The tragic accidental killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins (42) on the Rust film set outside Santa Fe, New Mexico in the US by actor/producer Alec Baldwin is yet another marker in the struggle to improve film set safety worldwide.
As a cinematographer or director of photography (DOP) myself, who has worked in both the South African and international film industry for more than 35 years, the reports from CNN, The LA Times and other reputable US news sources confirm to me that practically every rule and protocol relating to firearms on set was broken.
Now a talented young woman is dead, director Joel Souza (48) injured, a husband bereaved and a child left without a mother. Sheer callous carelessness.
Let me be clear: film sets are dangerous places, even more so when firearms are used as props. So before apportioning blame, let’s just look at the protocols broken:
- Live ammunition should NEVER be allowed on set, for any reason whatsoever. Blank ammunition (the cartridge without the bullet) can be used, but even then, precautions are needed to protect from the detritus of the cartridge, such as a perspex screen between the firearm to be used, and the camera and camera operator and other crew members close to the camera, such as the focus-puller, or first assistant. Ear muffs and eye protection should also be provided;
- The fact that the production company, Rust Productions, allowed live ammo on set, especially after two accidental discharges of firearms previously on the set, should have set alarm bells ringing and red flags waving for both the director (who has the power to enforce rules) and the producer (who was also an actor in the scene). A further red flag would have the “plinking” that occurred earlier in the day (shooting at beer cans with live ammo). This casual and cavalier attitude towards firearms is part of America’s love affair with weapons, and its culture of guns. Personally, I banned any personal weapons on my sets, especially firearms, unless they were prop guns used by the armourer, a specialist professional whose job is to ensure gun safety on set. So, warnings, red flags and crew dissatisfaction were ignored;
- Gun safety on set is different to real life, although many of the same rules apply. On a set, you may be required to point a firearm at a camera, or another person, as part of a filmed scene. Therefore serious protocols apply. First, NO ONE touches a firearm under the control of the armourer, except the armourer or their designated assistant or an actor/actress about to use it in a scene. Second, the armourer NEVER leaves a weapon unattended “on a cart” where it could be grabbed by an assistant director (in this case Dave Halls). And an armourer NEVER leaves a weapon loaded, either before or after a scene. Weapons are always loaded (with blanks) right before shooting, and never for rehearsals, and they are unloaded immediately afterwards by the armourer and declared “SAFE” (American jargon is HOT for loaded, and COLD for unloaded). So where was this armourer? Hannah Gutierrez, a young woman in her early 20s whose father had been an armourer, had “grown up with guns”, so why was she not standing by, at her cart, ensuring the weapons were safe? This was her second job as head armourer. Can a young person of that age be called a true professional, when they don’t have enough experience? Why did she allow Halls to pick up one of three black Colt revolvers on the cart? Why did Halls give it to Baldwin without checking it was unloaded, and why did Baldwin not check it himself? A firearm should be checked every single time it changes hands, and a loud verbal declaration made about its safety (or not). These simple checks save lives, and in this case we can see that missing these checks killed someone;
- Prop guns often are modified so that they cannot fire live rounds. Muzzle flashes and effects can be added afterwards, at extra cost. But this was apparently a low-budget film, which has now cost a life. When I made my own dramatised documentary called The Cradock Four (with my own limited funds), we also had to use firearms and other weapons on set, but I hired a top Cape Town armourer to manage those scenes, and no one would have even dreamed of touching one of his weapons. I have seen gung-ho special effects (SFX) and armourers in my lifetime as a DOP. It’s frightening, and I have been very fortunate to not have witnessed serious accidents;
- The statements by the production office, which now claims to have shut down production (I think the police did that) and which professes that its “top priority” is its care and adherence to safety protocols for the crew, just ring hollow. Earlier that morning, Gutierrez had been “plinking” away while other union technicians had packed their bags and were leaving the shoot, furious at the lack of safety (the two previous gun discharges), and Halls’s lack of safety awareness, which has been criticised since by other US film industry sources. The technicians had warned the production office about what was going on, and the production manager and producers did nothing. They deny any official complaints were made. Dissatisfaction with accommodation and travel distances of 80km each way before and after shooting contributed to the technicians leaving. I’ve seen the result of exhausted crews who have to drive long distances early in the mornings, and at night after wrap. People make mistakes. Vehicles crash. People die;
- Then, unfortunately, there is Halyna Hutchins herself. As the most senior technician on set, she is ultimately responsible for crew safety and care (besides the contractual obligations of the producers). She saw her camera crew leave that morning. She could have protested against shooting the scene, and warned everyone it was unsafe, but as a newish DOP and rising star, she probably didn’t want to make waves. Completely understandable. Some of us experienced DOPs in the early 2000s were called HMC’s by some producers. I eventually found out what it meant: High Maintenance Cameraman. Truly! So, complaining, or trying to enforce safety protocols when it means time “wasted” in the eyes of the producers, is not usually welcomed, except by real professionals. I notice in the CNN story that the two vehicles I can see are a late-model Mercedes and a Jeep. Producers usually make money. It is the crew they often exploit who make the money for them and who receive little beyond an end credit on the film. I can’t recall a “high-budget” shoot since the 1980s, as producers have razed budgets continuously since then. So, if everything is “low budget” it means corners are cut continually in every way. This is a tragic outcome of that process, so that the producers benefit and the crew get a raw deal. The producers are ultimately responsible for this cavalier attitude towards safety. I’ve seen it on many shoots involving cars, stunts, trains, aircraft, microlights, helicopters, weapons, explosions, wild animals and the use of specialised equipment such as cranes, scuba equipment and smoke. It only takes one accident to take a life. A camera loader gored by an elephant. A talented cameraman killed by a giraffe. A cameraman seriously injured by a train. A news cameraman killed by a large predator in a cage. A stunt that went wrong. A crane that falls over. I’ve experienced my own near misses too; and
- From the descriptions by Souza, the continuity person who called 911 for help, the gaffer (chief electrician) who was standing next to Hutchins, it is clear that the shot was still being lined up/rehearsed. No gun should have been loaded at that point. There were at least four people clustered around the camera (Hutchins, probably looking through the eyepiece, Souza, checking how the scene would play out with his actor, the gaffer, waiting behind Hutchins for any last-minute lighting instructions from Hutchins, and the continuity person, who has to check there are no mistakes in wardrobe, props or other vital filmmaking details). We don’t know if there was a camera assistant, because they had apparently all left the set in dissatisfaction. Even the second camera operator was not there, apparently, so they would have been in a rush to get all the coverage they needed with one camera. A shadow that crept up over lunch forced them to move the camera and realign the shot. The bad vibes on set would have affected everyone quite badly, especially if crew members were leaving. Hutchins probably would have felt abandoned by her camera crew, and upset at being rushed. And suddenly there was a bang, and Hutchins was on the floor, gasping and spilling blood, just like in a real Western, but she would never get up again.
No charges have been laid (yet). The police investigation is continuing.
Guns don’t kill people. People do. So, in this instance it seems the cavalier attitude that led to a tragic death will be repeated unless the outcry over it is able to convince Hollywood producers to lead the way in ensuring new rules about gun safety that can follow the shockwaves of this tragedy across the world. DM
David Forbes is an independent filmmaker, writer, artist, photographer, tour guide and political and social commentator. The views expressed here are his own.