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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The killing joke

by Philip Martin | January 24, 2023 at 4:46 a.m.


"Never point a firearm at anyone, including yourself. Always cheat the shot by aiming to the right or left of the target character. If asked to point and shoot directly at a living target, consult with the property master or armorer for the prescribed safety procedures ...

"Check the firearm every time you take possession of it. Before each use, make sure the gun has been test-fired offstage, and then ask to test fire it yourself. Watch the prop master check the cylinders and barrel to be sure no foreign object or dummy bullet has become lodged inside."

-- "Safety Tips for Use of Firearms," Actor's Equity Association handout to be posted on sets where firearms are used

"I stand behind Alec Baldwin."

I smiled when I saw the post, though unsure whether I should be allowed to. I immediately wondered if my friend was intentionally joking when he made the post or whether he'd missed the morbid humor in his expression of support for the actor.

As it turns out, he did not. There was a rueful bitterness in the joke. Some might think it too soon, but absent human misery, there is no comedy. There are, as that annoyingly catchy public safety campaign by an Australian railroad that went viral a decade ago reminds us, hundreds of "dumb ways to die."

Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old cinematographer, wife and mother, was the victim of stupidity when she died on the New Mexico set of the film "Rust' in October 2021. She was killed because a gun in Baldwin's hand that should have been in movie craft parlance "cold" had a live round in the chamber.

Baldwin was rehearsing with it when it somehow went off (Baldwin denies pulling the trigger; he says he pulled the hammer back and it fell unexpectedly). It went through Hutchins' body and struck director Joel Souza in the shoulder.

She is dead; he is expecting to resume production on the film soon, though not in New Mexico.

New Mexico prosecutors have charged both Baldwin and "armorer"--a props specialist who handles firearms used as props on set--Hannah Gutierrez-Reed with involuntary manslaughter in the case. Reed, 25, is the daughter of Thell Reed, considered one of Hollywood's top gun experts. She had been head armorer on one previous production, the recently released Nicolas Cage western "The Old Way."

There are reports that Cage and others criticized her work on that set, and reports that the gun handed to Baldwin had been used recreationally that morning by crew members taking target practice at beer cans with live ammo.

We can't ignore that Baldwin has a public persona; he's not been shy about voicing his political opinions. His portrayal of Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" upset not only zealous MAGA-Americans but POTUS 45 himself.

A lot of people are gleeful that Baldwin is in trouble simply because they don't like his Hollywood liberal politics or the smirk on his face. But you don't have to disagree with his politics to dislike Baldwin; he has a reputation as a bully and a bad neighbor. There are lots of stories about him being unpleasant.

And what sort of idiot doesn't double-check to make sure the prop gun they've just been handed doesn't have a live round in the chamber?

That's a fair question, but as a matter of policy, it's probably not wise to make actors responsible for the safety of props they use on movie sets. Having common sense isn't part of the requisite skill set for becoming an actor. Some very good actors are dunces. Some actors are inexperienced with firearms. Some actors are young children.

While my dad told me to never point even an unloaded gun in the direction of another person (unless you intend to shoot that person dead), not everyone has had the same advantages. And, as Baldwin has said, you never point a weapon at someone unless a trained professional has assured you that the situation is safe and you're being directed to point that weapon at a camera by two of your professional collaborators for the purposes of making a movie.

You can make the case that American cinema begins with Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery." In the final scene of that film, the leader of a band of outlaws (Justus D. Barnes) fires his pistol directly into the camera. (Audiences allegedly shrieked with "fear and delight" when he pulled the trigger.) You think Clint Eastwood never pointed a gun at a camera?

Sure, in hindsight, it's easy to say Baldwin should have checked the weapon, but it's bad law to insist that the actor be the ultimate proctor in this situation. Maybe it would have been simple for him to do so in this case; haven't seen the handgun precisely identified anywhere, but since "Rust" is a period Western (the events of which are precipitated by an accidental shooting), we can assume Baldwin was holding a vintage revolver, probably something along the lines of an archetypal six-shooter, and ascertaining whether that sort of gun is loaded might be easier than it would with a newfangled Glock. But should we expect actors to be able to differentiate between live ammunition and dummy rounds?

I don't want actors doing their own research on set. I want them listening to serious experts.

That doesn't mean Baldwin isn't culpable in Hutchins' death. But actors are hired to act, not to be the safety patrol. Baldwin was a producer on "Rust," and as such he's at least partially responsible for the mess that was that movie set.

Just hours before Hutchins was shot, seven camera crew members walked off the set to protest a myriad of issues including safety procedures. Reportedly, before the fatal shooting there were two other instances where there had been accidental discharges of firearms there.

There are indications that this was a sloppy, chaotic set. Reed might have been hired because she was a cheaper option. We might be looking at what the nerds at the NCAA call a "lack of institutional control." I think you can hold a producer accountable for that.

You might be wondering what real guns and live ammunition are doing on movie sets anyway. I asked a few of my friends in the business, and they all said they shouldn't be, that the better way to go would be to use rubber prop guns or air-soft weapons and let the computers fill in the muzzle flashes and sound effects in post-production. It's not inexpensive (yet), but it looks pretty good; every muzzle flare in the HBO series "Mare of Easttown" was CGI.

But as a practical matter, this is America, where real guns are plentiful and cheap; the makers of a gun-heavy low-budget film like "Rust" will cut expenses where they can while nodding to the authenticity of real weapons firing blank or dummy rounds (which are also dangerous, as the on-set deaths of Jon-Erik Hexum and Brandon Lee attest).

It will take legislation to keep real guns off movie sets, and we know what attempts at gun legislation amount to in this country.

A joke.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected]


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