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Movie death no “accident”

John Bell

October 24, 2021

The death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding of director Joel Souza was tragic, but it was not an accident.

It was an act of negligence, a crime that took a life, even if it was not intended. It was a crime in the same way taking a life while driving drunk is a crime. To call it an accident is to compound the injustice.

The incident occurred on the set of an independent movie, filming in New Mexico. The film was being produced by actor Alec Baldwin. It was being shot with a partial non-union crew. Baldwin pulled the trigger on a “prop” gun that apparently had a real bullet in the chamber.

Stories are emerging of numerous prop “misfires” and serious tension between unionized crewmembers and producers. 

Such a death should be unthinkable today on a film shoot using union crew, and following established regulations.

In an email sent its members, Hollywood local 44 of IATSE said none of its members were on the call sheet. The western film’s props, set decoration, special effects and construction departments were all staffed by a local, non-union crew.

Independent films often use non-union labour in specialized jobs, to save money. Some big-name filmmakers who started out as low-budget independents (like Robert Rodriquez) continue to use non-union labour because they are ideologically opposed to unions. It is one thing for beginner filmmakers to skirt union rules to get a foothold in the business. It is another for established actors and producers, like Baldwin, to run risks just to plump the bottom line.

Years of government deregulation, and use of tax breaks to lure film production to locations with weak unionization rules mean that many productions use non-union crews or mixed crews with some non-union workers.

The incident is sending a jolt through the industry, just as over 60,000 IATSE members are beginning to vote whether to accept a reportedly inadequate tentative deal, or to go on strike.

Calls to jail Baldwin miss the point. This should be a clarion call for better regulation of the industry and stronger union labour rules. This is a crime, but also a labour issue. Unions save lives. 


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