On Thursday afternoon, a cinematographer named Halyna Hutchins was killed on the New Mexico set of a film called Rust when a prop gun loaded with blanks and discharged by the actor Alec Baldwin misfired. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that, just hours before the accident, a number of camera crew workers walked off the set, citing mistreatment and poor working conditions. One person told the Times that the gun had misfired three times in the days before the accident and that there had been a “serious lack of safety meetings.”
It’s still not fully clear what exactly happened on the Rust set. The union that represents prop masters said the shot that killed Hutchins was “a live single round,” which—according to the Times—means any material loaded into a gun, including a blank. To get a sense of how something like this could happen on a movie set, how the pressures of the industry create dangerous situations, and why real guns are used at all, Slate spoke with Mitch Thompson, a prop master who has been working in props for the past decade and who most recently worked as the prop master for an upcoming action series from Snapchat. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: Have you worked much with guns?
Thompson: I’ve worked with plastic replicas, airsoft blowback guns, that kind of thing. Nothing that was ever actually a functioning gun. That’s just not something I’m interested or comfortable in handling myself. But there are many other ways of faking a gun.
What are the options for faking a real gun?
A lot of times we’ll use airsoft guns. If somebody is firing on screen, not only do you want the muzzle flash, which can be added in post-production by VFX, but you also want to see the action of the slide blowing back every time the trigger is pulled. A lot of airsoft guns will have that action, and they look real. So that’s a safer alternative.
There is also a company called Independent Studio Services here in Los Angeles that have what they call non-guns, which basically are an electronic version. They’re made to look just like a real gun, and they have the blowback feature, but there is no combustion to them. And then there are times when somebody is walking around with a gun in a holster when we will use a rubber stunt gun or a solid piece that’s literally just like a hunk of plastic.
What kind of regulation and training do you have to have in order to be able to deal with prop guns?
If it’s a union show, there are safety classes. For non-union shows, when you’re starting out, it’s just kind of whoever, wherever. In theory, the production designer or the producer or whoever’s hiring will hopefully vet that you’re somebody who seems trustworthy. But the safety on set really comes down to the prop master and the first [assistant director]. If I was going to use actual guns firing blanks, then I would need to be a licensed armorer. There are safety classes that you have to take, and you have to have a license. But to use non-guns or airsoft guns is kind of the Wild West, so I never got weapons training or anything.
If there are fake guns that look realistic, why would anyone want to use a real one?
Some of it is like institutional inertia. Before there were airsoft rifles and prop stunt guns, all you had was blank firing guns, so I’m sure there is a certain degree of inertia there.
And some of it is just striving for realism, I imagine. It’s always a better idea to have the prop look as realistic as possible. And to my knowledge, that’s also the only way you would get a shell ejected as you’re firing. So this is looking for verisimilitude, I suppose. There are ways to augment fake guns to make them look like they’re behaving like a real gun, but that also costs time and money. You have to pay VFX to go through and find every instance of a gun being fired and put in the time and work to make that look right. But it’s not a hard thing to do. Even lower budget films will often add a muzzle flash to a fake gun.
The biggest argument that people might have is how much of a recoil there is, because that is something where you can tell the difference between someone firing an airsoft pistol and someone firing a desert eagle with a full blank load. You can select how much gunpowder is in each individual blank to get the right effect, so technically that is the biggest reason. That is a harder effect to replicate with fake guns.
In the past, how have fatal accidents occurred from guns loaded only with blanks?
[With the accident that killed Bruce Lee’s son] Brandon Lee, it wasn’t even that a real bullet was in the chamber. Basically, if you’re filming with a revolver, you need to have a slug in the chambers to make it look like it’s not empty. And in that instance, I believe one of the slugs got lodged in the chamber. And [later], when the blank was fired, the slug got fired out and acted as a real bullet.
