When news broke on October 22nd, 2021, that actor Alec Baldwin had fired a prop gun on the set of his film Rust, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza, the question everyone was asking was “how did this happen?”.
The tragedy occurred on the film set, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the production company releasing a statement that read: “The entire cast and crew has been absolutely devastated by today’s tragedy, and we send our deepest condolences to Halyna’s family and loved ones.
“We have halted production on the film for an undetermined period of time and are fully cooperating with the Santa Fe Police Department’s investigation. We will be providing counselling services to everyone connected to the film as we work to process this awful event.”
The accidental shooting was not the first incident of its kind — in 1993 actor Brandon Lee was fatally wounded on the set of The Crow after a prop gun was loaded with improperly-made dummy rounds and the failure to carry out a safety check on the firearm meant that a bullet stuck in the gun barrel (known as a squib load) went unnoticed.
So, how did this tragedy occur? And what, typically, is the on-set protocol when it comes to prop weapons and safety?
How Do Stunts With Firearms Usually Work on Film Sets?
As you would imagine, there are typically extremely strict protocols in place on film sets to ensure everyone’s safety when using prop weapons.
Prop masters are tasked with overseeing the prop department which means they’re responsible for the production, maintenance, and inventory of any and all props, with the assistant of prop runners, coordinators and makers. Armourers will also be employed to oversee all weapons that are used on a production. Their job ranges from selecting the correct items for a certain period in history to taking care of the weapons on set and making sure they are being used safely and properly by actors and stunt people.
Speaking to Variety, prop master Dutch Merrick said that what happened on the set of Rust was the worst-case scenario.
“An actor puts a tremendous amount of trust in their prop department, especially armourers and pyrotechnics, those are the things that can literally kill most easily,” Merrick told the publication.
“We go through diligent safety procedures. First being, not to have real ammo on the set, or on the truck. And we constantly inspect the ammunition to make sure it’s the appropriate ammunition for that particular firearm. We block out a scene very carefully with the director, the actors, director of photography, and we make sure that everybody is comfortable with the timing.”
In the case of the tragedy on the set of Rust, it would seem these standard safety protocols were not carried out properly, with the assistant director believing the weapon to be safe and handing it to Baldwin for the scene.
What Do Armourers Do On Set?
In addition to overseeing all weapons that are used on a production, armourers are also in charge of leading actors and anyone else involved in a scene that requires the use of firearms, and ensuring they are thoroughly briefed on gun safety.
According to Merrick, armourers will also run through the “three golden rules” of gun handling which are, “You always treat a gun as if it’s loaded. You never point a gun at another person, and you always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re absolutely ready to fire.”
Prop expert Michael Corrie also explained that the standard procedure on a film set is that actors will only hold a stunt gun that cannot fire until the very moment they are supposed to discharge the weapon in the scene. At that moment, the director will call cut, the stunt gun will be taken from them and an armourer will hand them a gun loaded with blanks, and then they will begin filming again.
As soon as the scene is completed, the armourer will immediately take the firearm back.
Merrick also noted that when using a firearm in a film, the shot is usually “cheated” with the actor pointing the gun just off-angle between people.
“You also just want to point it in a safe direction in case anything does come out of the barrel, that it doesn’t get the person or object,” he said.
What Responsibility Falls on the Actors?
While making a movie is a collaborative effort, each person has their own specific role to play, and actors are no exceptions.
If a performer is handed a firearm to use in a scene, they trust that the props department and armourers have done their due diligence and followed protocol and that the weapon is safe for use.
Says Merrick, “I really need to reiterate that the actors have a focus on their dialogue and their emotion and where they got to stand on their lighting and how to react to the other actor…They need to be able to stand firmly and know that the wall is not going to fall down on their head, they need to know that the gun that they’re being handed is ready to go and it’s safe and it’s not going to hurt anybody.”
Added Corrie, “The reason that Alec Baldwin did not check the firearm is that he’s not given time to do so. It is understood that when the firearm is handed to him it is in proper working order. And that is the responsibility of the armourer or prop master, whoever is in control of the firearms on set.”
So, How Did This Happen?
While the incident on the set of Rust is currently being investigated by New Mexico police as well as the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, many in the film industry recognise that there are a number of worrying trends that likely contributed to Halyna Hutchins’ untimely death.
For one thing, the massive demand for content from studios and streamers alike means that crew are stretched thin and qualified people for every production are in short supply. This has led to an influx of producers and other below-the-line talent being attached to projects despite having limited experience.
Additionally, stretched budgets, long hours, tight deadlines and a lack of resources have led to many crew members rushing to get jobs done, resulting in complacency when it comes to standards and procedures. Combine that with the inexperience — or, equally dangerous — the over-confidence of off-camera talent, and it becomes a little easier to see how such tragedies occur.
In the case of the devastating accident on the set of Rust, we can only hope that it will serve as a wake-up call to the entertainment industry to ensure that the necessary changes are effected in order to prevent anyone else from losing their life.