‘Rust’ Investigation Intensifies as Industry Grapples With Halyna Hutchins’ Death

Rust Set Movie Tragedy
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The possibility of criminal charges resulting from the tragic death on the set of “Rust” is coming into focus as the industry grapples with the fallout from the Oct. 21 gun accident that left 42-year-old cinematographer Halyna Hutchins dead.

The investigations by authorities in Santa Fe, N.M., are looking deeper into what went wrong on the Bonanza Creek Ranch set outside the city where the Alec Baldwin indie Western was in the midst of a 21-day shoot.

Santa Fe County authorities, including Sheriff Adan Mendoza and District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, are expected to fill in some details about the incident in a news conference on the case set for today at 9 a.m. PT. But Carmack-Altwies has also warned the probe will still take weeks.

Authorities have issued two search warrants to retrieve items from the ranch, including spent casings from the blanks used in guns on the set and swabs of blood. The accident happened in the afternoon during a rehearsal that also left “Rust” director Joel Souza with a shoulder wound. According to court documents, Baldwin was handling the gun at the time it went off. Moments before, he had been told it was a “cold gun,” meaning it was not loaded, by first assistant director Dave Halls.

In the days since, damning reports about Halls’ safety track record on past film and TV productions have surfaced. The first AD was fired in 2019 from the movie “Freedom’s Path” after a gun accidentally went off, injuring a crew member, the producers confirmed to Variety. A prop maker who worked with Halls two years ago on the Hulu series “Into the Dark” also went public with her concerns and the fact that she filed a complaint about him to Blumhouse Television.

Halls has not returned multiple requests from Variety for comment. A representative for Rust Movie Prods. LLC, the holding company registered in New Mexico for the production, which began Oct. 6, declined comment beyond its initial statement to Variety. But representatives for the producers emphasize that they have been cooperating with all investigations.

“None of the producers of ‘Rust’ have been contacted by the New Mexico District Attorney’s office,” producers said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We will continue to fully cooperate with any and all law-enforcement investigations as they work through the details of this heartbreaking tragedy.”

Hutchins’ death has incensed the close-knit community of line producers, crew and technical artisans over the alleged lapses of safety protocols on the $7 million movie. It has raised big questions about the responsibilities that producers bear and sounded the alarm about the dangers of having inexperienced producers trying to pull off elaborate productions.

The “Rust” accident is under investigation by police in New Mexico as well as the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau. Insurers for the film will also launch probes. As authorities dig in, a shocking picture is coming into focus of an allegedly chaotic set with inexperienced crew members in key roles such as the handling of firearms.

In addition to questions about Halls’ role, a podcast interview with Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the 24-year-old armorer in charge of firearms for “Rust,” has also surfaced in which she admitted to feeling unprepared before taking on the same job in a previous film. In a now ominous admission, Reed said in last month’s “Voices of the West” podcast that “loading blanks” into a prop gun is the “scariest thing to me.” The outrage over the apparent lack of preparation for the dangerous work of handling guns on set has spurred a call for Hollywood to adopt a blanket ban on the use of real firearms on sets. Visual effects and green-screen technology make it easier and cheaper than ever to use technical wizardry to avoid dangerous situations on sets with blanks and firearm mishaps.

The death of Hutchins, a rising-star DP who was the mother of a 9-year-old son, has also stirred major questions about the actions and responsibilities of the seven production entities that were involved in “Rust,” led by Baldwin’s El Dorado Pictures.

According to a New Mexico state database, Rust Movie Prods. LLC was created on Aug. 27, 2021. The company’s mailing address and “principal place of business” was listed as the same address as Thomasville Pictures, which is one of the companies attached to “Rust.” Thomasville Pictures is a production services company based in Thomasville, Ga., which is led by Allen Cheney and Ryan Donnell Smith. Both are credited as producers on “Rust.” Cheney, Smith and others connected to “Rust,” including Baldwin, did not respond to requests for comment.

The question of liability in a situation like a movie that draws multiple investors can be tricky, but legal experts say that they expect the producers will be entangled in myriad legal cases as well as insurance and wrongful death claims. It’s also possible that Halls or Gutierrez Reed could face criminal charges, though negligent manslaughter cases are hard to prosecute.

“They’re difficult to prove,” says criminal defense attorney Richard D. Kaplan. “You have to prove someone did something so outside the norm and egregious that you’re taking an accident and making it criminal. You have to show recklessness.”

The anger unleashed by Hutchins’ death has prompted an outpouring of anecdotes about dangerous conditions on set that have been exacerbated by time constraints and budget pressures.

The exponential spike in the making of TV content has put an enormous strain on below-the-line crews. As a low-budget indie film production, “Rust” appears to reflect the difficulty of attracting seasoned pros at a time when there is so much demand for skilled workers.

Production professionals also expressed frustration with producers who lean on crews to “get the day done at any cost as if it’s a macho thing,” says one veteran grip. That mindset is one of the first things that needs to change, industry leaders say.

“The concept that schedule is more important than safety, or the budget is more important than people, is one that simply cannot be allowed to persist,” says Michael Miller, IATSE 4th international VP. “If you’re on a set and your crews are telling you that it’s not safe, listen to them. Halyna’s death reminds us that our fight to protect the safety of ourselves and our co-workers is never over. It must continue each day in every workplace, and on every set.”

Joyce Gilliard couldn’t believe her ears when she first heard about Hutchins’ death. An IATSE member hairstylist and filmmaker, Gilliard was one of seven production workers injured in 2014 while working on the indie film “Midnight Rider” in the train accident that killed Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera operator. That tragedy reverberated around the industry and led to tighter rules concerning dangerous location work. On some sets, the mandatory daily safety meeting that is required to be held before the start of every production day has become known as “the Jonesy.”

Gilliard’s life changed in an instant when she was hit by the train, leaving her left arm broken in two. She still has plates and screws in her arm from the reconstructive surgery. She has resumed working in TV and film as a hairstylist, and she has been on a one-woman crusade to advocate for better safety training and professional licensing in connection with film production. She launched the ISafe! TV & Film production nonprofit venture that promotes the mantra “Work. Be Safe. Go Home.” “I didn’t know the rules for walking around railroad trestles on the day that I was hit,” Gilliard tells Variety. “There wasn’t a safety meeting called that day. There are rules and regulations, but people don’t follow them.”

In the case of “Midnight Rider,” director Randall Miller wound up serving a little more than a year in jail for involuntary manslaughter.

Gilliard emphasizes that she doesn’t know the specifics of what happened on “Rust.” But she and many others in production point to the general problem of inexperienced producers and crews trying to push the envelope on elaborate productions.

Gilliard says the “tone is set” across any production by the top leaders. Producers, in her view, need to take more responsibility for mandating that attention — not just lip service — be paid to safety at all levels. For one thing, Gilliard adds, OSHA-style state and federal fines need to be jacked up considerably beyond five figures if they are to deter people working with multimillion-dollar budgets.

Gilliard also cited the stronger enforcement role for IATSE as the union for production workers.

“Now they’re doing more because they’re hearing us,” she says. “We’ve been complaining for years and years and years. I think they need to step up and do more now, but it’s changing because they’re hearing us.”

Michael Schneider contributed to this report.