“I don’t want to say who was guilty or who was innocent. [pauses] But if you’re directing a movie and two kids get their heads chopped off at f**king twelve o’clock at night when there ain’t supposed to be kids working, and you said “Action!” then you have some sort of responsibility.”
That was Eddie Murphy, in an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1990, referring to John Landis and one of the worst on-set catastrophes in Hollywood history. If you’re unaware of what I’m talking about, or what any of this has to do with Alec Baldwin, during the making of the first full segment of the 1983 anthology film The Twilight Zone: The Movie – a belabored, leaden semi-remake of the episode “A Quality of Mercy” where an unrepentant bigot mysteriously experiences a whirlwind of historical atrocities from the perspective of various minorities – director Landis blatantly violated California labor laws by surreptitiously hiring two child actors for a night shoot. He paid their parents under-the-table and lied to them about the conditions their children would be acting under. Those conditions being a sequence he wrote into the script at the last minute, where the bigot, played by the late Academy Award-nominated actor Vic Morrow, tries to save two children in the middle of a firefight in a Vietnamese jungle.
As the director and producer in charge, Landis was responsible for securing special waiver permits allowing him to shoot a scene like that late at night with live explosives. But he decided not to. Because he was worried that his request would be denied. And as an Auteur™, he could not compromise his Artistic Vision™! So he didn’t tell his casting agents about his hiring of child actors and hid them from the safety officer who inspected the set. When it came time to shoot the scene, the pilot maneuvered the helicopter about twenty-five feet above the ground, near an explosive device meant to simulate mortar fire. He was supposed to turn the aircraft midair to line up for the next shot, but the explosive device was detonated while the tail-rotor was still above it, which knocked the rotor off the tail and spun the helicopter out of control. During this time, Mr. Important Auteur shouted over the radio “Get lower! Lower!” as it crashed directly onto Morrow and the children he was carrying, killing all three of them instantly.
Years of litigation and government investigations resulted in dozens of new state and federal regulations in response to this horrible event, but Landis himself, along with
co-conspirator associate producer George Folsey, pilot Dorcey Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart, were all acquitted of manslaughter charges at the conclusion of their nine-month-long criminal trial.
I’m no legal expert. I don’t know what the jury instructions were or how they deliberated. But setting legal liability aside, on a deeper level, I agree with Murphy. Landis was the director of that segment and was one of only two credited producers on the entire film (Steven Spielberg was the other, but he was not involved in that part of the production). He was in charge. It was his set. His crew. Those deaths occurred on his watch. Should he have gone to prison? I’ll let the lawyers have the final say on that. But at a minimum, he should have never been allowed anywhere near a film production again.
I have been thinking more about that tragedy in the wake of the recent firearm mishap on the set of the western thriller Rust, which resulted in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and severely injured director Joel Souza. The investigation and legal consequences of this will stretch out for years, and I have no idea how the process will pan out. But a frustrating amount of attention has been paid to Baldwin for the wrong reasons. Yes, he fired the fatal shot and infamously tried to explain himself in an interview with Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos last December that most people agreed… didn’t go over well.
And yes, lo and behold, one of the big claims he made appeared to have been directly refuted by F.B.I. ballistics last weekend. The gun could not have discharged the way Baldwin said it did in the interview, and he was almost certainly the one who pulled the trigger.
Does this mean he’ll be criminally charged, as he insisted he wouldn’t be last December? Again, not a lawyer. I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: it doesn’t matter if he pulled the trigger, it went off on its own while he was holding it, or even if he was nowhere near the gun when it discharged. Because for this film, he was not just an actor hired to play a role; he was one of the six credited producers of Rust and he was on the set that day. Meaning that, just like John Landis back on that Indian Dunes shoot forty years ago, he shares some responsibility for what happened.
That’s how it works when you take charge of something: you own it. If it goes great, congratulations! You become the face of that success and reap the glory. But if it goes horribly, guess where the buck stops? “But… but Robert! It wasn’t his fault! The armorer was incompetent and the assistant director was reckless!” That doesn’t let him off the hook. Just because it’s not his fault, doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible. Producers are responsible for the hiring and supervision of key film crew personnel. Baldwin, along with Matt DelPiano, Nathan Klingher, Anjul Nigam, Ryan Donnell Smith, and Ryan Winterstern, allowed the subpar job performance of their armorer and assistant director to continue. The previous mishaps and warning signs happened on their watch. They decided “the show must go on!” was more of a priority than the safety of the cast and crew. They have a moral obligation to step up and own the consequences.
Let me put it another way – let’s say no mishap occurred, and Rust was completed on schedule and became a massive hit and a critical darling. In fact, let’s take this hypothetical even further and suppose it won the Academy Award for Best Picture next year (there’s a reason why the producers win the top Academy Award). Do you think Baldwin would have demurred at that moment? Insisted he wasn’t really in charge? Or would he run up on stage, Oscar in hand, talking up how involved he was in every aspect of the production?
Exactly. Which is why – regardless of what conclusions law enforcement or OSHA investigators arrive at – he and his fellow Rust producers (and probably director Souza, though it’s unclear how much actual control he had as the director) share responsibility for what happened that day. Hopefully, Hollywood has learned something in the decades since the Twilight Zone fiasco and will never allow any of them the opportunity to take charge of another film set again.
And there you have it. Can’t say I’m surprised.