The fatal shooting on the set of indie film Rust has left the public — and investigators — trying to figure out what led to the tragic incident that resulted in cinematographer Halyna Hutchins' death. Here’s what we know so far.
Actor Alec Baldwin, 63, star of the film and also one of its producers, shot and killed Rust director of photography Halyna Hutchins using a prop gun that was thought to be loaded with blanks, according to the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department. Baldwin fired the gun during a rehearsal.
The low-budget Western’s director, Joel Souza, was standing behind Hutchins and was also wounded by the shooting, according to NPR. He was treated and survived.
The movie was being filmed at the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched after a 911 call reporting the shooting.
What led to the accidental shooting?
Baldwin was handed the gun by assistant director Dave Halls, who reportedly didn’t know it was loaded with live rounds. He yelled “cold gun” as he handed it to Baldwin, indicating it didn’t contain live ammunition. It was thought to be loaded with blanks, which are gunpowder charges that produce a flash and a bang, but without a projectile coming out of the gun’s barrel. However, blanks can still emit hot gases, as well as paper or plastic wadding, which can be lethal from short range, according to the Associated Press.
The Rust production was behind schedule, according to Souza.
A member of the Rust camera department, Reid Russell, told investigators that he had “much work to complete” because six members of Hutchins' crew had just quit the film that morning. They allegedly hadn’t been paid and weren’t being housed near the set.
Hutchins had previously given up a day’s rental of a crane in order to add to the budget for lodging the camera crew, but with the issue still unresolved, she came to set the day of the shooting to find her crew packing up, according to the L.A. Times. When they weren’t packing up fast enough, line producer Gabrielle Pickle threatened to call the police on them. Pickle also had a previous labor violation, according to the Hollywood Reporter, firing members of a 2018 film for trying to unionize and calling the police on them.
Four replacement camera operators were brought on to the Rust set, including three who were non-union.
The crew had taken some of their personal equipment as well. The camera department was only able to use one camera that day, which caused further delays. Crew shortages meant the production didn’t start on time the morning of the shooting.
The production was using non-union staff to work with firearms, according to a message sent to members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union local that represents crew who work with props. The union as a whole represents below-the-line film crew, and had earlier in October narrowly avoided a massive strike — though that deal is still in the process of being ratified, and there are some indications that it may not be. Some of the chief concerns being raised by union members both before and after this incident involved set safety.
What was firearm safety like on the Rust set?
In the 911 call, script supervisor Mamie Mitchell said in an apparent reference to assistant director Halls, “He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happens on the set.”
Halls admitted that he didn’t fully check the gun before handing it to Baldwin, according to a search warrant. He said that he should have checked all of the gun’s chambers, but didn’t. He also couldn’t remember whether the gun’s barrel was spun to check if other chambers had a round in them. Dummy rounds are normally visually differentiated from live rounds via a small hole or indent, as well as making a signature rattling indicating there’s a BB rather than gunpowder inside the round, according to the L.A. Times.
Halls is not a member of the Directors Guild of America, Deadline reported.
The Rust crew appears to have violated multiple basic firearm safety protocols, according to Hollywood veterans, including the directive that a performer is never supposed to aim a weapon at another person.
“The biggest thing is I don’t really see any real protocols, period,” veteran prop gun expert and film armorer Mike Tristano said.
Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the prop person in charge of weapons, told authorities that no live ammunition is ever kept on set. But Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said that 500 rounds of ammunition were recovered from the set, including blanks, live rounds, and dummy rounds.
Gutierrez Reed said that she had no idea where the live rounds came from, via a statement provided by her lawyer, Jason Bowles.
There had reportedly been concerns about Gutierrez Reed’s inexperience since the first day on set, according to the L.A. Times. Her father was also a longtime armorer, working on films such as 3:10 to Yuma. There had also been conflicts between production managers and the camera crew, resulting in a set that was reportedly chaotic. Those production managers had also expressed concerns about Gutierrez Reed, who had only worked on one film as an armorers before Rust.
“Ultimately this set would never have been compromised if live ammo were not introduced,” Gutierrez Reed’s statement reads. “Hannah and the prop master gained control over the guns and she never witnessed anyone shoot live rounds with these guns and nor would she permit that. They were locked up every night and at lunch and there’s no way a single one of them was unaccounted for or being shot by crew members.”
The statement also said that she had never had an accidental discharge, though there had been three others on the Rust set. They included Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally firing a blank after being told he had a cold gun, as well as a woman in the props department accidentally shooting herself in the foot with a blank.
The gun that killed Hutchins may have been left outside and unattended, according to a search warrant, after it had been retrieved from a locked safe. It was sitting out on a cart with two other guns. Souza and production staff left the filming location for lunch, and when they got back, Souza wasn’t sure if the gun had been checked to see if it was safe to use.
Gutierrez Reed had spun the cylinder and showed Halls the rounds before handing him the gun, according to a statement from her lawyers. Gutierrez Reed had instructed her department to watch the cart with the guns when she was away. She was also key props assistant on the film.
“The fact that three guns were left unattended on a prop cart — that’s ridiculous,” Tristano said. “The guns never leave our possession, or site. And we do not hand the guns to the [assistant director] to hand to an actor. I don’t know where somebody’s got that idea.”
