Appreciation: She was a supernova. Filmmaker Rachel Mason on her friendship with ‘Rust’ DP Halyna Hutchins
Since my friend Halyna Hutchins’ death last Thursday night, I pause and hold my breath every time I get a text message. In that pause, I wonder what else could be coming through, what the next insane, terrible, tragic or shockingly serendipitous message could be.
Just recently, Bianca Cline texted. She was in the running to get the director of photography (DP) job on “Rust.” Had Halyna not gotten the job instead, she texted me, her name would have been in the obituary she received from the union. She felt guilty for not reaching out to Halyna just to meet her, because they were competitors, and basically, Halyna won. I called her immediately and tried to console her as we both cried.
I met Halyna in 2015, having just moved back to L.A. from New York. I was a single mom and changing my career path from artist-musician to filmmaker. I needed to find childcare for my then 3-year-old, who was already in L.A. with my parents. My mom called to tell me that she’d enrolled him in a daycare and that he’d just been invited to a birthday party. After the party, she told me: “I think you will really hit it off with these people.”
Those people were Matt and Halyna, and my mom was right. Their little boy became my son’s best friend almost immediately. Halyna and I were constantly having coffee that year, hanging out in the park discussing shots and scripts while our kids played. Almost immediately, we started working together. Halyna was just finishing school at the American Film Institute, and whenever I was invited to an industry party, she wanted to go with me. She was so ready and excited to begin working, and anytime I had an idea, she was willing to figure out how to shoot it.
Over the next few years, while I was working on a documentary about my parents’ landmark store, Circus of Books, Halyna would work on smaller projects with me. I’d asked her if she wanted to shoot the documentary, but she had set her sights on narrative films, and she wanted to work only on those projects of mine that were experimental and hence more fun to shoot.
To help me promote the film, she shot a music video for the end credits, using a song I had written. The shoot required an elaborate setup with colored lighting, strobe effects, a dolly rig. It featured a cameo by the artist Peaches performing on the store’s counter. It was exactly what Halyna loved creating. Something wild and magical.
Eventually, my doc, “Circus of Books,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and went on to be released on Netflix, after which it was nominated for an Emmy. Halyna came to the L.A. premiere at Outfest and supported each and every event I did, but she still cared only about working on experimental projects. And the one she’d most wanted to work on was the one that eventually connected me to Bianca, a feature film I had written called “The End Stage of Stars.”
In the movie, stars are personified in human form. The script, which takes place partly on Earth, involves a scientist who is trans. My producer, Darren Dean, suggested I meet Bianca because she is one of the few trans DPs working in the industry. Her talent blew my mind.
After Bianca’s text, a pang of guilt stabbed its way through my grief. I hadn’t yet mentioned to Halyna that I had spoken with another cinematographer about the project she was so close to and so wanting to shoot. But I had seen how busy she was becoming and I felt I needed to talk with a few potential candidates for the project.
I also knew that Halyna wanted to hear all of Bianca’s ideas; I immediately pictured that they would have become instant friends. This would have ended up being a collaboration. We would be having a wild conversation. The cosmos would align so beautifully.
The night I learned of Halyna’s death, I couldn’t sleep. In yet another unsettling example of serendipity, I had spent much of the afternoon trying to find a crew in Santa Fe, N.M., for an interview I needed to shoot for a new documentary. One of the filmmakers I had been speaking with was working on a set near where Halyna was killed.
Earlier that day, I had been with my friends Jerry Levine, an actor, and Nina Tassler, the former head of CBS Entertainment, talking about my grandmother, whom they both knew and loved and who had recently died. Jerry has become a licensed therapist, so the next morning, I texted him about the situation. He called me immediately. He said, “Hold space for the devastation. It’s devastating. Cry. Be there for your friend’s son. Let him cry. Hold space for his sorrow.”
And I did. When I told my son what happened to our friend, to his friend’s mother, I will never forget the look on his face. His mouth opened, and it would not close. He didn’t cry. He didn’t make a sound. The sight of his little mouth wide open, not understanding how his friend’s mom could suddenly be gone, is burned into me now. Tears came to his eyes and he said, “It was sad when Grandma died, but this is more sad.” To which I replied, “Yes, you are right. This is more sad.”
On Sunday night, during a vigil for Halyna in Burbank, I took refuge at my friends’ house. Their son went to summer camp with Halyna’s son too. They too were processing the loss. On my way over, I got messages from colleagues in the industry wondering whether I would be at the vigil. I thought, “I can’t be there. I will lose it completely to hear about my beloved friend from people I don’t know, when I still feel like an outsider in this industry.”
And then suddenly it hit me: Maybe I’m not. Maybe this industry is a family and able to welcome newcomers like me and Halyna, because once you are in it, all the people below the line, above the line, we are all instantly connected. We all understand the chaos, the drive and the love of working on sets and creating amazing fictional worlds.
The day after I learned the news, I felt desperate to reach out to Alec Baldwin. I was reading horrible things on Twitter by people who didn’t understand anything about being on sets, and it infuriated me that anyone would accuse him of murder. It infuriated me. Two years ago, he and I met at the Hamptons International Film Festival in New York, where “Circus of Books” was a showcase film. He enjoyed meeting my mom after our Q&A onstage, and I got to see him as a real person. Now I just wanted to comfort him, because I knew how senseless this awful tragedy was.
When I read Serge Svetnoy’s Facebook post, where he placed blame on unprofessionalism of the set, it resonated deeply. He worked on all the projects that Halyna shot with me, and she trusted him completely. He is as professional a camera person as ever there was. It is unthinkable that my friend with so much potential and talent and passion died due to the most basic kind of negligence. I am furious, but I don’t know how to direct that fury.
I keep looking to see if Halyna is going to text me. Every time I look for an image on my computer, I think, “I’ll ask Halyna, and she’ll know exactly who is in the background.” Then it hits me that she won’t reply. And when I see her face in the news, I can’t quite comprehend her newly public existence, in the realm with all these people who were giants to her. The people she admired are now speaking about her. She would have been so overwhelmed with joy at the way she is being talked about by her own heroes in the industry.
This would be my message: “I know you can’t make more films, but I promise you that as long as I live, you will be making films with me. In my heart, I know you’re in everything I will ever make. I love you.”
I grew up here, with kids whose parents were in the industry, but I never thought about Hollywood as just a bunch of people, some with families, people who hold each other together in life’s most difficult moments.
The friend who called to tell me about Halyna’s death, Jeff Vespa, had produced one of my experimental art films with her in 2017. We shot that piece on Oct. 21, 2017. Four years ago to the date of her death. It is called “Star Death and the Pain Body,” and it allowed me to dive into the world of my feature film, on a small scale. The piece was shown at Charlie James Gallery downtown. Halyna filmed the dancer Oguri pulling a beam of light into his body before shooting entrails of fabric as he exploded into a supernova.
A supernova is caused when a very intense star collapses at its core, imploding right before shooting off a trail of vast and infinite potential into the cosmos. I never imagined Halyna becoming the metaphor she so masterfully captured in the film, but now I know she is a supernova. And in some way, that image of the light and potential life exploding out of this tragedy helps me make sense of what we’ve lost.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.