Rust Tragedy Update: Experts Weigh In

(CREDIT: Noah Browning/Shutterstock)

Last month, we reported on the accidental shooting on the set of the movie Rust, that injured director Joel Souza and took the life of rising talent cinematographer Halyna Hutchins who was the Director of Photography of the film. 

Disturbing details have emerged, almost daily, since the deadly accident and as more and more information is revealed, it becomes increasingly difficult to process the immense amount of information coming out from all parties involved including those who should have been responsible for the safety on set, especially surrounding firearms.

Most recently the armorer on the set, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, issued a statement through her attorneys Jason Bowles and Robert Gorence, who recently appeared on The Today Show and attempted to deflect her responsibility to the film’s production and claimed the shooting was a result of sabotage, not her own negligence.  

Bowles said, “I believe that somebody who would do that would want to sabotage the set, want to prove a point, want to say that they’re disgruntled, they’re unhappy, and we know that people had walked off the set the day before, “ implying that one or more of the very people who were complaining about unsafe working conditions were guilty of sabotage and manslaughter. 

On Nightly News with Lester Holt, camera assistant Lane Luper said he resigned from the movie over his safety concerns just hours before the fatal shooting.

He told NBC’s Miguel Almaguer that allegations like the ones made by Gutierrez-Reed’s attorneys were “irresponsible,” “offensive” and “slanderous.”

Luper, the A-camera first assistant, informed producers in his resignation by email, which was sent on October 20, just one day before the fatal shooting and was shared by NBC News, and explained that safety procedures were “fast and loose” when filming gunfights for the movie.

“So far there have been 2 accidental weapons discharges and 1 accidental SFX explosives that have gone off around the crew between takes… To be clear there are NO safety meetings these days,” Luper said in the email.

Assistant Director David Halls, who gave the loaded weapon to Baldwin before the deadly shooting and announced “cold gun” told police he couldn’t recall how thoroughly he checked the weapon.

“David advised when Hannah showed him the firearm before continuing rehearsal, he could only remember seeing three rounds,” he told detectives, according to an affidavit filed in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court.

“He advised he should have checked all of them, but didn’t, and couldn’t recall if she spun the drum,” the assistant director allegedly told Santa Fe County sheriff’s office.

Both Halls and Reed have come under fire for their past experiences on production sets. According to The Wrap, Academy award winner Nicolas Cage yelled obscenities at the inexperienced armorer on her first job as armorer and head prop master for the film The Old Way for her mishandling of firearms on set. She apparently fired off weapons around the crew without warning, not once but TWICE.

After the second time in 3 days of Gutierrez Reed testing a weapon near everyone else unexpectedly, Cage yelled,  “Make an announcement, you just blew my f***ing eardrums out!” Then, he stormed off.

Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who is the daughter of Thell Reed, a stuntman and Hollywood armorer himself, admitted on the Voices Of The West podcast that she wasn’t sure she was “ready” for the role the first time she was head armorer.

David Halls, was fired from a previous job after a gun went off on the set of Freedom’s Path and wounded a member of a film crew in Fayetteville, North Carolina, according to Deadline.  One of the producers of the film told the publication, “I can confirm that Dave Halls was fired from the set of Freedom’s Path in 2019 after a crew member incurred a minor and temporary injury when a gun was unexpectedly discharged,” he added. “Halls was removed from set immediately after the prop gun discharged. Production did not resume filming until Dave was off-site. An incident report was taken and filed at that time.”

Crew member Maggie Goll said in a statement she filed an internal complaint with the executive producers of Hulu’s Into the Dark series in 2019 over concerns about assistant director Dave Halls’ behavior on set. Goll said that Halls disregarded safety protocols for weapons and pyrotechnics and tried to continue filming after a crew member had “slipped into a diabetic fugue state.”

Halls wanted to resume filming after the incapacitated man was removed from the set even though Goll, the remaining pyrotechnician on site, didn’t have the qualifications to supervise the complicated series of pyrotechnic effects that were planned.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed by New Mexico authorities and shared by the Los Angeles Times, Gutierrez Reed, who was in charge of overseeing gun safety and usage on set, said on the day of the incident that she had ensured that the ammunition intended for production consisted of “dummies” and did not include “hot” rounds.

She also told investigators that live ammunition was never kept on set, however, the roughly 500 rounds of ammunition recovered by authorities from the set included a mixture of “blanks, dummy rounds and what we are suspecting were live rounds,” said Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said during a news conference. 

Multiple sources directly connected to the Rust production told TMZ that the same gun Alec Baldwin accidentally fired injuring Souza and killing Hutchins was being used by crew members off set as well, for target practice with live rounds (real bullets).

