Asst. News Editor
Arts & Entertainment Editor
With every passing day, it feels as if caring about basic safety of workers is on the decline; and the recent, tragic events that happened on the set of Rust are no exception. On Oct. 22, a fatal shooting occurred on the movie set, killing renowned cinematographer and the movie’s director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, and injuring Director Joel Souza. The actor handling the gun during the scene, Alec Baldwin, was under the impression that the gun was safe to use. Evidently, it was not.
Prop guns have an infamous history in the cinematic world; this is not the first time that something tragic has happened on the set of a movie (and it most likely will not be the last). It has been confirmed that there were no safety measures taken regarding firearms on the set of Rust due to the low budget set. There are specific guidelines Prop Masters have to follow when handling firearms. On the document, the first thing that is in bold and highlighted is, “Blanks can kill. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded. ‘Live ammunition’ is never to be used nor brought onto any studio lot or stage.” The document continues by saying that the Props Master is responsible for obtaining, maintaining, and handling all firearms. Everyone involved with handling the firearm must participate in safety meetings and must be trained in how to handle the gun. So, what happened on the set of Rust?
There were many factors that led to the tragic incident; however, many could have been avoided. Hours before the incident, a half-dozen camera crew workers walked off the set to protest their working conditions. LA Times wrote, “The camera operators and their assistants were frustrated by the conditions surrounding the low-budget film, including complaints about long hours, long commutes and waiting for their paychecks. . . .” A source told LA Times that at least one of the camera operators complained about the lack of gun safety on set. Prior to the accident, Alec Baldwin’s stunt double fired two rounds on Oct. 16 after being told that the gun was “cold,” meaning that the weapon doesn’t have any ammo, including blanks. A crew member said, “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.” Following the misfire, a crew member sent a text saying that there had been three accidental misfires up to that point, and yet no safety measures were ever implemented. There have been disputes by the Weapons Master, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, that she warned the stunt double of the gun being “hot” with ammo. In a statement made through her attorneys, Jason Bowels and Robert Gorence, they said, “Hannah was hired on two positions on this film, which made it extremely difficult to focus on her job as an armorer. . . .” They did not disclose what the other job Gutierrez-Reed had and they tried to shift the blame away from her to the larger issue of the lack of resources she was given by producers to make sure the set was safe. However, despite all of this, a loaded prop gun didn’t have to be involved in the first place.
This tragedy has brought up conversations of what occurred on the set of The Crow starring Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son. The same tragedy occurred; he was shot with a prop gun that was supposed to be safe, but, once again, it was not! As seen in various cases, prop guns are inherently unsafe for film. This same event keeps happening regardless of how “safe” a set thinks they are. The misuse of real ammunition being used instead of blanks keeps happening, and it proves fatal every single time. Why does this keep occurring and how can we change it?
The prop gun has been utilized in the entertainment industry for the longest time. A “prop gun” can be a variety of things, using a variety of ammunition. On the set of Rust, they were typically using a sort of ammunition called “blanks.” Blanks are a “type of gun cartridge that contains gunpowder but no bullet.” They give off the explosion and backfire that shooting a gun typically does, but without the threat of death involved. This makes them safer to use than a real bullet.
Current prop guns are inherently too dangerous to use on television and film sets right now, but, I understand that guns must be used because all media is a reflection of our current society — and people love their guns. So how can set and production teams create a safer prop gun? It is baffling to me that there has not been a gun developed that does not use any real ammunition. We have seen how far technology can go in film and television, with the expansiveness of CGI, pyrotechnics, and other forms of the sort. Movies have gone above and beyond to push the limits of what can be seen on the screen, and have come back successful. So, why has there not been anything like that with weapons — specifically guns? We have seen the effects that guns have on the livelihoods of so many people, and yet there has been no change in the way that industry is handled; why? Because the heads of these production companies do not want to spend more money than necessary for basic safety, and ultimately want to cut corners as much as they can. But this can have dangerous (and even deadly) consequences.
The Technical Director of Whittier College’s Theatre Department, Harold Kast, stated, “Nowadays with how advanced editing software is, you don’t need to have anything physically. Everything can be edited on-screen.” Kast continued to talk about prop safety on stage, which yes, is different from props on set. However, the fundamentals of safety still remain. When it comes to prop swords, they will never be sharp. Real swords are dulled down in order to reduce the risk of harm. There are also the alternatives of using plastic, silicone, or rubber swords. The same goes for firearms; BB guns can be used as a replacement or you can have a prop gun without ammo in it. If a loaded prop gun is to be used on a set, Prop Masters have to follow protocol.
Fourth-year Abby Ambach, the Props Master for Whittier College’s Theatre Department, has experience using prop guns and emphasized the importance of handling weapons, “My freshman year, we did Frankenstein, and I was in charge of the props during the shows because the props master couldn’t make it. In the show, we used a real prop gun, meaning it could have a blank in it, but the school did not want to have a blank in it. Instead, the actor just pulled the trigger and acted as if the gun actually fired with a bullet sound effect playing over it.” Ambach said that only two people are to interact with the gun, the Props Master and the actor.
