Neal W. Zoromski has spent three decades in Hollywood, working on movies big and small, but never on a western. So he was thrilled last month when he was asked to join the crew of an Alec Baldwin film in New Mexico.
The veteran prop master immediately told “Rust” production managers that he was interested in the job that would give him responsibility for the accoutrements of the Old West. Pistols, rifles, wagons, saddles and flour sacks were needed to re-create 1880s Kansas for Baldwin, who was playing a grizzled outlaw named Harland Rust.
But during four days of informal discussions with film managers, Zoromski said he got a “bad feeling.”
“There were massive red flags,” he said in an interview Sunday with The Times.
He said he felt that “Rust” was too much of a slapdash production, one with an overriding focus on saving money instead of a concern for people’s safety. Production managers didn’t seem to value experience and were brushing off his questions, he said.
Zoromski ultimately told “Rust” production managers that he would take a pass.
“After I pressed ‘send’ on that last email, I felt, in the pit of my stomach: ‘That is an accident waiting to happen,'” he said.
Last Thursday, Baldwin fatally shot 42-year-old cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in the chest with a prop gun while rehearsing a gunfight scene inside a wooden church at the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set near Santa Fe, N.M.
Baldwin, who also is a producer on the film, was practicing removing his revolver from its holster and aiming it toward the camera. “Rust” director Joel Souza, who also was injured, told a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s detective that he heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop.“
Hutchins, a rising star in the industry, crumpled over, and fellow crew members struggled to treat her wound. She was later airlifted about 50 miles away to an Albuquerque hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She left behind a husband and 9-year-old son.
Production has been shut down, and Santa Fe County Sheriff’s deputies and the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau are investigating the accident.
Tensions were boiling on set. On Thursday, the 12th day of a 21-day production, union camera operators and their assistants had walked off the job to protest working conditions. Nonunion camera operators were brought in, and the switch put the director behind schedule. The assistant director had yelled at the script supervisor during lunch, according to a copy of the 911 recording.
Days earlier, a camera operator had reported two accidental gun discharges during a rehearsal in a cabin. “This is super unsafe,” the camera operator wrote in a text message to the production manager, The Times reported Friday.
The tragedy occurred amid a boisterous debate within Zoromski’s union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, over whether to go on strike to seek better pay and improved conditions on film and TV sets.
The “Rust” producers late last week released a statement: “The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company. Though we were not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down. We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and offer mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time.”
Now, Zoromski, who lives in Los Angeles, is haunted by Hutchins’ death. He believes that had he accepted the “Rust” job, things would have turned out differently.
“I take my job incredibly seriously,” he said. “As the prop master, you have to be concerned about safety. I’m the guy who hands the guns to the people on set.”
Zoromski, 57, didn’t grow up wanting to be in the movie business. Born in New Zealand, he traveled around the world with his adopted parents before moving, at age 5, with his mother to Rhode Island. He graduated from Boston College with a biochemistry degree.
He had planned a career in the pharmaceutical industry, but he was in need of a job. He worked at a restaurant in L.A., in retail, and then at a cutthroat commercial real estate brokerage on the West Side.
Finally, a friend steered him to Roger Corman’s B-movie studio, where he was hired to work as an art department assistant. His first day on the job, he was sent to a horse barn where they were shooting the 1990 film “The Haunting of Morella.” The barn was dilapidated, and tiny cracks between wall timbers allowed sunlight to seep in and ruin 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 hay strands to fill the seams between the boards. The art director was impressed with his diligence, and he was hired.
Zoromski then worked on TV movies and music videos with Paula Abdul, Madonna and Guns N’ Roses before moving to feature films.
He’s worked on several major productions, including in the props department on Roland Emmerich’s 2004 “Day After Tomorrow,” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid. He was prop master for Jason Reitman’s 2005 film, “Thank You for Smoking.”
It was 9 p.m. Sept. 20 when the “Rust” production manager, Row Walters, reached out to see if Zoromski was interested in becoming the props master for the film. An hour later, Zoromski replied via email that he was “very interested.” The two sides engaged in conversations throughout that week.
But Zoromski later changed his mind, citing several concerns.
He said he felt that “Rust” production managers were being “evasive” when he asked about specific terms of his potential employment. The budget, estimated at about $7 million, seemed too small for the type of film the producers were attempting to make. He couldn’t get an answer on the budget for his “kit,” industry jargon for his cache of props needed to stock the set.
He said he also became alarmed because it was just two weeks before “Rust” was set to begin filming in New Mexico and the producers hadn’t yet hired a prop master. Typically, those decisions are made weeks, even months, before the cameras roll.
“In the movies, the prep is everything. …You also need time to clean, inspect and repair guns,” he said. “You need time to fix old clocks. In period films, you are sometimes using antiques. But here, there was absolutely no time to prepare, and that gave me a bad feeling.”
And the deal breaker?
Zoromski said he initially asked for a department of five technicians. He was told that “Rust” was a low-budget production and that plans were to use items from a local prop house. He modified his request to have at least two experienced crew members: one to serve as an assistant prop master and the other as an armorer, or gun wrangler, dedicated to making sure the weapons were safe, oiled and functioning properly.
But the “Rust” producers insisted that only one person was needed to handle both tasks.
“You never have a prop assistant double as the armorer,” Zoromski said. “Those are two really big jobs.”
Walters, the production manager, sent Zoromski an email Sept. 24 that read: “We’d really like one of the assistants to be the armorer that can push up on the gunfights 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 pass on this opportunity. I am grateful for your interest and wish nothing but the very best for you, your crew and the show.”
Three days later, 24-year-old Hannah Gutierrez-Reed announced on Facebook that she had a new gig on a film in Santa Fe, according to a screen shot of a recent social media post, which was shared with The Times. She’d landed the job as the “property key assistant/armorer” on “Rust,” according to the production notes.
Now, questions are being raised about Gutierrez-Reed’s experience and her performance on the job. Gutierrez-Reed had worked as head armorer on only one other production before “Rust.”
According to search warrants, she left three weapons on a rolling cart outside the church setting at midday Thursday. Souza, the film’s director, told a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office investigator that multiple people had been handling the guns and that he wasn’t sure whether anyone had checked them for safety after the group came back from lunch.
Staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.