Fingers point at assistant director who handed Alec Baldwin the gun before fatal shooting

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

It’s getting hard to keep track all of the things that went wrong on this set to put cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in the path of a bullet.

— that gun was evidently a real gun, not a prop gun;
— a live round was in the chamber, possibly due to the crew using the gun for target practice during off-hours;
— the armorer on the set (i.e. the prop master in charge of weapons) was just 24 and working on only her second film;
— the gun itself may have been malfunctioning, as it had reportedly misfired at least twice before;
— Hutchins was standing next to the camera at which Baldwin was told to point the gun, placing her in harm’s way.

Today brings news of something else that went wrong. Dave Halls, the first assistant director and the man who reportedly handed Baldwin the gun while telling him it was “cold,” is being accused of having a lousy safety record on prior shoots.

Maggie Goll, an IATSE Local 44 prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician, said in a statement to CNN that while working on Hulu’s “Into the Dark” Anthology Series in February and May of 2019, Halls neglected to hold safety meetings and consistently failed to announce the presence of a firearm on set to the crew, as is protocol…

She adds that the prop master would “announce each day when a gun would be required on camera, the disposition of that weapon — whether it was a rubber/plastic replica, a non-firing option, or a ‘cold’ functional, but unloaded option, allowing anyone to inspect said weapon prior to bringing it to set and presenting it to the talent. (…) The Prop Master frequently admonished Dave for dismissing the talent without returning props, weapon included, or failing to make safety announcements.”

Another source who worked on the same productions told CNN that when Halls did hold safety meetings they were “short and he was dismissive, saying the guns used would be the same as the production always uses, and questioning why they’d have to hold the meetings in the first place.” Supposedly he once complained about having to stop filming so that a gun could be checked and cleared before a scene in which an actress had to point it at her own head and pull the trigger. Halls was also known to keep shooting during storms despite the risk of electrocution from the equipment in the rain.

Other outlets are also hearing complaints. A source told the Daily Mail, “when I worked with him, it was the only time I’ve had any AD ask me, ‘Do we really need to have a safety meeting?'” An assistant camera operator who worked with Halls on a film this year was also distressed by his indifference towards safety, telling the Times, “Normally I’d go to the first A.D. with safety concerns, but the safety concerns were about the first A.D.”

All of that would be damning enough if Halls’s safety role during production was simply to hold safety meetings. As it happens, though, because he was the first assistant director he had a direct responsibility to make sure that guns used in scenes were clear. Experts explained to the NYT:

“I’m a film director, and from what I know, there has to be several steps before actors are handed a gun,” Ms. Bogdanovich said. “Dave Halls needed to check if he’s going to tell an actor that it’s a cold gun. He needed to open up the chamber and check.”…

Several professional armorers, who are experts in the handling of weapons, said it was their job to procure firearms and ensure they are safe to use, while assistant directors are supposed to inspect the guns and make sure they are not loaded; usually it is the armorer who then hands the gun to an actor.

Larry Zanoff, an expert in the use of firearms on film sets who worked on the set of “Django Unchained” as an armorer, said that under industry standards, the first assistant director is the lead safety person on set, and commonly inspects a gun to ensure it is unloaded and safe to use.

A burning question in assessing negligence on the set — or recklessness, as it feels like we’re past simple negligence now — is who had a duty to perform which tasks and failed to perform them. Clearly the armorer, 24-year-old Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, had a duty to make sure the guns were safe before filming. But Halls seems to have had a duty too as first AD to check the weapons before pronouncing them “cold.” Several armorers told the NYT that there’s typically a precise chain of custody for a weapon on a set, although it may vary slightly from set to set. In some cases the gun may stay with the armorer until the actor’s ready to use it, in other cases it may go from the armorer to the first AD to the actor.

The director, Joel Souza (who was wounded by the bullet that killed Hutchins), said in an affidavit that guns on their set would typically pass from Gutierrez-Reed to Halls to the actor. Notably, though, on the set of “Rust” the chain of custody for guns was inconsistent: “[A]ctors had been handed guns on the set by both Mr. Halls and Ms. Gutierrez-Reed, according to a producer of ‘Rust’ who asked not to be named because of the ongoing investigation.” When you don’t have a consistent chain of custody between the AD and the armorer, you run the risk of both of them getting lazy and assuming that the other has already checked the weapon. To make matters worse, Souza says the shooting happened shortly after the cast and crew had returned from lunch and it’s unclear if the guns on set were re-checked when the lunch break was over. Where were those guns, precisely, during lunch? Were the locked away or just lying out on the set in the open?

Did someone sneak a little target practice while shooting had stopped and forget that there were live rounds in the gun when they brought it back to the set?

Here’s the icing on the cake, though. Reportedly this wasn’t the first time a set run by Dave Halls, allegedly so indifferent to safety, has had an unusual gun mishap:

The assistant director on the movie “Rust,” who handed a prop gun to Alec Baldwin before the fatal shooting last week, was previously fired from a film production after a gun incident injured a crew member, the movie’s production company told CNN.

Dave Halls was serving as assistant director on the film “Freedom’s Path” in 2019, when a gun “unexpectedly discharged” on set, causing a sound crew member to recoil from the blast, halting production, the production company Rocket Soul Studios said Monday.

Maybe Halls was in the habit of pronouncing guns “cold” without checking and had simply been fortunate enough to work with diligent armorers until now.

The one person whom seemingly everyone agrees bears some responsibility for the accident is Gutierrez-Reed, whose failed to prevent precisely the sort of calamity she was hired to avert. One expert told TMZ, “the assistant director should not have been the one to clear the gun before the incident … that should have been the armorist’s job.” The chief electrician on the set of “Rust,” who was there as Hutchins died, pointed the finger squarely at Gutierrez-Reed in a Facebook post yesterday: “I’m sure that we had the professionals in every department, but one – the department that was responsible for the weapons. There is no way a twenty-four-year-old woman can be a professional with armory; there is no way that her more-or-less the same-aged friend from school, neighborhood, Instagram, or God knows where else, can be a professional in this field.”

Exit question: Do we know yet whether Baldwin even pulled the trigger or if the gun just went off in his hand? Remember, a gun on the set (presumably the same one although it’s uncertain) had misfired twice before. The way Souza described the accident in his affidavit, Baldwin was practicing simply drawing his gun and pointing it at the camera. It’s not clear whether he was supposed to fire or even attempted to.