The tragedy on the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set has the movie industry reeling. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins is dead and director Joel Souza was injured because a gun being used in filming the Western, Rust, was fired last Thursday.
Left to sort out what happened are investigators with the Santa Fe County Sheriff Office. Until the investigation is complete, speculation is useless and often cruel.
We do not know why the gun actor Alec Baldwin held was able to kill and wound. We do not know what sort of ammunition was inside. A “live” round in Hollywood is not necessarily a bullet in the chamber, according to movie weapons experts. “Live” can refer to any gun loaded with material such as a blank, simply indicating the weapon is ready for filming.
Witness statements report Baldwin was told the gun was “cold,” meaning without ammunition. He should have been able to trust that claim. We know safety protocols were breached, but which ones and when still must be determined. We also know some crew members walked off to protest set conditions before the incident, and serious questions have been raised about whether cost-cutting on the production played a role in the tragedy. Both criminal and civil responsibility remain to be determined.
We also know this: Guns on movie sets do not have to fire projectiles. Weapons can be disabled to eliminate any risk of a person dying from an errant gunshot while filming. Using computer-generated imagery, productions can add muzzle flashes and other necessary special effects.
To be sure, Hollywood sets have safety protocols around the use of weapons that are both strict and generally effective — the death last week is just one of three related to on-set gun use since 1984. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum died that year from a self-inflicted gunshot involving a firearm with blanks. In 1993, Brandon Lee died from a shooting involving a prop gun on the set of The Crow.
Clearly, safety protocols broke down on the Rust set.
But why risk one death when it’s avoidable? That’s the question Hollywood is facing now.
Producers of ABC’s The Rookie announced Friday the series will stop using live guns on set. “Any risk is too much risk,” showrunner Alexi Hawley wrote. Craig Zobel, the director of Mare of Easttown, wrote this on Twitter: “There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore.”
Already, a California Democratic state senator, Dave Cortese, is planning on introducing legislation to improve safety conditions by banning “live” guns on film sets and other productions.
There would be little need for legislation if on-screen gun violence were less prevalent. Whether on cop procedural shows, Westerns, big-screen spy franchises, gangster movies or gritty independent films, the gun too often has a starring role.
This latest tragedy offers a moment to consider why so much entertainment includes watching people being shot and killed, over and over, endlessly. Adding muzzle fire in post-production would reduce the risk of on-set tragedies, and that’s a worthy goal. Even better? Writers, actors and directors determined to make movies and TV shows that celebrate life rather than glorifying violence.