Losing the Light: What Happened On the Set Of “Rust”

There’s a term we use on film sets when it’s getting dark, fast, and we have a shot we have to get before it does. ADs, to drive us to hurry, will often at some point yell out, “We’re losing the light!” 

A film set is like a machine, and it works best when everything is done by the numbers. That’s another term we like to use, which means that we all take the steps we’re supposed to take to make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. But when we’re losing the light, everything kind of goes nuts. People get stressed and they start yelling, which makes everybody more stressed and less able to focus (a note for those of you in a position to yell: it never, ever, helps). Sometimes people run, which you’re not supposed to do on a set, because there’s a ton of cables and stands and people to trip over if you’re not careful. People rush tasks that should not be rushed, and stop double- and triple-checking the details they’re supposed to be so, so careful about — everything from whether the right filter is on the camera, to whether the actor is wearing his glasses that he’s supposed to wear to match what we’ve already shot, to whether sound has turned on the radio mic pack so that the actor’s microphone is transmitting, to even remembering to roll. There are so many moving parts, and so many people who have to make sure that they stay moving, that at any given moment, a million things can go wrong. And if you’re not careful — in particular, if you are rushing — they do.

And we aren’t forced to work too fast only when the sun is going down. Sometimes, an actor has to leave early, because they’ve only agreed to be on set a certain amount of time — which can happen if they’re minors who can only work an eight-hour day, or just famous and powerful enough to make demands. (Mind you, I think that demanding an 8-hour day or 12 hours of turnaround is perfectly reasonable, it’s just not something the rest of us are allowed to do). Other times, there’s some special complication that makes it hard to get the shot just right —  a stunt-person having to do the perfect leap to land in the right spot, a dog having to walk and bark at the right time, a dollop of whipped cream having to arrive in just the right shape and size and creaminess, a steadicam move that must take a labyrinthine path. Proper time budgeting should make it possible to deal with all of these eventualities, by planning the day out and creating a schedule, and knowing which shots are cuttable, and where you’re most likely to use which dialogue so you only film a line as many times as you absolutely have to — but that often just does not happen. Way too much of the time, we’ve way over-scheduled our day with too many shots, or the director added additional ones that drag us down, or maybe there was never a shot list to begin with because the director just thought they could wing it, or someone — writer, director, client, agency — came up with alternate lines that also need to be covered, and that usually means adding the time to get those lines in more angles, possibly all of them. And when every second costs so much money, adding a day or two to the schedule is a big deal that has to be approved from the top, and those people at the top can’t be seen as making expensive mistakes. Add on to all of that the big egos and the power plays and pissing matches that go with them, and the pressure to speed past precautions is generally going to be there, pressing down on the people at the bottom: the crew. For them, the ethic becomes, Work as fast as you can nearly all the time. 

Film crews can work incredibly quickly. When you’re on a TV show in particular, where we can get into a groove with an AD who knows how to keep things moving and an efficient director that understands what they need and what they don’t to cover eight pages of script in a day, you see how well-oiled that machine can be. It’s amazing and it’s terrible at the same time, because while it makes the day go by faster, the focus required for many jobs, including mine, can be exhausting at that pace — both physically, because I’m often trying to figure out if I should prioritize peeing or eating or sitting down when I have only five or ten free minutes every couple hours, and mentally, because there’s a constant trouble-shooting whack-a-mole of issues that I need to consider and perhaps find a way to fix, often involving a whole complicated chain of command, in order to do my job.

And yet, there will always be people who want to pick up the pace, even if the only way for most of us to do that is to do our jobs badly. Producers push ADs to make impossible days, so to save time, they stop having safety meetings — the ones that became standard only after a young AC was killed by a train on a film set in 2014 — or rush people into hair and makeup before they get their covid test results — which happened on a shoot I did last year, forcing a whole hair and makeup team into quarantine when the talent tested positive. They also push for other corner-cutting measures, like choosing cheaper, unsafe locations, or skimping on necessary equipment, or hiring non-union crew who often have less experience, or refusing to put crew members up in local hotels, meaning they get less sleep and are more likely to make mistakes. Meanwhile, the crew does their best to work around what’s been taken away, while they keep getting pushed to move faster than they should. Add on stunts, or pyrotechnics, or guns, or any of the other crazy and amazing and unsafe stuff we have learned how to manage to bring people’s dreams to life, and eventually, people are going make the kind of mistakes that get people killed. 

This is what no doubt happened on the set of “Rust,” where DP Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed last month. I don’t have to know any of the people involved to tell you that. I didn’t even really need to know the details of the circumstances behind it that keep emerging — about the camera crew who quit that morning because of the poor conditions, about the prior gun misfires on set, about the lack of safety meetings and precautions taken by an AD who had a history of skimping on safety in the past — although those certainly provided confirmation. I just needed to have my almost 30 years of experience of how things work on film sets to know the familiar story turned tragic. 

And I know that it all comes back to money. It might seem like it’s a coincidence that we are talking about this shooting around the same time that we are talking about the IATSE contract negotiations, or how Congress it trying to pass a millionaires’ tax, but it’s not. If you want to save money when you’re making a movie, the safe and ethical and human way to do it, not to mention the most obvious one, is not by eschewing the extra 20 minutes a day it might take cumulatively to let us do our jobs properly. It’s to take the big money from where it has been amassed — at the top — and redistribute it to where it needs to be: in living wages, in shorter days, in more weeks of shooting time, in more rehearsals, in more breaks, in safe locations, in proper safety personnel and equipment and procedures. Studios will not make these changes on their own. Large businesses don’t make innovative choices, which is why we have the industry we have in the first place — not to mention why the pickings are so slim for films that don’t fit into an easy box or obvious genre, or are made by anyone outside the mainstream. But celebrity producers, directors, and actors, the individuals who rule this industry, they can. They can cut back, just a little, on what they make, and put that money back into the projects they work on, bucking the way things have always been done, and setting a standard for how they should be done. They can decide to only sign on to projects where days are capped and people are well-paid, -treated and -protected, and walk off sets when they see that things aren’t being done by the numbers. The question is, will they?

We are losing the light in this business every day, and it’s not because we just turned the clocks back. It’s because the American film business follows the rest of America: the people who have the most power don’t care enough about the people who have the least to do something to fix it. We can — and should — ban real guns from film sets, and get a newer, better, IATSE contract than the one that’s on the table, but neither of those changes will get at the heart of the issue. Every day we continue to go to work with the industry-wide assumption that getting the film made is more important than the people who make it, the glow that is the beauty and the wonder of what we all love about the movies, and why we all wanted to be a part of the magic of making them, fades just a little bit more. 

One Reply to “Losing the Light: What Happened On the Set Of “Rust””

  1. “The extra 20 minutes a day” is what would make the difference between safety and not. Between life and death. Between sanity and what happened on that set we all read about and what almost happened on so many others we don’t. Your having to choose to sit down for a few minutes or slam half a sandwich. To choose. Crazy talk. What a lucid, straightforward argument you make. I hope a change comes in time for you to benefit.

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