The production of the upcoming Western movie Rust came to a tragic halt on Thursday afternoon in New Mexico, after actor and producer Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm that resulted in the death of the film’s cinematographer.
Halyna Hutchins, 42, was reportedly struck in the stomach and was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she died, according to Deadline. Director Joel Souza, 48, was said to have been wounded in the shoulder but was released from the hospital on Friday morning.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Baldwin fired the prop gun. He was seen bent over weeping shortly after talking to investigators.
“There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred,” Baldwin said in a statement on Friday morning.
As questions swirl about what circumstances led to the horrific accident, The Daily Beast spoke with prop gun experts who helped explain what could have gone so wrong.
The film’s production company said the gun contained blank rounds. However, an email from IATSE Local 44 secretary-treasurer Anthony Pawluc to members described it as “an accidental weapons discharge” in which a “live single round was accidentally fired.”
Tobey Bays, a prop and set artist by training and the business agent for IATSE Local 44, told The Daily Beast that saying on-set that a gun is “live” doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a live round in it, and can mean there’s a blank in the chamber.
He further explained that Hollywood prop masters will “only put the amount of blanks into the gun that are meant to be shot in the scene... They’re pretty strict, they’ll always yell out, ‘Gun is hot!’ before they hand it over to the actor.”
Bays said the Rust shoot was “lower budget” and used a local crew that didn’t include any of his union members. There are only two major armorers in Los Angeles that provide modified prop guns for the entire country, he said, and “a proper round would not work in any of those guns.”
“I don’t know where this gun could’ve come from, if it came from a private owner and wasn’t fitted for entertainment weaponry?” Bays said. “That’s a possibility, but I have no clue.”
“This should not have happened,” said another prop guns expert, who primarily deals with Western-style weapons. Based on Rust being set in the 1880s, he believes for authenticity’s sake they may have been filming with a real firearm, either a time period revolver or a rifle.
He says it’s likely Hutchins and Souza could have been framing the shot with Baldwin when the accident happened, noting how they seemed to be in close proximity. “There shouldn’t have been a situation where people are near the muzzle and someone’s hands are near the trigger,” he said.
“It would be mind-boggling for them to be that close, so if they were too close, that’s a major safety failure there. If there was a projectile, that’s a safety failure.”
He pointed out that there’s a false misconception that prop guns aren’t real firearms. “I would say prop guns are fake guns intended to look like a real gun,” he said. “That’s quite a distinction. So, I wouldn’t describe it as a prop gun—it’s a real gun. Blank firing guns can’t be modified to shoot cartridges and those would be seldom used in a big budget picture.”
Richard Howell, of Foxtrot Productions, said ultimately the responsibility for what went wrong rests with the film’s armorer, who oversees all the weaponry on the set. (It is not yet known which armorer company had been hired for Rust.)
“It’s up to that armorer company to prepare the firearms a day or two before and test fire them, make sure everything’s OK and the blank rounds are OK,” explained Howell, who has 30 years of experience in film armory. “In film and TV, it’s a very controlled environment, you have to do risk assessments.”
Rob Hunter, a theatrical firearms instructor with Preferred Arms in Washington D.C., agrees. “There are multiple levels of safety protocols, so that if one thing goes wrong, we’re still protecting the people around that firearm,” he said. “So clearly, there was a breakdown somewhere, probably multiple ones, multiple safeties were probably overlooked, or protocols were skipped would be my guess.”
And just because the prop gun is firing blanks, that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed as safe. Blanks can cause serious harm, and in most extreme cases death if fired at close range, so there are stringent protocols in place to ensure the safety of the cast and crew.
“Rule number one, when you’re doing these rehearsals, the firearm, even though it has blanks, it’s never fired at anybody, the angles are always cheated,” Howell says. “Those angles always look to the viewer as though it’s directed at them, but it isn’t, it’s always aimed off. So, the actors train, train, train, and then when the armorer decides that rehearsal is fine and lets everybody know, then you go ahead. So, it’s very, very controlled—health and safety risk assessments before you get there, and everybody is aware when there are live firearms on the set firing blanks.”
“We never point that barrel at another actor, even if it’s a gun that has a blocked barrel, it’s just good training,” Hunter added. “If you don’t point a gun at another human, it won’t kill them. You’re never supposed to have live ammunition on the set, but just because there’s no live ammunition does not mean that something can get in the barrel of a gun and become a projectile.”
It is unclear if the gun was fired during a scene rehearsal or filming, but Hunter explained that the firearm should never be placed in the actor’s hand until the last possible minute.
“It should go from a hand that knows the gun is operating safely and is loaded [or] unloaded, as the case warrants,” he said, “When it goes from that hand to the actor's hand, that should be an unbroken chain of knowledge of information. We don’t know, did Alec Baldwin pick up a gun that he shouldn’t have picked up and was it not ready to fire? He’s the producer and is someone afraid to tell him not to pick that up?”
As the industry awaits answers, tributes have poured in for Hutchins, who was named a “Rising Star” in American Cinematographer magazine in 2019. Director James Cullen Bressack mourned the loss of his friend, earlier telling The Daily Beast, “I will never have blanks on my sets ever again. She was a wonderful human and an unbelievably talented person and this should never have happened.”
The family of Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee who died on the set of the film The Crow in 1993 after he was accidentally shot in the stomach from a gun firing blanks, agreed the accident should have never happened.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident,” they wrote on Twitter. “No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
Tobey Bays said that in the Lee incident, a slug slipped into the gun and it was lodged in the barrel.
“I immediately thought, ‘Is that what happened here?’” he said on Friday following the Rust incident. “I don’t know. Maybe it was a real gun, I don’t know.”
The film’s production company, Rust Movie Productions LLC, said in a statement that the cast and crew were “absolutely devastated” and production had been halted.
Bays, for one, is shocked that such an event could have happened with all the safety measures taken by professional armorers.
“I will say that the training we have here is extensive, the licensing, there’s California entertainment licensing for weapons and what’s required to transport weapons is quite extensive,” he said.
“And I know that our prop houses that have weapons get regular checks from ATF and so it’s taken very seriously. When live fire is going on on a set, they go quite extensively into safety. They’ll put plexi in front of cameras, even with blanks, you never point a gun at an actual person, so there’s a whole series of protocols… Like I said, it was a low-budget [production]. There might have been some non-union experience on that set.”