In the real world, gun deaths are all too common. On film sets, they’re surprisingly rare — but sadly they do happen.
Over the past 24 hours Hollywood has been reeling after the accidental killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of a new Western called Rust. That has led to calls for change and questioning of the rules in place.
But are the rules the problem? How have past deaths from guns on sets even taken place?
Here is a brief history of fatal incidents with real firearms…
Jon-Erik Hexum‘s story is a sterling warning about taking firearms seriously at all times, even on a film set.
Hexum was a hunky Norwegian actor who starred on a 1980s action TV series called Cover Up. Guns were often used on the set of the new CBS show, in which the 26-year-old star played a Green Beret-turned-fashion model. Unfortunately Hexum apparently stopped seeing the guns as deadly weapons.
According to witness testimony from the time, during delays in filming the actor had been napping. When he awoke and was told there was another delay, he held a real .44 Magnum to his head as a joke, reportedly saying:
“Can you believe this crap?”
But when he pulled the trigger, it wasn’t a harmless click. The gun was loaded with blanks, just as it should have been, but the blast a gun of that caliber causes is still extremely violent. For those who don’t know, a “blank round” is everything but the slug — the shell and the gunpowder are all present for the gun to “fire”; it just doesn’t have anything to launch out of the barrel. However, the blast alone at point blank range to the temple was enough to fracture Hexum’s skull, reportedly pushing a bone fragment the size of a quarter into his brain.
The actor was rushed to the Beverly Hills Medical Center where he was treated for massive internal hemorrhaging, but there was nothing anyone could do. It was just too much damage. Hexum never woke up and was declared brain dead on October 18, 1984. His heart was donated to a real former Navy SEAL.
Years later, Jon-Erik’s mother Gretha Hexum won an out-of-court settlement with Twentieth Century Fox Television and Glenn Larson Productions. The amount was never disclosed to the public.
So what went wrong here? Was the studio to blame? Ultimately Hexum pulled the trigger, and the gun was loaded correctly — but was the actor properly trained on gun safety? Kevin Williams, the prop department supervisor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, told NPR:
“When I’m doing a training session with a performer, my main guideline, the heartbeat of the conversation, is to make sure that they are treating any weapon — whether it’s a bladed weapon or a firearm — as if it could potentially kill somebody. And those are usually the words I use. It’s a serious situation and everyone’s got to be on their game.”
Did TV and film sets this kind of training back then? We have no idea, but they absolutely should have it now.
What happened on the set of The Crow is far more complicated.
Brandon Lee‘s character is murdered early in the supernatural thriller before being resurrected to take his revenge. During the filming of his death scene, he gets shot on camera — with what’s supposed to be a blank. But in an unfortunate series of events, the death scene became all too real. Here’s what is believed to have happened — and if you’ve ever wondered why the film is said to be “cursed” just listen to this.
In the scene filmed before the murder, the gun — curiously also a .44 Magnum — was shot in closeup. The filmmakers chose to use real bullets for the scene because you can see into the cylinder of a revolver — and that close, viewers would be able to tell. But you’d still never use live rounds. You’d use what’s known as “dummy cartridges.” Dummy cartridges are almost the opposite of a blank — the bullet is there, but there’s no powder, no primer, they are impossible to fire. However, because there had been delays, the crew decided it would be faster to make their own dummy cartridges by removing the powder and primer from real, whole live rounds. In one of these, the crew missed a percussion primer.
For some reason, either during the shooting of the earlier scene or at some time in between, the gun was fired. With no powder, there was not enough force to send the slug flying — but the primer was enough to push the bullet into the barrel of the gun. The bullet sat there and no one double checked it was clear before filming the next day (more on that in a moment). So for the next day’s murder scene, a blank was loaded into the gun. Now there was a blank, which causes a blast, and a bullet to fire. So when the gun was fired at Lee, it basically fired the same as a live round.
Now, as to why the film’s firearms specialist didn’t notice the slug in the barrel? He had been sent home early that day. So many things had to go wrong, but with the firearms specialist on set, none of the rest of it would have mattered. Because his expertise should have been there to keep everyone else safe.
Lee, shot in the stomach for real, was rushed to the hospital, but six hours of surgery later he succumbed to his injuries. The rising star, and son of legend Bruce Lee, was just 28 years old.
The murder scene happened to be one of the final things Brandon was scheduled to film for the movie, which meant the film was able to be finished even after its star’s death — and we got to enjoy his star-making final performance in all its glory.
Actor Michael Massee, who fired the round that killed Brandon, was wracked with guilt and took some time off acting. He told The Telegraph years later in a rare interview:
“I don’t think you ever get over something like that.”
He even revealed one more thing that went wrong — it wasn’t his gun.
“It absolutely wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t even supposed to be handling the gun until we started shooting the scene and the director changed it.”
So awful all around. Massee lived the rest of his life feeling awful about the incident; he died of cancer in 2016.
For over a quarter of a century, that was the last time someone was killed by a gun on a movie set. Until this week.
On October 21, almost 37 years to the day after Jon-Erik Hexum’s death, director of photography Halyna Hutchins was killed in a shooting on the Santa Fe, New Mexico set of the movie Rust.
While it’s not confirmed yet what happened, what we do know is Alec Baldwin discharged a prop gun that was meant to be loaded with a blank round, and something was fired — the projectile reportedly went through Halyna and hit director Joel Souza.
An eyewitness described seeing a single bullet being fired, but obviously they couldn’t tell from looking at a shot being fired whether the projectile came from a live round. It’s also possible the barrel was not cleared properly of a slug, like in the Brandon Lee case, or of other debris. The investigation is still open.
We do know for sure that Souza was treated for his wounds in the nearest hospital and released. Sadly, even after being flown immediately to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, Halyna’s injuries were too much, and she passed away.
Neither the film’s prop master nor weapons expert have yet been named, but IATSE Local 44 did note in an email to their members that no union members were being used on set. This is likely due to the budget of the film, which has been described as a “Tier 1” movie — meaning the whole thing was being made for less than $6 million. That may sound like a lot, but for a movie with period costumes, action sequences, and stunts, it’s really not. Often films cut corners at lower budgets, and from the sound of it that’s what happened.
Reports came out on Friday that multiple members of the crew had already walked off set of the film due to working conditions. One source told The LA Times:
“There was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”
Wow. Obviously it’s important to have strict rules to keep everyone safe on a film set, but if those rules aren’t followed… That brings us to the aftermath of the shooting.
In the wake of this tragedy, many are calling for much, much stricter gun laws on movie sets — as in, zero tolerance.
A petition on Change.org was launched in the early hours of Friday morning calling for an end to the use of real firearms on movie sets entirely, a rule the author has dubbed “Halyna’s Law.” The petition reads:
“We need to make sure this never happens again. There is no excuse for something like this to happen in the 21st century. Real guns are no longer needed on film production sets. This isn’t the early 90’s, when Brandon Lee was killed in the same manner. Change needs to happen before additional talented lives are lost.”
But will such a change even matter if some film sets choose not to follow that rule? Is the problem the safety measures that are currently on the books? Or that some filmmakers are still ignoring them to save money?
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