Back home in her native Ukraine — where she “grew up on a Soviet military base in the Arctic Circle surrounded by reindeer and nuclear submarines,” according to her personal website — Halyna Hutchins studied investigative journalism at Kyiv National University. After graduation, she channeled her curiosity and nose for a good story into documentary filmmaking, securing work with a British production company. But soon enough, the wild possibilities of fiction began to nibble at her brainstem. Hollywood was calling.
“She was just brilliant, someone everyone admired,” says Hutchins’ close friend Rachel Mason, director and writer of the Emmy-nominated 2019 documentary, Circus of Books.
Hutchins made her way to L.A., where she graduated from the AFI Conservatory in 2015 and embarked on work as a cinematographer, but sadly, she would never be able to fully realize her immense potential. On Thursday, Oct. 21, Hutchins, 42, was tragically shot and killed on the New Mexico set of her latest film, Rust, when star and producer Alec Baldwin fired what was supposed to be a prop weapon in her direction. The film’s director, 48-year-old Joel Souza, was also injured in the incident, which is currently being investigated by the Sante Fe County Sheriff’s Department. As the story has ricocheted through Hollywood, rumors have surfaced that unionized crew members walked off the set the night before the shooting due to a dispute over wages and unsafe working conditions, leaving a possibly inexperienced propmaster at the helm on the day of the accident.
Mason says her friend was “so excited” about the movie, a Western also starring Jensen Ackles and Frances Fisher. The film was one of five projects in development that Hutchins was a part of, including another feature-length film called Beneath, a sci-fi thriller starring Terrence Howard. “I had coffee with her before she left [for Rust],” Mason says. “It was really a major leap for her in her career. It was truly her biggest leap into her next phase as a [director of photography].”
Hutchins, who was married with a nine-year-old son, had made big strides in just six short years in Hollywood. She shot several of Mason’s indie-film projects over the years, including a music video starring Peaches which pops up in the end credits of Circus of Books. The same year that documentary came out, she also served as director of photography on Darlin’, the third film in the Offspring horror trilogy, and was dubbed one of American Cinematographer’s Rising Stars. In 2020, Hutchins worked on two features that earned festival accolades: Archenemy, an arthouse superhero flick starring Joe Manganiello, which was nominated for best motion picture at the Sitges International Film Festival; and Blindfire, a best crime drama winner at the 2020 Houston International Film Festival.
“She was on her way to being someone everyone would have known,” says Mason, who broke down in tears several times while talking about her friend. “It’s just unthinkable that now everybody knows about her because of this.”
Hutchins wasn’t intimidated by challenging topics and unconventional filmmaking, Mason says. (She says her friend “was down with weirdos like me.”) Instead, it fueled her: “She loved anything artistic — the more intense and wild, the better.” In their work together, “Halyna was always available to do anything I wanted, no matter how crazy or complicated it was. I’m in the avant-garde indie film world, where you just sort of run-and-gun it, and she was that person able to do absolutely anything and everything.” That meant she could run a “no-budget project” as well as manage a sprawling crew, Mason adds.
Mason saw Hutchins as a visionary, always game to innovate and adjust, whether it entailed cantilevering a camera over an edge or shooting a dancer from the floor, staring straight up. She says her friend was “amazing with complicated machinery” and “knew how to rig things that were really remarkable.”
“Pretty much anything I could conceive of, she would take it to the next level,” Mason says. “She was just so excited to do things that were difficult.”
Yet even as Hutchins pushed the limits professionally, Mason says she balanced her ambitions and family life with impressive grace — especially in a business where women behind the camera are still a rarity. (In 2020, women made up just six percent of cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films, according to one San Diego State University report.) “She was an incredible mom and role model to all the other women in this industry,” says Mason, whose son was close friends with Hutchins’ son. “Sometimes, being a mom leads to you not getting jobs. But she managed the juggling act so beautifully. She shielded her family life from some of the chaos of the film world and still managed to pursue her dream.”
In her final Instagram post, from two days before her death, Hutchins shared video of herself riding a horse in the desert on a recent day off from the Rust shoot. She looks content and almost giddy. The caption describes the mini-adventure “one of the perks of shooting a Western.”
In a statement posted to Twitter on Friday, Baldwin said his heart was “broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.” Mason echoes that sentiment, saying she is “completely devastated for her family.” Her lasting image of her friend is one of a person living out her calling: “I can only imagine she was making some incredible shots with him at that moment.”