The production company behind Rust is trying to distance itself from key individuals who it says bear responsibility for the deadly shooting that resulted in the death and injury of two crewmembers.
Contesting findings from a New Mexico safety agency, Rust Movie Productions argued on Tuesday that it’s not at fault for the on-set shooting because it was not an employer on the production and relied on independent contractors, namely armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, to supervise gun safety. The producer claimed that she was the sole worker “singularly responsible for all tasks associated with the use of firearms and ammunition,” including responsibilities related to “ensuring that RMP’s express prohibition against the presence of live ammunition was strictly followed, ensuring that only blanks were used when called for by the script, and that only dummy rounds were used.”
The filing comes as a decision from the Santa Fe County district attorney’s office on whether to file criminal charges over the accidental shooting that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza is expected to be delivered in October, according to a source close with the investigation.
In April, New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau issued the highest level citation and maximum fine allowable by state law of $136,793 for numerous violations of safety protocols on the set of Rust. It found that the production company demonstrated a “plain indifference” to the welfare of cast and crew, pointing to the introduction of live ammunition and a failure to train crew on how to properly handle firearms.
Rust Movie Productions moved to appeal the decision, which led to the filing of an administrative complaint after failed settlement discussions to resolve the citation. In its answer, the company emphasized that its responsibilities were limited to financing and contracting with crew and talent to make the movie.
“The crew contracted by RMP were independent contractors,” states the filing from the producer. “Where applicable, the head of each independent contractor was responsible for the individuals within his or her department (e.g., special effects, stunts, or animal wranglers).”
The acquisition of dummy and blank rounds was the responsibility of property master Sarah Zachary and Gutierrez-Reed, according to the production company. It said that it relied upon Gutierrez-Reed to “perform and supervise all functions related to the use of firearms including, but not limited to, providing safety training, obtaining and using blank and dummy rounds, armament selection, and supervising the Property Master, Ms. [Zachary].”
In the moments before the incident, Gutierrez-Reed loaded a revolver for Alec Baldwin with what she believed were dummy rounds, walked into the church where the scene would be shot and handed the gun to assistant director Dave Halls. Gutierrez-Reed told investigators that she was under the impression that she would be called back to conduct a safety check for Baldwin’s firearm. She’s maintained in legal proceedings that she was absolved of liability for the shooting after she handed the gun to Halls.
But the production company argued that Gutierrez-Reed is at fault as an independent contractor for failing to ensure the use of dummy rounds. It pushed back against the notion that Gutierrez-Reed’s duties were “somehow transferred to other individuals (such as Mr. Halls) by merely handing them the firearm.”
Other findings from the agency’s report included that Gutierrez-Reed was spread too thin. In accordance with industry-recognized safety practice, the armorer is required to be present whenever firearms are being handled and should have the authority to determine whether an individual requires additional safety training. Gutierrez-Reed, however, had to perform the role of props assistant when firearms weren’t in active use, according to the report. She was told by line producer Gabrielle Pickle that she was allowed eight paid days as armorer and the rest of her time was to be spent as a props assistant.
Rust Movie Productions denied that Gutierrez-Reed was ever instructed to focus less on her armorer tasks. It also refuted allegations that two previous misfire incidents weren’t investigated, that it didn’t provide staff responsible for ensuring firearms safety with sufficient time to inspect ammunition and that first camera assistant Lane Luper resigned due to unaddressed safety concerns.
The New Mexico safety agency and Jason Bowles, an attorney representing Gutierrez-Reed, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Friday, Rust script supervisor Mamie Mitchell dropped some claims in her lawsuit against the producers of the movie. She said she will withdraw causes of action for assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, leaving a sole claim for negligence. Mitchell is looking to hold the Rust producer to the position that it wasn’t an employer on the production, which opens up damages for negligence in civil court. Under New Mexico labor law, workers advancing a claim for negligence against their employer are limited to worker’s compensation.
The standard over whether Gutierrez-Reed qualifies as an independent contractor varies in civil court and proceedings before the safety agency.