The Cost of Rust

The accident that claimed a cinematographer’s life on set sounds sadly familiar

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The Cost of <i>Rust</i>

We assess cost every day: I want it, but for how much money? I’d like to, but how much time will it take? We have always known there are moral costs to our actions, too, and like everything else, the pandemic made that unavoidably clear on a daily, even hourly basis. You could always order things for next-day delivery on Amazon and set off a chain reaction of unpaid overtime from here to Taiwan, or have your groceries dropped onto your porch by some gig worker doing a HALO jump out of a C-130 for the equivalent of four bucks an hour, but the past year has forced us to see how those things grind down the people who do them for you. It’s reminded us that we want our 100-hour videogames, but don’t want some developer to work 80-hour weeks for months at a time to make it. We want to have a squirt of mocha in our coffee, but not at the cost of some child worker’s health or freedom.

And if we’re going to watch an action movie about a grunge rock revenant on a revenge kick, or, say, a Western starring and produced by Alec Baldwin, we would really prefer nobody get fucking shot to death while it’s being made.

It’s easy to see why the death on the set of the film Rust has grabbed so many headlines and caused so much furor. As more facts emerge surrounding the on-set accident that claimed the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza, each new revelation inspires a kind of sad recognition. Allegations swirl around a head armorer accused of being distracted by multiple duties and behaving cavalierly around firearms. Stories emerge of a set where many crew members resigned over issues of safety and compensation exactly like those brought up by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a union which represents many of the people who shed their sweat and tears and too often their blood to make movies—and who narrowly averted a strike this past month. (Baldwin, for his part, spoke up in support of the union before the accident.)

Other reporting tells of two previous accidental firearm discharges before the one that killed Hutchins and “the most disorganized set” one unnamed crew member had ever seen. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, people have been quick to blame the presence of any weapon on set at all, or to interrogate Baldwin’s role in the shooting. Those things, especially firearm safety, are relevant and important, and should be investigated. Deeper than all of those issues is what this death has in common with the untold thousands that have hollowed the world out these past two years: We saw it coming and could’ve stopped it. But we didn’t.

Hutchins joins a long list of people killed or permanently injured in the pursuit of making movies, some of them more recent than a lot of people realize. In many of these cases, allegations and even court rulings point to professional negligence as one of the underlying causes. In 2012, stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski (famous for directing John Wick and, morbidly, for standing in for Brandon Lee after he was killed filming The Crow in a manner very similar to how Hutchins died) became the defendant in a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a stuntman killed during the filming of The Expendables 2. A crew member was killed in one incident during the production of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter only a few months after a motorcycle stuntwoman lost an arm in a separate incident on the film—the latter of which ended in the stuntwoman’s successful lawsuit revealing that the production had altered crucial details about the scene in question without telling her. Another motorcycle accident killed a first-time stuntwoman on the set of Deadpool 2 in part because the production decided it didn’t have time to make her a helmet for the scene.

These movies, it seems worth it to mention, make billions of dollars every year. It leads one to wonder why, for instance, a stuntwoman in the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV show needed former coworker Lucy Lawless to help her crowdfund a $70,000 brain surgery when you consider Amazon is spending nearly half a billion dollars to make the show. The stuntwoman’s name is Dayna Grant, and she has been in basically everything. Fury Road is the best goddamn movie of its kind I’ve seen in probably 20 years, in no small part due to Grant’s efforts as Charlize Theron’s stunt double, for just one example of her work. Yet, a multi-billion-dollar industry cannot foot the bill for a $70,000 surgery to heal an injury she sustained making their blockbuster movies.

The IATSE’s members train for years and put in long hours in locations all over the planet to craft the glossy blockbusters that make Hollywood billions. It’s impossible to look at all of the troubles swirling around the Rust set without also seeing the IATSE’s concerns made manifest, and impossible to see their concerns without seeing how the same disregard for workers at all levels has led to “The Great Resignation” sweeping across the country. Americans are quitting their jobs by the millions, throughout all industries but particularly in the wrongly-thought-to-be-lowly positions that make the world go round.

Illinois, where I live, is said to be among the least affected by the “labor shortage,” and yet there is hardly a fast food joint I’ve been to in the last six months where I haven’t seen a “Help Wanted” sign, no school district that does not complain of a bus driver shortage, no week that goes by when I don’t hear a local hospital or civic organization announce they are hiking wages or putting out a call for more of the dirt cheap entry level workers they cannot operate without.

Most of these companies, it seems worth it to mention, also make billions of dollars every year. As they do so, and as their workers are the most likely to take ill with a virus that has killed more Americans than any American war, they still don’t guarantee things like paid leave or health insurance, things any worker in the rest of the industrialized world takes for granted—the sorts of things that unions across the country are now standing up for as we speak.

Hutchins’ death is still being investigated, and in the coming days there will be more things we discover about what led to it and who is responsible. We don’t yet know with total certainty the number of factors that contributed to it and the weight of each one. But a crew member is on the record, pointedly saying that “It always felt like the budget was more important than crew members.”

It is established fact that a lot of people raised the alarm about safety on set, and it inspires in me a familiar anger, as one of the people the creators ostensibly wanted to one day watch their movie. I don’t want the people who package my junk food to work suicide shifts. I don’t want the drive-thru to press 14-year-olds to work endless closing shifts. I don’t want the people who make my movies to lose limbs. Or get traumatic brain injuries. Or die.

These employees work in every industry, but all of their complaints sound awfully similar, and all of their bosses sound like the same guy. Why, he fumes, doesn’t anybody want to work?


Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.