While injuries or deaths from propagandistic firearms are extremely rare, the accidental killing of Halina Hutchins in Thursday’s Sante Fe movie has raised questions about working conditions for members of the Hollywood crew.
“I’ve been in the industry for 21 years,” said Kevin Williams, support supervisor at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. “I’ve never heard of any such circumstances. So, this is definitely one of those things, and saying something seems cliched, but it really does feel like a weird accident.”
The circumstances of the shooting are under investigation. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that actor Alec Baldwin fired a propaganda pistol at the set of the Western “Roast” being filmed on the Bonanza Creek ranch, killing the film’s director of photography and injuring its director, Joel Sousa.
Security guards and a compliance officer at the Bonanza Creek ranch in New Mexico on October 22, 2021, the plot of which is where actor Alec Baldwin shoots cinematographer Halina Hutchins and injures a director when he fires a pistol.
Adria Malcolm | Reuters
Souza has since been released from the hospital. No charges have been brought. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
While it’s unclear at this point what exactly happened on Thursday, many in the industry have begun to inquire about working conditions at the group. The inquiries come as the International Alliance of Theater Employees is working to complete a new three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that addresses union calls for better working hours, safer working conditions and improved benefits.
“There were times when I worked on projects for 18 to 20 hours, and then got asked to come back six hours later,” Williams said.
The crew protested the working conditions
IATSE released a statement Friday addressing Hutchins’ death and encouraging its members to call the union’s safety hotline if they feel unsafe on set.
“Our entire alliance mourns this unspeakable loss with Halina’s family, friends and Rost crew,” the statement read. “Creating a safety culture requires relentless vigilance from each of us, day in and day out. Please, if you see something, say something.”
The union declined to comment further.
A person familiar with the matter told NBC News that half a dozen film workers emerged from “Rust” in protest of working conditions hours before the shooting. Among their concerns were multiple misalignments in the prop gun.
Earlier on Friday, the Los Angeles Times, citing three unnamed people involved in production, reported that the crew was frustrated by the long production hours. It also claimed that there had been two previous errors in the support pistol, one the previous week and one on Saturday.
“The safety of our crew is the highest priority for Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company,” Rust Movie Productions said in a statement provided to CNBC. “While we have not been notified of any official complaints regarding the weapon or the safety of the prop on set, we will conduct an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down.”
Rust Productions is cooperating with Santa Fe authorities in their investigation.
Possible system failure
Hollywood products typically adhere to strict safety procedures in stunts, particularly when it comes to gun and prop safety. The industry-wide Labor Administration Safety Committee has written and distributed safety handouts on best practices for television and film production.
The first flyer says: “Voids can kill.” “Handle all firearms as if loaded. Live ammunition should never be used or brought into any studio or theater.”
These guidelines are recommendations and may not apply to reality shows such as “Mythbusters” or “Top Shot” where live rounds are used to test scientific theories or for shooting competition.
“I can say unequivocally that blank versus live shot is really easy to spot in the hands of an experienced gunsmith or support expert,” Williams said. “I can’t imagine anyone would say ‘whoops’ and put that out there.”
He also noted that safety performances take place with all actors and crew involved in firearm stunts and who have been instructed not to point support weapons at another actor or crew member. He said that in cases where the director wants to shoot a weapon that is pointed at the camera and is unloaded, ballistic shields are used.
“There are a lot of safety measures in place,” he said. “If it turns out that a live round was loaded into an old weapon and it turns out that this is why this happened, we need to find out why.”
This is a “potential system failure,” Williams said.