Negligence Results in Death of Cinematographer

Filming movie about accidental shooting ends in accidental shooting

On October 21 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, tensions were high on the set of Rust, a small independent Western about a man running from the law after an accidental shooting before filming for the day even began. According to reports from the New York Times, the previous evening six of the film’s camera crew members had resigned together in protest, citing grievances such as late paychecks, a rescinded promise to provide hotel accommodation, unreasonably long working hours, and a lack of gun safety. The walk-offs caused some delay in production, but by around 1 p.m., the team was on schedule to practice a scene in which the protagonist, played by Alec Baldwin, is cornered by officers in a church and must shoot his way out. What happened next would, in retrospect, The New York Times reports, make the premise of Rust bitterly ironic. 

With a call of “Cold!”, a phrase meant to indicate to the crew that a gun contains no live rounds and is safe to practice with, assistant director Dave Halls handed Baldwin a .45 colt revolver. The shot in question was going to be a close-up: Baldwin would raise the barrel of his gun to face the lense of the camera point-blank. Before he could do so, however, Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza wanted to make some final micro-adjustments to the angle of the camera. As he waited for the camera to be ready, Baldwin made one practice draw, and discovered that the gun in his hands was very hot indeed. The revolver went off with a loud noise, and sent a projectile straight through Hutchinson’s chest and out the other side, where it lodged itself in Souza’s shoulder. The crew called for emergency back-up immediately, but by the time crews were able to arrive, it was too late for Halyna Hutchins. The Times reports that she died in the hospital only a few hours later. In the coming days, investigators would recover about 500 rounds of ammunition from the set, as well as the live, very real bullet that had inexplicably wound up in Baldwin’s gun. It was clear that something had gone very, very wrong.

One of the first instincts many readers unfamiliar with the film industry may have is to question the reasons for having any sort of real gun on set in the first place. Why not just use a prop gun and create realism with special effects? A New York Times report on standard practices and protocols for gun use in the film industry offers that, more often than not, it is a question of money. The kind of CGI required to accurately simulate gunfire is often prohibitively expensive for small-budget indie films like Rust. Most studios choose instead to use practical effects, and there are very strict industry standards in place to ensure the safety of a crew working with real guns. The rules are so strict and well-enforced, in fact, that accidents like the one that happened on the set of Rust are actually quite rare. The crew on the set of Rust, it may turn out, had failed to follow those rules in several crucial ways.

As described by a Times article, this is the order of events as they should be when all goes well, compared with how they went down on the set that day. To start with, a gun that will be used in a scene is thoroughly checked over by the set’s armorer and assistant director to ensure that it is entirely free of projectiles. On the set of Rust, however, assistant director Halls admitted to detectives that he may not have entirely checked all the rounds of the gun before declaring it safe for use. Even after a gun is declared safe, protocols indicate that a gun should not be handed off to an actor until the last possible moment before the cameras start rolling. Baldwin, however, was given the gun before the crew had been cleared to a safe distance, and he stood idly with it for several minutes while the camera was adjusted. The camera angle in question, it turns out, was in and of itself a failure of safety standards. Actors almost never point guns directly into cameras. The standard has them pointing and firing away from the places where any crew or expensive equipment may be, and then use perspective tricks to get the desired camera angles. Baldwin, however, would be firing straight towards the camera. Finally, one of the most important rules, and one of the most baffling for how it ever ended up broken: no live ammunition anywhere on set. Ever. 

The Times reports that investigators are currently focusing on three people connected with the accident while they try to determine if and how criminal charges should be brought. There is Baldwin himself, of course, for obvious reasons. There is also Dave Halls, the assistant director who had admitted to failing to check all the rounds in the gun that he should have. There is also, most interestingly, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the film’s armorer. It is her job to know everything about every gun or weapon component on set inside and out at every moment during filming. At only 24, Gutierrez-Reed is unusually young for such a high-stakes position. Rust was her second-ever job as head armorer, with the first having wrapped less than a month previously. Gutierrez-Reed had previously stated for an interview on a podcast about the film industry that she had come very close to not taking the head armorer position, and had doubts about how ready she was about the responsibilities included. 

The investigation into what exactly happened on the set of Rust is still ongoing, and it will likely be months before all the relevant details are uncovered and the decisions about whether or not to bring criminal charges are made. The recent International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union labour unrest has caused a reckoning within the film industry, as the ways in which producers cut budgets by undervaluing and abusing their workers are called more and more into question. The tragedy that unfolded on October 21 seems likely to become relevant to that conversation, and stands as a testimony to exactly why a properly trained and appreciated film crew is, quite literally, deathly important.

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