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'Rust' Shooting Investigation Points To Rushed Schedule, Questions About Gun Oversight

A bright yellow sign reads "RUST" and has a white arrow pointed to the right with a grassy field in the background.
A sign points to the direction of the Bonanza Creek Ranch where a fatal shooting occurred on the "Rust" set on Thursday.
(Sam Wasson
/
Getty Images)
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The investigation into Alec Baldwin’s fatally shooting Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of his movie “Rust” on Thursday reveals the production was running behind schedule and the gun that killed the cinematographer might have been left unattended.

At the same time, two Hollywood veterans who have used prop guns in film and television productions said that the “Rust” crew appears to have violated a number of basic firearm safety protocols, including a directive that a performer never aim a weapon at another person.

According to a search warrant filed by the Santa Fe County sheriff’s department, Reid Russell, a member of the “Rust” camera department, told investigators that he had “much work to complete” because six members of Hutchins’ crew had just quit the film because they weren’t being paid and housed near the set.

The low-budget Western at that point could only use one camera, which caused more delays, and the production did not start on time the morning of the shooting because of crew shortages.

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“Rust” director Joel Souza, who was wounded when Hutchins was killed, said the production was running behind schedule.

According to the warrant, the gun might have been left outside and unsupervised for an unknown period of time. Souza told investigators he and production staff left the filming location for lunch, and when they returned Souza said he was unsure if the gun, which had been set out on a cart with two other guns, had been checked to see that it was safe to use.

I don't really see any real protocols, period
— Mike Tristano, weapons expert

Russell furthermore said he left the set for five minutes after lunch, whereupon the gun was already in Baldwin’s possession. Reid said he did not know if it was checked again after he stepped away.

Investigators said that when assistant director Dave Halls gave the gun to Baldwin, he yelled “cold gun,” which means it did not have a live round. Finally, Baldwin did not fire the gun during filming. It was during rehearsal when Baldwin pulled the weapon out of a holster and the gun discharged.

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In a 911 call placed after the shooting by script supervisor Mamie Mitchell, she said, apparently in reference to Halls, “He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happens on the set.” Halls has not yet commented publicly.

Mike Tristano, a veteran prop gun expert who says he has worked on more than 600 productions but was not involved in “Rust,” cited a number of possible lapses in “Rust’s” safety procedures.

“The biggest thing is I don't really see any real protocols, period,” Tristano said. “The fact that three guns were left unattended on a prop cart--that’s ridiculous. The guns never leave our possession, or sight. 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.

“We literally load the guns in front of the actors and the crew,” Tristano continued. “So they can see exactly what's going on. We want to make everybody feel more than comfortable. So everything is transparent. And I think that's the only way to be an armorer on a set.”

A director and producer of Westerns said he was astonished by some of the details that have come to light.

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“Whenever firearms are to be used on set, there is a safety briefing ahead of time to explain the protocols,” the filmmaker said. He did not want to be identified in print out of concern for Hutchins’ family. He added that “prop guns are never pointed at anyone, be it other actors or crew. The [camera] angles are always cheated, to avoid precisely what happened in New Mexico. [And] live rounds are absolutely forbidden to be on set. I cannot think of a single instance where live rounds would need to be fired under any circumstances.”

At a candlelight vigil for Hutchins in Burbank Sunday night, Mike Miller, a vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said. “The idea that there isn’t time for safety is just wrong. The concept that schedule is more important than safety, or the budget is more important than people, is one that simply cannot be allowed to persist. If you’re on a set, and your crews are telling you that it’s not safe, listen to them.”

The film’s production company said they were suspending (but did not rule out the resumption of) filming until the investigations are completed.

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John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.