By Wendy Lee, Amy Kaufman
Los Angeles Times
Actor Alec Baldwin was practicing removing a revolver from its holster and aiming toward the camera during rehearsal for the movie “Rust” when director Joel Souza heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop,” according to a search warrant that provided grim new details about the final minutes of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’ life.
In the newly released document obtained by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday night, Souza said the weapon had been described to him as a “cold gun,” meaning it did not have any live rounds. But the gun discharged, striking Hutchins in her chest and Souza in his right shoulder, according to a Santa Fe County, N.M., sheriff’s detective’s affidavit used to obtain a search warrant. Hutchins was pronounced dead at an Albuquerque hospital.
Souza’s statement to the detective offered a new window into the on-set shooting Thursday that has left Hollywood reeling and calling for safer working conditions on sets.
The shooting took place after six members of the film’s crew walked off the set after complaining to the production company about payment and housing, camera operator Reid Russell told Det. Joel Cano. Russell’s and Souza’s statements to the detective offered the most detailed chronology yet of how the tragedy unfolded.
The day started late because the production had hired a replacement camera crew and was working with only one camera, Souza told the detective.
Aside from Baldwin, Souza said, two people were handling the gun for the scene: armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed and then assistant director Dave Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin, the affidavit said.
Because of COVID-19 safety protocols, Gutierrez Reed set up three prop guns on a cart outside Bonanza Creek Ranch’s church set, the focus of the search warrant. Halls did not know live rounds were in the gun that he handed to Baldwin, and Halls yelled “cold gun,” according to the affidavit.
Souza told the detective that cast and crew had been preparing for the scene before lunch but then took a meal break away from the rehearsal area around 12:30 p.m. When they returned, Souza said, he wasn’t sure whether the gun was checked again. He also addressed the possibility of cast or crew members bringing onto the set live ammunition and live rounds, which can include potentially dangerous blanks.
“Joel said as far as he knows, no one gets checked for live ammunition on their person prior and after the scenes are being filmed,” the affidavit said. “The only thing checked are the firearms to avoid live ammunition being in them. Joel stated there should never be live rounds whatsoever, near or around the scene.”
When they came back from lunch, a creeping shadow prompted the camera to be moved to a different angle, Russell told the detective. As Baldwin was explaining how he was going to draw his gun and where his arm would be positioned, it discharged, Russell said.
Souza said he was looking over Hutchins’ shoulder when the gun discharged. Hutchins grabbed her midsection, stumbled backward and was assisted to the ground, Souza told the detective.
Russell recalled hearing a loud bang, seeing a bloody Souza and hearing Hutchins say she couldn’t feel her legs, the affidavit said.
Crew members called 911 asking for help. Script supervisor Mamie Mitchell expressed frustration that an assistant director yelled at her at lunch and asked about revisions, according to audio from a 911 call obtained by The Times.
“He’s supposed to check the guns,” Mitchell said on the 911 call. “He’s responsible for what happens on the set.”
Mitchell told the 911 operator that she could not say whether the gun was loaded with a real bullet.
Halls, the first assistant director, did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.
Halls has come under scrutiny before.
In 2019, he was fired from the film “Freedom’s Path” after a crew member had a minor and temporary injury when a prop gun “unexpectedly discharged,” according to a producer from the film who declined to be named because he was not authorized to comment.
That same year, Halls was brought in to replace first assistant director Courtney Hope Therond on the film “The Pale Door” after she was let go from the job. Therond said the Oklahoma production had many safety issues that she pushed back on, such as no safety plan for tornadoes in a tornado zone.
“That’s when they brought in Dave because he had a reputation for being lax on safety,” Therond said. “Apparently, when the first AD walks off a project, Dave is known as the guy you call.”
Aaron B. Koontz, whose Paper Street Pictures was the production company on “The Pale Door,” refuted that Therond was fired because she was overzealous about safety, and said Halls did not replace her because of his supposed relaxed attitude towards safety.
