On October 21, 2021, director of photography Halyna Hutchins was killed while filming the film in New Mexico. Rust from a gunshot fired by mistake by actor Alec Baldwin.
According to the reconstruction of the facts, before the shot the assistant director David Halls had taken one of the three prop pistols prepared by the gunsmith Hannah Gutierrez, said it was unloaded and gave it to Baldwin. At that point he aimed the revolver towards the target, as foreseen by the script, and fired, hitting with a single bullet first Hutchins, who was in front of him, and then the director Joel Souza, who was behind the director of the photography. The production house of Rust announced the suspension of the film.
The incident highlighted some safety concerns on the set of Rust. According to the show site The Wrap, some members of the crew had previously taken prop guns from the set – including the one that later killed Hutchins – to make plinking, a practice in which beer cans are shot with live ammunition to pass the time, a source inside the set told.
The security situation was so inadequate that a stage manager with 30 years of experience told the Los Angeles Times that he had declined the offer to work on the set of Rust because his request for five assistants had been rejected and due to the low budget he would have had to fill the role of gunsmith on his own. Also according to the Los Angeles Times, a few hours before the accident, some of the crew had left the set denouncing mistreatment and poor working conditions.
Like in the far west
The news site Slate interviewed a stage manager, Mitch Thompson, to understand what problems have led to such a dangerous situation and if there are no possible alternatives.
“In a scene where someone shoots, you don’t just want the flash of the weapon, which can be added in post-production with special effects. You also want to see the movement of the slide going backwards each time the trigger is pulled. And many air guns do that, and they look real, ”explains Thompson. “It would therefore be a safer alternative. There are also companies that supply what we call non-weapons, essentially an electronic version of the weapons. They are made to look like real guns, with a lot of recoil, but without combustion. And when there are scenes where someone is walking around with a gun in a holster, we use a rubber gun or a simple piece of plastic ”.
Thompson also explains how flaws in the security system can arise. “If it is a production in which the union is present, safety courses are held. In others, anything can happen. In theory, the production designer, the producer, or whoever does the hiring, must take responsibility for hiring trustworthy people. But on-set safety is actually in the hands of the toolmaker and first assistant director. If I were to use real guns that fire blanks, then I would have to have an accredited gunsmith. There are safety courses to follow and you need to have a license. But when using fake or compressed air guns it is a bit like the far west, there are no rules ”.
But if there are fake guns that look realistic, why use a real one?
“Part of it is a matter of institutional inertia,” continues Thompson. “Before there were air rifles and dummy guns, there were only blanks. So some of it is simply an effort at realism, I guess. It is always a good idea for the prop to be as realistic as possible. And as far as I know, this is also the only way to eject a bullet while shooting. So I guess it’s an attempt to be plausible. There are ways to equip fake guns to make people believe they work like a real gun, but it takes time and money. The main problem may be how much recoil there is, because in that you can tell the difference. You can select how much gunpowder there is in each single blank shot to get the right effect. Technically, therefore, this is the main reason: it is a more difficult effect to replicate with fake guns ”.
The incident in which Bruce Lee’s son Brandon Lee died is the most famous but not the only one in show business. “On the set of an eighties television series, an actor, Jon-Erik Hexum, was joking with a blank gun on set. A blank bullet is a cartridge case filled with gunpowder. So when the firing pin hits the blank bullet, the combustion is the same, and the force is also the same. You get the same recoil from the gun. There is nothing that is fired out of the barrel but the force of the air from that explosion. There is therefore a danger, when you have something in front of the barrel, at close range, because that force is enough to cause damage. Hexum aimed it at the head and fired, and even though there wasn’t a bullet, the force from the breech was enough to kill him. ”
The episode involving Baldwin also revealed the delicacy of the work of toolmakers in the film industry. “Within the time and resources provided by the producers, we are the strictest people on set safety. Whenever we shoot with a prop gun, we make an announcement on set, we force everyone to suspend their work and say, ‘We are carrying a prop pistol: is it a plastic weapon, an air rifle’ or that which is. Anyone who is on set and wishes can enter and inspect the weapon. We check shutters, magazines, barrels, to make sure there is nothing inside. Then when everything seems to us in order we can proceed ”.
Unfortunately, the timing of film productions does not help ensure the safety of the people who work there, explains Thompson. “The people who train in low-cost productions, not run by the unions, all have experiences of abuse or injury on set, or have been put in conditions where they felt insecure. So, as you progress through your career, you are less and less willing to take risks to save producers time and money. Because, in the end, it all comes down to this: manufacturers try to do something faster or cheaper or easier. And it’s up to the crew to decide. And we answer that no, this is not how we will work. It’s not safe”.