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‘Rust’ tragedy in mind, Directors Guild launches committee to buckle down on safety measures

The set of "Rust" at Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, N.M.
The Bonanza Creek Ranch one day after an incident left one crew member dead and another injured in Santa Fe, N.M.
(Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)
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The Directors Guild of America said it is taking a tougher stance on film set safety in the wake of the “Rust” tragedy, forming a new committee that will recommend and advance various safety measures.

The union, which represents more than 18,000 directors, unit production managers and assistant directors, recently formed the committee following the death of rising star cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a low-budget film set in New Mexico last fall.

The committee comprises a cross section of members appointed earlier this year. They include directors, stage managers, associate directors and unit production managers from TV and film. “Lucifer” director Karen Gaviola, who will help led the next round of contracts negotiations with the studios, chairs the new DGA safety committee.

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“Safety has been and continues to be a top priority for the DGA,” the union said in a statement to The Times. “We have been leading advocates for mandatory safety training and for demanding increased safety precautions on sets. The committee has been working with sister guilds and unions and government leaders in California on new legislation to address set safety concerns.”

Hutchins’ death sent shockwaves through the film industry at a time when film crews were fighting for better working conditions. It reignited production workers’ worries about long working hours and other safety concerns, echoing similar calls made after the death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones on a Georgia film set in 2014.

The move by the DGA comes as some members question whether unions can do more to improve safety on sets.

“As directors and director’s team members, we are leaders on set, and have historically paved the way to inspire positive impactful change for our industry,” said LA-based director Regina Ainsworth, a former co-chair of the DGA’s Latino Committee who supports the guild’s latest move. “I support any and all measures that can improve the safety and working conditions for all craftspeople and applaud the desire to remain accountable and improve upon best practices already in place.”

Ainsworth was among DGA members who took to Facebook to share their consternation after the “Rust” shooting, noting reports that the movie’s assistant director Dave Halls had been fired in 2019 from a film production called “Freedom’s Path” after a crew member was injured by an accidental firearm discharge. Halls is not a member of the DGA but has a status known as “financial core,” which allows individuals to pay reduced union dues and work on union productions without being members.

Ainsworth has previously called on the DGA to establish a code of conduct for members, an idea that has yet to be advanced by the union.

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“Nobody should die as a result of making a film or television show, and we should be looking at all the ways we can be improving the working conditions on set,” Ainsworth said. “The code of conduct for me was just one idea in the toolbox to begin reform.”

Halls, a defendant in several ‘Rust’-related lawsuits, including one filed by the Hutchins’ family, has called for the movie industry to “reevaluate its values and practices” after Hutchins’ death. His attorney has disputed that he was fired from “Freedom’s Path.”

In a rare move last month, the DGA told its members to stop work on a new horror movie backed by one of the producers of “Rust,” Thomasville Pictures, citing safety concerns. The edict effectively barred any DGA members from working on the Georgia production.

Thomasville Pictures, which registered in Georgia in 2017, disputed there were any safety issues on “Oak” and said production continues on the movie.

The Hutchins family sued actor Alec Baldwin and other producers for allegedly failing to perform industry-standard safety checks and follow basic gun safety rules on the set of “Rust.” Baldwin shot Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza while rehearsing a scene on a ranch outside of Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an investigation into how live bullets ended up on the set and were loaded into the prop gun handed to Baldwin. An attorney for Baldwin has said that any claim Baldwin was reckless was false. No charges have been filed.

The shooting prompted California legislators to weigh new laws to restrict gun use on film and TV sets.

The DGA has backed a bill introduced in January by state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) that would require studios to hire a qualified safety supervisor, complete a risk assessment in advance of a production and impose new legal requirements for the ability to use firearms in film & TV production.

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“On too many sets, safety matters are not prioritized enough; recommended guidelines are not consistently followed; and the professionals assigned safety responsibilities are overwhelmed with other job duties and long hours,” Danny Bush, DGA Associate National Executive Director wrote to Cortese in a letter seen by The Times. “ While the ‘Rust’ tragedy involved a shooting, our safety concerns extend far beyond firearms; entertainment workers are regularly exposed to explosions, vehicles, aircraft, falling objects, dangerous animals or countless other hazardous environments.”

The Motion Picture Association supports a more narrowly-focused bill, SB 829, introduced in January from state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). That bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee this week, the senator’s office confirmed Wednesday.

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