Hours before actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer on the New Mexico set of “Rust” with a prop gun, a half-dozen camera crew workers walked off the set to protest working conditions.
The camera operators and their assistants were frustrated by the conditions surrounding the low-budget film, including complaints about long hours, long commutes and waiting for their paychecks, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.
Safety protocols standard in the industry, including gun inspections, were not strictly followed on the “Rust” set near Santa Fe, the sources said. They said at least one of the camera operators complained last weekend to a production manager about gun safety on the set.
Three crew members who were present at the Bonanza Creek Ranch set on Saturday said they were particularly concerned about two accidental prop gun discharges.
Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two rounds Saturday after being told that the gun was “cold” — lingo for a weapon that doesn’t have any ammunition, including blanks — two crew members who witnessed the episode told the Los Angeles Times.
“There should have been an investigation into what happened,” a crew member said. “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.”
A colleague was so alarmed by the prop gun misfires that he sent a text message to the unit production manager. “We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by The Times.
“The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company, ” Rust Movie Productions said in a statement. “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 while production is shut down. We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and offer mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time.”
The tragedy occurred Thursday afternoon during filming of a gunfight that began in a church that is part of the old Western town at the ranch. Baldwin’s character was supposed to back out of the church, according to production notes obtained by The Times. It was the 12th day of a 21-day shoot.
Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was huddled around a monitor lining up her next camera shot when she was accidentally killed by the prop gun fired by Baldwin.
The actor was preparing to film a scene in which he pulls a gun out of a holster, according to a source close to the production. Crew members had already shouted “cold gun” on the set. The filmmaking team was lining up its camera angles and had yet to retreat to the video village, an on-set area where the crew gathers to watch filming from a distance via a monitor.
Instead, the B-camera operator was on a dolly with a monitor, checking out the potential shots. Hutchins was also looking at the monitor from over the operator’s shoulder, as was the movie’s director, Joel Souza, who was crouching just behind her.
Baldwin removed the gun from its holster once without incident, but the second time he did so, ammunition flew toward the trio around the monitor. The projectile whizzed by the camera operator but penetrated Hutchins near her shoulder, then continued through to Souza. Hutchins immediately fell to the ground as crew members applied pressure to her wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
Late Friday, the Associated Press reported that Baldwin was handed a loaded weapon by an assistant director who indicated it was safe to use in the moments before the actor fired it, according to court records. The assistant director did not know the prop gun was loaded with live rounds, according to a search warrant filed in a Santa Fe County court.
The person in charge of overseeing the gun props, known as the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, could not be reached for comment. The 24-year-old is the daughter of veteran armorer Thell Reed and had recently completed her first film as the head armorer for the movie “The Old Way,” with Clint Howard and Nicolas Cage.
Earlier in the day, the camera crew arrived as expected at 6:30 a.m. and began gathering their gear and personal belongings to leave, one knowledgeable crew member told The Times.
Labor trouble had been brewing for days on the dusty set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe.
Shooting began on Oct. 6 and members of the low-budget film said they had been promised the production would pay for their hotel rooms in Santa Fe.
But after filming began, the crews were told they instead would be required to make the 50-mile drive from Albuquerque each day, rather than stay overnight in nearby Santa Fe. That rankled crew members who worried that they might have an accident after spending 12 to 13 hours on the set.
Hutchins had been advocating for safer conditions for her team and was tearful when the camera crew left, said one crew member who was on the set.
“She said, ‘I feel like I’m losing my best friends,'” recalled one of the workers.
As the camera crew — members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — spent about an hour assembling their gear at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, several nonunion crew members showed up to replace them, two of the knowledgeable people said.
One of the producers ordered the union members to leave the set and threatened to call security to remove them if they didn’t leave voluntarily.
“Corners were being cut — and they brought in nonunion people so they could continue shooting,” the knowledgeable person said.
The shooting occurred about six hours after the union camera crew left.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said deputies were dispatched to the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set after calls to 911 at 1:50 p.m. Thursday. Baldwin was starring in the movie and was serving as one of the producers.
No charges have been filed, but the Sheriff’s Office said that “witnesses continue to be interviewed by detectives.”
Baldwin said Friday that he was “fully cooperating with the police investigation” into the incident.
“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,” Baldwin wrote Friday in a series of tweets.
Production has been halted on the movie.
In an email to its members, Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a union that represents prop masters, said the shot that killed Hutchins and injured Souza on Thursday was “a live single round.”
“As many of us have already heard, there was an accidental weapons discharge on a production titled Rust being filmed in New Mexico,” said the North Hollywood-based local. “A live single round was accidentally fired on set by the principal actor, hitting both the Director of Photography, Local 600 member Halyna Hutchins, and Director Joel Souza. Both were rushed to the hospital,” the email said. The New Mexico-based crew was represented by a different local.
A source close to the union said Local 44 does not know what projectile was in the gun and clarified that “live” is an industry term that refers to a gun loaded with some material such as a blank ready for filming.
Bonanza Creek Ranch has been a popular filming location for more than 60 years. The first movie to film there was “The Man From Laramie,” starring Jimmy Stewart. It also was the set for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and the popular TV show “Longmire.”
One of the financiers for “Rust” is Santa Monica-based lender BondIt Media Capital, founded in 2013 by Matthew Helderman and Luke Taylor. According to its website, BondIt finances movies through instruments including gap loans, bridge loans and tax credit financing.
The company has primarily financed low-budget movies including the Bruce Willis action flick “Hard Kill,” the Charlotte Kirk horror flick “The Reckoning” and the upcoming Robert De Niro film “Wash Me in the River,” directed by Randall Emmett.
BondIt was particularly active during the COVID-19 pandemic, stepping in to fill financing gaps as independent producers struggled to find backing for films during the public health crisis.
Times staff writers Wendy Lee, Anousha Sakoui, Ryan Faughnder, Richard Winton, Josh Rottenberg and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.