Last Thursday, the mishandling of a prop gun on the set of a Western movie led to the tragic death of the film’s young cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, as well as the injury of director Joel Souza. Actor Alec Baldwin, who fired the shots that inadvertently struck Hutchins and Souza, and the rest of the cast and crew are at the center of an ongoing investigation that has revealed underlying problems on set, but also a continuing lack of clarity over how the incident was able to transpire.
In Santa Fe County, New Mexico, Baldwin had been filming for a low-budget Western movie called “Rust,” made by Rust Movie Productions. The film, set in 19th century Western America, surrounds a teenager who is “on the run with his grandfather” following the “accidental killing of a local rancher” (Source 4). The film’s topic lies uncomfortably close to the sad events of last week. According to a published affidavit from the sheriff’s office involved in the case, Baldwin was handed a gun by the assistant director, who reportedly (and incorrectly) told Baldwin it was a “cold,” or unloaded, gun. When Baldwin fired the gun during the rehearsal scene, Souza was struck in the shoulder, and Hutchins in the chest. Hutchins was airlifted to the university hospital in Albuquerque, where she later passed away. Souza was driven to a closer hospital, where he was able to recover.
Hollywood movies tend to use fake firearms. But action and Western movies in particular are often prone to use actual guns, in order to increase authenticity and simulate the real recoil of a gun. The gun that killed Hutchins was an “antique-era appropriate gun,” not a fake, according to district attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies (Source 5). Movie set safety protocols call for all guns to be unloaded or loaded with blanks; no live ammunition is ever allowed. Sheriff Mendoza Adan Mendoza of Santa Fe County has stated that the projectile involved was “a live round, a bullet, live.” The continuing investigation around the incident will try to determine how this live round, and potentially others, got on set.
The film’s armorer, who handles weapons and weapon safety, is 24-year-old Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who is relatively new to the business of film armoring. Gutierrez-Reed has stated that she checked the gun, found it to be cold, and then left the weapon and ammo out on a prop cart before the cast and crew took lunch break. Afterwards, the assistant director picked up the gun and handed it to Baldwin. Usually, the armorer would hand the gun directly to the actor; it is still unclear why the assistant director breached this protocol.
The shooting on Thursday occurred just days after several union crew members quit their jobs due to conditions on set. These crew members spoke to the New York Times about delayed paychecks, long workdays, and long commutes from their accommodations to the set. They also reported that five days earlier, there had been more accidental gunshots on set, though the sheriff’s office has not confirmed or denied this report. After the crew members left, the production company hired nonunion workers to replace them.
While no criminal charges have yet been filed, the DA has left the possibility open as the sheriff’s office gathers more information surrounding the case. Who loaded the gun? Was the gun touched or tampered with during the lunch break before the shooting? Why were there any live rounds on set at all? These questions and more are still unanswered.
Baldwin, among others, has released a statement on Twitter conveying his “shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident” and noting he is “fully cooperating with the police investigation” as well as “in touch with [Halnya’s] husband” (Source 7). Rust Movie Productions has also released a statement that they will offer mental health services to cast and crew and conduct an internal review. Director Joel Souza has been released from the hospital. On Saturday night after the shooting, a vigil of over 200 people gathered in Santa Fe County to remember Hutchins and pray for her husband and son. Among friends, Hutchins is remembered as an inspiring and vibrant creator with pride in her Ukrainian roots.
The shooting also raises larger questions, not only about the protocol for weapons on movie sets, but also about the role of deadly weapons in entertainment. As those close to the case anxiously await answers from the sheriff’s office, now may be a time to reflect on the cultural role of violence in media and how to make media spaces, both on the creating end and the consumption end, safer for everyone.