The tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was accidentally shot by actor Alec Baldwin on the Santa Fe set of indie Western Rust last week, has shaken up Hollywood, prompting soul-searching over safety on sets and the use of guns.
There are currently conversations underway at the major TV studios, which have been carefully examining their gun safety policies in the past few days and reviewing potential changes.
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Hollywood has had a long, difficult history with guns, which always comes back in the spotlight after a tragedy. Shows depicting gun violence are temporarily shelved after a mass shooting out of respect for victims. Studies exploring possible links between violent content in movies, TV series and video games are commissioned periodically. But guns have remained a Hollywood staple; they have been an indelible part of screen storytelling since the cinema’s early days, solidifying their leading role through the Western genre, which Rust falls into.
There have been individual, emotion-driven actions. Former The Blacklist star Megan Boone, who is from Florida, announced on social media in 2018 that her character on the NBC series “will never carry an assault rifle again” in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting.
Following Hutchins’ death, The Rookie showrunner Alexi Hawley wrote an internal memo that he described as “an emotional process.” In it, he announced that as of last Friday, “it is now policy on The Rookie that all gunfire on set will be Air Soft guns with CG muzzle flashes added in post. There will be no more ‘live’ weapons on the show. The safety our cast and crew is too important. Any risk is too much risk.”
The Rookie won’t be alone. Mare of Easttown director Craig Zobel revealed after the Rust incident that all gunshots on the popular HBO limited series are digital.
“There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore,” he wrote on Twitter. “Should just be fully outlawed. There’s computers now.”
Eric Kripke, showrunner for Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys, tweeted: “No more guns with blanks on any of my sets ever. We’ll use VFX muzzle flashes. Who’s with me?”
Purists argue that using Air Soft guns and special effects is not the same as the real thing and an authentic recoil can only be produced by a real weapon. But as Zobel countered about using digital gunshots onscreen, “You can probably tell, but who cares? It’s an unnecessary risk.”
As industry discussions continue, there are no indication that any studio or streamer are implementing a blanket policy banning “live” weapons from all of their shows. But safety protocols are being carefully reviewed and reinforced.
The sentiment I hear is that most studios consider the existing safeguards sufficient. Indeed, it has often been smaller-budget indie movies outside the studio system that have been prone to accidents. Rust had the budget of an average episode of a high-end drama series, about $6 million-$7 million, and a tight 21-day filming schedule.
As Neal W. Zoromski, a veteran prop master who had turned down an offer to join Rust, told the Los Angeles Times, he initially asked for a department of five technicians, which would be standard in the business. After concessions, he modified his request to two experienced crew members: an assistant prop master and an armorer, who handles prop guns. He was told the movie could only afford one person handling all these duties, prompting Zoromski to pass.
Because of the significant budget discrepancy between studio and indie productions, a universal ban of real weapons on sets may be the only solution in keeping all projects — big and small — safe.
A grassroots campaign to ban use of real firearms in filming is already gaining momentum. A Change.org petition, launched by filmmaker Bandar Albuliwi, has amassed 30,000 signatures since Friday, including support from filmmakers and stars, and has gotten the attention of lawmakers.
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