Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Death in the Desert


                                                Scene of the crime

Ours is a hazardous business, an endeavor in which -- as the saying goes -- "shit happens."  Stunt people put themselves on the line every day working on films and television, and more than a few have paid the ultimate price over the years.  Early in my career, I witnessed the death of a stuntman in a high fall that went all wrong - and the memory of that day is burned into my brain.  A veteran grip I worked with on commercials was killed at the end of a long day by a heavily laden equipment cart when a newbie PA working the tailgate of the truck hit the wrong button on the control switch. A female juicer friend of mine fell thirty feet from a scissor lift seven or eight years ago, and although she survived after a long recovery, that ended her working career. Another juicer in my union fell to his death a few years back at Universal, and just a few weeks ago, a grip took a terrible fall in Hollywood when a handrail broke up high on a soundstage. He lived, but is in very bad shape. During one of the mandatory Safety Passport classes a dozen years ago, the instructor related details of several horrific accidents on set that killed a number of people -- stories I'd never heard before, because Hollywood is very good at throwing a blanket over such incidents.  

What couldn't be hidden by the studio PR hacks were the notable on-set fatalities of Jon-Eric Hexum (an accidental but self-inflicted demise), the beheading by helicopter blade of Vic Morrow (along with two young children) while filming the Twilight Zone movie, and Brandon Lee's accidental shooting on the set of The Crow.  

Still, the most common danger we face comes in the form of absurdly long work hours that have led directly to the death of at least two crew members I'm aware of, and caused many more to crash their cars after falling asleep while driving home. It's a miracle the body count isn't higher. Much of the impetus for the the recent IATSE strike authorization tally (which came in at an overwhelming 98+ percent vote) was from below-the-line workers fed up with the dehumanizing schedule of so many episodic and streaming network productions. Even if a crew gets through the grinding ordeal of one of those shows without drifting off at the wheel, medical science has made it clear: working excessively long hours for extended periods is detrimental to long term mental and physical health.  Although the last-minute deal worked out between IA representatives and the hired killers -- er, lawyers -- of the AMPTP ended the immediate threat of a strike, it remains unclear if that agreement does anything to effectively address the issue of working long hours. 

Last week's accident on the set of Alec Baldwin's low-budget indy film Rust was of a different order, a truly senseless tragedy that should never have happened. The how and why of the fatal shooting will be revealed at some point, but the bottom line is this: there's simply no excuse for it. Somebody fucked up in a major way, an error that killed the director of photography and sent the director to the hospital from a gunshot fired by the lead actor. 

As this piece from the LA Times points out, the warning signs on Rust are clearly visible in the 20:20 glare of hindsightThe film was to be shot in just twenty-one days, a ridiculously short schedule for any feature film. The last three low-budget, non-union features I worked on back in the late 1980s each had an eight week shooting schedule, and none of those films included scenes that involved guns being fired, which -- due to the elaborate safety protocols -- take more time to shoot. When you try to cram time-intensive scenes into an absurdly abbreviated schedule, something has to give ... and it did. It's been reported that the crew of Rust was working on a set fifty miles from their hotel, adding two more hours of travel time to their already long work days. When people are pushed too hard, the relentless accumulation of fatigue combined with a ridiculously ambitious shooting schedule can lead to fuzzy thinking -- and when people are too tired to see straight, bad decisions result. Apparently there had already been three accidental discharges of guns on that set in the first twelve days of filming before the fatal shot was fired.  

What the fuck?

As this article from Variety delineates, the glut of production generated by the digital/streaming revolution brought a flood of inexperienced people into the business over the past ten years. Inexperience on set and above-the-line -- newbie producers and UPMs drawing up overly ambitious shooting schedules -- can create a hurried, pressure-cooker atmosphere in which bad decisions and accidents are all the more likely.  

I wasn't there, and like everyone else, must rely on sketchy second-hand reports while trying to make sense of such an utterly senseless tragedy.  We'll learn the truth in time, but for now one thing is crystal clear, as expressed in the final line of that Variety piece:

"It's inconceivable that somebody gets killed on a movie set with a prop gun if everybody follows the rules."



