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Theatergoers screamed and ducked when 1903’s The Great Train Robbery showed a sinister outlaw aiming a revolver straight at the camera and firing point-blank at the audience. The fourth wall-breaking shock shot would become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history, and the film was credited with launching the first hit genre: the Western. It also arguably started the love affair between Hollywood and firearms, with guns becoming as commonplace and everlasting on film sets as gaffers tape and catering.
Yet an Oct. 21 tragedy on the set of another Western, Rust — where Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza while practicing a cross draw with a loaded gun he had been told was safe to handle — might very well change the industry’s stance toward live and even less-than-live weapons.
“This can’t happen again,” declares Black Panther director of photography Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated for an Oscar for cinematography for the 2017 film Mudbound. “Not ever. The technology is there to do most things without live fire.”
Agreed Cassian Elwes, who produced Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the upcoming New Mexico-set science-fiction movie Robots: “The time has come to say that we shouldn’t even be firing blanks on sets. Unfortunately, we live in a society where guns are part of the culture. Screenwriters use guns for excitement, effect, drama, comedy. Guns are everywhere. I hate them on set.”
Productions already were increasingly relying on airsoft prop guns (which simulate a slight kick with a plastic BB but do not use explosive gunpowder) and then decorating the footage in postproduction with CG muzzle flashes.
Lucifer co-showrunner Joe Henderson recalls a production meeting two years ago when the question occurred to him: Would it be easier and cheaper nowadays to use CG for gunfire given all the safety checks involved with using live weapons? He was surprised when the answer came back yes.
“It was a real eye-opener for me,” Henderson recalls. “Usually there’s this assumption there will be live guns. The fact that it was more affordable and safer to use CG made it a no-brainer to change, but it’s just one of those things you never think to look at. I got excited because it was one less risk and seemed like a win-win.”
Following the Rust tragedy, more shows are following suit. ABC’s The Rookie showrunner Alexi Hawley announced Oct. 22 that the production no longer would use quarter- or half-load blanks while filming the Nathan Fillion drama. “There will be no more ‘live’ weapons on the show,” Hawley wrote. “The safety of our cast and crew is too important. Any risk is too much risk.”
And a proposed new law might take the decision out of the hands of filmmakers — at least in California. Democratic State Sen. Dave Cortese issued a statement Oct. 23 saying that he plans to introduce legislation banning live ammunition and firearms from movie sets and theatrical productions. “There is an urgent need to address alarming work abuses and safety violations occurring on the set of theatrical productions, including unnecessary high-risk conditions such as the use of live firearms,” Cortese wrote. “Our entertainment industry must do a better job of ensuring safe working conditions for our hardworking crews.”
The push comes at a time when International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) crews are lobbying for improved safety in general as they seek a new contract with studios. “When the financing entities or studios or producers cut corners, people get hurt,” Morrison said, “whether it’s driving home tired from working long hours, making poor decisions because we are sleep-deprived, hiring unqualified crew because they will work more affordably, rushing on set and skipping proper protocol like safety meetings and checking every chamber in the barrel of the gun.”
Yet some say guns that can only fire blanks (which can still be dangerous if improperly handled but are highly unlikely to be deadly) shouldn’t be banished along with guns capable of firing live rounds (like the vintage weapon used in the Rust tragedy).
There are many ways film sets can be dangerous when safety procedures aren’t followed — from stunt falls to explosions to car chases to fistfights — and early reports breaking down what went wrong on Rust suggest myriad common-sense measures were ignored that could make it an outlier case.
“I do believe it’s safe to have blanks on set [if working with qualified professionals and protocols are followed],” said cinematographer Dan Frenkel, who also is an armorer with decades of experience. “There should never be live ammunition on set. [The Rust shooting] was a mishandling of a weapon.”
A group of armorers and weapons masters led by Gary Truers (Jurassic World) posted a joint statement on Instagram on Tuesday night, similarly suggesting the issue was competence rather than having weapons on sets. “The incident was caused, in part, by producers who were unwilling to hire competent people following our long established and tested firearms safety procedures,” read the post. “We are aware of numerous violations … that occurred on this production. Exactly how many violations and which ones will be confirmed by the investigation, but we believe that the evidence will show that this tragedy was a failure of protocol and not due to the need for new or additional regulations.”
Advocates for switching to CG point out that gunshot audio already is an effect that’s added in postproduction. While Henderson adds that CG visuals are becoming so commonplace that they have already started to change what audiences think of as “real.”
“I’ve talked to some people who put CG muzzle flashes on real muzzle flashes because they didn’t look ‘real,’ ” Henderson says. “We’re getting trained to see [CG flashes], and it has become part of the visual language. Like with silencers: Silencers don’t sound like how they do in movies, but we’ve watched enough movies that silencers sound like that with our heads, so that’s what’s used.”
For others, even if there is some loss in action-cinema verisimilitude, there’s a feeling of, “Who cares?” “Nothing is worth the cost of a life,” Elwes says. “There’s enough ability with CGI to make gunfights look really cool. Everybody who makes films … realizes that this could have been them.”
Rebecca Keegan, Carolyn Giardina and Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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