Film production and firearms experts say movie sets probably changed permanently when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed on the remote New Mexico set of the western Rust 14 months ago – as prosecutors on Thursday said they will charge actor and producer Alec Baldwin and the film’s weapons supervisor with involuntary manslaughter.
“The gun safety experience on set has become more vocal, it’s a lot louder,” said Joey Dillon, an armorer who has overseen the use of firearms on television shows including Westworld and movies including The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “I make it a lot louder myself.”
Baldwin was pointing the gun with a live round inside that killed Hutchins as they set up an upcoming scene. Assistant director Dave Halls took a plea deal over his role in the incident and the tragedy sparked outrage over safety standards on the set of the movie and in the industry more widely.
People at several levels of production are determined to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
That has meant the increasing use of digital and other technology that could make gunfire of any kind obsolete. It has also meant more simple precautions, like shouting when using the same safety protocols long in place to make clear to everyone when a gun is present and what its status is.
Actors and others are more interested in the procedure when the gun is handed over.
“Now people want to check because people are a little gun shy,” Dillon said. “I’ll stop the whole process just to show them so that they feel comfortable with it.”
While checking a gun themselves may be in the best interest of actors, how much responsibility they bear for doing so remains in dispute, and will be a central question for jurors should Baldwin’s case go to trial.
His union, and his lawyer, say this onus cannot be placed on performers.
“An actor’s job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert,” the Screen Actors Guild said in a statement on Thursday. “Firearms are provided for their use under the guidance of multiple expert professionals directly responsible for the safe and accurate operation of that firearm.”
Baldwin’s defense attorney Luke Nikas said in a statement that he did his job by relying “on the professionals with whom he worked”.
The Santa Fe district attorney, Mary Carmack-Altwies, disagrees.
“It is incumbent on anybody that holds a gun to make sure that it is either not loaded or to know what it is loaded with,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “And certainly then to not point it at someone and pull the trigger. That’s where his actor liability, we think, comes in.”
She also emphasized that while Baldwin is to be charged as the man with the gun in his hand, his role as a producer, and at least partial responsibility for the lax conditions that led to his having a loaded gun, were a consideration in deciding to bring the charges.
Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who oversaw the film’s firearms, will also be charged with involuntary manslaughter, the district attorney said.
Her attorney Jason Bowles predicted she would be exonerated by a jury. Technology may take the safety question out of actors’ hands entirely. Productions were already using digital effects to simulate the flash and bang of gunfire more often, but Hutchins’ death has almost certainly sped the change along.
“There are a lot of bad ways that digital takes over, but this is a good way,” said Spencer Parsons, an associate professor and head of production at Northwestern University in the school of communications, who has worked on film sets. “I’m not saying that there’s no good reason to use real pyrotechnics, but in terms of basic safety and speed, this makes sense.”
And when it comes to hardware, companies have been making increasingly convincing replicas, essentially enhanced BB guns with moving parts that behave like pistols but don’t fire bullets. Muzzle flashes and sounds are added in post-production.
But, Parsons said, “there’s not a lot of replicas for some of the antique stuff” used in westerns and other period movies, in which he specializes.
Meanwhile Dillon said dummy rounds, prop bullets used in scenes where characters are shown loading guns, are more likely to result in mistakes like what happened on Rust, since they look like live ammunition and could be confused with them.
He said he found that “frustrating because that can accidentally impart to the crew that we’ve been ignorant” and previously kept them in unnecessary danger. When investigators revealed it was actually a live round, the fear of blanks, which can certainly be very dangerous at very close range, remained.
Parsons said that both small-budget independent productions – as Rust was – and large studio productions can be vulnerable to accidents.
Long hours and tight deadlines “can be very dangerous. The need for speed on any set incentivizes behavior that’s not always the best for safety,” he said.
Rust’s director, Joel Souza, was injured by the same bullet that killed Hutchins and he described the situation at the time, in a statement, saying that Alec Baldwin was practising a scene that involved him pointing a gun “towards the camera lens” when it accidentally went off.
Souza, said he heard what “sounded like a whip and then a loud pop”. He said he saw Hutchins clutch her midriff and stumble backwards, and noticed that he was bleeding from the right shoulder. Cameras were not rolling at the time. Baldwin was sitting on a wooden church pew on the set and trying out a scene in which he would “cross-draw” a revolver from its holster. Hutchins and Souza were checking the camera angle.
Moments before the accident, Baldwin was assured he was handling a “cold gun”, Souza told investigators.
Gutierrez-Reed checked prop weapons, Halls rechecked them and handed them to the actors, Souza said. It was Halls who gave Baldwin the gun, police said.