Michael Phillips: After the Alec Baldwin accident, getting rid of live ammo on movie sets is only one step toward a solution. The others won’t be easy

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The fatal Oct. 21 “Rust” film set accident involved a “cold gun” that turned out not to be what an assistant director declared it to be. The investigation into how and why Alec Baldwin’s prop gun killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins continues. Meantime, a wave of protest has formed regarding the use of live ammunition on movie sets.

Will the larger reasons Hutchins’ husband no longer has a wife, and her 9-year-old is now motherless, also continue?

Three elements loom large in this tragic mess. One can change right away, and probably will. The other two require more of a reckoning, and the soul-searching that typically only happens in the film industry when enough human damage has been done in the name of giving the public what it wants.

That phrase “cold gun” is heard all the time on movie sets. They’re two words of warning, and also of reassurance. They’re spoken by whoever’s responsible for confirming the prop weapon’s presumed safety.

“Cold gun!” assistant director David Halls called out, based on various reports, before handing the weapon to Baldwin so he could rehearse his moves. This was on a hectic day when Baldwin, the star of “Rust” and also a producer; director Joel Souza, injured in the weapon discharge that took cinematographer Hutchins’ life; and others were filming a church shootout in a scene from Souza’s 1880s-set Western, a modestly budgeted $7 million project.

Chaos reigned that 12th day of the film’s harried, troubled 21-day production schedule.

A half-dozen crew members, protesting the production’s working conditions and what they saw as dangerous corner-cutting, walked off the job. Cinematographer Hutchins reportedly cried when the union camera crew left the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, prior to nonunion replacements arriving at the ranch.

Inside the church Baldwin rehearsed his “cross draw,” which according to various reports was to conclude, when the time came to shoot the scene, with Baldwin firing his prop gun at the camera. The movies have been selling that image for over a century. In the infamous final shot of the 1903 landmark “The Great Train Robbery,” Justus D. Barnes aims his pistol at the audience, impassively, ruthlessly — and pulls the trigger. With those blasts straight at the audience, screen Westerns and screen violence found their twinned destinies.

Baldwin practiced the cross draw, once, then a second time, while Hutchins and Souza huddled behind the camera operator. The second time, Baldwin’s gun went off by accident. It was not “cold.” According to a story posted Tuesday by The Wrap, the weaponry on set during “Rust” was all over the place, with many hands, apparently unauthorized, handling the guns, like a DIY remake of the 1950 Anthony Mann Western “Winchester 73.” There are unconfirmed reports that film crew members earlier that day borrowed Baldwin’s gun for some target practice off-site, involving empty beer cans.

“Plinking,” it’s called.

Hutchins’ death provoked an immediate and widespread condemnation within and outside the film industry regarding gun safety. The consensus is clear. Enough with the reckless tradition of realistic “gunplay” (a hateful, lying word to begin with) when so much else in contemporary filmmaking has been turned over to digital effects, and moved to postproduction.

In California, state Senate Labor Committee chair Dave Cortese is drafting legislation banning live ammunition and firearms capable of shooting live ammunition from California movie sets and theatrical productions. Other states, starting with New Mexico, have proposed similar bans. There is no moral alternative to changing the laws on this. This is why the phrase “fix it in post” is part of the filmmaking lexicon.

At an Oct. 24 memorial outside the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 80 in Burbank, California, IATSE vice president Mike Miller addressed the collective anger sparked by Hutchins’ death. He cited, among other things, “the rush to complete productions and the cutting of corners (that) puts safety on the back burner and puts crew members at risk.”

This points to the larger, long-standing crises that need attention, or else. Set safety, including but hardly limited to live ammo in prop guns, varies wildly from set to set. The workload can be punishing, and in the case of “Rust,” locally hired set crew members allegedly were told they’d be given accommodations in a nearby Santa Fe hotel, only to be told later that, nope, sorry, you’ll be driving an hour or so back to Albuquerque after your long, long day.

This is no way to run a production. It’s worker exploitation. And it’s not worth the risk.

Chicago-based filmmaker Jennifer Reeder, who teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago, calls the “Rust” fiasco “an enormously preventable mistake.”

“There’s just no excuse,” she said earlier this week. “There’s no excuse not to ensure the physical and mental safety of everyone on your set. Going into a production, you know how many days you have. You know how many pages you need to get through in a day. A producer’s job — and Alec Baldwin was one of the producers — is to take stock to see if you’re compromising someone’s safety.”

No one, she said, “apparently thought: ‘We have this gun scene today. Let’s make sure we get a little extra time for safety protocol.”

In the near-term, Reeder said, the first step is unarguable. “The film industry has to establish a standardization of what kind of weapon is allowed on set. I’d eliminate any sort of live weapon on set. And that includes shooting blanks.”

But, she added, “what happened last week may be related to what just happened with the recent (threat of an) IATSE strike. People are asking that they’re treated humanely on set, that their mental and physical health should never be compromised or threatened.”

There’s a looming third component to Hutchins’ death. It’s innately political, wrapped up in a slew of questions about our cultural appetites, artistic freedom and what moviemakers choose to put on screen.

When news broke of what, apparently unfairly, has become known as “the Alec Baldwin accident,” my first thought was: goddamn stupid shootouts. Like millions around the world, I’ve watched thousands and thousands of fictional deaths on screens since I was a kid. Some are bloodless; some, bloody as hell. Some provoke the right kind of unease; most are just for fun, or “fun.” Now and then, you get a commercial artist with an exceptional eye for the kinetic possibilities, or the dramatic complexities, inherent in violent action, often involving firearms. The best of the “John Wick” movies. A little higher up the chain, Michael Mann’s best scenes in “Heat,” or “Thief.” Martin Scorsese. John Woo. Kathryn Bigelow. Many others, but not too many.

Over the years, seeing and writing about so much recreational slaughter, I’ve had my own moments of reckoning, where the numbness wears off. Or worse, I think, when it hardens into something more troubling.

I start to question things I should’ve been questioning harder, earlier. Do we need this stuff? Why does recreational screen slaughter remain America’s number most influential cultural export? Why can I enjoy the ultraviolent Netflix Western “The Harder They Fall” yet loathe so many more like it?

These are matters of taste, aesthetics and the act of seeing. These matters affect us all. They’re the root of all criticism.

And now, inevitably, for a while and I hope longer than a short while, it’ll be hard not to watch one more impersonal, forgettable shootout without wondering if the world, and, that film, truly needed it.

Filmmaking requires nerve, patience and clear thinking. In a Los Angeles Times report, one crew member on “Rust” said: “Every day on that set, it was just go-go-go. They were in such a rush to get things done.” The investigation continues.

But what happened on “Rust” wasn’t without its portents. Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two rounds on set five days before Hutchins was killed. There was a third such incident. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, one crew member texted the unit production manager about the prop gun misfires.

“We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges,” the text read. “This is super unsafe.”

It’s too late to do something about it now. What we do now, in response, is for the next “Rust.” And the “Rust” after that.

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