SANTA FE, New Mexico — Black-shirted security guards stand sentry at a weather-beaten white gate, a faded American flag flapping overhead in a cloudless blue sky.
Told the Western-style revolver was “cold” – safe to fire – “Rust” actor and producer Alec Baldwin shot in the direction of his camera crew, killing director of photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injuring director Joel Souza, 48.
As the police investigation unfolds, much remains unknown about the tragic incident: If there was a live bullet in the gun, how did it get there? Why wasn’t it discovered before Baldwin took possession? And why was Baldwin not aiming away from the crew?
While declining to speculate about what happened on the set of “Rust,” Hollywood veterans say even the most rudimentary of weapons protocols that are rigorously followed on most sets would have averted this rare catastrophe.
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“What happened there was not supposed to happen,” says Keith Walters, an art director who worked on both gun-packed “Sicario” movies as well as Tom Hanks’ last Western, “News of the World.”
Walters is currently working on a film, which he declined to name, that is shooting about an hour from the “Rust” movie ranch, located just south of Santa Fe. Word of the accidental death rocked his artistic community.
“One of my people was terribly upset, and the studio brought in grief counseling,” he says. “It’s a small industry, everybody knows everybody. The bottom line is, there is no reason for a set to have a live round, a cartridge with a bullet designed to kill.”
Miami-based art director Phil Schneider, whose recent credits includeSteven Soderbergh’s“No Sudden Move” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” echoed both that sense of incredulity and avoidability.
“It’s a shock that makes everyone wonder who is responsible,” says Schneider. “But honestly, a series of errors led up to something like that. There are so many stop-gaps normally, so many places this could have gotten caught.”
When producer and actor Armando Gutierrez was on the set of 2019’s “Purge of Kingdoms,” weapons “went through maybe 10 people before any actor was handed anything.”
Gutierrez, who met “Rust” cinematographer Hutchins on the 2021 film “The Mad Hatter” and had hoped to secure her services for his now-wrapping film “Bezos,” says he has seen rubber guns, swords and other fakes on sets that work every bit as well as the real thing, thanks to computer generated effects.
“Half of me didn’t believe this terrible news, and half of me was just pissed off,” he says. “This isn’t what we got into this business for.”
On-set guns: checked, re-checked, and checked again
The elaborate worlds that appear on our screens require a small army of craftspeople tasked with creating the look of the film. Art directors on huge productions may have property masters and so-called armorers – weapons experts – working under them, but in some cases one person handles all prop-related jobs.
When a prop master is tasked with overseeing weapons, they must have requisite gun-handling licenses and permits that can vary by state. Both Walters and Schneider, who have such expertise, lay out identical steps taken when a gun is required in a scene.
First, the weapon is fetched from a safe. It is immediately checked to make sure there is no ammunition in the chamber. This is often done by shining a flashlight into the barrel, or by using a thin rod pushed through the chamber.
If the weapon is brought by an armorer to a prop master, the prop master will perform the exact same check and then put the gun back into its protective sleeve. Once on set, the gun goes through the same check in the presence of the assistant director.
“I’m usually a nervous wreck when we have to use firearms on a shoot, because it is a weapon and you can’t be complacent,” says Walters, who lives in northern New Mexico and has spent plenty of time on Western-style films the state has attracted for nearly a century. “It’s just far too serious a thing to take lightly.”
At this point in the process, there are options. If the actors and crew are rehearsing, often a rubber replica gun is handed to the actor. If at the next stage of blocking the scene a real weapon is required by the director, then the thoroughly checked empty weapon is brought out.
Once the scene is ready to be shot, the prop master or armorer will load prepared blanks with no bullet tips into the gun’s chamber. “We’ll put it not one more than the number of shots the actor plans to shoot,” says Walters.
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Once the weapon is loaded and in the actor’s hand, an assistant director typically yells “Gun’s hot,” and the scene is shot. “If there are delays of any kind, to tweak the lights or anything, I will take that gun back,” says Walters.
Likewise, as soon as the scene is wrapped, the prop master will reclaim the weapon and secure it.
But those aren’t the only safeguards in place. Actors and even sometimes crew will receive training from weapons professionals on gun safety. “You spend time with them, showing how a gun works, how you don’t point it at anyone ever, how you keep your finger off the trigger and always point it down,” says Walters.
To ensure that there are no unexpected accidents during filming, actors often will be told to “shoot off axis,” says Schneider, which means aiming slightly away from another actor as camera tricks can compensate for that shift.
If the actor is pointing in the general direction of crew or the camera, measures are taken. Typically plexiglass shields with holes for the camera lens are crafted to protect operators from any muzzle flashes or gas discharges, even though typically they are never closer than around 15 feet from the weapon. The camera operator themselves might also wear a special suit for protection.
“These days, you can set up a camera for remote control, so frankly if there’s no one in the direction of where the actor is shooting, even better,” says Schneider.
Sometimes, the financial and time pressures of filmmaking require those who oversee weapons to both stay extremely vigilant and even push back against producers and directors.
Walters says once a gun leaves his hand for an actor, he watches every move. Once, he recalls, an actor followed his script directions by jumping off a horse and, once on the ground, shooting at another actor. But when the actor hit the mud, Walters noticed dirt plug up the gun’s barrel.
“I immediately stopped the shot, because in that gun, the mud could become a projectile,” he says. “It’s just a movie, and I can’t imagine someone getting hurt because I wasn’t paying attention.”
When he’s felt that safety could be at issue, Walters has threatened to walk off the set.
“For the most part, producers and directors don’t want anyone hurt,” he says. “But sometimes you have to stand up and butt heads.” He describes a scenario where a director might think having an actor dive into frame during a shoot would look great, but, says Walters, “I’ll say ‘No, that’s too close, you can add that in post-production with visual effects. We’re done here.’ ”
The details of what happened on the set of “Rust” eventually will come out. But reports suggesting that a new and inexperienced hire might have contributed to the tragedy will hammer home that while Hollywood may always try to cut corners in order to make a deadline or meet a budget, guns are not the place to do it.
“You have to have only experienced people handling firearms on a set,” says Walters. “You can’t just pull someone in who wants to get into the movies and say ‘Here are the guns, good luck. Because it’s that person’s job to protect anyone around those guns from being injured, or worse.”
Noel Lyn Smith of the Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times reported from Santa Fe.