Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Prop Guns and Empathy

The set of Rust

Last Thursday, October 21, 2021, local authorities responded to an incident at the Bonanza Creek Ranch set for the upcoming film Rust, following a 1:50 pm 9-1-1 emergency call.  The called indicated a person had been shot on set.  In fact, the cinematographer, Haylna Hutchins, had been fatally shot and the director, Joel Souza, had been injured when the film’s star, Alex Baldwin, fired what he assumed was a prop gun on the set, as was required by the scene. 

Hutchins was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she died from her injuries. She was 42. 

In the days following the accident, we are still learning much about the circumstances of the shooting.  The gun was one of three that the film's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez, had set on a cart outside the building where a scene was being acted, according to the records. Assistant Director Dave Halls grabbed the gun from the cart and brought it inside to Baldwin, unaware that it was loaded with live rounds, a detective wrote in the search warrant application.  He told Baldwin that the gun was "cold," meaning that it did not have live rounds and was safe to use in the shot. 

We also learned much that is unsettling. The gun had previously misfired twice. There were allegations of unsafe behavior against the assistant director on other shoots. This particular shoot was alleged to have cut corners in production.

All things that should be investigated. All concerns to be raised and settled. 

But we have to talk about the shocking lack of empathy I’ve seen in the discussion of this accident in recent days. We seem to have lost the ability to empathize with anyone who is not in our tribe.  To be unable to even raise the slightest sympathy for someone we disagree with. 

What I’ve seen, is a shocking number of people nearly outright mocking Baldwin for his part in this horrific tragedy. Schadenfreude writ large, with some attributing the accident as karma for his position on gun control, for his liberal beliefs.  Some not knowing how a film set or theater stage works, and sending out true but trite maxims like “always assume a gun is loaded.”

You can disagree with Baldwin, politically, religiously, socially. You can find him brusque and abrasive as he has been in the past. You can do all these things and still recognize that he is grieving as well and that this incident will haunt him for the remainder of his days. 

Because this isn’t his fault.  Nor should he be held ultimately accountable for it.  At least not based on what we know now. 

From all reports on set, Baldwin had been extremely careful with the guns on set. 

The film industry standard has already been that “blanks can kill. Treat every gun as if it were loaded.”  Actors and crew are given gun training and are told to aim off axis or to aim slightly away from the other subject. 

Armorers or prop masters handling weapons are supposed to have licensing and permits from the state of production. The gun is supposed to be fetched from the safe and checked to see if there is ammunition in the weapon, often checking with a flashlight to make sure it is clear. If the gun is handed from the armorer to a props master, the props master repeats the check. The gun is then checked again in the presence of the assistant director.  If the real weapon is used for the scene without any type of ammunition in it, it is handed to the actor as “gun cold.”  If it is loaded with the specially prepared blanks with the tips removed, it is handed to the actor as “gun hot.”

All this is done, because at the end of the day, the actor in the scene has to trust 100% that when a gun is handed to them for the scene, it’s safe and ready. This is especially true for live theater where there is no time on stage for the actor to preform a check themselves, but it is also true for the film set.   The actor has to trust the crew is doing their job and keeping everyone safe. 

Baldwin was handed a weapon that he was told was “cold” or completely unloaded.  He rehearsed the scene, as he has done a thousand times before. And now he will be haunted for the rest of his life. 

No one deserves to go through that. 

We can and we should not wish that on anyone. We can and we should sympathize with him, because he’s human. It’s the bare minimum of human decency. 

Let’s learn to be able to disagree with and even dislike some people, but let’s not lose our humanity. Cause if we don’t, what’s the point of all this anymore?

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