Michael Nell knew he needed somebody great to help him capture the darker side of Los Angeles — a world of low-rent motels, bar rooms and back alleys — for “Blindfire.” The movie, which was set to mark Nell’s feature debut, was a tense police thriller that examined issues of social justice and race, and it would take a master of the camera to help him pull it off. That’s how the neophyte director first connected with Halyna Hutchins, a rising cinematographer who was making a name for herself shooting short films and low-budget indies like “Darlin'” and “Snowbound.”
On Thursday, while Hutchins was in New Mexico shooting “Rust,” a Western starring Alec Baldwin, she was shot by a prop gun that contained a live round of ammunition and died at the age of 42. Authorities have confirmed that Baldwin discharged the shot that killed Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza, but an investigation is ongoing and key details about the lead-up to the fatal accident have yet to be made public.
“When she came to the interview it was clear I was being interviewed to see if I was worth her time, not the other way around,” says Nell.
Nell was impressed and tapped Hutchins to help him develop the look and feel of “Blindfire.” During the long days and nights making the film, Nell’s respect for his cinematographer, for her artistry and her professionalism, only grew.
“She brought a crew to the project that loved and respected her as a leader,” he says. “She always treated them with the utmost care, while delivering an image that she believed in.”
Hutchins’ own social media channels, in which she described herself as a “restless dreamer” and an “adrenaline junkie,” show snapshots of life behind-the-camera, one that sometimes involved exotic locations and travel, as well as the mechanics of moviemaking such as dollies and massive cameras. They also demonstrate her deep appreciation for moody, evocative imagery and a painterly command of light — sunsets, rocky shorelines, even lattes explode in bursts of vibrant color.
Hutchins, 42, was born in Ukraine and started her career working on British documentary productions in Eastern Europe. After moving to Los Angeles, she began working in production jobs and graduated from UCLA’s Professional Producing program in 2010. She went on to graduate from AFI Conservatory, and in 2019, was selected as a rising star by American Cinematographer magazine. Her credits include “Archenemy,” “Snowbound,” “Darlin,'” “Blindfire” and “The Mad Hatter.”
Filmmaker Rachel Mason, a close friend of Hutchins, said the pair would bond and let off steam by going on hikes. They would sometimes talk about the difficulty of getting ahead in an industry that remains male-dominated. Hutchins, who had over 32 credits which include short and feature films, “impressed all the guys,” says Mason. “She could do anything… She commanded the world.”
Sometimes the peripatetic nature of filmmaking meant that Mason and Hutchins couldn’t meet up in person, but they remained in frequent communication by text.
“She was the most enthusiastic DP I could ever imagine because all she ever wanted to do was talk about working on the set,” Mason says.
Despite that devotion to work and the demands of the job, Hutchins remained deeply enmeshed in the business of raising her son.
“Nobody realizes that being a dedicated mother was a huge part of who she was, she just kept that separate because, in this industry, it’s hard to get jobs,” says Mason. “In general as a female, you don’t often talk about having kids because it’s just one more thing that brings attention to you if you’re trying to get work.”
Hutchins had a particular talent for putting people at ease, something that came in handy in the high-stress world of moviemaking. Stas Bondarenko, a fellow cinematographer, remembers meeting Hutchins when they were both students at AFI Conservatory, a prestigious Los Angeles-based film school that counts Darren Aronofsky and Patty Jenkins among its list of alums. Hutchins was in her second year, while Bondarenko was in his first. Both had grown up in the former Soviet Union (Hutchins was born in Ukraine), and she recognized her classmate’s Slavic name.
“She continued calling me by a Russian diminutive of my first name that no one other than my mother has used in years, which I always found very sweet and endearing, particularly on all-English speaking film sets,” Bondarenko remembers. “Film school can be a pretty intimidating place to be thrown into, and being welcomed into the community, particularly in my native language, meant a lot. She was always an inspiration, even in film school, taking on incredibly ambitious projects with very limited student resources, and somehow always knocking it out of the park.”
Later, Hutchins tapped Bondarenko to be a camera operator on one of her projects, where he was able to observe her in her element. “We lost a truly unique artist, and it pains me to think of the images she never had a chance to create,” he says.
Hutchins’ death, coming as her career was kicking into another level of prominence, has stunned the film industry and left her family, friends and colleagues reeling. It’s also spurring a wider debate about the need for more stringent on-set safety measures. But those discussions, important as they are, should not come at the expense of honoring Hutchins’s life and legacy, her friends and colleagues say. On social media, crew members and filmmakers who had worked alongside Hutchins remembered her as a consummate pro, loving wife to her husband Matthew Hutchins, and an attentive mother to her 9-year-old son.
Sidra Smith, a casting director and producer who had worked with Hutchins on the mini-series “A Luv Tale,” remembered her on Instagram as “so young and so talented.” She added, “Halyna and I spent so much time together. She was so beautifully gracious and words cannot express how supportive she was to me.”
And Joe Manganiello, who worked with Hutchins on “Archenemy,” tweeted that she was “an incredible talent & great person. I can’t believe this could happen in this day and age… gunfire from a prop gun could kill a crew member? What a horrible tragedy. My heart goes out to her family.”
Nell says that Hutchins kept in touch with her AFI friends long after graduation, referring to them as her “family” at times. He’s one of many admirers who was left thinking not only of the personal tragedy of her death at such a young age, but also the great work and future triumphs that will now be lost.
“Her imagery has her DNA all over it, and I hope everyone goes and sees her art and understands the talent we senselessly lost,” he says. “We lost a real one, an actual artist who stood out in a world of quickly thrown together content driven by business. There’s no need for live ammo or even blanks onset in this day and age. We create distant planets and space creatures in post production. There is no reason to risk lives with gun powder on set.”
“There is no excuse I can accept for this loss,” Nell added.