Camera crew walked off set of Baldwin movie due to working conditions hours before shooting

(Photo by Annie I. Bang /Invision/AP, File)

Camera crews aren’t responsible for handling props on the set, are they?

Even so, this LA Times scoop raises the obvious possibility that if the camera crew was disgruntled about labor conditions, maybe the prop master was too. And if the camera crew was replaced by non-union labor, maybe the prop master was replaced by someone who wasn’t up to the job.

In fact, the bombshell here — if true — is that there were problems with props on the set before the fatal shooting yesterday.

Per the Times, the crew was upset about long hours, low pay, and the fact that they were being asked to commute to Santa Fe from Albuquerque, a 50-mile drive, instead of being allowed to stay at hotels in town. This was a low-budget production and producers evidently didn’t want to foot that bill. Eventually it reached the point where they walked — just hours before cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed.

As the camera crew — members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — spent about an hour assembling their gear at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, several nonunion crew members showed up to replace them, the knowledgeable person said…

“Corners were being cut — and they brought in nonunion people so they could continue to shooting,” the knowledgeable person said.

There were two misfires on the prop gun and one the previous week, the person said, adding “there was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”

The shooting occurred about six hours after the union camera crew left.

So that explains why the prop masters’ union, IATSE Local 44, was quick with a statement this morning claiming that Baldwin somehow fired a “live” round and the prop master on the set was *not* a union member. It wasn’t just a matter of them making sure the union isn’t blamed, it’s a matter of suggesting that using non-union labor on a film set literally leads to people dying.

Who was the prop master responsible for Baldwin’s gun? Did he have the same qualifications and experience as the average union prop master or did the production cut corners by hiring someone who wasn’t up to snuff?

There’s more news in the LAT piece: “A source close to The Times said the union does not know what projectile was in the gun and clarified that ‘live’ is an industry term that refers to a gun being loaded with some material such as a blank ready for filming.” If that’s true then the gun might not have had a real bullet in the chamber, a scenario that would have been all but inexplicable apart from intentional sabotage. Maybe there was something else lodged in the barrel — a spent blank round (or shrapnel from a spent blank round) that wasn’t properly cleared, perhaps, which later fired from the barrel when a second blank was fired. This AP story also points away from a real bullet having been used, citing a spokesperson for Baldwin as saying that “a prop gun with blanks misfired.”

Santa Fe police say they haven’t begun forensic testing yet to see how a prop gun managed to kill Hutchins but Stephen Gutowski wrote this morning about how using blanks can go wrong:

Even if a production does not make an obvious mistake, such as allowing live ammunition onto set, the use of blanks carries its own risks. Blanks are usually cartridges that are manufactured without the inclusion of the bullet. They still feature a primer and powder charge, though, at about half the strength of a live round.

That means they still expel a lot of hot gas at a high rate of speed and can still be dangerous. This is especially true if something is lodged in the prop gun’s barrel that the charge can propel forward.

The military is acutely aware of these risks. If you’ve ever seen footage of soldiers training with a strange device on the end of their barrel, that was a blank-firing attachment. It’s designed to both help the firearm cycle with the lighter powder load and block any potential projectiles— short of an actual bullet fired from a live round—from exiting the barrel.

For the moment, Occam’s Razor points us to this conclusion: They hired a cut-rate prop guy who was possibly overworked and fatigued and he wasn’t on the ball in checking to make sure that nothing was lodged in the prop gun’s barrel between takes. That would also jibe with there having been previous misfires with the gun, per the LAT story. Although that raises a related question, namely, was the gun itself malfunctioning? Did production decide to stick with a bum weapon because they didn’t want to incur the expense of buying a new one for a film whose budget was tight?

The Internet being the Internet, the fact that there were tensions on the set among the crew means we’re destined to see some conspiracy theorizing that Baldwin’s gun was surreptitiously sabotaged somehow by a disgruntled crew member. For what it’s worth, though, the Times claims that Hutchins “had been advocating for safer conditions for her team” in the days before her death. That’s news too. Which unsafe conditions did she object to, specifically? It’s alarming that she ended up dying on a set which she regarded as somehow dangerous.