Film Set Shooting Takes the Life of Cinematographer

by The Cowl Editor on October 28, 2021

Arts & Entertainment

Film Set Shooting Takes the Life of Cinematographer

What Is and Is Not Yet Known About the Tragic Incident 

Madison Palmieri ’22

On Thursday, Oct. 21, a horrific incident sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and the nation as a whole, sparking conversation about the dangers of the use of real weapons for filming purposes.

The tragedy occurred on the set of Rust, an upcoming Western film, in Santa Fe, NM at the Bonanza Creek Ranch. Actor Alec Baldwin fired a gun, not knowing it was loaded. This killed the production’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injured director Joel Souza, 48. CNN reports that the actor was practicing a technique called a “cross draw” when Souza heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop.” According to the New York Times, “Ms. Hutchins, 42, was airlifted to a hospital in Albuquerque, where she died. Mr. Souza, 48, was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Santa Fe and was released on Friday.”

Images released from the set soon after the shooting show a visibly distraught Baldwin trying to process the horrific situation. The actor is fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation into how and why the tragedy occurred, voluntarily going to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office to offer a statement and respond to questions. Neither he nor anyone else involved has been criminally charged in the incident.

The Sheriff’s Office has obtained a warrant to investigate the scene of the shooting, examining the weapon fired as well as video footage. According to the New York Times, Detective Joel Cano found that “an assistant director on the set had taken the gun off a cart—where it had been placed by the film’s armorer, or weapons handler—and handed it to Mr. Baldwin, who pulled the trigger shortly thereafter.” Cano explained that “the assistant director called out the words “cold gun,” indicating that it was unloaded and safe for Mr. Baldwin to handle.” 

According to CNN, Director Joe Souza confirmed that “three people had been handling the guns or firearms for scenes — they were checked by the armorer and first assistant director and then given to the actor using them.” However, “Souza was unaware of anyone on set being checked to see if they had live ammunition on them before or after the scenes were filmed.”

CNN identifies the assistant director as David Halls, who “had been the subject of complaints over safety and his behavior on set during two productions in 2019,” as reported by “two people who worked closely with him.” CNN explains that “the complaints against Halls include a disregard for safety protocols for weapons and pyrotechnics use, blocked fire lanes and exits, and instances of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.”

The armorer who prepared the weapon that killed Hutchins, Hannah Gutierrez, “had recently finished work on her first project as head armorer” and expressed how she was initially nervous about taking on the job in a September interview with CNN.

Additionally, the tragedy came only days after protests were staged by some members of the production’s crew. According to the New York Times, “ a handful of crew members had walked off the set over general working conditions, according to several people involved in the production and a theatrical union official. Crew members had complained to producers about long workdays — often exceeding 13 hours — and delayed paychecks. Some also said the production company had failed to book hotel rooms near the set, meaning that they had to drive about an hour to their homes after long, physically demanding days.” 

While there is no evidence to suggest any possible malintent on the part of neither Halls nor Gutierrez nor these crew members, it is quite possible that his history of unsafe practices on set, her lack of extensive experience, and difficult working conditions they describe could have both contributed to the grave error that resulted in the tragedy.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “three former members of the film’s crew” came forward and claimed that “there were at least two accidental gun discharges on the set on Oct. 16” and while these “prompted a complaint to a supervisor about safety practices on set,” it seems that nothing was done to prevent further misfires.

Baldwin issued an official statement on the tragedy on Friday, Oct. 22, referring to it as a “tragic accident” and sharing that he had spoken with Hutchins’ husband to express his profound sorrow. On Twitter, he wrote, “there are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours” and “My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”

A vigil for Hutchins was held on Saturday, Oct. 23 in Albuquerque Civic Plaza. 

The public’s reactions to the tragedy range from sympathy for Baldwin, Hutchins, and all others involved to calls for Baldwin to face prison time for firing the weapon that took Hutchins’ life despite being unaware it contained a projectile.

People are also drawing comparisons between the shooting and a similar tragedy that occurred on a film set in 1993. According to the New York Times, during production for The Crow, actor Brandon Lee, the son of martial-arts legend Bruce Lee, was killed “after being shot at with a gun that was supposed to fire blank cartridges.” The incident occurred because “the tip of a .44-caliber bullet has become lodged in the gun’s barrel in filming a close-up scene, and dislodged when a blank cartridge was fired.” Police conducted an investigation, but “found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and no charges were filed.”

It is too soon to tell whether the investigation into the Rust shooting will have a similar conclusion, especially since so many questions about the incident remain, including what type of projectile was in the gun and how the rules designed to prevent such tragedies from occurring failed. 

In the days to come, there will hopefully be more answers, as those involved and the nation as a whole struggle to grapple with this horrific, wholly preventable tragedy and work to ensure that no similar shooting deaths will occur in the future.