It has been the plot of countless TV murder mysteries — a movie set or stage drama, an obnoxious star or director, and a gun that should have been loaded with blanks but instead was loaded with the real thing. Someone is dead and in less than 60 minutes the killer exposed.
It’s something of a Hollywood cliché — until it isn’t, until someone really does die — not for art, but because someone else was careless, and possibly criminally careless.
When the actor wielding the firearm is Alec Baldwin, reportedly after an assistant director with a problematic past handed it to him, then life — and death — do truly imitate art.
Sure, shooting deaths on movie sets are rare — probably rarer than they are in those made-for-TV movies. But the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and the wounding of director Joel Souza, on the set of the low-budget Western “Rust,” surely should prompt the film industry, including local Massachusetts filmmakers, to revisit why in an age of digital technology real guns with projectiles that can kill or maim are still so common.
Production of the movie has been paused indefinitely. Getting to the bottom of this shooting will rest with law enforcement authorities in Santa Fe, where the movie was being shot, and with the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau, which is also investigating. The set, now officially a crime scene, had earlier been the subject of a walkout by some crew members who left because of safety concerns, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times, including issues over gun safety and failure to follow COVID-19 protocols.
Hollywood does have some longstanding protocols on the handling of firearms on set — a task assigned to the production armorer, a firearms specialist, but not necessarily a specialist subject to any kind of licensing. In this particular case, according to an affidavit filed with the Santa Fe sheriff’s office, the production armorer had three prop guns set up in a cart, one of which was grabbed by assistant director Dave Halls. Halls, who had previously been fired from a movie production in 2019 when a prop gun accidentally discharged, yelled “cold gun” to confirm it was not loaded with live ammunition and he — not the armorer — handed it to Baldwin. Halls was wrong.
The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, which issues nonbinding safety bulletins, is specific in its list of warnings, beginning with one in boldfaced caps: “BLANKS CAN KILL.” And “TREAT ALL FIREARMS AS THOUGH THEY ARE LOADED. ‘LIVE AMMUNITION’ IS NEVER TO BE USED NOR BROUGHT ONTO ANY STUDIO LOT OR STAGE.”
Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was killed in 1993 by a prop gun that turned out to contain a makeshift but lethal bullet. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed on set in 1984 by a blank cartridge as he pretended to play Russian roulette.
The industry safety protocols were drafted in 2003. Today there’s a growing school of thought — particularly in the wake of the “Rust” shooting — that the risk of shooting a gun on set far outweighs the artistic merits of the act.
“There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore,” wrote filmmaker Craig Zobel on Twitter. “Should just be fully outlawed. There’s computers now. The gunshots on ‘Mare of Easttown’ are all digital. You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk.”
Post-production special effects can deliver all the flash and boom required.
And if the film industry can’t — or won’t — clean up its act, there’s always an eager lawmaker willing to take on the job.
California state Senator Dave Cortese said in a statement issued over the weekend that he intends to file legislation banning “live ammunition and firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition from movie sets and theatrical productions” in his state.
Cortese also mentioned more generally “the need to address alarming work abuses and safety violations” in the film industry, something of a dirty little secret amidst the glitz and glamor.
A 2016 Associated Press investigation found that at least 43 people had died on set since 1990, and 150 suffered life-threatening injuries. Another 37 have been killed since 2000 while working on international productions. They weren’t from stunts gone wrong, but often from falling equipment or other routine safety violations.
States eager to compete for a piece of the filmmaking business look to the industry to self-regulate and labor unions to protect their members. The Massachusetts Film Office, for example, informs prospective filmmakers of a long list of state regulations relative to fire safety and pyrotechnics but mentions nothing on gun safety. Since so many of the movies filmed here (think “Black Mass” or “The Town”) are basically just taxpayer-subsidized montages of bad accents and gunfire, a few firearm safety regulations might be worth adding.
The fantasy world of film — so needed during those dark days of COVID-19 lockdowns — has always contained an element of risk. But the risk of actual shootings on set is one that is easy to eliminate — and one on which filmmakers should take the lead.