A picture of chaos and concern on the set of Alec Baldwin’s new western, Rust, has emerged from fresh accounts of the lead-up to the fatal shooting during filming on Thursday.
Only days into the three-week production schedule, new reports suggest that a worker had been so worried about weapon safety he had sent a text message to his manager warning of “super-unsafe” conditions.
The claim follows news that six hours before the firing of the shot that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, half-a-dozen camera crew walked off the set at Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe in protest at the working environment on the low-budget film. Complaints ranged from long hours, delayed pay cheques, and a 50-mile daily commute to accommodation in Albuquerque.
Hutchins, 42, was named a “rising star” by American Cinematographer magazine in 2019. She grew up in the Arctic on a Soviet military base and had begun her working life as a journalist, moving into cinema after work on British film productions in eastern Europe. In America she took a series of production-assistant roles, eventually making her own acclaimed short films. She had one son, Andros, with her husband, Matthew.
The text sent to the unit production manager from an anonymous alarmed worker, and seen by the Los Angeles Times, reads: “We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe.”
Sources on Rust have also told the LA Times that vital safety protocols, including regular gun inspections, were not strictly followed, and at least one camera operator working alongside Hutchins alleges there had been two accidental prop gun discharges on the set days earlier.
“There should have been an investigation into what happened,” a crew member told the newspaper. “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.”
The film’s head armourer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, had expressed doubts about her level of experience. On a podcast recorded a month ago she said she had almost turned down her last job “because I wasn’t sure if I was ready”.
A statement from Rust Productions said: “Though we were not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures.”
Over the years the ranch has been the set for dozens of frontier classics, including The Man from Laramie, starring James Stewart, to Cowboy, with Glenn Ford. The Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was also shot there.
But on Thursday, after an assistant director handed one of three weapons on a cart to Alec Baldwin, reportedly yelling “cold gun” to indicate it was loaded with blanks, the latest drama to play out under the western lee of the Sangre de Cristo mountains took a tragic turn.
Fresh details of the accident are contained in a Santa Fe search warrant affidavit, which confirms that Baldwin – one of Hollywood’s best-known actors – discharged a prop gun, killing Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza, crouched behind her.
Souza said on Saturday he was grateful for the support he was receiving and “gutted” by the loss of Hutchins. “She was kind, vibrant, incredibly talented, fought for every inch and always pushed me to be better.”
Actress Frances Fisher, who stars in the film, said on Friday that Souza had been discharged from hospital following treatment to the wound in his shoulder.
New Mexico authorities obtained the warrant so that investigators could document the scene and examine Baldwin’s blood-stained costume, the weapon that was fired, other prop guns and ammunition, and any film that may exist of the incident, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The developments came as Baldwin spoke of his heartbreak. “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,” he said, adding that he was “fully cooperating with the police investigation”.
According to the search warrant application, the gun used was one of three that Gutierrez Reed had laid down outside the wooden structure where a scene was being filmed. Assistant director Dave Halls grabbed the gun from the cart and brought it inside to Baldwin, apparently unaware it was loaded with live rounds.
It remains unclear how many shots were fired or how a live round came to be placed in the revolver. The assistant director “did not know live rounds were in the prop gun”, the affidavit said.
Many actors bring their own gun loader to productions to ensure against accidents.
Gutierrez Reed, Rust’s head armourer, is the daughter of a western movie veteran, Thell Reed. She had reportedly expressed doubts about her competence while working in the lead armourer role for the first time on the Nicolas Cage movie The Old Way.
“You know, I was really nervous about it at first, and I almost didn’t take the job because I wasn’t sure if I was ready … but, doing it, like, it went really smoothly,” she said last month on a podcast, Voices of the West.
On an emergency services 911 recording obtained by online tabloid TMZ, a woman who identifies herself as the script supervisor, Mamie Mitchell, can be heard blaming another set worker.
“OK, this fucking [bleep] that yelled at me at lunch asking about revisions, this motherfucker,” she says. “Did you see him lean over my desk and yell at me? He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happened.”
Precedents for fatal film set accidents are mixed. In 2015, Midnight Rider director Randall Miller and executive producer Jay Sedrish pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed on a railroad trestle.
But after the 1993 filming of The Crow, during which actor Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, was killed by a discharge from a prop gun, prosecutors decided against charging the production company with negligent homicide.
District attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said the investigation was still in its early stages and it was too soon to say if criminal charges might be filed.