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‘Rust’ Tragedy Shakes Armorers and Propmasters: ‘It’s My Job to Make Sure Nobody Gets Hurt’

·9-min read

Film and TV propmasters — and in particular, the armorers who handle on-set guns and other weapons — remain stunned and baffled by what happened on the Santa Fe set of “Rust,” leading to the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Their early consensus: the possibility that a combination of low budgets, overworked and inexperienced crewmembers and a sloppy lack of following protocol led to a tragedy that could have been prevented.

“Hollywood is mourning for sure, and it’s sending reverberations through the entire film community but acutely in the prop world, and very acutely through the armor ranks, of which there’s only 100 or 200 of us at all in the industry,” said Dutch Merrick, a property master and past president of IATSE Local 44 Property Craftspersons. “This is the worst case scenario and it hurts all of us in the industry.”

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While speculation continues to swirl about the specific circumstances on “Rust,” it’s clear that the “procedures for use of blank firing guns on set were ignored,” said props expert Michael Corrie via his popular “Props to History” series on TikTok. “The AD [assistant director] picked up the gun off a cart and did none of the safety checks and declared it a cold gun. Which means it is not loaded with blanks, it’s not capable of firing, etc. It’s a safe weapon to use in the scene. Handed it to the principal actor and told that actor it was in fact ready for use as a safe weapon.”

That actor was Alec Baldwin, and, of course, we know now that the gun was not safe.

“An actor puts a tremendous amount of trust in their prop department, especially armorers and pyrotechnics, those are the things that can literally kill most easily,” Merrick said. “We go through diligent safety procedures. First being not to have real ammo on the set, or on the truck. And we constantly inspect the ammunition to make sure it’s the appropriate ammunition for that particular firearm. We block out a scene very carefully with the director, the actors, director of photography, and we make sure that everybody is comfortable with the timing.”

Merrick said trained armorers teach the “three golden rules” of gun handling, and it’s the same on a range as it is on a movie set: “You always treat a gun as if it’s loaded. You never point a gun at another person, and you always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re absolutely ready to fire. In a scene like happened in New Mexico, I can’t speak to all of it until the investigation comes through. But what’s evident is that a gun was pointed at a person and the trigger was pulled. And there was somehow a live round involved in the filming, which should never happen.”

Merrick said there are industry safety standards for firearms handling that disallow having live ammo on a studio lot, or on a set. “There are rare exceptions when real live fire is happening. We have ways of faking most everything, even practically faking it without CGI. To make it look as though there’s real rounds going into a machine gun when it’s belt fed — things like that.”

In the case of “Rust,” a period Western, the film was likely dealing with firearms from that era — and if the armorer was inexperienced, that could have led to a misunderstanding of its capabilities.

“The types of firearms used in the filming of ‘Rust,’ because it is set in the Old West, are what are called ‘single action,’” Corrie said. “They require a manual mechanical operation to bring each round into firing position. Much in the same way that a pump action shotgun requires the pumping action to bring a shotgun shell into battery for it to fire, the revolvers of that period, requiring the cocking of a hammer which rotated a cylinder, which placed around into firing position. Somehow, a live cartridge ended up on set, a live full power cartridge. And when the weapon was handed to Alec Baldwin, it was loaded with a live round.”

Normally, Merrick said when you discharge a firearm you “cheat the shot,” so that you’re pointing just off angle between people. “You also just want to point it at a safe direction in case anything does come out of the barrel, that it doesn’t get the person or object,” he said.

Corrie noted that the procedure for firearms on set is that normally an actor, until action, will be holding a stunt gun, one that cannot fire and is not made to fire, and cannot in any way be made to fire without severe modification. “At the moment that they’re about to shoot, the director will call cut, and then that stunt gun will be taken from them and an armorer will hand them a loaded gun loaded with blanks, and then they will begin filming again. The actor will shoot the firearm, director will say cut when that scene is done, and then that firearm is immediately taken from them by the armorer. This is a safety procedure that’s been in place for a very long time, and ideally if that happens then everything remains safe. The weapon is very strictly controlled and there are no accidents.”

Those safety procedures appear to have been “completely and utterly ignored” on the set of “Rust,” Corrie said. “And in any industry when you ignore safety procedures or cut corners on those safety procedures, people end up getting hurt.”

Should Baldwin have checked the gun before firing? Some individuals who have worked on sets with firearms say that actors are asked to confirm that guns aren’t loaded, but those regulations don’t appear to be universal. “Different companies have different protocols and different guilds and states have different rules,” said Daniel Leonard, associate dean at Chapman University, whose specialty is on-set regulations.

Both Merrick and Corrie say that actors are not required to sign off on firearms being empty. Instead they must focus on their performance, rather than be distracted by gun safety rules that aren’t their expertise.

“I really need to reiterate that the actors have a focus on their dialogue and their emotion and where they got to stand on their lighting and how to react to the other actor,” Merrick said. “Their head is full. And in order for an actor to be fully vested in a performance, they need to have confidence in their surroundings. They need to be able to stand firmly and know that the wall is not going to fall down on their head, they need to know that the gun that they’re being handed is ready to go and it’s safe and it’s not going to hurt anybody.”

Added Corrie: “The reason that Alec Baldwin did not check the firearm is because… he’s not given time to do so. It is an understood that when the firearm is handed to him it is in proper working order. And that is the responsibility of the armorer prop master, whoever is in control of the firearms on set. So all the armchair quarterbacks that are sitting back and saying well, Alec Baldwin is responsible because he didn’t check the gun, that’s not the procedure that’s used on set — so stop with that. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the armorer or prop master or whomever is on set in control and responsible for those firearms being available and made ready for each scene.”

Merrick centered his concerns on the fact that the low-budget, independent film had reportedly seen some of its union crew walk off set in protest of the working conditions, and the prop department was replaced with an out-of-state, non-union staff.

In general, Merrick said he is proud of the safety accomplishments that the industry has implemented in recent years, from safety training to new methods of filming. For example, if there’s going to be gunfire very close to the camera, those cameras now can be operated remotely.

After Brandon Lee was killed in 1993 by gunfire on the set of “The Crow,” extreme attention was paid to gun safety on sets. “The first assistant director, they would step in far more frequently and want to inspect the gun before a filming sequence,” Merrick said. “There’s a pretty thorough basic firearm safety class that teaches basic etiquette and know-how and it’s mandatory for prop masters and property people in Local 44 to attend those classes. When an accident like this happens it redoubles everybody’s awareness of the actual dangers of a firearm on set.”

Merrick said he “went white” when he heard of Hutchins’ death. “You build a trust with your team by establishing those safety protocols and still working as part of the proactive team to creatively get the shot and the angle they want. They know how to tell the story, I know how to tell a story, let’s work together to do it really creatively and accomplish what you want, and we’re going to make it safe. If I have to say ‘no,’ I will absolutely say ‘No, I’m very sorry we can’t do it that way. Let’s try another way.’”

But Merrick and Corrie bristle at the notion of completely removing prop guns from productions. “I work on the show ‘SEAL Team,’ and we do a ton of gunfire on that,” Merrick said. “If you told the actors to fake the gunfire with a toy or replica, make it look like it’s firing, that’s baloney. You give him a real gun that really fires, and it’s dangerous out the front and shells go out the side and it gives him recoil, and it puts him in the environment and now you’ve got the realism that is the magic that is Hollywood. It is entirely safe, but it’s putting him in the environment, where it’s as real as possible. And it’s my job to make sure nobody gets hurt.”

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