“Was there a duty to safeguard them 24/7?” Gutierrez Reed attorney Robert Gorence said to the New York Times. “The answer is no, because there were no live rounds.”
Gutierrez Reed said through her attorneys that she had “fought for training, days to maintain weapons and proper time to prepare for gunfire, but ultimately was overruled by production and her department.” She added that the entire production had become unsafe.
She said in a statement that she didn’t think that live rounds could have been put in the dummy round box, adding, “No one could have anticipated or thought that someone would introduce live rounds into this set.”
Normally, guns are supposed to be loaded in front of the actors and the crew so that they can see what’s going on, according to Tristano.
A director and producer of Westerns said that camera angles are always supposed to be adjusted to avoid what happened on this set.
“The industry has had a record recently of being safe,” Sheriff Mendoza said. “I think there was some complacency on this set, and I think there are some safety issues that need to be addressed by the industry and possibly by the state of New Mexico.”
Experts told NPR that a wide variety of factors could have contributed to the shooting, including the type of gun, how it was altered, how it was handled, the positions of cast and crew, as well as the direction and strength of the wind.
An inspection following the shooting showed there were as many as five chambered rounds in the gun, according to Halls.
Gutierrez Reed’s attorneys posited in an appearance on NBC’s Today that somebody had put the live round in the dummy rounds box in order to sabotage the set.
“We have people who had left the set, who had walked out because they were disgruntled,” Bowles said on Today.
How was Alec Baldwin involved in the film?
Baldwin is best known as a critically acclaimed actor in films such as The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Departed, and the Mission: Impossible franchise, along with more comedic roles in the Boss Baby animated films and the TV show 30 Rock. He regularly played Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live from 2016 through 2020. He’s also developed an intimidating reputation, both for public statements and among those he’s worked with. Rust crew would try to stay out of his eye line to avoid distracting him, according to the L.A. Times, but he was also respected.
On Rust, he was also credited as a producer. He announced the $6 million film alongside writer-director Joel Souza in May 2020. But production wouldn’t begin until 17 months later. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the group of producers behind the film were inexperienced.
While “producer” titles sometimes indicate little involvement, often given as vanity credits to actors and actresses, Baldwin had developed the project with Souza from scratch and also has a “story by” credit. It’s the fifth time Baldwin has served a a producer. The producer title is also sometimes used to defer upfront fees to actors.
He was “pretty concerned about safety on set,” a camera technician told the L.A. Times. Baldwin had checked with this technician to find out where they were going to be standing when the scene was shot.
Baldwin shared a post on social media calling assertions by members of the crew that the set was unsafe “bulls—.”
Who was cinematographer Halyna Hutchins?
The graduate of L.A.’s American Film Institute Conservatory was 42 years old.
Hutchins was considered by many to be a rising star, with a strong visual eye. She came to the U.S. from Ukraine, moving from New York to Los Angeles as she pursued a career in film. In an interview earlier this year, she said that her interest in art house films led to her taking UCLA Extension classes and starting to make short films.
After being shot, she was transported via helicopter to University of New Mexico Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
“This woman is gone at the beginning of her career. She was an extraordinary, rare, very rare woman,” Rust script supervisor Mamie Mitchell told the Associated Press.
“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. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation,” Alec Baldwin said on Twitter.
What was the plot of Rust?
The following description of the film’s plot was listed on IMDb (Internet Movie Database):
“A 13 year-old boy, left to fend for himself and his younger brother following the death of their parents in 1880’s Kansas, goes on the run with his long estranged grandfather after he’s sentenced to hang for the accidental killing of a local rancher.”
The production of the film was suspended following the shooting, but could potentially resume at a later date. The production company said that production was being suspended at least until investigations are completed, and the film may never be completed.
How common are prop gun deaths on set?
While rare, prop guns have killed cast and crew members before during various productions. There are also occasionally nonfatal accidental discharges.
The most famous on-set death from a prop gun is likely the 1993 death of Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, while filming a death scene in The Crow. A gun that was supposed to have blanks in it had a live round chambered and he was shot and killed at 28 years old. It was the last recorded accidental death by a prop gun on a movie set.
Before that, actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head with a blank in 1984 during the filming of TV series, Cover Up. Despite the gun being loaded with blanks, he was hit in the head with a blank charge, which led to his death.
What happens next?
The investigation into the shooting continues, which the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department has said could take some time. There is also the potential of criminal charges in the shooting death. The evidence was being sent to the FBI’s Crime Lab for analysis. Evidence investigators were looking to examine includes Baldwin’s blood-stained Rust costume, the weapon that was fired, other prop guns and ammunition, and any footage that might exist.
A new California bill could ban both live ammo and all firearms from film and TV sets, as well as theatrical productions. The bill also includes weapon certifications for both prop masters and armorers, the crew members directly responsible for weapons. These regulations would be similar to those already in place for IATSE union employees, but would move them from union rules into law.
Some productions are already taking action. One of the first was ABC’s The Rookie, which announced it would no longer use “live” weapons. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has pledged to stop using real guns on his productions. L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz has also called for a ban on live guns and ammunition on film and TV sets. Many productions already insert muzzle flashes via special effects in postproduction.
Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin has called for productions to employ police officers on sets that use guns, whether they are real or fake, to monitor weapons safety.
Mike Roe reported and produced this story with contributions from Monica Bushman, John Horn, and Chris Greenspon.