The death of Halina Hutchins on the set of “Rust” in 2021 carries special significance for Hollywood’s small community of film armorers. Like many entertainment industry jobs, armorers occupy a highly specialized niche. It’s not something you can go to school for and there’s no state certification or licensing exam to pass. Entering the profession involves a combination of apprenticeship and old-fashioned, right-place-right-time industrial luck.
On Thursday, New Mexico prosecutors announced they would charge both Alec Baldwin — who fired the shot that killed Hutchins — and Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who loaded her gun with a single live round, with involuntary manslaughter. They also announced that David Halls, the first assistant director who handed the gun to Baldwin, has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and testify against Gutierrez Reed and Baldwin.
diversity Dutch spoke to Merrick to find out what it means that Armorers could be held criminally responsible for an on-set death. Merrick, an armorer and prop master and former president of IATSE Local 44, launched Prop Gun Safety LLC in the wake of Hutchins’ death last year. He offers gun safe handling training on set and has become an expert for the media on set safety issues.
Merrick argues that many things had to go wrong for the “rust” accident to occur, and that responsibility is apportioned among a larger group of people who were charged. “There’s a lot of guilt going around with it,” he said.
What has been the reaction in the Armorer community?
I have spoken to several of my colleagues in the industry and there are many who wonder about these complaints. Many of us felt that if they were going to charge anyone, it should be broader and include producers for their hiring practices, their lack of safety standards. And of the key players involved, obviously, Alec Baldwin is the most visible because he’s holding the gun while killing someone. But the food chain runs all the way, when you go to the armourer, the prop master and especially to the supplier of live ammunition for a film set, which is undesirable and unheard of in our history. I’ve talked to dozens of armorers; Never heard of sending live ammunition masked as dummy rounds to the set. It just shocked the heck out of all of us.
Do you think there are any broader implications like the concept of true criminal liability, especially the gunman?
Well, for both of them. For Alec Baldwin, it can be seen among other actors reluctant to use a firearm in a scene – and wrongly so, because we’ve done this craft for 130 years. It’s proven technology and when a qualified armorer blocks a view, we know it’s safe. We gunfight with 20, 30 people at a time firing. It’s something that we have down pat. So this show, where they hire very inexperienced newbies — really, newbies — to handle what is one of the first big safety-wise zingers that happens to many of us.
And as far as suing the gunner for it: it’s clear that there was some negligence. Is it true that he was multitasking when he checked around and he went to church, and he flicked it on when his radio chatter got loud and he thought he heard BB, but he didn’t? And then he gave the gun to the first AD, for God’s sake. you don’t do that A first AD should not have inserted himself into this process. He should monitor this as a second set of eyes for safety, but should never insert himself as part of the handoff process and make himself a stand-in. He sat down in the pew, held the gun, and evidently got the armourer’s leave. And then when Alec Baldwin comes in, here’s the first Eddie not reexamining the gun himself, partly because that’s not his job, but he calls it a cool or safe gun and gives it to Alec Baldwin, who keeps his gun. Faith and crew for his security around him for 40 years, that has done well by him. It didn’t happen this time. He didn’t catch the fact that it was the first time Eddie said it was cold and there was no armorer in the room at the time.
And in the end, he broke the three cardinal rules of handling a gun on a film set. You always point it in a safe direction and you have to define what safe is. You always keep your finger off the trigger, which they did before lunch according to the pre-rehearsal roll, in which case his finger was on the trigger. And then finally, you always use the gun as if it were loaded. And if that was the case, when those four men decided to line up in front of him, he’d hopefully feel good enough to say, “Excuse me, folks, you just move out of line of sight. Here’s the gun.” Although he knew it was safe, and in that instance it was empty or empty. There are many faults in going around with this.
Is there any concern in your community about what kind of chilling effect this has on your ability to work, you know, as far as insurance or especially for small independent productions? Or do you see it as a sort of isolated thing?
It really is an anomaly. The whole event from top to bottom is filled with many failures, and it really was the perfect storm of combinations of things that it took to make it happen. The analogy a friend of mine who is a former prop master and now an attorney gave me when he read what happened, was that it was like Mr. Gower — the “It’s a Wonderful Life” character, the pharmacist — who was upset and He prepared a spell for a customer that was poisonous. And George Bailey caught the error in midstream and made sure it wasn’t passed on to the woman so she wouldn’t die. Who was George Bailey in this scene? If the competent people had followed their normal procedures – and that is the prop master and or prop assistant and of course the armorer and the eddy – any one of these characters would have been in line, this would not have happened. But you left it behind. Who was the knucklehead who sent live ammunition into a box marked dummy on a film set? They were even transferred to Alec Baldwin’s own bandolier – his own gun belt. There was a live round and the set was scattered in various cars and boxes. madness
So I think Armor in general thinks it’s such an anomaly that it’s not going to have a lasting effect on things like insurance or liability. However, note that the case did not go to trial, so he was not convicted. So we will see what that is. This could be a game-changer.
I’m really surprised that Dave Halls got away with a bargain after literally inserting himself and telling the actor to be safe. A loaded weapon was handed to him. He doesn’t know it, but that’s no excuse. He indicated that it had been examined, but it was clearly not examined by him as a second set of eyes. So I think he has a lot more fault than he’s getting.
And I want to know, the district attorney, somebody asked him this morning, where did the rounds come from? And his answer was that it was a red herring and not as important as the rest. Well, I think armor and prop masters and actors and producers and all of Hollywood would disagree, and say that it’s very important that we find out how live rounds were transferred onto a film set so that this never happens again.
May I make one more observation?
grace to do.
What we do as armorers is inherently safer when we follow procedures, established methods in the industry. I choreographed key scenes with a dozen people firing guns from different directions at once, and we carefully stopped it and we adjusted the guns—is it full flash or half flash? Where are they pointing? How close are they to the camera? And through all this process, we were able to create true Hollywood magic.
Let me do it this way if you do. The role of a prop master and armorer is to create an environment as realistic as possible, so that the actor can fully immerse himself in that world and become another person entirely. The actors playing the characters are not themselves. They are another person in another place and time. So we helped shape and craft the field to make them completely safe to play at the same time.
So if we hand them a shiny, deadly-looking dagger or a time bomb, or even a salmon sandwich that didn’t turn out – because literally when we hand food to an actor, we put them at risk – we have to make sure we What we put in their environment is safe for them.
So many balls were dropped here. And I think a lot of that boils down to the producers. They ignored requests for security. I read Lane Looper’s letter the day before they left, the day before the tragedy, talking about lax gun handling, you know, accidental discharges and lax COVID compliance and changes. He was working 14-hour days and would have to get there for pre-call and then be out and then drive an hour each way home. He slept five or six hours a night, and that’s more common now in Hollywood. Long shooting days, high demand from media hungry consumers. And so we’re trying to get more and more material out in less time. And I would suggest that it is literally killing our crew.