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Veteran Prop Master: ‘Rust’ was an accident waiting to happen

By: Mike Nichols

“Rust” producers ― including Alec Baldwin, who first the shot that killed Director of Photography Halyna Hutchins ― wanted to combine the jobs of prop master and armorer, to save money. Baldwin, who also stars in the film, is facing the possibility of criminal charges of negligence following Hutchins’ death.

According to veteran Hollywood prop master Neal Zoromski, the two jobs are much too complex to be combined. As a result, he turned down an opportunity to work on the film.

“I turned the job opportunity down on Rust because I felt it was completely unsafe,” he said. “I impressed upon them that there were great concerns about that, and they didn’t really respond to my concerns about that.”

Overall, Zoromski said, he felt that “Rust” was too much of a slapdash production, one with an overriding focus on saving money instead of a concern for people’s safety. Production managers didn’t seem to value experience and were brushing off his questions, he said.

Last Thursday, Baldwin fatally shot 42-year-old Director of Cinematography Halyna Hutchins in the chest with a prop gun while rehearsing a gunfight scene inside a wooden church at the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set near Santa Fe, N.M.

Baldwin, who also is a producer on the film, was practicing removing his revolver from its holster and aiming it toward the camera. “Rust” director Joel Souza, who also was injured, told a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s detective that he heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop.

That was not, however, the first unsafe incident occurring on the troubled movie’s set. Many “accidents” have befallen the crew, proving Zoromski’s assessment accurate.

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Tensions were boiling on set. On Thursday, October 21, the 12th day of a 21-day production schedule, union camera operators and their assistants had walked off the job to protest working conditions. Nonunion camera operators were brought in, and the switch put the director behind schedule. The assistant director had yelled at the script supervisor during lunch, according to a copy of the 9-1-1 recording.

Days earlier, a camera operator had reported two accidental gun discharges during a rehearsal in a cabin. “This is super unsafe,” the camera operator wrote in a text message to the production manager. There had been two previous accidental discharges of firearms in the two weeks production had progressed.

The tragedy occurred amid a boisterous debate within Zoromski’s union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, over whether to go on strike to seek better pay and improved conditions on film and TV sets.

A few days after Zoromski turned down the job of property master, 24-year-old Hannah Gutierrez-Reed announced she’d landed the dual job as “property key assistant/armorer.” Though she has worked in movies handling props, she is by no means an expert armorer.

What happened next can only be described as an avoidable tragedy.

The gun in question is said to have had three misfires during the days leading up to Hutchins’ death. Because of those incidents, several union crew members had walked off the set, citing unsafe conditions in the production.

According to reports and police documents, three firearms were left outside on a cart during the lunch hour that afternoon. After everyone returned from lunch, the assistant director grabbed a gun off the cart, went inside the church set where Alec Baldwin was rehearsing, handed Baldwin a gun, and shouted “cold gun,” which means the gun will not fire (not even blanks) when the trigger is pulled.

Baldwin was rehearsing with Hutchins and director Joel Souza. He pulled the gun, pointed it at Hutchins, as the shot being rehearsed called for. The gun was to be pointed directly into the camera. It went off. Hutchins, a 42-year-old wife and mother, was killed. Souza was injured after the bullet passed through Hutchins’ chest.

In the above two paragraphs, the violations of both firearm procedures and common sense are legion.

  • The firearms should have been secured during the lunch break. Instead, some members of the crew loaded them with live ammo and shot at tin cans during the lunch break.
  • The assistant director should not have done the armorer’s job of picking up the gun and handing it to the actor.
  • The assistant director obviously did not check the gun to be sure it was safe.
  • A rubber gun should have been used during rehearsal.
  • Whoever handed the gun to the actor should have shown the actor it was not loaded by opening the cylinder and breaking the breach to show the barrel was clear..
  • While pointing at the ground, the gun should’ve been dry fired six times to prove it was empty.
  • As both producer and actor, Baldwin should’ve insisted on being shown the gun was empty.
  • Baldwin should have double-checked the gun himself, even if the assistant director had followed proper procedure
  • Baldwin never-ever-ever should have pointed that gun at anyone, no matter how safe he believed it was. In other words, the scene being rehearsed should have been cut from the movie.

The “Rust” producers Friday of last week released a statement: “The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company. 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.”

Now, Zoromski, who lives in Los Angeles, is haunted by Hutchins’ death. He believes that had he accepted the “Rust” job, things would have turned out differently.

“I take my job incredibly seriously,” he said. “As the prop master, you have to be concerned about safety. I’m the guy who hands the guns to the people on set.”

This whole production sounds chaotic, slap-dash, and unbelievably dangerous, just like Zoromski called it.

It is fortunate the incident falls under the jurisdiction of New Mexico authorities and did not happen in Los Angeles. The media are already circling to protect Baldwin, but nothing they say can change the fact he pointed a gun at someone and acted as a producer on an unsafe production. In L.A. City and County, he would likely go Scot free.

Though it has been called an “accident,” Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza warned on Fox & Friends Friday morning to be cautious about using that term. “This is a criminal investigation,” Mendoza told Lawrence Jones in response to a question. “There is negligence involved and someone needs to be held accountable.”

Mendoza confirmed Baldwin is one of three “focused people” his department is investigating, He said all have been cooperative, though two are represented by a lawyer.

We at America’s Conservative Voice feel bad for everyone, including Baldwin. But negligence and recklessness are still negligence and recklessness. This is not a case where a ricochet killed a young woman. This is a case where corners were cut, red flags were ignored, and foolproof safety measures were violated.

This should never have happened. As Sheriff Mendoza said, someone must be accountable.