Editorial: Better safety needed to keep NM among best places to film - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Better safety needed to keep NM among best places to film

The Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday that Alec Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed will be charged later this month with two counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

Finally, the yearlong investigation, followed by three months of intrigue, is over. But what of the safety on other film sets in New Mexico? Have we learned anything to prevent future tragedies?

The fourth-degree felony charges in connection to the Oct. 21, 2021, shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the “Rust” movie set are serious, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The charges could include a firearm enhancement, which would make the offenses punishable by a mandatory five years in jail.

First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies also announced Thursday that the movie’s assistant director, Dave Halls, has pleaded guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon. Terms of his plea agreement for the petty misdemeanor charge include a suspended sentence and six months of probation.

The investigation by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office brought to light appalling safety conditions on the set of the Western that was being filmed hastily in 21 days on a ranch outside Santa Fe at the bargain basement cost of $7 million.

In April, New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau fined Rust Movie Productions $136,793, the maximum allowable amount, based on a scathing report.

Deputies say they found five live rounds scattered around the set, which industry experts say should never be on set, especially with prop guns. The deadly shooting was preceded by multiple firearm misfires and safety violations. Some witnesses told state regulators that production managers took limited or no action to address the misfires, and seven crew members walked off the set hours before the fatal shooting amid discord over working conditions.

Baldwin bears some responsibility for all that as a co-producer of the movie, and a seasoned actor with 145 TV and movie credits.

“If any one of these three people — Alec Baldwin, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed or David Halls — had done their job, Halyna Hutchins would be alive today. It’s that simple,” said special prosecutor Andrea Reeb, appointed to handle the case by DA Carmack-Altwies.

Reeb is no stranger to high-profile cases. While heading the Clovis-area District Attorney’s Office for eight years, she was called on by other DAs to prosecute about a half dozen cases against police officers.

The news of criminal charges followed good news Wednesday about the thriving film industry in New Mexico, which set a record $855.4 million in direct spending in the past fiscal year, due in part to production tax credits.

The trade magazine MovieMaker said Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces are among the best places to live and work as a filmmaker, based on film activity, filming infrastructure, population and geographical size, state and local film incentive programs, and ease of movement and traffic.

But the shooting death of Hutchins is a dark stain on filming in New Mexico. State regulators say “Rust” production managers failed to follow the most basic industry protocols for firearms safety, such as having gun inspections.

“In New Mexico, there is no room for film sets that don’t take our state’s commitment to gun safety and public safety seriously,” Reeb said.

Hutchins’ preventable death has influenced negotiations over safety provisions in film crew union contracts and spurred some filmmakers to choose computer-generated imagery of gunfire rather than real weapons with blank ammunition.

That’s a start. Workplace safety is critical in the film industry, as it is in every other industry. But more concrete gun safety measures are needed — by either the state or the industry — to ensure New Mexico remains among the best places to work as a filmmaker, especially for such low-budget, rushed productions as “Rust.”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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