Fatal Shooting On Movie Set Spotlights Much Needed Workforce Safety Reforms

I knew a guy while attending Georgia Southern University who had lived in Wilmington, N.C. during the filming of the 1994 movie The Crow, in which Brandon Lee was fatally shot. He said that North Carolina was one of the few states at the time that allowed non-union labor on film and TV sets and the Wilmington area had become popular.

While the investigation is ongoing into how a prop gun fired by Alec Baldwin caused the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza on the set of Rust in New Mexico, it unfortunately takes a death for changes. For days, we’ve heard about unsafe work conditions on the set. And I’m sure a lot of people feel like they’re hearing stories of their own workplaces or those of people they know. Sadly, many sets are often prone to accidents.

Dino De Laurentiis said he chose North Carolina to start his failed independent studio DEG because his 1984 movie Firestarter had generated reportedly $8 million for the state’s economy. Unfortunately, De Laurentiis’ studio would only last a few years and would collapse in part due to on-the-set accidents. Earlier in a preview posts, I talked about Maximum Overdrive, directed by Stephen King. Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi was struck in the right eye with a splinter of wood from filming a scene were King reportedly demanded the blades remain in a lawnmower that comes alive and chases one of the characters. Nannuzzi sued King and De Laurentiis for $18 million but the case was settled out of court.

On Million Dollar Mystery, another movie De Laurentiis produced, veteran stuntman Dar Robinson was killed during a motorcycle stunt. On the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run, stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz was left paralyzed when a stunt went wrong.

You may never have heard of Nannuzzi, Robinson and von Beltz, but you have heard of Brandon Lee and Vic Morrow, who was killed during a helicopter accident on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. I’ve seen the footage of the accident. I wouldn’t recommend anyone watch it because it’s horrible. Morrow and Myca Dinh Le were decapitated by the blades while Renee Shin-Yi Chen was crushed by the helicopter. It happened so fast, the actors didn’t even have time to seek any safety.

Filmmaker John Landis and producer George Folsey Jr., Dorcey Wingo, the pilot, and production manager Dan Allingham were all tried and acquitted on charges of manslaughter. However, the incident caused some changes in the industry. Steven Spielberg, who was a producer on the movie was never charged as Spielberg was not on the set during filming and had no knowledge that Folsey, Willingham and Landis were paying the child actors under the table to circumvent California child actor laws regarding night shoots. Regardless, Spielberg cut off all contacts and relationships with Landis.

Accidents happen on movie sets. Accidents happen in factories. Accidents happen in office settings. Accidents happen on farms and ranches. My stepfather worked for Georgia Power and he said it wasn’t uncommon for a worker to get shocked or even electrocuted. The question remains what was done to prevent all these accidents.

It’s been over seven years since Sarah Jones, a camera assistant was killed during a railroad accident while filming the failed Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider in Jesup, Ga. Several other crew members and reportedly William Hurt, who was playing Allman were injured when they were filming illegally on a set of train tracks on a bridge when a train came through. Randall Miller, who was directing, entered a plea and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing.

Wes Craven or Sean S. Cunningham said while they were filming the climatic scene in Last House on the Left between David A. Hess and Richard Towers, credited as Gaylord St. James, they actually used a real chainsaw with the blades left on and Hess was wearing only socks on a slick hardwood floor. While precautions were made, one slip could’ve been deadly.

On the set of The Deer Hunter, Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken reportedly used a live round in the revolver during the Russian Roulette scene to add tension. On the set of At Close Range, Sean Penn used a prop gun that Walken hadn’t personally inspected and was a little uneasy about having it aimed in his face. His reaction was recorded on film.

Yes, actors sometimes push things for authenticity, but accidents can still happen. I remember watching Entertainment Tonight in 1994 while they were discussing the filming of Blown Away where a piece of shrapnel flew very close to Jeff Bridges’ head while he was supposed to be running toward the explosion. It can be dangerous regardless of any precautions you taker. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez decided to use all gunfire and explosions through CGI in his movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

There’s talk of banning all firearms from movie sets, which I don’t think will be possible. But it is telling that people want firearms banned on movie sets, but people can still take guns into Wal-Mart or Target to go shopping. During the Covid-19 pandemic, people who work in stores and restaurants as well as other places where they deal with the public have had to endure anti-maskers. The same people cheering that Miller was the first filmmaker finally conviction of an on-set death or injury don’t realize others are being put in serious danger at many of their jobs.

Some of those who have died from Covid-19 worked in restaurants, department stores or other areas where they were in constant contact with the public. They’re working in unsafe environments. Theoretically, we can never have a 100 percent safe work environment. Even if you’re working from home, you can trip over your own feet. My own grandfather on my mother’s side lost his ring and pinkie finger and half of his middle finger when he made a simple but dangerous decision while near a clothes mangle.

Like I said, accidents happen, but they can be avoided. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes not feasible. I remember hearing when Chow Yun-Fat was working on his first American movie The Replacement Killers, he got somewhat in trouble because after a scene wrapped, he picked up a prop to help the crew out. Yun-Fat had been used to doing this when he was working in Hong Kong and just wanted to help out. But because of union labor rules, actors are not allowed to touch props on some movie sets. You can’t fault Yun-Fat with not wanting to appear a prima donna and help out, but there’s always the risk of something bad happening.

