the job done,'” this person said.
When the “Rust” incident took place, many unions sought to distance themselves from what happened. Local 44 released a statement explaining that no members associated with it were involved on the “Rust” set.
A conflict of interest
On-set safety is usually regulated by the first assistant director, whose level of expertise can either keep people safe or lead to tragedy. The “Furious 7” insider explained they’ve seen several examples of first ADs who prioritize safety, many of whom rise up the ranks of independent cinema into large-scale movies with big budgets. They also dictate how many hours people can work on-set.
The Directors Guild of America “should lead this whole charge because nobody works harder or longer hours than the AD department,” the “Fast and Furious” insider said. But there are limitations to that, especially as seen in the “Rust” case. First Assistant Director Dave Halls, who agreed to testify for the prosecution as part of a plea deal, was known as a “financial core” non-member. Though he took mandatory DGA safety training, as a “fi-core” member, Halls wasn’t part of the DGA and can work on non-union sets. The DGA declined to comment for this story.
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Like most crew members, according to the source from “Fast and Furious,” ADs are just as exhausted and burned out due to the hours and demands of the job as everyone else. “The AD departments are so overdue for their job to be manageable,” said the crew member. “And I know ADs who come off productions and have to take a month off because they’re just destroyed by that experience.”
Some insiders explained, though, that there’s a conflict of interest in the first AD job description, as they’re often reporting directly to producers who want projects finished as quickly as possible and under budget.
“The first AD is the producer’s bulldog on set, they’re protecting their money and their time,” said the Local 44 member. “And so the first AD really can’t do anything that’s counter to the producer’s interests without getting fired themselves.”
A first AD who spoke to TheWrap on the condition of anonymity disagreed with that view. “I don’t ever feel that there’s a conflict of interest,” he said. “I’ve said to directors, ‘I will not do that. I will not make the crew do that. That’s too dangerous.'”
Compared to the past, things have gotten far better when it comes to safety on-set, the AD added. Complaints can be registered through various safety hotlines and safety officers are now included on sets.
Yet some managers responsible for on-set safety often do whatever they can to compel crew members to continue working in unsafe environments. One person who worked on the set of the Jonathan Majors’ Sundance drama “Magazine Dreams” discussed how crew were asked to shoot in what they described as a “seedy hotel in North Hollywood.”
“I’m not a wilting flower when it comes to locations. I’ve been to all different kinds of places. I’ve shot all over the city and nothing really scares me,” the person said. But the hotel wasn’t cleared of guests during the day for the shooting at night and an issue soon arose with local drug dealers threatening crew members, at one point flashing guns.
The person, who asked TheWrap not to name them, said the crew was pulled from the location but was urged by the first AD to return to the location for shooting. It wasn’t until Majors and other crew members refused to go back that a new location was sought out, according to two people familiar with the production. The crew member present during the incident ended up leaving the production entirely soon after. Representatives for “Magazine Dreams” and Searchlight Pictures, which acquired the film after Sundance, had no comment on the matter.
“I felt so unsafe with that production after that, and the fact that they tried so adamantly to get me to go back and do it anyway, and get everyone else to go shoot at this unsafe location, it was just ridiculous,” the crew member said.
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Long hours are a silent killer
But for every moment involving gun violence or actors, there are numerous incidents that involve crew members that go unreported. As one member of IATSE Local 80 said, “This isn’t a gun issue. It’s a safety issue. It’s from a prime directive to make sure that the shoot never falls behind schedule or over budget. That leads to stressed and tired people, and stressed and tired people make mistakes, and mistakes lead to people getting hurt or worse.”
When asked what is the single most dangerous thing that affects crew safety, several people cited the hours worked. “The long work hours and the lower budgets are a potentially toxic, combustible mix,” said the “Furious” insider.