Ambach also had experience with prop guns at her high school. She was Props Master from her sophomore to her senior year, and they did a production of Little Shop of Horrors that used a prop gun with blanks. She described her experience, “I would check the barrel before handing it to the actor to make sure that there’s either a blank in there or that there isn’t. I would put the blank in while the actor was there so we both knew that it was loaded. Once the play was over, I was the only one who took it away and I did not reload it again until the next show.” It’s a two-person connection; yet in the Rust incident, it was an associate director who handed Baldwin the gun. The associate director assured Baldwin that the gun was safe to use.
The film and television industry is full of faults, and one of the main ones is the constant unsafe conditions that behind-the-scenes workers are put under in order to make ends meet. On the set of Rust, it was confirmed that there were not routine expectations of the gun before firing to see if it was up to protocol. The set days prior to this tragic incident had three accidental discharges of a prop gun, alarming many people working on the movie; so much so that a crew member sent a text message to their unit production manager stating that “We’ve now had three accidental discharges. This is super unsafe.” Even prior to this, labor disputes had been popping up frequently on the set. It was stated that union camera crew members left the set of Rust due to overextended hours and unsafe working conditions. Because of this, nonunion members were brought in on the job, causing corners to be cut and ultimately the entire movie production process to be rushed which can cause slip-ups to happen.
Working conditions should be top priority for people in charge of creating film and television. In order for something to be done right, you need to have patience and most importantly, safety at the top of a priority list. But on the set of Rust, that did not happen. When corners get cut, people can get hurt, or even worse, killed. A response by Rust’s production team states that “The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company. . . .” But, obviously, safety was not a top priority. If it was, routine checks on the guns would have happened. If it was, union camera crew members would not have walked off of set because they felt like their lives were in danger, thus causing non union members to come in and haphazardly finish the job of the movie. If it was, Halyna Hutchins would still be here. False sentiments on the condition of safety on set do not mask that there is blood on your hands. It does not mask the fact that someone’s life was taken. Finally, it does not mask the fact that this could all be prevented.
On-set deaths are uncommon, but not totally unheard of. In 2016, an Associated Press report said that from 1999 up until the article’s publication, at least 43 people died on sets in the U.S. and more than 150 had been injured. The Rust situation immediately had people comparing it to Brandon Lee’s death in 1993. He was killed on the set of The Crow after filming a death scene where he was hit by a .44 caliber slug. The gun was supposed to have fired a blank, but his autopsy reported a bullet lodged near his spine. Before that, Jon-Erik Hexum was killed on the set of Cover Up in 1984. He accidentally shot himself in the head with a gun loaded with blanks.
Needless to say, the use of real prop guns should become a thing of the past. With the advancement of technology and editing software, there should be no need to fire blanks in order to achieve a realistic gunshot. The visual effects and sound design departments should come together to create something realistic without an actual shot ever having to be fired. If for some reason, like in the instance of Rust, where a prop gun has to be loaded and used, firearm safety should be their number one priority. It was reported that police found 500 rounds of mixed ammo, which means that live rounds, dummy bullets, and blanks were not separated. It can be easily speculated that was the cause of Hutchins death, that the gun should have been checked by the weapons or props master before it was handed to Baldwin, that the gun should have not been pointed at anyone. There are so many factors that played a part in Hutchins death, all of which could have been avoided.
Some TV shows are taking action to ban the use of live guns on set. On Oct. 22, showrunner Alexi Hawley for ABC’s The Rookie informed ABC executives that they will no longer be using quarter or half loads when filming. They primarily used CGI to portray gunshots, but would occasionally use live guns. “As of today, it is now policy on The Rookie that all gunfire onset will be with AirSoft guns with CG muzzle flashes added in post,” Hawley wrote in his memo. The showrunner for Amazon’s The Boys, Eric Kripke announced on Twitter that they will stop the use of live rounds, “In her memory, a simple, easy pledge: no more guns with blanks on any of my sets ever. We’ll use VFX muzzle flashes. Who’s with me?” This is just the first step of many to get the use of live guns off of film sets and only time will tell if the incident on the set of Rust will be the last of its kind.
Shortcuts are taken so much in the film industry, and there needs to be a call to have better and safer working conditions. And this can start with the use of safer weapons (specifically, guns) on set. Creating a prop gun that utilizes no ammunition, gunpowder, etc. and having that be widely distributed amongst companies to then be utilized in the film industry can cause incidents like this from occurring as frequently as they do. Prevention, 100 percent of the time, is the main component of safety. But this also coincides with general safety, and how that is managed. You can say as much as you want about how cautious you are about everyone’s safety, but when those words are not reflected in your actions, none of it matters. So production companies and everyone that falls into the heads of said companies need to do their part in the general safety of workers and everyone involved in the process — so that tragic deaths do not happen ever again.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Boston Globe via Getty Images / LA Times