Behind the Scenes Horrors

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Issue 5, Volume 112

By Gulam Monawarah 

Deputies received a 911 call from the movie set of “Rust” in Santa Fe, New Mexico on October 21. A-list actor Alec Baldwin had discharged a prop gun that killed the director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, who was airlifted to the hospital and pronounced dead. The news has since spread like wildfire across the country and sparked conversations about safety measures on Hollywood sets. People do not know who is to blame for the tragic incident: Alec Baldwin, the assistant director, or the person who brought the gun on set. Regardless, the fact that a gun was allowed onto the set while dozens of crewmembers were working is unacceptable. Filmmakers should be held accountable for the unsafe conditions that employees work in before another similar accident occurs.

The Baldwin incident is not the first firearm accident. In fact, there have been various incidents in Hollywood of falsely proclaimed blanks, unknowingly loaded guns, and even exploding cartridges. Brandon Lee, the son of world-famous martial artist Bruce Lee, was killed when filming “The Crow” in 1993 after a prop gun was fired and the cartridge blasted out, striking him in the abdomen. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head in 1984 on the set of CBS show “Cover Up.” Deaths like these are in the headlines for a few weeks and then easily forgotten with no change having happened. They are called freak accidents, and no one is held accountable.

Many are asking about assistant director Dave Halls’s role in this incident, since he was the one who handed the loaded gun to Baldwin. According to court records, he yelled “cold gun,” a phrase used to indicate that a prop gun is unloaded, before handing it over. He also has a history of unsafe filming practice. On the set of “Into the Dark,” he was reported to have created unsafe working conditions through crowded sets, an absence of fire lanes, and a lack of safety meetings, all of which can be lethal in large, blockbuster movie sets.

It is easy to brush this occurrence off as a mistake on Halls’s part, but at least 43 people have died on sets in the U.S. since 1990, and more than 150 others have been left with life-altering injuries. Not all workers get hurt from the expected explosives or misfired guns; the most common causes of accidents are tripping hazards, such as cables, wiring, and ropes on sets; pyrotechnic effects; electrocution; falling equipment; and a lack of safety equipment.

Parties such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and individual Hollywood unions and studios have each set forth safety requirements, which could contribute to the varying safety conditions. Different studios have different standards, so the lack of a universal safety protocol can confuse filmmakers. Additionally, due to time constraints, studios constantly rush to meet deadlines, which means that important checks may be brushed aside. After all, safety checks, training, and replacing equipment can be costly and time-consuming. However, filmmakers cannot ignore the safety of their crew members. It is crucial that they prioritize the safety of the staff.

To add insult to injury, many filmmakers and media outlets sweep set accidents under the rug. For instance, most audience members are unaware that John Suttles was fatally injured working for the 2012 movie “The Avengers” after falling from a truck. However, news outlets barely covered his story, and there is nothing in the end credits to indicate Suttles’s dedication to the hit film. When actors like Baldwin fall into serious scandals, their names are plastered all over media outlets and honored in films. However, there are so many more accidents involving background workers who don’t get the recognition they deserve.

We cannot leave it all to the directors’ and producers’ judgement to keep employees safe, as they are the ones currently creating dangerous set environments. The best solution is to encourage more rigorous safety training within studios. There should be stricter penalties, like license suspensions, for disobeying safety guidelines or for trying to hide these accidents. It is inappropriate to call serious threats to the welfare of Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes workers a “learning curve” or “mishap.” They are tragedies.