Western themed films are crowded with action taking on the image of “Old West” behavior from the late 19th century and early 20th century. Their storylines typically include cowboys or gunfighters riding horses armed with a revolver and/or a rifle. However, on the set of a movie actors are not using real ammo. They use blanks. Using blanks is by far much safer than the real thing but unfortunately they still come with risk, some being fatal. Joseph Fisher, a prop master on movie sets who has experience handling weapons in the military and NYPD, explained the danger behind prop guns. In an interview with CNN Fisher shared “In the film business we take extreme caution with any type of weapons.” He continued, “Typically we will do a safety brief with the cast and crew. We’ll introduce the weapon to the cast and crew. We’ll let them examine it. We’ll explain safety precautions that go with each type of prop weapon.” Although, as we have seen in the past, things can still go wrong even with proper training.
On Thursday, October 21st, a film crew member died and another was injured on the set of Rust in New Mexico after Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm. This incident has been tragic for the entire cast and crew and their families as well. And sadly, this isn’t the first time that something like this has occurred on a movie set.
We’re No Strangers to These Mistakes
What were supposed to be harmless firearms on a movie set have been everything but that in the past. In 1993, Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, was fatally struck by a bullet from a gun that presumably only had blanks in it. While filming The Crow, actor Michael Massee shot a revolver at Lee’s character. After the shot Lee fell backwards and proceeded to stay on the floor having the crew think that he was still acting. After a few moments of him not moving it was obvious that he was injured. Lee was rushed to the hospital and after six hours of emergency surgery, he was pronounced dead. The autopsy exposed that Lee’s death was a result of a .44-caliber bullet found near his spine.
So, what should’ve been a blank in Lee’s performance, was not. But, even blanks can be fatal if they’re fired within a close range. John-Eric Hexum was on the set of Cover Up: Golden Opportunity in 1984 and died after putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Daniel Oates, a former police chief of Miami Beach and Aurora, Colorado explained “They all contain a charge, a powder that creates the noise and the explosive, the visual blast, and usually it’s some kind of wire or something that explodes out of the weapon when it’s fired.” He continued, “These weapons can we very, very dangerous.”
A Fatal Scene Behind the Cameras
“In this case it was a blank firing weapon. And, with that there are inherent risk,” Fisher explained to CNN. He shared “Prop weapons do have a dangerous factor to them even though they’re a lot safer than using a live firearm on set.” Fisher went into detail describing, “Typical prop load will be about 25-50% of the gun powder in an actual projectile load that would be used in a regular weapon. With that in mind, there has to be safety precautions, there has to be safety distances. And, at some point those were not followed.”
Fisher went on to explain that within just 25-50 feet the projectiles released can cause physical injury. “Any time you’re dealing with a gunpowder load, which is what’s in a prop weapon that fires blanks, you’re gonna have gas, you’re gonna heave heat, you’re gonna have air coming out of it. Even though there’s no actual physical projectile mounted on the the front of that weapon, there is projectiles that do come out,” says Fisher.
Paying Tribute to Halyna Hutchins
On Thursday the director for Baldwin’s latest film Rust was killed on set. Halyna Hutchins a well known cinematographer who was born in the Ukraine and currently lived in Los Angeles with her husband and child. Hutchins graduated from the American Film Institute in 2015 and has worked on several action and horror films since. Jim Hemphil, a journalist who profiled Hutchins for American Cinematographer to CNN, “She fell in love with movies at a young age, came over here, was really making a name for herself as a cinematographer of genre movies.” Halyna was even named a rising star by American Cinematographer Magazine in 2019.
Alec Baldwin expressed his heartbreak over the loss of the beloved talent on twitter. He wrote, “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 to address how this tragedy occured and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family. My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.
There is an ongoing investigation happening on this tragic event and updates will come as more details get released. Our hearts go out to Halyna’s friends and family and everyone on the set of Rust.