This is the church set on The Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico where cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins was shot dead by on the set of the movie Rust, by Alec Baldwin. The tragic incident occurred during rehearsals for a shootout scene while Baldwin was practicing a cross-body draw and fired the gun, which reportedly was loaded with live ammunition. However, Baldwin was erroneously told that the weapon was empty or a “cold gun,” when it was handed to him. The result was a fatal wound to cinematographer Hutchins, and a non-fatal injury to director, Joel Souza.
The term “live gun” does not necessarily mean that the gun contained a bullet. In movie terms, a “live gun” is any gun with material in it, including blanks. Blanks are shell casings filled with gun powder. They don’t have the deadly point that a real bullet has and they also don’t have the mass or solidity that a bullet does, so they don’t create the same impact when fired.
Because a blank has gun powder in it, if it is shot too close to a person, it can cause damage, but when shot from a distance, as Baldwin’s gun was, the gun powder in a blank is not solid enough to have the type of impact that would kill one woman and pass through her body to injure a man, director Souza. This suggests that there was an actual bullet in the gun shot by Baldwin. A real bullet shouldn’t even be allowed on the set at all, let alone inside of a gun.
The police investigations will probably turn on how the bullet ended up in the gun. Anyone who has watched a handful of murder mysteries has seen an episode where someone on a television set or theatrical stage was killed with a real bullet when the crew thought that only blanks were in the gun. It’s already a hackneyed plot line. The heroic detective has to find out who had a motive to kill the victim. Are we dealing with something as dramatic here? Did anyone on the Rust crew have a motive to harm anyone else? Apparently, there were safety concerns raised by crew members and complaints that non-union workers were being used on the set. Could a real bullet have been planted in the gun to “scare” the producers and awake them to the perils of not using trained union workers?
Or could it have been something as simple as someone having used the gun for target practice. They were in the wide open Santa Fe desert. Lots of free space. Between scenes, maybe they amused themselves by shooting at tin cans, when the set was clear. Maybe someone forgot to take a real bullet out after target play time was over.
The problem with that innocent explanation is that it’s harder to believe that someone forgot to remove a real bullet from a “prop” gun than it is to believe that someone actually wanted the gun to fire during filming. Maybe they did not intend for anyone to get hurt, but they wanted to teach the producers a lesson about not following protocol.
As for the safety measures that failed, the mistakes made were clear. The gun chamber should have been checked before it was handed to Baldwin. They should have looked through the barrel, from which the bullet would also have been visible. Furthermore, whether he thought it was loaded or not, “live” or not, Baldwin should not have fired the gun in the direction of any living thing. He fired at the camera as part of the blocking for a scene. I’m sure it was exactly what Halyna expected him to do. It’s what Souza says was expected. Yet given today’s technology, when cameras can be operated remotely, no human actually had to be behind the camera to see what was in front of its lens. Why doesn’t film production change with the times?
The rules will be reviewed, revised and tightened after this incident just as they were when Brandon Lee was killed on the set of The Crow. But safety measures are never full proof when human beings are involved. Instead of having 100 rules about the handling of real guns on the set, why use real guns at all? Charlie Chaplin is dead. The idea that you have to fire a “real gun” to make a scene authentic and to get the true sound of a shot, should have died with the silent movie era. We can create a true sound effect of a gun going off by shooting a real gun and recording it. You don’t have to fire blanks on a film set filled with people to create an authentic gun shot sound.
Actors don’t have to handle a “real gun” to play the scene realistically. We can create fake guns that are the same shape and have the same heft. It can feel authentic in the actor’s hand, without authentically killing anyone, should things get out of hand. The rationale that they needed to have an actual weapon to make it all look real consists of more ego than logic. We could make a fake gun and employ sound effects that would fool Wyatt Earp into thinking he was shooting. I know we can fool Alec Baldwin.
Equipment has advanced, but thinking hasn’t. There are risks that shouldn’t be taken for art and those are debatable, but there are risks that don’t have to be taken and shouldn’t be argued. Actual guns on set are one of those quite avoidable risks. Let’s not just rewrite the rules for handling guns on the set. Throw them out altogether. They aren’t needed.
And when filming is done, assuming it continues, perhaps they shouldn’t strike this church set. Leave it there as a monument. A monument to coal miners, factory workers, the Radium girls, Halyna Hutchins and everyone else who suffered when workplace safety failed.