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On-Set Deaths: What Hollywood Still Hasn’t Learned

Two days before she was killed by star Alec Baldwin firing a live round, “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins made a post to her Instagram account, celebrating some downtime in the filming schedule.

At the time of this writing, the full details as to what happened to Halyna are not available. Reports indicate that a pistol containing live rounds had been discharged by Baldwin, resulting in one injury and one fatality. The injured party, film director Joel Souza, who recieved treatment at the Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. The other was Hutchins, who was airlifted to the hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Even with a lack of details, there is no excuse for an on-set death of this kind. Nearly all accidents are preventable, especially any that involve firearms. As of right now, an investigation is being conducted to determine what happened, who failed to prevent it from happening, and the extent to which the conduct that allowed it to happen would fall under the realm of being criminal. There are also concerns about general safety on the production, which prompted a crew walkout the day before the accident.

The LA Times provided an account of how the scene being filmed was supposed to go down. Baldwin’s character was supposed to draw his weapon out of a holster; a fairly standard action for this kind of film. The first time the actor withdrew the gun, it went fine. However, the second draw went terribly wrong as ammunition was discharged from the gun. But something clearly isn’t right with this. A gun doesn’t go off when it’s being withdrawn, or even when it’s cocked. Considering that the film “Rust” is a western, it’s fairly safe to assume that the style of gun they’d be using here would be a classic revolver.

Above is a video about how a revolver works. The very basics of it are that you pull the trigger which causes the hammer of the gun to move forward with its attached firing pin. The pin then strikes and ignites the primer in the bullet, causing a small blast. The force of the gas emissions from that blast eject the bullet out of the chamber and thus a bullet is “shot” from a gun. This is the case with a double action revolver. A single action revolver works similarly except that the hammer is pulled back by hand, not by the trigger.

So one of two situations unfolded here. Either Baldwin withdrew the gun and pulled the trigger, or something malfunctioned with the gun itself, causing the hammer to release and discharge a bullet without the trigger being pulled. The latter would be a catastrophic kind of failure, but distinctly possible. Numerous reports indicate that Baldwin did not know that there was any ammunition in the gun, suggesting that he didn’t even think there was a blank round there. There was even an affidavit signed by the assistant director indicating a “cold gun,” no projectiles or ammunition present in the weapon before handing it to principal talent.

If you’re going to be filming a scene, then you would have to tell the actor what they’re working with. The same report from the LA Times that described Baldwin’s actions also state that the phrase “cold gun” had been declared on set, warning clients that a gun with no ammunition was in use. So clearly someone was very much under the wrong impression about what the contents of the gun were. Some questions have arisen about the validity of the credentials of the armorer (a special type of props master who’s only job is to be there for gun safety). Some accounts claim “Rust” had a non-union armorer, who had actually taken the weapon shooting the day before and possibly had NOT cleared it before using it on set.

The problem right now is that it’s too early to tell what truly happened, especially when people are needing to watch what they say given that you can guarantee, there’s at least going to be a civil lawsuit filed here, if not a criminal one as well. Further reports have alleged that the gun had actually malfunctioned at least twice before, causing the crew to report unsafe working conditions, leading to a walkout the day before the incident.

If that’s the case, why was the gun still on set? What would qualify as a misfire or malfunction? Did the gun just go off by itself previously? Did the hammer release without the trigger being pulled? Was it ejecting particles that it shouldn’t have? Maybe it didn’t eject anything at all properly, causing something to get trapped in the gun barrel. Something was going terribly wrong, but the blame is not to be placed on the prop itself.

Based on what we know so far, someone made a grievous error here. And let’s be perfectly clear, there is no reason to think that anyone intentionally wanted to cause any harm or imagined that this could happen. That’s the case with most accidents though; no one wants them to happen or was intending to cause harm, but some sort of poor decision making or unplanned scenario came up. But when working with guns, there should be no unplanned scenarios, every safety concern and precaution should be taken.

For example, any guns on set should be properly taken care of, maintained, and looked after by the prop master, armorer, or firearms specialist who was put in charge of the guns. Anytime a loaded firearm is on set, everyone on that set should be aware of it and the gun should never be pointed at any one or any thing except for the intended target. Same thing with a gun filled with blanks, it should be treated as a real firearm and never pointed at anything except the intended target.

An actor’s job is to act. They’re not in charge of knowing what kind of gun they’re holding and performing the safety checks on it. So if Baldwin was given a gun and using it in the way he was supposed to, then this was not his fault. He may feel a terrible sense of responsibility for it happening but the fault would lay with the chain of personnel who gave him that gun for the scene. The only way Baldwin would be at fault for the actual shooting is if he were not using the gun as intended.

For example, the case of Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984 is a tragic example of not following handgun protocol properly. Hexum was on a filming break for the show, “Cover-Up” when out of a want to pass the time, jokingly used a handgun with blanks to play Russian roulette. The young actor was unaware that while blanks do not have bullets in them, they do have material in them to help seal the powder in the blank which is used for making the sound and firing action. This material shot out of the barrel, hit Jon-Erik’s head, and the concussive force shattered part of his skull. Those skull fragments went further into his brain, killing him.

