The electricians, cameramen, makeup artists and other crew members who power the New Mexico film industry are having their busiest year.
Lured by generous tax incentives and a voracious demand for streaming shows, studios that shoot everything from “The Bachelorette” to films with prominent stars are flocking to the state. In August alone, 48 productions were underway, according to the New Mexico Film Office.
Local teams are working more than twice as many hours as they did a few years ago, leaving the state’s relatively small pool of skilled labor and intensifying debate over whether more can be done to protect workers from physical injury on the job.
These concerns took on new urgency after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of “Rust,” where the crew repeatedly raised concerns about safety protocols and other working conditions. in the days preceding his death.
More than a dozen team members from New Mexico who spoke to The Times said the working conditions they had long accepted as standard practice – work days longer than 12 hours, long commutes in the dark – have deteriorated as producers try to finish shows faster and longer. cheap.
“It’s getting worse and worse, faster and more dangerous,” said Kim Trujillo, a client who recently worked on Netflix’s “Messiah” and “The Biggest Loser” in the United States. “It’s not brain surgery, but it’s the level of pressure we’re under.”
Netflix’s new studios in Albuquerque and other large-scale productions in the state have attracted many unionized workers, making it harder for independent films to hire an experienced crew, according to workers in the film industry .
The local chapter of the International Theater Employees Alliance, which represents the team below the line, has been unable to keep up with the growing number of productions, frustrated members say. The state’s workplace safety agency does not regulate hours or travel. And lawmakers have shown little appetite to curb the pace of an industry that has become a key source of revenue.
In some ways, the production boom in New Mexico has been a boon to workers, who now have more stable jobs than they did a few years ago, said John Trapp, former vice president and construction coordinator. of IATSE 480 whose credits include “Roswell, New Mexico” and the upcoming Fox series “Cleaning Lady.” The pandemic has empowered workers, he said, allowing them to order higher rates .
But, he said, “there is a cost to this rain of money, and it is the rest of your life.”
People who avidly consume television may not realize how dangerous the production of these shows can be, said Matthew Ellis, construction worker and set decorator.
Its teams work with forklifts and other heavy equipment, electrical systems and heavy rigs suspended 50 feet in the air. Extreme New Mexico weather conditions can play a role, including heat waves, below freezing temperatures, thunderstorms, and winds strong enough to topple a set.
When producers push to work faster and cheaper, security can be “the first line item that gets blurry,” he said in an email.
Similar complaints of long hours and pressure to compensate for pandemic delays have taken center stage amid the long contractual struggle between IATSE and the big studios. The union’s 60,000 members, which include costume designers, makeup artists and set builders, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, which was averted two weeks ago thanks to a tentative contract agreement.
When the first snowstorm of winter hit Albuquerque last October, a production shoot in the area took the financial hit and sent everyone home, Trujillo said. But the film she was working on made progress, she said, adding that she couldn’t name the film because it was bound by a nondisclosure agreement.
The temperature dropped to 19 degrees, breaking a record set in 1916. The cast and crew worked outside for hours with their heads wet with snow, fearing aloud that they would fall ill or hurt someone, a- she declared.
Production ordered the team of about 100 people to go ahead with a twilight company move, put away their gear, and travel about 15 miles east on icy roads to in downtown Albuquerque. So much snow had fallen that workers needed help starting their cars and defrosting their windshields, Trujillo said.
On the way to downtown, a crew member hit an icy area and slipped off the freeway, Trujillo said. As soon as she arrived at the second filming site, shaken and visibly upset, she resigned.
“Anyone could have died that night on the roads,” Trujillo said. “But the production office treated him like nothing happened. It’s like that twisted badge of honor that no matter what, the show must go on.
Representatives of IATSE 480 did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
New Mexico Governor Stephanie Lujan Grisham said in an interview with The Times last week that everything she had seen so far on the “Rust” set suggested there was “a lot of trouble. “.
“The big failure up front is that they didn’t follow these security protocols,” said Lujan Grisham. “If in an industry there is an opportunity for deliberately or negligently not following requirements, do we want to do something that makes it impossible for these tragedies to unfold? “
Another problem, she said, appeared to be workers who “weren’t qualified to do what they were doing.”
The IATSE 480 does not have enough union members to staff all New Mexico productions, especially when several large productions are being filmed simultaneously, said Trapp, the former union vice president.
In August alone, the teams were working on the fourth seasons of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and “Roswell, New Mexico”, the first season of a new crime drama from Fox, the second season of “Big Sky” from ABC, several independent films and a western starring Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe and Rachel Brosnahan.
During peak periods, it’s common for productions, especially independent films, to fill their hiring teams with the “overflow list,” a list of less experienced, non-union workers provided by the union, Trapp said. .
While safety on set is important, the most dangerous part of the day is often getting home, team members say. Many can relate a time when they or a friend fell asleep while driving, only woke up when they strayed from the road, or returned home with no memory of driving.
New Mexico is the third deadliest state in the country for kilometer driving, with a fatality rate 40% above the national average, according to federal data. Drowsy drivers coping with a level of impairment similar to drunk drivers.
In 2014, Teamsters rider Gary Joe Tuck, who had worked an 18-hour day in the Netflix series “Longmire”, died after falling asleep while driving and overturning his car on a New Mexico freeway.
Two years ago, a makeup artist was driving the east side of the Sandia Mountains at 3 a.m. to reach the call time at 3:30 a.m. for the first day of a sci-fi series called “Alt.” two team members told The Times. . She fell asleep at the wheel and overturned another car, police told local media. A passenger was thrown from the other vehicle and killed.
The specter of coming home late at night prompted the film crew to leave the set of “Rust” hours before Hutchins was killed. The production initially paid for hotel rooms for the film crew to cut down on the time they spent driving home on Interstate 25, a four-lane rural highway with a speed limit of 75 mph.
At the start of the second week of filming, the film crew were told they would not be editing overnight, said Lane Luper, the head of the department. The team protested, telling producers that a late-night commute was too dangerous.
“I have to get up early and get to the set,” wrote Jonas Huerta, digital utilities technician, in an email to a unit production manager. “My job is very physically demanding and I am beyond exhaustion when it comes time to finish. I found myself dozing or having to take micro naps on the side of the road just to get home safely.
A spokesperson for the producers said hotel rooms have been provided for camera operators and other crews. But, she said, the IATSE contract requires producers to provide rooms only if workers spend more than 13 hours a day at work or if a team member lives more than 100 km away. The Albuquerque crew lived 49-54 miles from the plateau.
Rebecca Roose, assistant cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of the Environment, which oversees worker safety, said her office did not have jurisdiction over workers’ hours or trips.
Burnout is so common that crew members exchange tips on how to stay awake and alert while driving, said Wynema Chavez Quintana, a wardrobe dyer who worked on “Breaking Bad” and “Army of the Dead”. Zack Snyder’s zombie heist movie.
She keeps a packet of sunflower seeds in her car for emergency food to keep her awake. And on the days when she works late on set, she begs her Pueblo Indian ancestors to protect her, asking them, “Don’t let me die tonight.”
Times editors Julia Wick, Meg James and Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.