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The debate over real guns on film sets

Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October.
Jae C. Hong
Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October.

Updated November 12, 2021 at 9:11 AM ET

A crew member on the set of Rust claims safety negligence led to the accidental shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last month.

The bullet that killed her "narrowly missed" the film's chief lighting technician Serge Svetnoy, according to allegations in a civil lawsuit he filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. It's believed to be the first lawsuit related to the incident.

Svetnoy alleges in the lawsuit that actor/producer Alec Baldwin, who fired the weapon, along with the film's other producers, "wholly failed to perform their responsibilities and violated the most basic of industry standards governing the use and maintenance of firearms and ammunition." Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed and the film's assistant director, Dave Halls, are among those named as defendants in the lawsuit.

A representative for Baldwin declined to comment on the suit. The attorneys for Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed say while she is cooperating with investigations by the FBI and Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, she is questioning how live rounds ended up on the set. "We are asking for a full and complete investigation of all of the facts, including the live rounds themselves, how they ended up in the 'dummies' box, and who put them in there," they wrote in a statement.

Rust assistant director Dave Halls could not be reached for comment regarding the civil lawsuit. In an October affidavit from the Santa Fe county Sheriff's office, Halls said "he did not know live rounds were in the prop-gun" that he handed to Baldwin after announcing "cold gun," indicating the weapon was safe to use. Halls shared with authorities in a separate affidavit that he hadn't thoroughly checked each of the rounds of ammunition, as he said should have.

The push to keep real firearms off sets

The shooting has prompted many in the industry to reevaluate the use of real guns during film and TV production.

Hundreds of Hollywood cinematographers have signed on to an open lettervowing to not work on sets using functional firearms.

"Why are we fighting so hard to keep guns on set?" asks Autumn Eakin, Hutchins' friend and colleague who co-wrote the letter. "Our job is to make reality out of fake surroundings, out of fake situations. We have actors act like they are getting punched all the time. We have them act like they're sad and crying. We have them act like they're in love."

So, she suggests, actors just need to be good at firing fake guns. She says if they really need to, filmmakers can simply use weighted, realistic looking guns with no firing power.

Online, there are countless libraries of firearm sounds and footage for film and video productions. They include everything from AK-47's to Wild West rifles to the Smith and Wesson Model 29 used in Dirty Harry.

Visual effects supervisor Jeffrey Okun says he's both recorded this footage and added computer generated effects to it. He began in the film industry in the 1970s, and teaches actors how to pretend to react after shooting phony guns.

"Most actors can fake it rather quickly, but the biggest problem is getting them to not say bang," he says. "But once we get it, in visual effects, we add the muzzle flash, we add the smoke to the shot, we add interactive lighting on the actor."

Okun says that rubber and plastic guns are best for camera angles from far away. There are good replicas for some semi-automatics, he says — but fewer fake revolvers like those used in many old west pictures.

That's one reason why some armorers, who work with guns on sets, say the call to ban functioning firearms is a knee-jerk reaction.

Some armorers maintain real guns always look better

"The idea that we can just use toy guns for everything is a little pie in the sky thinking because those replicas don't exist," armorer Clay Van Sickle says. "There's nothing that an actor will respond to more than a real gun firing a blank in their hand as opposed to a plastic gun. There's far too much going on for them to be able to act that convincingly."

Armorer Bryan Carpenter agrees. He also manufactures real and fake guns to rent for film and TV productions through his business Dark Thirty Film Services in New Orleans. Having worked as a private military contractor, he also trains actors to use those weapons. He believes modified real firearms always look better than using computer generated visual effects.

"And the audience appreciates it," he says. "Take movies like Heat or Saving Private Ryan or Lone Survivor and all of these very gritty, visceral movies that invest the audience into action ... you feel like you're there."

He says that's because shooting blanks looks realistic. "Now, can [visual effects] maybe eventually catch up to that? Maybe so. And if it does, then I'll be the first one to say, hey, anything that you can do safer, that's just as good? By all means, let's do it."

Van Sickle says there's no need to outlaw real weapons on set as long as everyone follows long established safety protocols. He says anyone on set can ask to inspect weapons. Before the lawsuit was filed, Van Sickle said based on what's been reported, he believes the well established protocols didn't seem to have been followed on the Rust set.

"You can't just outlaw stupidity, unfortunately," he said. "But if we can ensure as an industry that we all stick to the rules that we have all agreed to when we attend that safety meeting right after call time — if we can all follow those rules, which we have been for decades, everybody goes home safe."

Armorers interviewed for this story emphasize the kind of accident that happened on Rust's set is extremely rare. But Van Sickle admits there are no licenses or certifications required for those handling guns on sets.

"There is no school, per se, for armorers," he says. "Ninety percent of what we learn is through an apprenticeship program. You have to work with someone who has been doing this longer than you have."

That's another reason why, he says, following the protocols is so important.

"It's not our call, it's their call"

Cinematographer Eakin and others say those guidelines are not enough: "Human error is always going to happen. But we can take the deadly weapon out of it and bring that risk down to zero," Eakin explains.

As long as there are real guns on sets, prop master John D. Bert says productions might start with writing uniform safety standards into their contracts. And he suggests other changes.

"There could be a whole industry or business cropped up that creates a bunch of these Air Soft, realistic looking things that really don't do anything. But they look great and you can pull a trigger and this thing turns and a hammer comes back. But there's no firing pin. You don't put blanks in them and you just leave it all to visual effects."

It's up to studios and producers to decide what they'll allow on sets, Bert explains, adding that visual effects can always be improved: "Given enough time and money, there's literally nothing we can't do," he says. "But it's not our call, it's their call."

Bert says custom-made fake firearms and visual effects could be expensive, especially for lower budget productions — but well-worth the cost to save lives.

For his part, actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson says his production company will use rubber guns from now on. "We're gonna take care of it in post [production]," he told Variety. "We're not gonna worry about the dollars, we're not gonna worry about what it costs."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.