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Halyna Hutchins mourned amid anger at Hollywood ‘cutting corners’ on sets

·5 min read

A public vigil for the slain cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in Los Angeles on Sunday evening served both as an unofficial memorial event and an outlet for anger over working conditions in Hollywood that many lower-paid crew believe were linked to the 42-year old mother’s death.

Several hundred colleagues gathered outside the local union office for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) which represents workers on film and TV sets, who had been poised to go on strike to protest about pay, long hours and dangers on sets just days before Hutchins was fatally shot by Alec Baldwin on the New Mexico set of the desert western film Rust last week.

The mood at the vigil was somber yet charged with subdued rage, referenced by IATSE’s international vice-president, Michael Miller, as he addressed the crowd.

“We’re here to mourn. But I’m afraid we are also gathered with some frustration and a little bit of anger. Anger that too often the rush to complete productions and the cutting of corners puts safety on the back burner and puts crew members at risk,” he said.

Miller spoke next to a projected image of Hutchins and flanked by standing wreaths of white flowers. A black cloth-covered table, piled high with bouquets and framed photos of Hutchins, became a makeshift altar, illuminated by an array of candles on the ground.

Rust’s director, Joel Souza, was injured in the shooting last Thursday and the incident is being investigated by the Santa Fe sheriff’s department in New Mexico.

Baldwin was rehearsing a scene that involved him pointing a gun “towards the camera lens” when it accidentally went off, Souza noted in a statement to the sheriff’s office.

Most of those who attended the vigil belong to one of the Hollywood trade unions. Nearly every attendee was masked against the spread of Covid-19, although the event was outdoors, in a crowd that is used to strict set protocols as they work through the ongoing pandemic.

Most held a lit candle and many had pinned a white ribbon to their jackets. Some wore their union jackets. One person held up a sign that said “Vote No”.

This referred to an upcoming vote to ratify a tentative agreement reached by the union and Hollywood producers earlier this month when members were on the verge of a strike that would have halted TV and movie-making, with workers protesting against low pay, grueling days without breaks and safety hazards.

A mentor to Hutchins from the American Film Institute (AFI), Stephen Lighthill, who is also president of the American Society of Cinematographers, implored those gathered “to start a conversation about functional guns on sets. There is no place for weapons that can kill on a motion picture.”

Related: ‘Totally preventable and shocking’: props masters talk on-set shootings

Most firearms that appear in Hollywood movies or TV shows are real, but have been modified to shoot blanks.

The Rust crew had protested about long hours and low pay on the set, and half a dozen had walked off the set just hours before Hutchins was killed, according to reports on Friday that were corroborated by affidavits released by the Santa Fe sheriff’s department on Sunday night.

Serge Svetnoy, who worked as the gaffer, or head electrician on the set, wrote in a public Facebook post on Sunday, that he had been standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Hutchins when she was shot.

“I was holding her in my arms while she was dying. Her blood was on my hands,” he wrote.

“I want to tell my opinion on why this has happened. It’s the fault of negligence and unprofessionalism,” Svetnoy said.

In tying the tragedy on set last week to an industry tendency towards production cost-cutting, Svetnoy’s post added: “It is true that the professionals can cost a little more and sometimes can be a little bit more demanding, but it is worth it. No saved penny is worth the LIFE of the person!”

Ezra Riley, a friend of Hutchins who called her “just amazing” and “a loving person” said on Sunday he was offered a job on Rust but turned it down because of what he deemed “super low pay”.

A request made to Rust Movie Productions to respond on numerous points did not receive an immediate reply.

Tom Kang, a friend of Hutchins from AFI, said he last spoke with her about one month ago, when she called to ask a technical question about the camera she would use on Rust. He said that there had been some industry criticism directed at Hutchins since her death for not walking off set and this upset him as she would have regarded the crew members as family.

“You spend months. You spent so much time prepping. It’s unpaid. You spend so much of your heart and soul into the images that you’re crafting. You work with the director. And sacrificing time with her son to do this,” he said. “She’s not the type to quit.”

Another friend of Hutchins and fellow cinematographer Antonio Cisneros said she was probably “trying to be the negotiator”. But her death underscored what he saw as worsening conditions in the industry as a result of digital streaming services forcing productions to be made more cheaply and on tighter schedules. He said he would vote against the settlement with producers, and favors a strike.

Kang also decried the conditions often tolerated.

“You default to the same thing that everyone has been always doing in the subculture of this business: long hours are acceptable. They just assume that people are going to do it, because they have been. And so you have all this stuff contributing – from the top, the systemic issues, down to the very detailed things that directly happened, they all contributed,” he said.

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