Unknown said...

It seems like both a freak accident / perfect storm (strike / replacement workers, sketchy working conditions on this particular set), and emblematic of the overall trend of pushing a crew beyond its breaking point. Maybe they're one and the same.


TaT said...

But one critical question has yet to be asked openly, and answered: “What possessed Alec Baldwin to point that gun at the victims?” We are taught from childhood to NEVER point even a toy gun at another person.

dougR said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael. I look forward to what else you have to say on the subject, having been a longtime reader. The big riddle for ME is, how on earth did lethal rounds get put into that firearm? And by whom? And for what purpose? Most of the material on gun safety on set says that lethal ammo is NEVER supposed to be anywhere on set, ever. Sadly, I suspect we're all going to get an NTSB-level investigation that'll reveal actual practice versus what all the gun-safety courses say.

Michael Taylor said...

Unknown --


TaT --

I have yet to read or hear a definitive report of exactly what happened that day, but there's nothing unusual about an actor pointing a gun in the direction of the camera during rehearsals or a filmed take. How many times have you seen a show where an actor fires a gun towards the screen -- at you, the viewer? For a shot like that, there's usually a camera operator and 1st assistant in the line of fire. I don't know if Halyna Hutchins was operating the camera at the time, but even if she wasn't, it's not unusual for a DP and director to watch a rehearsal through or immediately behind the camera. Rust was a low budget production, and maybe they didn't have a high-def monitor at video village -- or perhaps they didn't have a video village at all. Again, I don't know, nor do any of us who weren't on set that day. Out in the real world, you're right about never pointing guns at other people, but Hollywood is most definitely not the real world. If, as has been reported, it was a real bullet in that gun, there's the problem. There's no reason to have real bullets on any set, period.

Michael Taylor said...

dougR --

I agree. There's no reason or excuse for having real bullets on set. At this point there seems to be a lot of ass-covering going on, with conflicting reports supposedly coming from people who were on set at the time -- some say the young armorer was too inexperienced to be in such a crucial position, other say the 1st AD has a history of making bad decisions on set, and of course the usual litany of right-wing yahoos are gleefully pointing the finger of blame at Alec Baldwin to score political points. I don't think any of us who weren't there knows what actually happened, but in time, we will. Whether I'll have anything more to say about all this is unclear -- I mean, it's a shocking tragedy that should never have happened, and what more can -- or needs -- to be said?

Thanks for reading, and for tuning in. The blog gets a lot of hits, but my assumption is that the vast majority come from bots rather than people, so it's good to hear from actual readers.

dougR said...

Michael, I'll look forward to anything you might care to add. Trouble is, it's easy to amplify gossip and speculation. It's also easy to form an opinion, based on one's priors, before all the facts are in (as you mention), and I'm seeing a ton of that kind of stuff everywhere I look. I have a couple of gun-set safety printed pieces, so I know what's SUPPOSED to happen with firearms on-set ("book-educated" rather than practically educated), but real life is another matter, which is where my knowledge stops.

Obviously, WHO loaded lethal rounds into the gun, and what their intention was in so doing, is key. My inclination is to vigorously avoid pointing fingers at any one individual until all the facts are in, however. Informed perspective is always welcome, so I'll be checking back.

Take care & be well!

Peter McLennan said...

During an interview with a prospective disability insurance agent many years ago, I asked him what level of risk my profession of cinematographer presented.

"Low risk", he said. "About the same as doctors and lawyers".

I said nothing.

Michael Taylor said...

Peter --

I don't recall seeing too many doctors or lawyers riding out on the arm of a camera car driving 60 mph or hanging out an open helicopter door manning a camera on a Tyler Mount. Still, being shot to death by a prop gun ranked pretty low on my list of probable risks to cinematographers ... until now, anyway.

Thanks for tuning in.