NZ stunt pro says lessons needed from Baldwin shooting

Members of the New Zealand film industry are shaken up after the fatal shooting involving Alec Baldwin.

Local industry guilds say New Zealand safety standards are strong but fatigue, low budgets, and long hours can still present risks to cast and crew members.

Thursday's shooting of Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins highlighted multiple suspected errors, and the intricate work of professionals such as armourers on movie sets.

"Everybody is gobsmacked this could even have possibly happened," actor and Equity New Zealand president Jennifer Ward-Lealand said.

"It's a tragedy. It's an absolute tragedy. I don't know how the film can go on. To have lost your director of photography, I just don't know how you could get over it."

Actors Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst. Photo: Getty Images
Actors Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst. Photo: Getty Images
Ward-Lealand and her husband Michael Hurst have both worked with firearms and armourers on local productions.

Ward-Lealand said armourers in her experience always carefully instructed actors and followed multiple safety procedures and checks.

"That's probably why I know never to put my finger on the trigger."

Hurst said he couldn't understand how the shooting of Hutchins happened.

"The gun never leaves the sight of the armourer."

Hurst said in his experience, actors waited for verbal and visual reassurances from armourers.

"It's too problematic if anything goes wrong. All the armourers have to be qualified."

Hurst said when firearms were used in theatre, police were told, and multiple safety plans were supposed to be closely followed.

New Zealand stunt professional Stuart Thorp said armourers frequently were ex-military professionals and the use of guns on local sets involved detailed planning.

"Armoury itself is a specialist position and they know all about the different types of ammunition. Effectively the first assistant director is in control of the set."

Rust director Joel Souza reportedly told investigators three people were handling firearms, which the armourer and first assistant director checked before giving to actors.

Thorp said it seemed some crew were out firing live rounds for target practice near the New Mexico set.

"It's an assistant director that picked the hot weapon off of the cart and gave it to Mr Baldwin."

But Baldwin believed it was a cold or unloaded weapon.

"The live weapon should never be anywhere near the prop ammunition."

A vigil was held for cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo: getty Images
A vigil was held for cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo: getty Images
Thorp, a Stunt Guild of New Zealand member, said the use of weapons on productions involved safety briefings and often co-operation between different departments.

"Say if you have a sci-fi show, a company like Weta or the art department might add moulding to weapons," Thorp said.

"Generally the rubber guns are under the art department."

Different stunts could require different weapons and techniques. Thorp said sometimes a computer-generated muzzle flash was used on scenes.

"Even if it's a rubber weapon, treat every weapon as if it's loaded."

Thorp said after more ad-hoc approaches a few decades ago, New Zealand laws now made producers and department heads responsible for ensuring safety was taken seriously.

"Definitely in New Zealand, the standards around this sort of thing in my experience are super-rigorous."

Other hazards could include rigging, but Thorp said the film industry adopted the best practices from arborists, scaffolders or other industries where rigging was used.

He said the fact crew raised safety concerns on Rust before the shooting made the tragedy even more alarming.

"Usually it's not just one thing that's gone wrong. There are multiple layers of mistakes that lead to the tragedy."

He said the only good thing that could emerge from the shooting was if the industry learned lessons.

"We learn from industrial accidents, adventure tourism accidents. You see the human error, whether it's fatigue, or budget-cutting, or time constraints."

Equity director Denise Roche said members of the actors union had been in touch to voice their sorrow at the New Mexico shooting.

Roche said a senior member relayed his memories of unsafe practices. The actor said some lax safety standards on local sets in the 1970s would never be tolerated today.

The industry in New Zealand was generally much better now at enforcing safer working practices in many areas including the use of weapons, Roche said.

"There's been a huge amount of work happening around health and safety. There is quite a lot of danger involved...There's all sorts of preparation that has to happen."

But she said concerns remained about long working hours causing fatigue and accidents.

Alec Baldwin. Photo: Getty Images
Alec Baldwin. Photo: Getty Images
Most people in the industry were independent contractors who hated turning down any offers, even if that meant 16-hour work days, she said.

Seven Rust crew members reportedly walked off set, citing safety concerns a few hours before the shooting.

Roche said this walkout was extraordinary. She said many cast and crew would not usually speak out about safety concerns for fear of being blacklisted.

The New York Times said Baldwin was rehearsing with a gun he'd been told did not contain live ammunition.

A district attorney told the Times an investigation was focusing on ballistics to determine what kind of round was in the gun, and who had placed the ammunition in the gun.

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