Neal W. Zoromski has spent three decades in Hollywood, working on films big and small, but never on a western. So he was elated last month when asked to join the crew of an Alec Baldwin movie in New Mexico.
The props veteran immediately told “Rust” production managers that he was interested in the job that would put him in charge of the Old West gear. Pistols, rifles, wagons, saddles, and sacks of flour were needed to recreate 1880s Kansas for Baldwin, who played a grizzled outlaw named Harland Rust.
But during four days of informal talks with film directors, Zoromski said he had a “bad feeling”.
“There were massive red flags,” he said in an interview with The Times on Sunday.
He said he felt “Rust” was too much of a sloppy production, with an overarching emphasis on saving money instead of a concern for the safety of people. Production managers didn’t seem to value the experience and brushed off his questions, he said.
Zoromski finally told the production managers of “Rust” that he would accept a pass.
“After pressing ‘send’ on that last email, I felt in the pit of my stomach, ‘This is an accident waiting to happen,’” he said.
Last Thursday, Baldwin shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, in the chest with a propeller pistol as he rehearsed a shooting scene inside a wooden church on the film set of Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, NM
Baldwin, who is also a producer on the film, was practicing removing his gun from its holster and aiming it at the camera. “Rust” director Joel Souza, who was also injured, told a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s detective he heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop.”
Hutchins, a rising star in the industry, collapsed and the rest of the crew struggled to heal his injury. She was then airlifted about 50 miles away to an Albuquerque hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She leaves behind a husband and a 9-year-old son.
Production has been halted and Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Deputies and the New Mexico Office of Occupational Health and Safety are investigating the crash.
Tension boiled over the set. On Thursday, the 12th day of a 21-day production, union cameramen and their assistants walked out of work to protest the working conditions. Non-union cameramen were recruited and the change put the director behind schedule. The assistant director had yelled at the script supervisor over lunch, according to a copy of the 911 recording.
A few days earlier, a cameraman had reported two accidental discharges of firearms during a rehearsal in a booth. “It’s very dangerous,” the cameraman wrote in a text message to the production manager, The Times reported Friday.
The tragedy occurred amid a heated debate within Zoromski’s union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees, over whether to strike to demand better wages and better conditions on sets. filming and television.
The producers of ‘Rust’ late last week released a statement, “The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority for Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company. While we have not been made aware of any official complaints regarding the safety of weapons or accessories on the assembly, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is down. We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and to provide mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time. “
Now Zoromski, who lives in Los Angeles, is haunted by the death of Hutchins. He thinks that if he had accepted the role of “Rust” things would have turned out differently.
“I take my job incredibly seriously,” he said. “As a master of accessories, you have to worry about safety. I’m the guy who arms people on set. “
Zoromski, 57, didn’t grow up wanting to make films. Born in New Zealand, he traveled the world with his adoptive parents before moving, at age 5, with his mother to Rhode Island. He graduated from Boston College with a degree in biochemistry.
He had planned a career in the pharmaceutical industry, but he needed a job. He worked in a restaurant in Los Angeles, in retail, then in a die-hard commercial real estate brokerage firm on the West Side.
Eventually, a friend directed him to Roger Corman’s B movie studio, where he was hired to work as an assistant in the art department. On his first day on the job, he was sent to a stable where they were shooting the 1990 movie “The Haunting of Morella”. The barn was dilapidated and tiny cracks between the beams of the walls let sunlight in and spoil the camera lighting.
An art director ordered Zoromski to stuff hay into the cracks to block out the sun. He spent the day meticulously gluing strands of hay to fill the joints between the planks. The art director was impressed with his diligence and he got hired.
Zoromski then worked on TV movies and music videos with Paula Abdul, Madonna and Guns N ‘Roses before moving on to feature films.
He has worked on several major productions, notably in the accessories department on Roland Emmerich’s “Day After Tomorrow” in 2004 with Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid. He was the prop master for Jason Reitman’s 2005 film, “Thank You for Smoking”.
It was 9 p.m. on September 20 when “Rust” production manager Row Walters asked if Zoromski was interested in becoming the prop master for the film. An hour later, Zoromski replied by email that he was “very interested”. The two sides engaged in conversations throughout this week.
But Zoromski then changed his mind, citing several concerns.
He said he felt the production managers of “Rust” were “evasive” when asked about the specific terms of his potential job. The budget, estimated at around $ 7 million, seemed too small for the type of film the producers were trying to make. He couldn’t get an answer on the budget for his “kit,” industry jargon for its cache of accessories needed to store the set.
He said he was also alarmed because it was only two weeks before filming for “Rust” began in New Mexico and the producers had yet to hire a prop master. Typically, these decisions are made weeks, if not months, before the cameras roll.
“In films, preparation is essential. … You also need time to clean, inspect and repair guns, ”he said. “You need time to fix old clocks. In period films, you sometimes use antiques. But here there was absolutely no time to prepare, and that gave me a bad feeling. “
What about the deal breaker?
Zoromski said he initially requested a department of five technicians. She was told that “Rust” was a low budget production and the plans were to use items from a local props house. He changed his request to have at least two experienced crew members: one to serve as an assistant props master and the other as a gunsmith or gunsmith, dedicated to ensuring that weapons were safe, oiled and functioning properly.
But the producers of “Rust” insisted that only one person was needed to handle both tasks.
“You never have a dual accessory assistant as a gunsmith,” Zoromski said. “These are two very big jobs. “
Walters, the production manager, sent Zoromski an email on September 24 that said, “We would really like one of the assistants to be the gunsmith who can push the shootings and heavy armor days,” according to a copy of the email shared with the Times. (Walters did not respond to requests for comment.)
Zoromski replied: “Unfortunately, I have to let this opportunity pass. I appreciate your interest and wish only the best for you, your team and the show. “
Three days later, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, 24, announced on Facebook that she had a new gig in a movie in Santa Fe, according to a screenshot from a recent social media post, which was shared with the Times. She had landed the position of “Property Key Assistant / Gunsmith” on “Rust,” according to production notes.
Now questions arise about Gutierrez-Reed’s experience and his performance at work. Gutierrez-Reed had worked as a chief gunsmith on only one other production before “Rust”.
According to search warrants, she left three weapons on a cart rolling outside the church at noon Thursday. Souza, the director of the film, told an investigator from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office that several people had handled the guns and that he was not sure anyone checked them for their safety afterwards. the group’s return from lunch.
Editor Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.