SANTA FE, New Mexico — Last Thursday at 7:16 a.m., the sun's gold rays painted the wooden Old West buildings of a ranch that has hosted Hollywood movies ranging from 1955’s “The Man from Laramie” to 2011’s “Cowboys and Aliens."
But in the dark pre-dawn hours, trouble already was brewing at Bonanza Creek Ranch. A camera crew, upset over working conditions, was packing its bags. Their exodus would lead to the arrival of a replacement crew, as producers carried on. Hours later, a woman died.
Just before filming resumed after a lunch break, a prop gun fired during rehearsal by Alec Baldwin, star and producer of the period Western “Rust,” killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injured director Joel Souza, 48. Immediately, police arrived and questions mushroomed.
The specifics of the horrific event continue to unspool as those involved speak with investigators. But already the incident is shaping up as a watershed that could bring lasting changes to an industry also grappling with COVID-19 delays and the financial impact of our new streaming habits.
Everything we know about the 'Rust' shooting: Production on Alec Baldwin Western pauses
“This a breakthrough moment, and it’s created the opportunity to make real changes to make sets safer,” says Daniel Leonard, associate dean at Chapman University’s Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
Opportunities to affect such improvements come infrequently, he says, "“so the change needs to happen soon, to prevent this from ever happening again."
The shooting spotlights how critical it is that on-set gunsmiths have experience. Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the 24-year-old armorer on "Rust," is the daughter of a well-known movie set armorer, but there were signs her work on "Rust" was being questioned given reports that a firearm on the set had accidentally gone off before the incident, according to Associated Press reports.
Also coming up for debate in light of the "Rust" set death is whether real weapons are still needed given today’s special effects. Producers of one show, the ABC police drama “The Rookie,” announced over the weekend they would ban real guns from their set.
But equally relevant is the pressing issue of crew working conditions, which were the focus of a recently averted strike against the producers’ union. Pay, work breaks, holidays and other quality of life issues formed the bulk of the demands by critical personnel who oversee everything from makeup to lighting.
“Working with guns is just one aspect of safety on sets,” says Chapman professor Leonard. “There’s sort of a get-it-done mentality on film sets that is steeped in long hours. People make bad decisions when they are tired.”
On Saturday, California state senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) called for a ban on live ammunition and guns that are capable of firing live ammunition from film and theater sets.
"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, chair of the California Senate’s Labor Committee. “Our entertainment industry must do a better job of ensuring safe working conditions for our hardworking crews."
A looming sub-plot of the “Rust” tragedy is a reported walk-out of around half a dozen camera crew members just hours before the shooting, according to a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office affidavit released Sunday. Director Souza told investigators that the walk-out caused a delay in the day’s schedule, but said everyone on set was getting along, according to an affidavit that outlines the majority of what is public so far.
That characterization contrasts with Facebooks posts by Lane Luper, a “Rust” camera operator and union member, who before the incident wrote that “producers on that movie are treating the local crew like (expletive),” and noted that 14-hour days were common and some workers had no lodging.
Complicating matters are reports that assistant director Dave Halls, who had declared the gun safe before Baldwin took possession, had faced complaints about on-set safety in previous productions, according to the Associated Press. Halls told investigators that he was not aware the gun was loaded with a real bullet.
Halls had previously been fired from a film production after a gun incident injured a crew member, the movie’s production company told CNN and the AP. He was serving as assistant director on “Freedom’s Path” in 2019 when a gun “unexpectedly discharged” on set, causing a sound crew member to recoil from the blast and halting production, the production company Rocket Soul Studios said Monday.
The sound crew member was evaluated by an on-set medic and advised to seek medical treatment after suffering a minor injury. The crew member returned to the production a few days later, Rocket Soul said. Following the incident, Halls was removed from the set and fired from the production, the company said.
The “Rust” production is considered paused now, according to a producers’ note to crew Sunday. The local district attorney plans to hold a press conference on the shooting Wednesday morning.
Whether cameras will ever roll on "Rust" again is anyone’s guess. On Friday, Baldwin released a statement on Twitter saying there were “no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident.” He was photographed with Hutchins’ husband and son at a New Mexico hotel after the incident, but since then has remained out of sight.
Hutchins was honored during a vigil Saturday in Albuquerque and remembered as a leader among young female cinematographers.
On Monday, Baldwin's wife Hilaria posted a note on Instagram: “My heart is with Halyna. Her husband. Her son. Their family and loved ones. And my Alec."
'Rust': A Western tale gone awry
“Rust” is the story of a 13-year-old boy who must care for himself and his younger brother after their parents are killed in 1880s Kansas. After the teen is accused of accidentally killing a rancher, he reconnects with his estranged grandfather, played by Baldwin, and goes on the run.
In mid-October, the New Mexico Film Office noted the production would employ around 330 locals, including 75 crew, 22 actors, and 230 background talent.
Not long into filming, “Rust” was facing complaints by some crew about long days, few breaks and lodging that was more than an hour away from set.
The eventual walk-out of one camera crew likely only added to a sense of confusion on set that could have contributed to lax oversight in the moments leading up to the shooting.
Director Souza, who was struck by the bullet after it first hit his cinematographer, has provided the most complete explanation of what happened in the moments leading up to the 1:50 p.m. shooting inside a wooden church on the movie ranch.
Souza told detectives that work resumed later than usual that day because producers had to bring in a new crew to replace the camera operators who had quit.
Reports have indicated that the new crew was not part of the production workers’ union. Days earlier, Baldwin had posted an impassioned video on Instagram railing against the mistreatment of Hollywood crews by producers, and urged them to strike if necessary.
According to the affidavit, Baldwin was sitting in a church pew rehearsing drawing his weapon "and pointing his revolver towards the camera lens.”
Reid Russel, a "Rust" cameraman, told investigators that during the scene preparation, without video or audio being recorded, Baldwin tried to explain how "he was going to draw out the firearm and where his arm would be" after the gun was pulled from his holster.
In Friday's interview with Detective Joel Cano, Souza said he was "concentrated on the monitors" and standing beside Hutchins, who was at the camera and not among those who quit the production.
Souza was viewing the camera angle as they prepared for the first scene to be shot after a lunch break. He then described a sudden sound, “like a whip and then loud pop,” and heard Hutchins "complaining about her stomach and grabbing her midsection."
Hutchins "began to stumble backwards and was assisted to the ground," Souza told police. Souza was bleeding from his own injury to the shoulder.
Souza told investigators that prior to Baldwin being handed the gun, assistant director Halls had described it as a "cold gun," an industry term for a weapon not containing ammunition. The film's director said there should "never be live rounds whatsoever near or around the film set."
He said that guns on set were checked first by the film’s armorer, Gutierrez-Reed, and checked again by Halls, who would hand the firearms to the actor using them.
After the lunch break, Souza told investigators he was "not sure if the firearm was checked again."
Investigators who quickly locked down the “Rust” set and continue to speak with those on the premises will help determine if the gun ultimately had a live bullet and whose responsibility it was – either that of one of multiple people – to ensure that that projective was found before it could kill.
Regardless of that determination, the impact of this rare and unnecessary on-set death is likely to play a pivotal role in the safety of productions to come.
Contributing: Bryan Alexander, Elise Brisco, Cydney Henderson and Noel Lyn Smith of the Farmington (New Mexico) Daily Times.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alec Baldwin 'Rust' shooting may change Hollywood safety standards