Discover more from Gideon's Substack
"One must never place a loaded gun on the stage if it isn't going to go off." - Anton Chekhov
Brief thoughts on the horror on the set of "Rust"
1873 blank firing revolver .380
While I was in Austin, the news broke about the killing on the set of the period western, “Rust.” For those who haven’t been following the story, Alec Baldwin, the star of the film, was practicing his draw with a gun that had been certified as “cold,” meaning that it was safe to fire, and wound up firing a live round of ammunition, killing the cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins and wounding the director, Joel Souza. Initially there was some question as to whether somehow it might have been a freak accident with a misfired blank, but it now appears that the gun may well have been loaded with live ammunition, as the crew reportedly used it to shoot beer cans during down time earlier that day.
The whole story is comprehensively horrible, most obviously for Hutchins and her family, but also Souza, who was wounded and who also surely feels responsible for bringing Hutchins to the project, for Baldwin, who will have to live with the knowledge that he fired the shot cut short her life, and for everyone involved in the project. I would not be surprised if charges of criminal negligence are ultimately brought (none have been filed as yet), if it can be established that the first assistant director and/or the armorer did not follow and enforce safety protocols to prevent such a thing from happening.
But the buck ultimately stops with the producers, and it’s hard for me not to agree with the conclusion of this Hollywood Reporter piece that one key reason this might have happened is that there wasn’t a real logistical producer—someone experienced in crewing up an managing a set—involved in the project. There were actors and financiers and talent agents and other people with various kinds of experience in the film industry, but nobody in a position to evaluate the competence of an armorer, or to set the tone of a professionally-run set that would make the kind of shenanigans that are being alleged to have gone on impossible. Baldwin was one of those producers—and a real one in the sense that he helped develop the story, and had a deep investment in the project emotionally and in terms of time. But nonetheless he was not someone with the kind of experience needed to prevent an accident like this from happening. I think he deserves nothing but compassion for what he’s going through as the trigger-puller; he was told the gun was safe to fire, and he should be able to trust what he’s told. But as a performer, he can only extend that trust as far as the producers have demonstrated that they’ve earned it, and inasmuch as he wore that hat as well, he may indeed be culpable.
Whether he’s liable is another story. I said the buck stops with the producers, but I don’t know whether it will, which is to say, I don’t know whether either criminal or civil penalties will touch them. Maybe they shouldn’t; I don’t know the law well enough. What I do know is that it is the producers who feel the pressure of time and money, and therefore the producers who need to feel countervailing pressure in the same terms. Those pressures—not only on independent film, which is always run on what is to some degree a shoestring, but on vastly bigger budget productions, particularly those run by the streaming services—to complete work on schedule are the fundamental background condition that drives so many problems that do happen on set. In this particular case, I have to believe they figured in the decision to ignore complaints about safety and general working conditions that reportedly were aired in the days prior to the accident, which led to a walkout by some crew-members, who were then hastily replaced by non-union and presumably less-experienced crew, but similar concerns about the running of union sets were behind the overwhelming support by IATSE members for the first strike in the union’s history, and behind the considerable initial resistance by the membership to the last-minute deal their leadership reached with the studios.
I don’t want to be glib or jump to conclusions here. The unions have every interest in painting this as a story about the danger of non-unionized sets, and there hasn’t been any kind of formal fact-finding yet. I’m acutely aware of how tenuous independent film in particular is right now—I’m raising money to make my own film as we speak—and when I look at the way Covid-compliance costs have wrecked indie budgets, the prospect of additional regulation and consequent costs fill me with dread. Moreover, the more expensive you make it to do things properly, the greater the economic incentive you create for someone unscrupulous to go rogue, and give you even worse problems.
But there’s going rogue and there’s going rogue, and a lot of people who do take stupid risks still draw lines around things that could realistically send them to prison, or face open-ended personal liability. If I’m wrong, and that prospect is there right now as it was for the “Midnight Rider” team, then there’s not much more to say but to hope people learn a lesson from a completely preventable tragedy. If I’m right, then that’s one area where it feels like it might be worth it to create a greater incentive for the people at the desk where the buck actually stops to think harder about whether the gun they’re loading might go off in their own faces.