Quad Cities film and theater veterans react to tragedy of prop gun killing in New Mexico

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Halyna Hutchins (who was killed in the prop gun accident Thursday, Oct. 21 in New Mexico) attends the SAGindie Sundance Filmmakers Reception at Cafe Terigo on January 28, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie)

The tragic prop gun incident in New Mexico during filming Thursday, that killed a beloved cinematographer, has shocked industry veterans across the country, including the Quad Cities.

Actor Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm on the set of “Rust,” a Western movie he was filming in New Mexico on Thursday, killing the film’s director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, and wounding director Joel Souza, who has been discharged from the hospital.

According to an email obtained by IndieWire from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44, which covers prop masters, the gun used in the scene contained a “live single round” and that the prop master on set at the time “was not a member of Local 44.”

“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 said, according to Variety. “I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family. My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”

Hamptons International Film Festival Chairman, Alec Baldwin attends the world premiere of National Geographic Documentary Films’ ‘The First Wave’ at Hamptons International Film Festival on October 7, 2021 in New York. (Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images for National Geographic)

In the email that IATSE Local 44 sent to its membership, Secretary-Treasurer Anthony Pawluc described the event as an “an accidental weapons discharge” in which “a live single round was accidentally fired on set by the principal actor, hitting both the Director of Photography, Local 600 member Halnya Hutchins, and Director Joel Souza… Local 44 has confirmed that the Props, Set Decoration, Special Effects and Construction Departments were staffed by New Mexico crew members. There were no Local 44 members on the call sheet.”

Kelli Feigley, co-owner of Rock Island-based Fresh Films, said Friday that prop guns should always be using blanks or rubber bullets. She questioned how a live round even got in the “Rust” prop gun.

“For any stunts, even on our sets, we’ve needed stunt coordinators, safety / medics, etc.,” Feigley said. “It is not the actor’s job to monitor the props – it’s the art department and safety teams.”

Fresh Films, which teaches students nationwide all about the filmmaking business, is based at Augustana College, Rock Islansd.

“You can add gunfire sound in post-production without needing to really fire a gun,” she said. “Sets are places with high-risk — electrical might be near water, heavy equipment, armor, props, etc. — but safety is paramount. And usually is — but there are accidents. And when you work 15-hour days day after day, maybe things slip. This is part of the IATSE union argument saying they need better working conditions.”

IATSE has been in long and contentious contract negotiations with film and TV production companies, seeking better working conditions and wages, among several issues.

An agreement between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) was reached last weekend, preventing the union’s industry-wide TV and film strike that was formerly set to begin Monday, Oct. 18.

The ratification vote on the tentative agreement for a new IATSE contract is being rolled out in four phases, although no firm date has been set yet for the vote itself, according to a chart posted on the union’s #IASolidarity Twitter page.

Doug Miller, a Davenport-based film producer and consultant, and head of the Quad Cities Production Coalition, said Friday that the gun issue will likely come up in continuing talks with IATSE as it moves to ratify its tentative contract agreement, he said. “I am sure this is something that is of concern.”

Doug Miller of Davenport, head of the Quad Cities Production Coalition.

“It was a very long process, and they’re still going over it,” Miller said of the negotiations, unsure if this specific issue was part of it. What’s the biggest lesson from the Thursday accident?

“Only use a certified armorer approved by the union and have lots of insurance,” he said of a specialized crew member trained in handling prop guns. “This event could have a huge impact on the industry depending on the actual circumstances.”

“Nobody likes to see an incident like this happen; it happens rarely, but it does happen,” Miller said. “Anytime you’re using a dangerous weapon, which is what a gun is, you have to be careful. That’s why a certified armorer – someone with experience, is certified in handling weapons like that, is extremely important.”

A prop gun should always be double-checked each time it’s used, to ensure no ammunition is loaded in it, Miller said. He’s been part of a film project that involved firearms, but were not shot at anyone.

“Depending on how this actually unfolds, you’ll see the insurance companies take a look at this carefully,” Miller said. “They will have a thorough investigation and that will have an impact on future things.”

Actors must depend on the crew for all props and their best use, he said.

“They’re relying on them, and assuming everything has been done according to protocol,” Miller said. “Their job is to act with them.”

There may be legal action against the film production company for “Rust,” he said, noting a big 2006 case in eastern Iowa during filming that resulted in a death.

A helicopter crash happened during the filming of “The Final Season” in June 2006. Cameraman Roland Schlotzhauer of Lenexa, Kan., was killed when the helicopter hit a power line and crashed in a field near Walford. The pilot and film producer were injured.

“The Final Season” is a 2007 baseball film shot in Iowa, which starred Sean Astin, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tom Arnold, and Powers Boothe.

In 2009, a Polk County jury awarded $7.2 million to Schlotzhauer’s widow, and $4.2 million to the producer, Tony Wilson, of Dallas Center, Iowa. The jury ruled pilot Richard Green, of Hudson, Iowa, and two producers were at fault for the accident.

Even plastic guns must be handled carefully

Kelly Rundle, a Moline documentary filmmaker (co-owner of Fourth Wall Films), recently shot outdoor scenes on private property with a World War II-era Garand stage rifle and an actor in a period-correct infantryman’s uniform.

The rifle was solid resin and incapable of firing, he said, noting they first notified the Moline Police Department to make sure police were aware of what they were doing, and where and when they were doing it. “Even though the rifle was plastic, everyone was advised to treat it as if it was real,” Rundle said.

An image from the new World War II-era film, “An Infantryman From Hero Street,” produced by Moline-based Fourth Wall Films.

“As producers, we never forget that we are responsible for the safety of our cast and crew,” he said. “I can’t provide numbers, but I think most injuries on film sets are not caused by prop guns. This New Mexico incident is tragic and very rare. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this horrible accident.”

“I agree with Doug, this may change things from an insurance and union perspective,” Feigley added of Thursday’s incident. 

Rick Palmer, executive director of Davenport’s RiverCenter and Adler Theatre, said his facility has not used an actual live prop gun.

“The sound effect is in audio track. Any pyro requires additional insurance, fire marshal approval,” he said by e-mail.

“Whenever I have used a firearm in the midst of a live theatrical production and on film, there are very strict rules as to who handles the firearm and also making sure that at least three people have checked the gun before it is used,” Kim Kurtenbach of Bettendorf, a veteran actress, producer, and director (who’s worked in film and theater), said Friday. “I will be interested to see what more comes out with this story because I don’t know how he managed to kill and injure a second person.”

In New Mexico, the local sheriff’s office confirmed that two individuals were shot on the set of “Rust.”

Halyna Hutchins, 42, director of photography and Joel Souza, 48, director, were shot when a prop firearm was discharged by Alec Baldwin, 68, producer and actor, read a statement from the sheriff’s department.

Halyna Hutchins, 42, was the director of photography (also known as cinematographer) for “Rust.”

“Ms. Hutchins was transported, via helicopter, to University of New Mexico Hospital where she was pronounced dead by medical personnel. Mr. Souza was transported by ambulance to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center where he is undergoing treatment for his injuries,” the statement said. “This investigation remains open and active. No charges have been filed in regard to this incident. Witnesses continue to be interviewed by detectives.”

According to trade magazine Variety, there has been an outpouring of grief and anger on social media, from those who knew and worked with Hutchins, as well as the industry at large. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer, who worked with Hutchins on the 2020 film “Archenemy,” tweeted: “I’m so sad about losing Halyna. And so infuriated that this could happen on a set. She was a brilliant talent who was absolutely committed to art and to film.”

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