But Koontz did acknowledge that the movie’s unit production manager received safety complaints about Halls during production relating to weather hazards.
“Dave was frustrated at the amount of time it was taking in between lightning delays,” said Koontz, who also directed the film. “I do remember him growing frustrated, saying, ‘Hey, the lightning is so far away. We’re good guys, can we go? We need to go.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, just cause Dave’s a fiery guy.”
On the action thriller “One Way,” shot in Georgia in February, a camera assistant said Halls did not hold a safety meeting before shooting a dangerous scene involving a Russian Arm, a crane-like piece of equipment that is attached to a high-speed vehicle during filming, and reported her concerns to two producers and a local union representative. Those individuals did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.
“He has this demeanor that it’s almost like he doesn’t take anything seriously,” said first camera assistant Lisa Long, who reported Halls’ behavior. “It got so bad that I had a meeting with production to tell them he didn’t care about our safety and it wasn’t right. “
Long was surprised when filming began that the highway had not been cleared of outside traffic, especially because it was raining that day. Meanwhile, she said, the walkie-talkies were filled with so much chatter that instructions were muddled and the two vehicles being used by the production nearly collided.
“That’s when we finally stopped everything,” said Jared Tyree of Gravity Production Services, who was brought in to operate the Russian arm. “I said ‘Y’all can’t talk on the radios anymore. We’ll direct this.’ Usually, with this very expensive piece of equipment, we’ll come in the day before and talk about what they’re looking for, there’s rehearsals with a stunt team, extensive safety meetings. We had none of that.”
Santa Fe County authorities are still trying to determine what kind of projectile killed Hutchins, Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Juan Ríos said Monday. “Hopefully ballistics and the forensics involved in the ballistics will help us to determine that.”
The department’s investigation will not be limited to the fatality and events immediately preceding it, Ríos said.
“The Sheriff’s Office is looking at this case in a much greater scope, as opposed to just the shooting that occurred on set and the loss of life,” Ríos said. “The investigators along with the Sheriff’s Office are looking at everything that should have been followed, from safety standards on down.”
The search warrant allowed for seizure of all firearms, firearm components, used or unused ammunition (“whether it be live ammunition or prop ammunition”), computer hardware equipment, plus all cameras and film or memory cards. The Sheriff’s Office said it had taken blood, saliva and skin and hair samples but did not disclose whose samples it was testing.
A search warrant return shows detectives recovered nine spent casings, three black revolvers and a fanny pack with ammunition and loose ammo in a tray. They also took the clothing of those present and blood swabs and photos.
Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies said the case was still in its preliminary stages of investigation.
“We are assisting the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and have offered our full support to them,” Carmack-Altwies said. “We do not know if charges will be filed. We will look into all facts and evidence of the case with great discretion and have further information at a later time.”
The shooting came after crew members raised concerns about safety conditions on set. Two “Rust” crew members told The Times that, less than a week earlier, a stunt double had fired two accidental prop gun discharges after being told the gun was “cold.”
Rust Movie Productions said in a statement that the safety of its cast and crew is “the top priority” and that it was not aware of official complaints raised about weapon safety and will conduct an internal review. On Sunday, the company said it would shut down the film’s production during the investigation but did not rule out restarting.
“As we go through this crisis, we have made the decision to wrap the set at least until the investigations are complete,” the producers said in an email to crew members Sunday night. “Although our hearts are broken, and it is hard to see beyond the horizon, this is, at the moment, a pause rather than an end. The spirit that brought us all to this special place remains.”
Hutchins’ death follows other accidents that have happened on TV and movie sets. Some in Hollywood and the greater community have called for sets to no longer have operational firearms, especially as muzzle fire could be added through post-production.
A California state senator has announced plans to propose legislation to ban live ammunition and firearms capable of shooting live ammunition on movie sets and theatrical productions in California.