Compare this to the infamous case of Brandon Lee on the set of “The Crow” where he was shot and killed in a complete accident by fellow actor Michael Massee, an accident that Massee had absolutely no control over and was not responsible for. Massee was just following the scene exactly as he was supposed to, having no idea that the gun he was given to use was “loaded.”

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In this case, a number of poor decisions and negligence led to a bullet being lodged in the chamber of a gun without anyone’s knowledge. The gun in question had been used in a previous scene and had been loaded with what were, real bullets in order to achieve a realistic look. Out of what was seen as safety, these bullets actually had the powder removed from them, which would’ve prevented them from being properly fired. However, the people or person who removed the powder failed to remove the primers from the base of the cartridge. The primer is the thing that ignites when the firing pin strikes it, as mentioned earlier in the revolver discussion.

So even though this primer couldn’t ignite any powder thanks to it being removed, someone failed to realize that if the trigger was pulled on one of these cartridges, the impact of the firing pin on the primer could still propel the bullet forward to an extent; which is exactly what happened. The powderless cartridge and bullet became lodged in the barrel. When that same gun was then filled with blanks and used in the scene to shoot Lee’s character, the force of the blank shot the stuck bullet out of the barrel as if it were a regular round.

There were so many ways this could’ve been prevented. The prop team could’ve used actual dummied out bullets, they could’ve checked the chamber before reusing the gun, they could’ve detected that a bullet was missing from the revolver when they exchanged the blank rounds, they could’ve used a different gun for different scenes instead of refilling the same one with different rounds; any number of precautions. That’s why Lee’s mother ended up suing for negligence and opting to settle the case.

What makes all of this so much more disgusting is how people have been dying for decades in Hollywood due to carelessness, reckless behavior, and either intentional or unintentional disregard for the lives of those involved in production. We were confronted by this no less than seven years ago when camerawoman Sarah Jones was killed on the set of the first day of filming for the movie “Midnight Rider.”

On February 20th 2014, director Randall Miller knowingly trespassed onto a set of railroad tracks in Wayne County, Georgia to start filming. Despite the fact that they had been denied permission several times by the railroad company CSX, the film crew was directed to the tracks and set up production. Miller and the producers apparently thought that they could get away with this seeing as how there were no trains scheduled to be going through there at the time. However, not all trains are on time or even on the schedule at all. And so when an unscheduled train came roaring down the tracks at them, not everyone got out of the way in time. The resulting tragedy claimed Sarah’s life and injured several others

Miller would eventually face criminal charges and pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter. While no part of this is excusable on face value its even more inexcusable considering previous accidents have occurred that should set an example for why safety precautions exist and why protocols need to be followed. We know this because of what happened 31 years prior on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The lives of actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were lost when a helicopter crash horrifically decapitated Morrow and Le while crushing Chen.

It’s a subject that deserves an article of its own while ultimately begging the question, “How much responsibility does a director have for what happens on a film set?” The cause of the crash that killed Morrow, Le, and Chen, was the result of a pyrotechnic blast striking the rotor of a helicopter that was being used in a Vietnam War scene. As a village was being destroyed and set aflame, Morrow’s character was fleeing from the village while trying to rescue the two child characters played by Le and Chen. One of the explosions that was set to blow up a prop hut hit the flying chopper and caused it to crash down onto the three actors.

Several people were brought up on charges for this. Director John Landis, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, associate producer George Folsey Jr., production manager Dan Allingham, and explosive specialist Paul Stewart were tried but acquitted of manslaughter. Blame was thrown around all over. Was it Landis’ fault for demanding the pilot to fly lower and for Stewart to make the explosions bigger? Did Landis even ask for that? Was the delamination of the helicopter rotor a completely unexpected and unknowable thing as the defense claimed? The end result was the deaths of three people under the legal conclusion of an accident; but it was completely preventable in every way.

Statistically, accidents of this nature are rare, but that doesn’t do any justice to those killed. Nothing changes the fact that the lives of people like Vic Morrow, Sarah Jones, and now Halyna Hutchins should never have been lost. In this most recent case in particular, there are still so many questions to be answered. Why was Alec Baldwin holding a gun with live rounds in it? Why did the assistant director tell him it was a cold gun? Was the assistant director told it was cold by the armorer? Why wasn’t it cold? Did it fire without the trigger being pulled? Was this a case similar to what killed Brandon Lee? Did those previous misfires trap an item in the barrel that was then ejected by a blank round?

There should never be that many questions surrounding a firearm on a film set and yet here we are, with a woman who was senselessly killed while doing a job that she loved, a job that she studied and honed herself at in order to excel. Her webpage was supposed to be a testament to what she had achieved and a showcase for what she could continue to bring to cinema. Now it’s a memorial. While it still stands as a testament to what she had achieved, it can only show a promise of what the future could’ve been, and sadly what will never be.

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