There was another instance on an ’80s television show where an actor [Jon-Erik Hexum] was goofing around with a blank-loaded gun on set. A blank is a bullet casing that is filled with gunpowder. So when the firing pin hits the blank, it has the same combustion, it has the same force. You get the same recoil from the gun. Nothing is fired out of the barrel, but the force of air from that explosion does come out. So there is a danger of just having anything in front of the barrel in close range, because that force is still enough to cause damage. If you put something like a water bottle in front of it at point-blank range, the sheer explosive force of the air being forced out of the barrel of the gun will blow a hole in the water bottle, even though nothing’s fired. So if you’re standing 10 feet away, it won’t affect you, but it would hurt somebody if they were in close range. [The actor] put it to his head and fired, and while there wasn’t a bullet in it, the force from the chamber was enough to kill him, basically.
After this case, are people going to be thinking about things differently? Are prop masters anxious or upset right now?
I haven’t talked to other prop masters today, but what I will say is that given the time and resources from producers, we are the people on set who are most hardcore about safety. Whenever I’m filming with a prop gun, we make an announcement on set, we stop everyone from working to say, “We’re bringing on a prop gun, it’s plastic or an airsoft rifle or whatever. Anybody on set who wants to can come in and inspect the gun.” We will check the chambers, the clips, the barrel and you can see there’s nothing in here. Then we feel comfortable to proceed like that. I try to instill in actors that sense of fear and respect whenever we’re working with any type of gun, even if I am giving them a hunk of plastic.
Is that level of caution the norm among prop masters, even when working with fake plastic guns?
I think it is a cultural thing in the film industry with below-the-line crew. Obviously it varies, but when you’re working on a film set, you work together for these insane long hours for months at a time and form really tight bonds. There is this shared sense of, “OK, everybody has to look out and keep each other safe.” People who come up through low-budget, non-union stuff all have stories of being abused or hurt on set or made to feel unsafe. So as you go through your career, you become less and less interested in taking risks to save producers time and money. Because ultimately, that’s what everything boils down to: the producers are trying to do something faster or cheaper or easier. And it’s up to the crew to decide, No, this is not how we’re going to do it. This is not safe.
How much control do you have in the kinds of situations where you don’t feel things are safe?
It took me a while to be able to have the confidence to put the brakes on when I felt something wasn’t safe. Early in my career, it was easier for me to feel pressured if we were rushing to say “Oh, yeah, we didn’t discuss doing this scene this way, but I see how it’s safe.” But I’ve gotten to a place where even something as simple as throwing a snowball at an actor, if it wasn’t discussed that way ahead of time, I will say, “No, I am not going to be the one to make this decision.”
I wouldn’t think of a snowball as a particularly dangerous weapon. That would rise to the level of interfering?
I grew up in the Midwest: Snowballs hurt, and if you take a snowball to the eye, that is a serious risk. I was on a set where I had brought in foam snowballs, and once we started filming the scene, the director decided that he didn’t like the way the fake ones flew. So he said we’ll use a real one for this, and I’m like, if I am the one who can throw it and pack it, I will be OK with that. I’m throwing it at a child actor, and [the director] starts saying, “throw it closer to the actor and pack the snowball tighter.” I had to put my foot down and say, “I am not going to be a part of this.” So I walked off, and somebody else did the throwing.
Are there any other props that make you worry a lot about safety?
Basically, anything being thrown. I worked on a show earlier this year where they threw a notebook, and we had discussions. Anything sharp, obviously. If a knife is being shown on screen, I will always file it down so I can run it along my own arm without it doing any damage. And if it’s a fight scene, then that knife needs to be foam.
Do you find yourself worrying about safety concerns often?
On lower-budget productions, there is generally an air of like, let’s just get it done. The tighter the schedule is packed, the more people are willing to get lax on stuff. That is not what I’m saying happened here [with the Rust situation] but this is just what I have seen. We’re expected to make miracles happen. It’s very easy to acquiesce and say, “Well, OK, we’re running behind schedule, and we need to get this scene done. So fine, we will cut this one little corner.” But those corners can end up adding up very fast.