Cinematographers Guild’s President Baird B. Steptoe Sr. Talks Safety – The Hollywood Reporter

Safety, including adequate rest during productions, is the top priority for camera technician Baird B. Steptoe Sr., who began his term this week as the newly elected national president of the International Filmmakers Guild (IATSE Local 600 ), which represents 9,000 members.

The first black guild member to be elected to office, Steptoe began his career in the industry in the mailroom at Walt Disney Studios, while taking night classes in the film department at Los Angeles City College. The first production he worked on as a paid professional was for Disney in 1976. tv movie Flight of the gray wolf, produced by Roy Disney Jr.. Since then he has earned over 100 credits on projects such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Signs, Sixth Sense, Young Sheldon and True blood.

Steptoe takes over because safety is a priority, following the death of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer and member of Local 600 who was killed by a gun fired by star Alec Baldwin on the set of the film independent Rust in October. He is also beginning his new role after months of contentious negotiations in 2021 for a new basic agreement between IATSE (Local 600 is the largest of 13 locals working under the contract) and AMPTP.

As he began his new role this week, Steptoe spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on its priorities and agenda.

What motivated you to run for president of the ICG?

Several things. Once our past president (cinematographer John Lindley) decided not to run, I thought it was time for me to step in, for the members and the passion I have for everything what we need – for safety and respect on set. And that’s across the industry.

A major topic of the past year has of course been the ratification of the three-year basic agreement with the AMPTP. (Local 600 narrowly rejected the contract with a 52% “no” vote, although it passed all 13 affected locals by a narrow margin.) When will you start talking about priorities for the next trading period? What are some of the issues that concern you the most?

We started last year, as soon as that happened. We had conversations about it all the time. This contract, I supported it. I know there were disagreements, but they weren’t throwbacks. We have gained several things in terms of quality of life, work and safety on set. We must continue. We’re sending out a survey soon enough. … But it’s still the hours, you work 14, 16 hours. These are not optimal options for someone’s life. We work in all weathers. When a storm rolls through a city and the power lines are down, or it’s raining, it’s snowing – we’re that team that also films. We don’t stop. he’s tough. We have to think of everyone. I’m not just thinking of the camera department.

I want to listen. i need to know what [the members’] what their needs are, know what their concerns are and we will discuss them.

Since the last basic agreement was divisive, is local union unification a priority? And if so, how do you plan to fix it?

Yes. As long as we don’t say “bring together” the local. We unite, we move forward. We had our first in-person national board meeting this weekend and it all started there. We will reach out to everyone with our communication service and get people involved. People think we haven’t gone far enough. We know with inflation and everything, how it went away from the contract [was ratified]. We’re going to be ready with the bargaining unit, not just Local 600, we all have to stick together to get back with the AMPTP. You cannot standardize what we do. It’s a unique industry, to say the least. And it’s rewarding to make films and movies. You have to be able to unite with all the other locals. Our outreach must be towards other unions and with solidarity.

Do you think there are generational issues in some of these cases?

Not really. They may think so. I do not think so. When I joined the local I was a teenager and the people around me were supportive. That’s who I learned from; I learned from people who had more experience than me. And that’s what we have to try to give to our young members.

What are your top priorities as you begin your term this week?

Well, one thing is the on-set steward program that just launched. We have 12 people. This will be the first time here in Los Angeles that Local 600 has on-set stewards who will be the team’s advocates. And they will have direct contact with their representatives in the field for safety and respect. And of course, all sorts of issues that can arise on set.

Safety is our main concern. … You can work 10 hours one day, 15 hours the next day, 10 hours the next day. And then by the time you get to Friday or Saturday mornings – Fraturdays – it’s just about body and soul. [Among the efforts currently in place], we have an initiative within our union, rides and halls. If a person feels that they cannot go home safely, they will go to the hotel or motel and rest, then they will send the receipt to us.

Our greatest asset is safety. Brent Hershman (the second unit cameraman who died in a car accident on his way home after what would have been a 19-hour day on the set of Pleasantville), when he was tragically killed, he was about five cars behind me on the 105 freeway. I was so tired. I never even saw him. And then we have a situation where we have Sarah Jones (the camera assistant who died in 2014 on the set of Midnight Rider when she was hit by a train), then Halyna. This all the more goes hand in hand with the importance of having a union delegate on a set, because he can point things out right away.

Would you like to address gun safety? And what about two bills in Sacramento, including one backed by Local 600, which seems to have stalled?

We will continue to strive for this [passed]. Our local now has a video that we show to all of our members on safe firearms practices. It’s a tragic incident that happened (on the set of Rust) and we can’t let that happen again. We need to educate our crews and the industry on how to be safer. And that’s what we do. … I’ve done a lot of war movies, with a lot of guns. And so I went around it and you must have a competent team of armors that are in charge.

You co-chaired the inclusion committee. Would you talk about diversity and inclusion initiatives?

In our latest contract, we have a DEI agreement with producers, to reach underrepresented and underserved communities. Our local has been doing this for years. We are involved with Hollywood CPR; it’s maybe 26 years since we started with them. We have contacts with other programs across the country here in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York.

Could you give us an update on plans to replace outgoing executive director Rebecca Rhine?

His contract ends at the end of September. We are now looking for research companies to start the whole process, which will take time. Rebecca will be here until that person arrives, so it will be an orderly transition. She can reach out to that person and get them involved in this amazing union – and in this amazing industry, if they’re not from this industry. I’m glad she’s here for that.

Let’s talk about your journey. I think you are the first member of your family in the business, and your sons are in the business.

I am the first member of my family. I started in the mailroom at Disney Studios, Roy Disney Jr., Ron Miller…Joe Nash, who was head of the camera department, basically just [said, “Let’s go,” and taught me everything. And the first project I worked on was Flight of the Grey Wolf, which was a Disney production. And then it became union. I was given an incredible opportunity. That’s where it started. 

[My sons] both work with me from time to time on different projects that we have done. They have kind of gone to their own regions and are very successful. I’m really proud of them. My wife did a great job. I was still there. This is one of the other difficult aspects of this industry. I used to be gone six, seven months of the year. It’s hard on families.

What are you currently working on or what is your next project?

I’m not working on anything right now. I just played on a few gigs. I was on an untitled Tic and Tac as an additional camera.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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