Reel 360 sought out the help of experts to help sift through the massive amounts of information that has been shared over the past few weeks. 

“Live” or “Hot” Rounds?

(Carew Papritz)

Carew Papritz, an award-winning author and filmmaker, a previous non-union and union member working in the art department on TV/Film/Commercials/Music Videos, worked in Local 44. This is the IATSE union whose prop person worked on the Rust set. Papritz has also worked extensively in Hollywood on film and TV crews with the likes of such actors as Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp and has graciously agreed to add insight to what happens on a movie set such as Rust.

Reel 360 asked Papritz if there are additional requirements when real weapons are used on set and are there any specifications between “hot” weapons vs “cold” weapons? Is there any reason why it would be acceptable for live rounds to be on set? 

Papritz quickly replied, “There is NEVER any reason for a live round to be on a set.” analyst, Michael Giusti, has covered film production insurance in the past (including in his series of COVID & insurance reports) and explained from a liability standpoint, “Weapons status is absolutely a conversation insurers have when writing policies. I spoke with an insurer the other day who said her company will not even write policies for productions that have fireable weapons on set, regardless of whether they plan to use blanks or not. You can be sure that insurers will be even more wary of every detail regarding weapons moving forward.“

Even though Papritz told us that a “live” or “hot” round should NEVER be on any movie or TV production set, a working Hollywood actor, who was not a part of this production and wishes to remain anonymous, told Reel 360:

“I’ve worked with guns on set a few times, and even the one time I was actually firing, I was always uneasy about the whole thing. And they used live rounds on that set too. It was a shooting range scene and one of the actors was shooting at watermelons. The rest of us were firing blanks. But we were loading our own weapons. There was no armorer doing it for us. He just reviewed with us how to load, and had us reload after each take. And that was for a popular premium network show, so the whole ‘Every production has strict gun safety bla bla bla…’ is just bullshit.“

Reel 360 then asked a weapons expert, who wished not to be named, how this weapon was fired in the first place. She explained, “The type of gun he was using doesn’t have a safety button.  The ‘safety’ is that you have to pull the hammer back to enable it to fire.  So, as long as that hammer wasn’t pulled back, he can’t fire.  As soon as they pull that hammer back, the trigger would be able to fire the weapon.”

That information leads us to believe that not only was the weapon loaded with at least one real “live” or “hot” round, but also Alec Baldwin or someone else would have had to pull the hammer back prior to pulling the trigger and firing the weapon. 

When asked about the difference between “dummy” rounds, “live” rounds” and “blank” rounds, the weapons expert explained, “One would think, especially with the nature of the scene (shooting the “prop” at the camera), whoever handed him the gun and said, “cold gun”, would have double-checked!  The problem is, that the blank and dummy rounds can look the same as the live rounds from behind. So, without taking out each one and making sure they’re blanks, one may not know”.

She also provided a link back to the TMZ article that shows the difference between dummy rounds and real bullets and she went on to say, “That has an image in it of the two different rounds and what they look like. I wonder if the armorer checked the gun at all??  That seems to be an important detail.”

Unsafe Working Conditions?

It has been reported that conditions on set were less than desirable and every union member exited the set just 6 hours before the shooting, after being mocked and dismissed by production when the 6 person team voiced their concerns about safety on the set as well as inhumane working conditions. 

Papritz explained the difference between “union” and “non-union.” 

“A union production has to abide by union rules. Crew members have to have regular breaks, get paid on time, be allowed enough time to sleep (a “turnaround”), safe conditions both on-set and off-set, etc…  You can get fined for infractions that are reported. Of course, the key is reporting them.”

Papritz added, “Non-union is non-binding. They should follow the union production rules but are not bound by them. They can cut more corners on everything but have to be careful because they still can have liability issues if someone gets hurt.”

He also noted, “If a union person leaves, the production company is supposed to run it through the union who is then supposed to try and find union members to fill the spots first. But this can take time and time is money on a production. That’s why the Rust production company immediately found a non-union camera crew to fill the vacancy left by the union camera crew that left because of unsafe conditions.”

Papritz elaborated, “The problem with working conditions leading to such a horrific accident are systemic. There are so many more productions than ever due to the streaming service. Variety reported that production has doubled from 216 scripts airing in 2010 on broadcast and cable networks to over 500 in 2020. You only have so many experienced below-the-line production crew to go around. That’s when you start tapping into inexperienced crew members—and producers. The more experienced the crew, generally the more smoothly a film production runs. Not always, but mostly.”

