Gun safety on sets gets ‘louder’ as Baldwin faces indictment

LOS ANGELES – Film production and firearms experts say the film sets likely changed permanently when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was shot dead on the remote New Mexico set of the western ‘Rust’ 14 months ago, leading to prosecutors’ announcement on Thursday Alec Baldwin and the film’s weapons supervisor face charges with manslaughter later that month.

“The gun safety experience on set has gotten louder, it’s a lot louder,” said Joey Dillon, a gunsmith who has overseen the use of firearms on television shows like Westworld and movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “I make it much louder myself.”

Baldwin aimed the gun with a live round inside that killed Hutchins as they prepared a shot for an upcoming scene. People at multiple levels of production are determined to ensure this never happens again.

That meant the increasing use of digital and other technologies that could make shots of any kind obsolete. It’s also meant simpler things, like screaming when using the same safety protocols that have long been in place to make it clear to everyone when a gun is in place and what its status is.

Actors and others are more interested when the gun is passed.

“Now people want to check because people are a little bit gun-shy,” Dillon said. “I interrupt the whole process just to show them so they’re comfortable with it.”

While checking a gun itself may be in the actors’ best interests, how much responsibility they have for it remains controversial and will be a key question for the jury should Baldwin’s case go to trial.

His union and attorney say that this burden 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 Thursday. “Firearms are made available to them under the guidance of several experts who are 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 he worked with who assured him the gun had no live rounds.”

Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies disagrees.

“It’s the onus on anyone who owns a gun to make sure it’s either unloaded or to know what’s loaded,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. That’s where his actor liability comes in, we think.”

She also stressed that while Baldwin is set to be charged as the man with the gun, his role as a producer and at least some responsibility for the lax conditions that led to him having a loaded gun are taken into account in the decision were bringing the charges.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who oversaw the film’s firearms, also faces involuntary manslaughter charges, the district attorney said.

Her attorney, Jason Bowles, said in a statement that they “would bring the full truth to light and that she will be acquitted of one wrongdoing by a jury.”

Technology can take the security question completely out of the hands of the actors.

Productions were already making more use of digital effects to simulate gunshot flashes and pops, but Hutchins’ death almost certainly hastened the change.

“There are a lot of bad ways that digitization takes over, but this is one good way,” said Spencer Parsons, an associate professor and production manager at Northwestern University in the School of Communication’s radio/television/film department who has worked as a director and in other roles on any set. “I’m not saying there isn’t a good reason to use real pyrotechnics, but in terms of basic safety and speed, it makes sense.”

And when it comes to hardware, companies are making increasingly convincing replicas, essentially improved BB guns with moving parts that act like pistols but don’t fire bullets. Muzzle flashes and sounds are added in post-production.

But, Parsons said, “there aren’t many replicas for some of the antique stuff” used in Westerns and other period films that he specializes in.

Other solutions sought for phrases may be misguided and may not help.

In the days immediately after the shooting, there was much media debate about the dangers of blanks in guns, based on the assumption that one of them killed Hutchins.

“I knew from experience that it was more than that,” Dillon said. “But the immediate response in the industry was to try and phase out the use of blanks altogether.”

Dillon said dummy rounds, support rounds used in scenes where characters load weapons, are more likely to cause bugs like what happened in “Rust” because they look like live ammunition and could be mistaken for them.

He said he found that “frustrating because it can inadvertently convey to the crew that we were ignorant,” and previously kept them in needless danger.

When investigators found out it was indeed a live round, fears of blanks, which can certainly be very dangerous at very close range, lingered.

Parsons said it was wrong to blame Rust as a small-budget independent production. He said the pace and length of large studio productions could put crews in positions where accidents of all kinds could become more likely.

“In some cases, they can last people even longer, and the need for speed is even greater,” he said. “It can be very, very dangerous. The need for speed with any set incentive behavior is not always what is best for safety.”

Gutierrez-Reed’s dual roles as armorer and assistant props supervisor have also drawn negative attention.

But Dillon said the overlapping of weapons and props is inevitable and such dual roles are common. The crew members playing those roles just need to be absolutely clear about when they’re playing which ones.

“If the guns come out, I’m just worried,” he said, “and that’s all I’m working on.”


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Sarah Y. Kim

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