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At Halyna Hutchins’ Candlelight Vigil, Officials Vow to Fight Putting Production Budgets Over People

At a vigil for the "Rust" cinematographer, it was impossible to separate the tragedy from the ongoing labor battle centered around crew safety.

American Society of Cinematographers President Stephen Lighthill speaks at a vigil for Halyna Hutchins Sunday evening, as photographers document the gathering from a parking garage above.

American Society of Cinematographers President Stephen Lighthill speaks at a vigil for Halyna Hutchins Sunday evening, as photographers document the gathering from a parking garage above.

Chris Lindahl

At a candlelight vigil held outside the Burbank offices of IATSE Local 80 on Sunday evening, Halyna Hutchins was remembered by her friends and colleagues as a loving and passionate mother, wife, friend, and filmmaker whose life was cut short when she was shot and killed on the New Mexico set of “Rust” last week when the film’s star and producer Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun.

The hundreds gathered focused on mourning Hutchins, but many also connected the tragedy to broader conversations around crew safety and the familiar financial pressures that lead productions to make sometimes dangerous cost-saving decisions.

Among those who spoke was ASC President Stephen Lighthill, who taught the 42-year-old Hutchins at the American Film Institute.

“I thank her for being a really brilliant student who came to AFI already a mother. When we interview at AFI, we’re looking to bring in a person, not just a technician, not just an artist, but a person who will really contribute and will bring unique experience,” he said. “Halyna’s upbringing was the most unique. She once described it as being raised with reindeer out one window and nuclear submarines out the other, because she was raised in the Soviet Union.”

During that initial meeting, Lighthill said he was impressed by her determination. “Then what impressed us in her first year at AFI was her ability to take the criticism and the notes that we gave her, take them seriously without being defensive, and to really grow from those notes. In her second year she did one of our most remarkable graduation projects, her thesis project called ‘Hidden,’ which transformed a script that could have been pedestrian, but she transformed it into something dramatic,” he said.

Lighthill then asked for three things.

“If there’s anything that I can do better to prepare you for this world, if you’re an alum, if you’re a current student, if you’re a faculty member, please come to me and tell me because what has happened on ‘Rust’ should never happen,” he said. “There’s two other things I need to ask you to do: One is starting a conversation with all of our collaborators, whether above or below the line, about our addiction to long hours. We need to start working normal days so we can have normal family lives.

“The last thing I’d like you to do is start a conversation around functional guns on set. There is no place for weapons that can kill on a motion picture set. Rubber guns are totally acceptable now and can be made to look as real as they need to be.”

According to court documents released Friday, police reportedly wrote that an assistant director announced during a rehearsal that Baldwin’s gun was “cold” — i.e., did not contain a live round — moments before Baldwin fired the shot that fatally struck Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza. The gun has been described as a prop, a distinction that includes both imitation and real-life firearms that actors use. The actions of the assistant director, armorer, and Baldwin are all described in the court document.

Various reports citing unnamed sources have told of earlier incidents on the “Rust” set involving the misfiring of weapons, payment to crew that was delayed for weeks, and that most of the camera crew walked off the set in protest. Many of those in attendance Sunday night did not know Hutchins, but her death hit close to home.

“She was a female cinematographer and there’s already so few of us working in the industry,” Carolyn Deskin, a director, told IndieWire after the vigil. “It’s all wasted because of there not being anyone there to watch the props, not doing their jobs.”

Deskin was at the vigil with Mackenzie Horras, a writer, who similarly felt shaken by the tragedy of a woman not much older than herself being killed on the job. “A similar scenario could have happened to any us or our colleagues,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking to see a really talented female role model that didn’t reach her full potential.”

Many in the film community are rallying behind Hutchins’ death as one that was preventable. Crews have spent recent months embroiled in a labor contract battle that included issues of workplace safety.

Michael Miller, IATSE’s international vice president for film and TV production, began with a message of mourning Sunday night, before transitioning into a recognition that “it could have been any one of us.”

“I’m afraid we’re 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 invoked the 2014 death of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who died after being struck by a train while on location for the production of “Midnight Rider.”

“The circumstances are not identical, but they’re way too familiar: The idea that there isn’t time for safety is just wrong. The concept that schedule is more important than safety and that budget is more important than people is one that simply cannot be allowed to persist. If you’re on a set and your crews are telling you that it’s not safe, listen to them,” Miller said.

A lone sign stands prominently above the crowd gathered at the Halyna Hutchins vigil, urging the removal of IATSE President Matthew Loeb. The sign was later found affixed to a nearby utility box, away from the vigil, which labor leaders wanted focused on mourning and remembering Hutchins.

A lone sign stands prominently above the crowd gathered at the Halyna Hutchins vigil, urging the removal of IATSE President Matthew Loeb. The sign was later found affixed to a nearby utility box, away from the vigil, which labor leaders wanted focused on mourning and remembering Hutchins.

Chris Lindahl

Riding the wave of a grassroots movement by crew tired of extreme hours and low pay, IATASE earlier this month obtained overwhelming strike-authorization approval. A deal with studios averted a strike at the eleventh hour and IATSE claimed “victory” when it landed on a tentative agreement with the AMPTP.

While the agreement includes a boost for the lowest-paid workers and strengthened mandates for time off and meals, many members believe the pact marks a failing to secure structural change. As specifics continue to be ironed out, some members sounded off in town hall meetings held hours before the vigil.

The meetings are being held in advance of the upcoming election to ratify the contract, one that many members say they will vote against.

“They just don’t understand that we’re here negotiating for our lives,” one member of the Editors Guild Local 700 told IndieWire after the vigil. She said it’s impossible to separate the Hollywood labor movement from Hutchins’ death. Though she was already firm in her decision to vote “no” on ratification, she said in recent days she’s seen a shift in thinking by some colleagues who were previously on the fence.

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