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How dangerous are US film sets? ’Rust’ shooting death sparks calls for change


The death of a cinematographer who was shot with a prop gun by actor Alec Baldwin on the set of the movie ’Rust’ is sparking new calls for better workplace safety during film production – in an industry in which on-set deaths are rare but cast and crew are often exposed to dangerous situations.

An on-set shooting death has reignited concern about the use of prop guns like the weapon actor Alec Baldwin discharged in the killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins while filming a movie in New Mexico. File picture: Reuters

THE DEATH of a cinematographer who was shot with a prop gun by actor Alec Baldwin on the set of the movie “Rust” is sparking new calls for better workplace safety during film production – in an industry in which on-set deaths are rare but cast and crew are often exposed to dangerous situations.

Baldwin’s shooting of Halyna Hutchins has left many in the industry wondering how such an incident could occur, given the precautions usually taken by film professionals and unions, and some state lawmakers are seeking to redress this.

California state Senator Dave Cortese, a Democrat, who has worked on the issue of safe gun storage, said in a statement on Saturday that he would introduce legislation banning “live ammunition, and firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition, from movie sets and theatrical productions” in the state.

“There is an urgent need to address alarming work abuses and safety violations occurring on the set of theatrical productions, including unnecessary high-risk conditions such as the use of live firearms,” said Cortese, adding that the entertainment hub should lead the way in making film and television sets safer for crews.

“Those working behind the scenes to entertain and bring joy to millions all over the world shouldn’t go to set worrying if they will return home safely to their family,” he said.

Others in the industry said there was no reason for guns to be loaded with blanks – or anything else – on set, given what’s possible in post-production work. “There’s computers now,” Craig Zobel, a filmmaker known for his work on such productions as the HBO series “The Mare of Easttown”, wrote on Twitter. “The gunshots [on my series] are all digital. You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk.”

The Associated Press, in an investigation of accidents on US film and television sets in 2016, found that at least 43 people have died on set since 1990 and more than 150 have suffered life-altering injuries. It tallied at least 37 people who have died in filming accidents outside the United States since 2000 and “many more” who were seriously injured.

On-set deaths have often attracted significant attention. In 1993, actor Brandon Lee – son of martial artist Bruce Lee – was killed after being shot by a gun that had contained a real bullet while he was filming “The Crow”.

Although that incident bears resemblance to the recent death on the set of “Rust,” a Western, it is not clear what type of projectile killed Hutchins, 42.

But it’s not just guns that can pose safety risks: In 2014, a camera assistant was killed while an independent movie was being filmed on active train tracks. A helicopter crash in 1982 during the making of “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” killed three actors, including two children, and led the Directors Guild of America to establish a safety committee.

Brooklyn native stunt woman Joi “SJ” Harris died in 2017 of head trauma while filming “Deadpool 2”, after she was ejected from her motorcycle and into the glass window of a building as she attempted a stunt in Vancouver, according to the British Columbia Coroners Service. WorkSafeBC, the public entity that regulates workplace safety in British Columbia, fined the movie producer TCF Vancouver Productions $289,562.63 in Canadian dollars after its investigation concluded that the company failed to ensure Harris’ safety and that of other crew members.

In the United States, rules on the use of firearms in film production have mostly been set by the industry itself, according to the AP, while states regulate who can own a firearm and how licenses are handed out.

California, which has some of the strictest gun-ownership laws in the country, created a special “entertainment firearms permit” that exempts armorers and other professionals handling guns as props from certain restrictions, such as a ban on buying more than one handgun within 30 days.

Some states regulate other dangerous props, such as pyrotechnics, helicopters and drones; others have noise regulations governing gunshots.

The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, which was founded in 1965 and is composed of “guild, union, and management representatives active in industry safety and health programs,” has issued safety bulletins about the use of helicopters, cars, stunts and even artificial fog and haze generators.

Films often use computer-generated graphics to mimic real gunshots, though some productions use rubber or other soft materials that can hurt, but not kill, people. Still, blanks – which contain gunpowder but not a real bullet – are sometimes used to more effectively mirror the effects of shooting a firearm, such as recoil.

Industry guidance about guns loaded with blanks, however, is clear: They are still deadly weapons.

In a non-binding safety bulletin from the Industry Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, the first line warns, in bold, underlined font: “BLANKS CAN KILL.” In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed by a blank cartridge after he pretended to play Russian roulette, firing the gun at himself at extremely close range.

“Instead of using a bullet, blanks use wads of paper, plastic, felt or cotton,” Christopher Gist and Sarah Mayberry, co-founders of the Australia-based film and television production house Small Cow Productions, wrote in the Conversation, a non-profit academic outlet.

“This wadding ensures you get a certain level of flame out of the gun,” they add, but it is also “the thing which can cause a lot of injury: just because a gun is using blanks, that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.”

Yet some filmmakers insist on using live prop guns, saying they more closely capture the sound and look of a weapon firing than computer-generated imaging. They say that rules exist to prevent accidents and that those rules are largely effective – if followed.

Jeffrey Harris, a lawyer in Savannah, Georgia, who has represented victims of film-set injuries, said that every film set has posted safety bulletins and that proper handling of weapons is always right at the top. If crews follow basic safety precautions – no ammunition allowed, no guns directed at people, redundant checks to ensure chambers and barrels are clear – “everybody should be fine,” he said.

Blanks are considered fatally dangerous when fired at close range, but not so much at a distance. The circumstances surrounding the “Rust” shooting remain largely unclear, but the death, and injury of a director on the film, raised concerns that the gun had contained a live bullet.

An experienced armorer on films, Bill Davis, told The Washington Post that, based on how blanks work, that was highly likely. That would violate the industry guidance that live ammunition is “never to be used nor brought” on set.

The guidance includes other basic tenets of gun safety, such as avoiding pointing a gun at anyone, including yourself. “Remember that any object at which you point a firearm could be destroyed,” it warns.

People on set should be at a “safe distance” from the firing area and wear such protective equipment as shields and eye and hearing protection, the guidance says.

Gist and Mayberry write in the Conversation, “On our set, we all understand making a movie is not worth putting someone’s life or health at risk.”

“This is an issue of workplace safety. When things go fatally wrong in any workplace, it is a tragedy,” they added. “We can only imagine most filmmakers feel the same.”

Working conditions were a major concern for Hollywood crews as their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, sought a new contract with producers.

Industry workers have complained about long hours and low pay, and as the Los Angeles Times reported, some of the “Rust” camera crew walked off the set recently to protest long hours and delayed paychecks.

The vice president of IATSE, Mike Miller, noted that an agreement reached last week between the union and producers laid out improvements that would help workers “be more alert”. He added that “health and safety standard have been upgraded”.

According to the AP investigation in 2016, fines imposed on film studios by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after serious workplace accidents are often “fiercely contested” and that nearly half the ones it reviewed were eventually reduced.

Prosecutions were rarely pursued, the outlet noted, as “most workers are legally barred from suing, and those that do encounter the reluctance of witnesses to come forward for fear of being rendered unemployable in the ultra-competitive entertainment industry”.


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