He then shared, “Add a low-budget, tight shooting schedule, cost-cutting with crew member turnarounds and hotels, not getting paid on time, working longer than normal hours—all of this is a recipe for production to invite accidents. The producers were just following the normal playbook for a badly-run, low-budget production without much oversight—it’s the old money over safety issue.”

Giusti explained the difference from an insurance standpoint, “The insurance underwriter is going to consider the details of every show they insure, be it union or non-union. They will evaluate the various risks to set the premium. For example, how many people are on set, is it a remote or dangerous location, are weapons or stunts involved? Union rules may play into that, depending on the factors the insurer is looking for. 

One union-related question that may come into play is pre-negotiated settlements. By that I mean the union may have a dollar figure already negotiated in the case of an accident, injury, or death, which will eliminate uncertainty and make policy pricing a bit easier on the front end.“

On the subject of settlements, Reel 360 asked Giusti if production insurance covers accidental deaths such as this and if there was a deductible that would need to be paid before insurance would begin to cover this accident.

Giusti explained, “The first policy in play here is worker’s compensation, which does have a death benefit. Then, if there is negligence involved, that is where liability policies would come into play. That comes down to who might have had a duty of care that might not have been met. If someone is found negligent, then it would likely be their policy that steps in. So, this is going to have to wait until after the investigation plays out.”

Guisti noted, “As per the payout, beyond the state-regulated worker’s compensation death benefit, the payout would depend on any lawsuits and or judicial rulings. Virtually every insurance policy has a deductible. In fact, many of these policies have a large self-insurance aspect built-in, meaning that the first $1 million (or some other pre-negotiated amount) would have to come out of the company’s pocket first, and then the insurance policy would step in.”

Who is included in “Local 44”?

Papritz explained, “Local 44 is the IATSE out of LA.  Local 44 covers the following crafts: Construction Coordinator, Draper, Floorcover, Greens, Propmaster, Propmaker, Property, Sewers, Set Decorator, Special Effects, Upholsterer, Commercial Master, Commercial Propmaker, Commercial Property, and Commercial Set Decorator. 

The DP (Directory of Photography) who was Halyna Hutchins, and the camera crew would have all belonged to Local 600, the Cinematographers Guild. IATSE Local 695 would be sound production. Local 399 is L.A based and are the teamsters working on film productions.  

As you can see, there are many different unions represented on a film crew. 

All the unions involved in the production have been sharing statements with the public depending on their individual involvement.  The reason #44 is the lead on these statements because the armorer on the crew is under the aegis of the Propmaster and thus is a Local 44 member.“

Does an Armorer Require Some Kind of Certification?

Papritz explained, “If you are an armorer on a film set then the state of California requires that the armorer hold an EFP, Entertainment Firearms Permit. Then you must be an armorer on a non-union film that goes union to become a union armorer.”

When asked if an armorer carries their own liability insurance, Giusti answered,  “It depends on who that armorer is working for. If the armorer has an employer, and is working in good faith within the scope of that employment, then that employer would be responsible for any liability. Personal liability would likely only come into play if they were found criminally negligent or working not in good faith somehow.“

What Happens When There are No Union Members on Set?

We mentioned that all IATSE camera operators left approximately 6 hours before the deadly shooting. We then asked Papritz what happens when every union employee has left the set and is replaced by non-union workers. Papritz explained, 

“There is a process in place that when a union member leaves a set then the union needs to be contacted to try and find another union member.  But the reality is that unions are overworked and short-staffed so producers, especially on lower budget films can skirt this, especially when the shooting schedule is so tight,” he told Reel 360.

He went on to say, “In the case of the Rust shooting, the entire union camera crew walked off. That wasn’t a red flag—that was a bonfire. The entire production should have been immediately shut down.”

When Reel 360 asked Papritz if the past complaints against Halls and Gutierrez Reed would follow them from one production to another he responded, “Yes and no. As far as I know, there is no formal reprimand, but the word gets out in Hollywood. It just depends on how bad the word on the “film street” is and who wants to work with someone who is that careless.“

When asked about this specific incident he replied, “Besides the possible legal consequences, you can bet there will be a mark on all the people involved in and around the shooting. The Rust production company (the legal entity) will just fade away because, like most film productions, they’re set up only for that particular film. Hollywood’s a strange beast and may take back in its own. But for now, the wound is very deep and very raw for all the film industry.“

Alec Baldwin is now calling for police officers to be present on sets when weapons are being used. “Every film/TV set that uses guns, fake or otherwise, should have a police officer on set, hired by the production, to specifically monitor weapons safety,” he wrote on Instagram on Monday.


Joia DaVida reports on the entertainment industry in both Chicago and Los Angeles.