‘Rust’ Tragedy: Was an Inexperienced Producing Team to Blame?
In May 2020, Alec Baldwin and writer-director Joel Souza unveiled an upcoming collaboration, the period Western Rust, a month before sellers would get a crack at the film at the first-ever virtual Cannes Film Market. Powerhouse agency CAA was handling domestic rights, while Cannes regular Highland Film Group was on board to spearhead international sales. As for who would put up the bulk of the film’s $6 million budget, fledgling indie financiers BondIt Media Capital and Streamline Global were in place.
Some 17 months passed before production began on the film, which is now facing intense scrutiny following the accidental shooting death of the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, on the New Mexico set. As the investigation delves into who was culpable in the tragedy that also injured Souza, several crewmembers have expressed to The Hollywood Reporter frustration specifically with the film’s producers, a ragtag group of six men who have produced only nine movies combined. THR reached out to the film’s publicist, who did not respond to a request for comment.
As with any film, the buck stops with the producers. They are the men and women in charge of hiring and to whom crewmembers can take complaints. What’s notable about Rust is that it featured a hodgepodge group with little to no experience in that capacity. Baldwin, who discharged the prop gun that killed Hutchins and injured Souza on Oct. 21, was one of the film’s six producers. (On a narrative feature film, “producer” is the top distinction, while “executive producer” is the next rung down. The opposite is true in TV and with documentaries.) Sources involved with the production say it wasn’t merely a vanity title, as is often the case with name actors and actresses, and that Baldwin had developed the project from scratch with Souza and shares “story by” credit. Still, it marked only the fifth time Baldwin has served as a producer on a narrative feature film during his 41-year acting career (Souza’s 2019 drama Crown Vic being his most recent outing).
The film’s other five producers had even less experience in that post. Baldwin and Souza’s manager, former CAA agent Matt DelPiano, was serving as a film producer for the first time in his long career in representation. Likewise, Rust’s Ryan Winterstern and Nathan Klingher of Short Porch Pictures boast no previous producer credits. Others sharing the title on the film included moneyman Ryan Donnell Smith, a Rust investor and Streamline executive who only has received a full producer credit on two previous films, 2016’s Some Freaks and 2010’s When Night Comes, the latter of which was never released theatrically. Rounding out the sextet is Anjul Nigam, an actor best known for his recurring role as Dr. Raj on Grey’s Anatomy and who’s previously produced just two movies, Crown Vic and 2018’s Bayou Caviar.
“What’s most shocking here is that there wasn’t a real producer to be found on this film,” says one veteran producer who has worked on high-profile indie films for more than two decades. “Typically, you might see a financier get a full producer credit, but you would have a veteran in there as well doing the job. When you’re a producer, you’ve gotta vet anyone you haven’t worked with previously and pounce when there’s a problem.”
One such problem appears to have been a previous complaint about a pair of accidental weapons discharges that went unaddressed days before the deadly incident, which happened more than midway through production. Several members of the crew also walked off set over unsafe conditions. Another red flag is that Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the person in charge of weaponry on set, had only two previous film credits of any kind under her belt: one as head armorer on Nicolas Cage movie The Old Way, which wrapped production right before Rust began filming; and the other as a costume assistant. Furthermore, assistant director Dave Halls, who is cited in a search warrant as having unknowingly given Baldwin a loaded prop gun before the fatal shooting, had been fired from the indie film Freedom’s Path. A producer on that film told THR that Halls was let go during production in 2019 when “a crewmember incurred a minor and temporary injury when a gun was unexpectedly discharged.”
Rust gaffer Serge Svetnoy took his frustration with the producers one step further. In a candid Facebook post, he specifically singled them out: “To save a dime sometimes, you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated and dangerous job, and you risk the lives of the other people who are close and your lives as well. I understand that you always fight for the budget, but you cannot allow this to happen. There should always be at least one professional in each department who knows the job. It is an absolute must to avoid such a tragedy, like the tragedy with Halyna.”
Likewise, industryites not involved with the film have singled out Rust producers with regards to Hutchins’ killing. Jurassic World prop master Gary Truers posted a lengthy statement on Instagram on behalf of a group of leading on-set armorers and weapons masters. The statement said: “The incident was caused, in part, by producers who were unwilling to hire competent people following our long established and tested firearms safety procedures. We are aware of numerous violations … that occurred on this production. Exactly how many violations and which ones will be confirmed by the investigation, but we believe that the evidence will show that this tragedy was a failure of protocol and not due to the need for new or additional regulations.”
When Rust was first announced pre-Cannes 2020, it came with the typical fanfare of a seasoned star in Baldwin teaming with a hot young director in Souza. But there was immediate skepticism about who was producing. A woman named Anna Granucci was listed as the film’s producer along with Nigam, DelPiano and Baldwin (Granucci currently has a “special thanks” credit). Like the six other Rust producers, she had no real experience in the post. She was also known to have worked for the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, according to a source close to Granucci. THR reached out to a representative for Granucci, who declined comment.
Financiers BondIt and Streamline also are relatively new to the film world. Founded in 2013, BondIt has provided financing including bridge loans and minimum guarantees to dozens of indie productions, but mostly those that have a microbudget and rarely make it to theaters. Streamline, which launched in 2015 and is backed by Emily Hunter Salveson, has put money into a few notable projects including Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and another upcoming Baldwin project, Supercell. Salveson, a novice in the film industry but who is the granddaughter of MasterCard creator Melvin Salveson and the great-grandniece of EF Hutton founding partner Gerald Loeb, has an executive producing credit on Rust.
“A star as big as Alec Baldwin should never have been in a movie like this,” says the veteran producer. “Everything about it screams amateurish. This is why you need real producers or at least one, and clearly there wasn’t one in this case.”