It’s a slippery slope. Unfortunately, many employers expect their employees to do more than their job duties. And this can be dangerous. I was working in a retail store at the outlet mall in my home town and was asked to change a flourescent light tube. I got a little shocked and later another manager said the power should’ve been turned off. It was something that probably could’ve waited until closing but I wasn’t too thrilled. And that same manager agreed with me, but someone else overruled her.

But it was a dream job from a summer job I had at K-Mart in 1995 and 1996 which led to my back problems I suffer from now. I used to work in the garden center in 100 degree heat index with no air conditioning loading bags of 40-pound soil and compost in people’s vehicles as well as other heavy gardening equipment. The summer after I graduated high school, I worked at Wal-Mart in the bakery department and was told to mop the floor as a health inspector was coming, even though the floor was done at the end of my shift. Well, I slipped and fell. Not much longer after that, I was terminated from the position.

The area where I grew up, there were a lot of carpet mills and other textile factories who by the end of the 1990s were hiring undocumented immigrants, mostly south of the border. The reason to this was they could pay them under the table for less than what they had to pay others. They could also get rid of them easier if they got injured on the job without much problems.

One of my older cousins went to go work for a factory that made big machinery. They had their lunch breaks cut from an hour to half an hour. It was actually cut from 59 minutes to 29 minutes, because as we all know, if you’re one second late, it’s a no-no. The factory was not far away from the part of town where many fast food restaurants, but still workers were driving faster to go get a Big Mac to gobble down on their way back to work. The police started setting up on the side of the road to catch speeders. While I understand their need for safety, it didn’t sit well with some town residents who felt it was adding insult to injury.

And it’s only gotten worse over the years as wages have been stagnant. The K-Mart job 25 years ago paid $5 an hour. That would be $9 in today’s economy. It’s still not enough considering it was still part-time with no benefits. People are working for a lot less now. Considering that minimum wage nowadays is a lot less with what it buys in today’s market than back in the mid-1990s. This is why so many people are striking and refusing to work on open availability part-time.

Some people call it “The Great Resignation.” But I’ve heard others call it “The Great Reshuffling.” I like the latter better because it changes more. Resignation puts everything solely on the employee. It doesn’t help matters that most of the people upset over the “labor shortage” haven’t worked in many years.

Employees are expecting to work longer hours for less. That one minute people give up on their lunch break is probably not compensated. There are no more sick days. The first newspaper job I worked at in Americus, Ga., they allowed sick days, but you weren’t supposed to take them unless you were on your death bed. So people were expected to come in sick and nauseated.

I quit my job there after taking three, just three sick days in a 14-month period. After the third one, they said they were going to make some changes. I had already done too much on that job just as a 23-year-old that I had to change my whole diet because the stress was affecting my stomach. And I’ll be blunt, I wasn’t too happy about being told to pick up the slack because my co-workers had spouses and children, even though I had worked there the longest.

And that’s a growing problem with other employees too, I’ve heard. Childless employees are expected to work holidays and weekends. If they don’t have kids, they’re still criticized for being tired when they get home. I’m pretty sure the stress of heavy workloads are being carried over into relationships and parentings. How many young children have had their stressed out parents come home from work and hit, spank or beat them for not cleaning the room or asking what’s for dinner the minute they step in the door?

All it takes is one bad day at work with someone who stressed out. It’s no excuse to hit your children or spouse but I’m sure a lot of people knew what to do and what not to do when their spouse or parent got home based on their mood. The effects of domestic abuse don’t end there. If a partner is severely abused, they’ll end in the hospital or take the day off “because they don’t feel well.” And being laid off or sudden employment also leads to domestic violence. Still the blame falls solely on the abuser but if the factors can be stopped to reduce abuse, it helps.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves and we need to stop. We need to stop acting like just because someone worked a double-shift two or three days in a row, everyone else should be able to. We shouldn’t act like working late and then being expecting to come in earlier the next day is commendable. You’re not getting enough sleep. You’re affecting your bodies. And it can lead to dangers on the road to and from work as well at the work place. If your employers can’t come with a better solution, they don’t need to be your employers.

Part of this is the bravado of the post-WWII era in which employees were actually paid a decent overtime and could work extra jobs to make more money. It was also easier to quit jobs and find better jobs back then. That’s not the case anymore. In Florida, Joey Holz applied to 60 entry-level jobs and didn’t hear much back. He only got one in-person interview.

There is no labor shortage. Employers are using it as an excuse to explain poor service while keeping only those with everything to lose on the job. It’s tragic that movie and TV productions are pulling the same tactics. If you don’t have enough money to finance a movie or TV series, you should either make changes to the script, put it on hold to raise more funding or cut your losses.

The entertainment industry, which prides itself on left-leaning progressive strides should be the ones leading the changes in the work force, rather than cheating out employees because they’re not big names. “Hollywood accounting” needs to end. Yes, studios and production companies are putting up the money, but if the contracts stipulate actors, writers, producers and directors receive residuals, they should justly receive them. That’s what the Black Widow lawsuit was all about where Scarlett Johansson sued Disney.

Part of me thinks this might be the final straw that prevents many film and TV productions from cutting corners. And while people are still willing to put the blame on Baldwin, even as a producer, we don’t really know exactly what his producer duties were. Some big names are able to secure lines of credit or funding from a bond completion company, so they are given a producer credit. Yet other producers have a more active involvement in the hiring of staff and crew.

Like I said, we need to call it The Great Reshuffling because it’s going to take some time, but we’ll be able to work things out. Resignation only leads to turnovers and it’s a continual cycle that only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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