A veteran Hollywood property master on the shooting: “that is rule number one: no live ammo.”
Hollywood has been mourning the death of cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins and the injury of director Joel Souza as a result of Alec Baldwin’s accidental discharge of a prop gun on the set of the Western film Rust. While rare, the tragedy reminded the world of other people who have lost their lives due to prop guns, such as actor Brandon Lee who was killed on the set of The Crow in March 1993. Now, everyone inside and outside of the movie industry wants to know what went wrong and who was responsible.
But, that’s only half of what should be the focus. We need to find out how this could happen, and how to stop it from ever happening again.
Few concrete details surrounding the shooting are publicly available, but what is known is that the fatal shot occurred during a rehearsal, according to both a spokesman for the investigating Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and the account of a woman who identified herself as Rust’s script supervisor in a 911 call that followed the shooting. In an email sent to its members, IATSE Local 44 stated that Baldwin accidentally discharged a “live single round.” IATSE Local 44 is a labor union representing talent within the entertainment industry including, but not limited to, Property Masters who are in charge of the props on set, such as a prop gun and its ammunition. Also, the assistant director of the film, who is identified on Rust’s IMDB page as Dave Halls, had informed Baldwin the prop gun contained no live rounds and was safe to use before he discharged it, according to an affidavit from Detective Joel Cano.
Property master Romain Gateau has been in the film and TV industry for more than 25 years, and has worked with guns on set for the last 15 years for projects including Amazon’s The Underground Railroad, Widows, The Last Thing He Wanted, and Highwaymen. He is a member of the IATSE Local 477 union with a weapons certification from his union, and he told Mic that he usually works with five to ten firearms per production. When I told him over the phone of Baldwin discharging a live round on the set for Rust, it boggled his mind — the use of live ammunition is a cardinal sin for film productions.
“As a property master, I do not have any live ammunition on the truck, a set, in personal vehicles,” Gateau said. “There is no live ammunition anywhere around those weapons. That is rule number one: no live ammo.”
Before Detective Cano’s affidavit stated the assistant director erroneously informed Baldwin of the prop gun’s safety, Gateau affirmed: “Ultimately the safety of a set falls under the first assistant director.” His own refusal to use live ammunition on set mirrors the same warning given in the industry-wide Labor-Management Safety Committee’s Safety Bulletins, which explicitly recommend that live ammunition is never allowed on any studio stage or lot. Those safety bulletins list the health and safety practices for film and TV productions that are generally followed in the entertainment industry. Reading all the meticulous guidelines, from never putting your finger on the trigger of the gun to checking a firearm before each and every time it is used, makes Hutchins’s death all the more confusing.
Those Safety Bulletins act as more of a blueprint than a set of laws, and experienced prop masters like Gateau go to even deeper preventive lengths to ensure that fake gunfights don’t turn into real casualties. Gateau instructs actors tasked with discharging a firearm to aim them to the left or right of someone when shooting to avoid harm. The Safety Bulletins leave the distance between crew members and anyone brandishing a firearm up to the property master, and Gateau sets that between 20 and 25 feet. He also does rehearsals with rubber guns — a decision not explicitly recommended in the Safety Bulletins, but one that could have saved Hutchins and Souza from harm.
Gateau’s safety precautions being a bit more stringent than the Safety Bulletins that the industry generally abides by is initially comforting, but also concerning, once you understand the implications. Gateau is able to have his own version of safety standards because the Safety Bulletins are simply recommendations instead of laws and regulations; state, federal, and local regulations override those recommendations. And outside of the firearm training property masters undergo, Gateau admits the way guns are handled on a set depends on who’s in charge. “The [safety protocols] fluctuate depending on who’s handling them. Some armorers and property managers are kinda lax with handling weapons.”
Outside of fluctuating safety measures, another possible explanation for Baldwin’s accident is who was working on the film at the time. IATSE Local 44’s email also revealed there were no Local 44 union members in the props, set decoration, special effects, and construction departments. Rust was being shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and IATSE Local 480 is the local union for the state. When Mic contacted IATSE Local 480 about whether any of its members were staffed on Rust during the shooting, we were sent an email by Jonas N. Loeb, Director of Communications for IATSE, stating that the organization has no information or comment outside of the press statement released Friday that mourned Hutchins’s death. But, there is publicly available information that suggests the prop master in charge of the gun and ammunition which took the cinematographer's life was a non-union member.
“When it happened, I went on IMDB to see who the prop person was and who the art department was and there was nobody listed in any of the art department. I found that to be odd,” Gateau said. “I guess it does happen in right-to-work states. There could be a lot of factors as to why they had a non-union property master, but I honestly don’t think it’s that common.”
Since news of the Rust shooting broke, anonymous individuals claiming to be IATSE union workers in and out of the Rust set have begun to come forward with explanations for how this incident is indicative of the cumbersome work conditions on production sets, which is part of the catalyst behind the recent push for a nationwide strike by IATSE members. Instagram pages @IA_Members and @IA_Stories have posted photos of private text conversations ostensibly from IATSE members, voicing their dissatisfaction with the negotiations between the film studios and the union, and sharing stories of the long hours and unworkable conditions they are subjected to on film and TV sets.
In one conversation posted on @IA_Members hours after the IATSE Local 44 emailed members about non-Local 44 members working in the props department on Rust, an anonymous person alleging to be part of the film’s camera crew stated the entire camera crew walked off the production set due, in part, to issues with payment, accommodations, and gun safety. This account was corroborated by an L.A. Times report of a half-dozen camera crew workers walking off the set Thursday morning, hours before Hutchins was shot. Two crew members discussed an incident last Saturday including Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally firing two rounds after being told the gun had no ammunition. One of the crew members says there was no safety meeting following the accident, and it was business as usual the following day.
These purported firsthand accounts paint the low-budget indie film as cutting corners that are in place to protect people. The anonymous person alleges the team behind Rust tried replacing them with non-union workers, a claim supported by Local 44’s revelation of non-union workers on the set and by crew members speaking with the L.A. Times. It was also given credence by the fact there is no “Camera and Electrical Department” listed on the IMDB page for Rust, even though that’s a department commonly included on film credits.
We likely won’t know what actually happened on the Rust set until the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office has concluded its investigation, but we can start looking to measures to implement to make sure no one loses their life to gun violence that’s meant to be fictional. Gateau suggests a mandate requiring anyone on a production crew that handles a firearm to have a certificate on hand from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which can only acquired by those with weapons training. He also suggests changing the culture of overworking crew members on productions, because accidents happen when people get burned out.
Whether it’s instituting industry mandates on safety standards that cannot fluctuate from set to set, increasing the need for weapons training certification for any and all people handling guns, a complete work culture shift, or all three and more, the rarity of deaths on film and TV sets shouldn’t mean that the industry can’t still do better. A woman lost her life from a live round that industry-standard rules prohibit from being anywhere near a set — so even if it’s an isolated incident, it’s one that can happen to anyone on a production set.
And nothing on TV or in the theaters is worth someone's life.