Farce on Top of Tragedy: ‘Rust’ Producers Escape Accountability (Column)

Farce on Top of Tragedy: ‘Rust’ Producers Escape Accountability (Column)

It’s one of the darkest tales in Hollywood memory. A group of producers — a few whose track records included opaque financing, withholding payments and dangerous on-set working conditions — mount a Western movie on which their star and fellow producer accidentally shoots to death the cinematographer midway through filming. We’ve learned he will soon be charged with involuntary manslaughter, alongside the inexperienced and overwhelmed young armorer they hired to mind the guns (both have indicated they will contest the charges). Meanwhile, the assistant director, who’d been subject to prior safety and other workplace complaints, including on one of the producers’ previous projects, signs a plea agreement for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.

The production may soon resume, the outlaw lead expected to still be portrayed by Alec Baldwin, now an accused criminal facing significant prison time. Quite the plot twist, driven by the fact that the investment must be recouped. As well as the unspoken — or at least only whispered — silver lining. If Rust can be completed, its ghoulishness may make what was otherwise just another American Film Market special into a cult hit.

“On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice,” said Mary Carmack-Altwies, the district attorney who serves Santa Fe County, where Halyna Hutchins died, following the Jan. 19 announcement of the charges. The D.A.’s assertion is, of course, ridiculous. Elected prosecutors only pursue charges, especially in high-profile cases like this one, they believe they can win at trial. The decision is less about justice than about the legal constraints imposed by the way independent films are financed. 

Carmack-Altwies is no doubt aware the producers — who include Baldwin, Ryan Donnell Smith, Ryan Winterstern, Nathan Klingher, Anjul Nigam and Baldwin’s manager Matt DelPiano — insulated themselves from the law long before the death of the cinematographer, Hayla Hutchins. As is routine in Hollywood, the production established a special-purpose LLC, Rust Movie Productions, to do business. Its main purpose is as a financial instrument.

But it not incidentally provides those who run the organization with an impressive shelter from statutory consequence for doing so. As the veteran entertainment attorney Bryan Sullivan, who regularly works with independent productions as their legal strategist in business affairs, put it to The Hollywood Reporter this past fall, “the whole point of creating [RMP] is for liability purposes.”

In April 2022, the New Mexico Occupational and Safety Bureau issued a blistering report penalizing RMP for “serious violations.” The agency noted that the producers knew that firearm safety procedures weren’t being followed on set and demonstrated a “plain indifference” to the welfare of its cast and crew.

According to the report, the producers ignored “the hazards associated with firearms by routinely failing to practice their own safety protocols, failing to enforce adherence to safety protocols, and failing to ensure that the handling of deadly weapons was afforded the time and effort needed to keep the cast and crew safe.” Additionally, the producers “disregarded or otherwise did not follow-up, ask questions, or try to understand what happened when employees notified management about the misfire incidents and not feeling safe on set.”

RMP has appealed. Its defense is revealing. “The law properly permits producers to delegate such critical functions as firearm safety to experts in that field and does not place such responsibility on producers whose expertise is in arranging financing and contracting for the logistics of filming,” according to its filing. RMP has similarly taken the stance in attempting to fend off civil liability over the shooting, claiming that its crew were civil contractors and that “where applicable, the head of each independent contractor was responsible for the individuals within his or her department.”

In other words, producers have no stewardship duty. The buck doesn’t stop at the top. Negligence is not a possibility.

This is the audacious lawyering that landed the producers their greatest coup. In October 2022, a year after Hutchins’ death, RMP settled a wrongful death action filed by her widower Matthew Hutchins in which he was brought into the fold as an executive producer with the notion of soon resuming production to complete the project. (It’s unclear whether the newly filed charges might affect that plan.)

When Matthew Hutchins originally filed suit, he said “there were a number of industry standards that were not practiced, and there’s multiple responsible parties.” Yet in tandem with the settlement, he stated he had “no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame,” adding he was “grateful that the producers and the entertainment community have come together to pay tribute to Halyna’s final work.”

The remaining civil actions against RMP — from the script supervisor, gaffer, and medic — now face the unenviable task of opposing Matthew Hutchins. To underscore the preposterous position he’s been placed in, his attorney announced after the charges were filed that he supported the D.A.’s decision, and that he “will fully cooperate with this prosecution, and fervently hope[s] the justice system works to protect the public and hold accountable those who break the law.”

The crew fending for themselves in court. The D.A. pretending there’s any real opportunity here to achieve justice. The grieving widower made complicit. The producers, except for the name in front of the camera — the easiest fall guy — so far evading any meaningful responsibility whatsoever.

“We believe Baldwin, as a producer, knows everything that goes on on the set,” one of Baldwin’s prosecutors, Andrea Reeb, told Fox News after the charges were announced. “There was a lot of safety concerns that were brought to the attention of management and he did nothing about it.” This will be determined at trial. The other producers will answer to no one except, perhaps, their own pocketbooks.

What began as a surreal tragedy increasingly resembles absurdist satire in the guise of a legal drama. The farce will arrive in the inevitable attempts to turn this all into, yes, a movie. And why not? Exploitation, after all, is this saga’s essential theme.

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