Overwork, harassment, and abuse are rife in the film industry, where exceptions to safety are continually made in the name of art. Halyna Hutchins’ horrific death must bolster a much-needed strengthening of working conditions
In 2005, the actor and director Sarah Polley published an open letter in the Toronto Star to Terry Gilliam, who had directed her when she was nine in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Polley had heard that Gilliam was shooting Tideland with a child actor, Jodelle Ferland, and wished to caution him about giving Ferland the safety that she had lacked on his set.
She wrote: “I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I felt incredibly unsafe. I remember a couple of trips to the hospital after being in freezing water for long periods of time, losing quite a bit of my hearing for days at a time due to explosives, having my heart monitored when one went off relatively close to me, etc. I remember running through this long sort of corridor where explosives went off every few feet, things were on fire.”
Polley’s story is just one of many that sprang to mind after the tragic death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last week, when a gun being used as a prop, containing a live round of ammunition, was fired by Alec Baldwin. The fact remains that, for all the improvements in working conditions for creatives and crew members in film, the industry is still rife with stories of teams being subjected to workplace conditions that would not pass muster in other fields. Although film sets fall under a number of labour regulations, the truth is that exceptions are constantly made for film and television – apparently, in the name of art.
This is historical: in previous times, the understanding was very much that workers should put up with imperfect conditions in order to create the end product. A few years ago, Sarah Miles spoke about the troubled shoot for Ryan’s Daughter (1970), which was directed by David Lean, a notorious bully. She recalled Leo McKern being forced to film during a sea storm, to the point that he lost his glass eye and ended up with sand in his empty eye socket.
More recently, in 2018, the cast of Arrested Development gave an interview to The New York Times in which Jessica Walter mentioned that her co-star, Jeffrey Tambor, had verbally harassed her on set – only for another colleague, Jason Bateman, to relativise that behaviour. With Walter in tears, Bateman said: “Not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, ‘difficult’... Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of shit that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.”
These stories are the tip of the iceberg. One famous example of on-set criminality is the death of three actors on set in 1982 after the director, John Landis, flouted California’s child labour laws. In the contemporary industry, workplace troubles are documented on the Instagram account @ia_stories, which show that film sets have long been treated as areas of lawlessness. In fact, it was to combat the obvious laxity of labour laws in the industry that its biggest union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) recently threatened a strike, with a view to changing laws that enabled employers to subject workers to 14-hour days.
Since the death of Hutchins, it has emerged that the producers of Rust were employing non-unionised workers to replace union members who had walked off in protest at safety conditions on set.
If some poor work conditions on sets can be traced to the streaming revolution, which has created demand for a myriad of hastily assembled films and shows, it seems evident that film and TV shows have always been granted a kind of exceptionalism. Stories of overwork, harassment, and abuse are rife, while several film directors being bullies is a glaringly open secret. It’s no accident that when #MeToo first emerged as a movement, it came from within the film industry, since cinema provided the perfect conditions for abusers to operate in plain sight.
The “difficult” people referred to by Bateman above, could – and did – harm others, under the auspices that cinema and TV were creative industries with an exceptional remit: making art excused the worst behaviour. Tambor has been accused of sexual harassment by his former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette. Other examples are legion: Franco Zeffirelli was alleged to have harassed and abused the actor Johnathon Schaech; Maria Schneider has said that she felt “a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci” on the set of Last Tango In Paris. In these cases, the aberrations happen, not in secret, but essentially in plain view.
The horrific circumstances surrounding the death of Halyna Hutchins must lead to a strengthening of conditions protecting film industry workers, and surely will – just as child labour laws changed following the helicopter incident of 1982 on the set of The Twilight Zone. But the film world still has to work hard at changing something more firmly set, within its actual character. This will take more time to chip away at, which regards a certain flouting of the rules that govern other industries as par for the course.