This isn’t the first time long work hours have been brought up as a safety hazard. In 1997, second assistant cameraman Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel after working four 15-hour days in a row on the set of “Pleasantville.” Hershman’s death resulted in the 2006 Haskell Wexler-directed documentary, “Who Needs Sleep.” Some 10,000 industry figures, including actor Julia Roberts and directors Robert Altman and Mike Nichols, signed “Brent’s Rule” to limit work hours.
But in spite of those good intentions, and like many of the tragic events already cited, little work has actually been done to enforce sustainable work hours, several insiders told TheWrap. The first AD who spoke anonymously to TheWrap said it’s a tough situation.
“I have found that you do get to a point, usually at the four-hour mark, [where] you get diminishing returns,” the director said. But projects that shoot less than a 12-hour day can see crew members, specifically third- and fourth-tier crew, seeking out longer shoots to get higher overtime pay.
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The case of “Babylon”
With big productions needing to shoot quickly to keep budgets down, claims of extreme work hours can happen. Take the case of Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a massive production with an estimated budget of $80 million.
“From the very beginning, I knew it was going to be one of those intense productions just from reading the script,” a crew member who worked on the production said. “I obviously had no idea it would be as bad as it was, but my idea was it’s got a decent budget, it’s gonna have seasoned people building a schedule that makes it feel doable. But there were more incidents in this one production than any other job I’ve worked on in the last 10 years.”
The crew member said that in rapid succession split shifts and overnights became commonplace, with some crew working 16 to 17 hours a day. The person recounted working a 19-hour day at one point: “I woke up at the wheel at least three times on my drive home or on my drive to a hotel.” In many instances where crews were working at night or early morning, the person said crew members would call to keep each other awake while driving.
At one point, close to the end of production, the crew member said a production assistant totaled their car due to the long hours. “We’re so lucky that he was fine and he made it out, but we worked a 15-hour day the day after,” the person said. “The director [Chazelle] had the most awkward speech in front of the crew, basically saying, ‘We care and we’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure we’re not working long hours anymore.’ People didn’t believe it.”
An individual close to the film said Chazelle did make a statement reminding them of safety precautions and to take advantage of courtesy hotel rooms that were always available.
This was disputed by a crew member who worked on the set and had evidence that of the 74 shooting days “Babylon” filmed, only 13 were over a 12-hour day and none ever exceeded 16 hours. The car crash happened after production wrapped and “there were other factors that I’m not at liberty to say,” the person said.
An additional person close to production said that, due to the remote locations, travel time was extended for cast and crew, and hotel rooms were routinely offered to avoid unsafe circumstances. The production assistant involved in the crash was offered a courtesy hotel free of charge. After the crash, the PA went to the hospital but was never admitted and offered to return to the set the next day, which production declined. The assistant did return to work around three days later, according to the person familiar with the incident.
Paramount declined to comment and representatives for Damien Chazelle didn’t respond to requests for comment ahead of publication.
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Few easy answers
Many of the people TheWrap spoke to said they and other crew members have thought about leaving the industry entirely because the safety incidents left them feeling like faceless cogs in a machine that cares about money above all else.
As with Majors’ involvement in the “Magazine Dreams” incident, A-list stars could intervene in how crews are treated, especially since their names so often become associated when trouble happens.
“We’re just numbers and we’re easily replaceable,” the “Babylon” crew member said. “Something happens to Brad Pitt you can’t replace him, but nobody knows who I am. Nobody gives a s–t if something happens to me.”
The need to address tribalism between unions is one potential fix: If the individual guilds united to craft a universal set of rules that factor in different budgets and the challenges of on-location filmmaking, there would at least be hard and fast guidelines, and repercussions, for sets on a universal level.
Such rules would also limit the discretion of management to push for longer hours or unsafe conditions. That might require changes to some filmmaking practices or higher budgets, with repercussions on the craft of filmmaking that are difficult to predict. But the other option is to keep the status quo, which leaves crew members feeling put in danger for someone else’s profit margin.
Nearly every crew member who spoke to TheWrap agreed that they don’t see any change happening, either in the wake of the “Rust” case or outside of it. The next accident will only highlight the problems they’ve been discussing for years.
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