A newly released interview conducted by Santa Fe sheriff’s investigators with Rust director Joel Souza offers new insights into what happened the day Alec Baldwin accidentally killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on set and reinforces claims that industry firearm safety protocols weren’t followed.
The affidavit, released Sunday night, notes that investigators were told that assistant director Dave Halls, who has a history of blatantly disregarding safety protocols, was handling weapons, which experts say should not happen under any circumstances.
After getting shot in the shoulder by the same round that killed Hutchins last Thursday, Souza told detectives that three people had been handling guns for the scenes, including Halls, a situation that several veteran prop masters and armorers (those who oversee firearms on productions) told BuzzFeed News violates basic industry rules. The professional standard, they said, is that the armorer has sole responsibility for weapons and should be the person rigorously and repeatedly checking to be sure the gun is empty, showing the crew that it is safe, and then handing the weapon to the actor. A key component of the assistant director’s job is to ensure the set is safe, so they can ask to visually inspect the weapon, but they never touch it, the prop masters and armorer said. In their investigation, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office stated that Halls did not know live rounds were in the “prop gun.”
"The collective, overarching overlord of safety is the assistant director," Dutch Merrick, a longtime property master and former president of the IATSE Local 44 Property Craftspersons union, told BuzzFeed News. "This seems to be a massive break in the firearms chain of custody."
Crew members on several past projects where Halls was also an assistant director told BuzzFeed News that he usually mishandled firearms and other dangerous elements of production, including pyrotechnics and stunts, and failed to hold safety meetings or uphold other standard protocols.
We want your help! If you have more information or a tip regarding this incident or unsafe practices on film sets, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach us securely at tips.buzzfeed.com.
In his conversation with investigators, Souza said filming that day was taking longer than usual because their camera crew had quit. They had to find replacements and had only one camera available. A camera operator also told investigators he “had much work to complete” because six of his teammates had walked out over issues with payment and housing, detailing their qualms in a letter to production. These stressful elements, armorers told BuzzFeed News, likely contributed to the fatal shooting by exacerbating what seemed to be, according to interviews with crew members, a rushed and strained environment.
The scene they were rehearsing that day took place inside a church, where Baldwin, who was producing and starring in the film, was sitting on a wooden pew facing the camera crew and drawing his gun and pointing it straight at the camera lens. Around 12:30 p.m., the set broke for lunch. After they got back, the director was not sure if anyone checked the guns again before they were given to Baldwin, a key move that industry experts say should always take place whenever crews resume using weapons.
According to the court documents, Souza said three people had been in charge of handling the firearms. Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the armorer, checked the guns to make sure they didn’t contain “live ammunition,” and then Halls rechecked them before handing them to the actor.
Reviewing Souza’s statement to investigators, Merrick, the prop master, echoed others in his assessment that the “assistant director overstepped his bounds” by taking over the armorer’s duties. As a result, he said, it’s likely that critical procedures — such as ensuring that a weapon is inspected, never pointed at another person, and that the surrounding crew is adequately prepared for the scene — were skipped. It’s rare, he said, that a gun is pointed at a camera with people still standing behind it. Usually, the camera is controlled remotely, pulled way back, or the gunfire is inserted in postproduction.
The director’s retelling of what happened also poses new questions.
“Where was the armorer? Were the guns left unattended during lunch on a cart outside?” Merrick said. “Normally, they are locked in a safe. No AD, under any circumstances, should be touching weapons.”
Souza told investigators he believed the weapon was safe to use because he heard the term “cold gun” in safety announcements. In an earlier search warrant, detectives reported that Halls grabbed one of three “prop guns” from a gray rolling cart outside the church and brought it inside to Baldwin, yelling “cold gun,” indicating the weapon did not have any live rounds. Baldwin then fired the gun straight at the camera, striking Hutchins and then Souza, who was standing near her, according to the court documents. As Merrick pointed out, “cold gun” means that the weapon has been rigorously checked to make sure it is unloaded and safe.
The director was looking over Hutchins’ shoulder, focused on the monitors and screens, when he heard what sounded like “a whip and then a loud pop.” He told detectives that he vaguely remembered Hutchins “complaining about her stomach and grabbing her midsection” before stumbling backward. She had blood on her, and crew members rushed to help her to the ground. He then realized he was bleeding from his shoulder.
“Seldom would someone point a gun at the camera lens, and if you are firing a gun at the camera lens, all camera crew goes away, and it's shot remotely and a light load is put in, or the camera is moved way far away,” Merrick said. “Generally speaking, you don’t point a gun at anything you don't want to destroy.”
Reid Russell, a camera operator, was also standing by the camera when Baldwin fired the weapon. They had been adjusting the camera to get out from a shadow, he told detectives, as Baldwin explained how he was going to draw the gun and where his arm would be when “the firearm was pulled from the holster.” He was not sure why it was discharged, but remembered a loud bang, and then Hutchins “saying she couldn’t feel her legs.”
Hutchins was flown to an Albuquerque hospital, where she died.
Both Russell and Souza told investigators that everyone involved in setting up and rehearsing the scene that day seemed to be getting along despite the walkout on Wednesday. Narratives from crew members and those familiar with the production about the working conditions on Rust have been reverberating across Instagram, Facebook, and various media outlets. They include long, difficult days and concerns about the professional experience of crew members in key roles, such as the armorer.
Hutchins’ death also ignited already simmering outrage from production workers across the industry who have been calling for better treatment and more protections for months.
Rust’s environment, they said, is not an outlier, and pointed to several other low-budget productions created and run by the same leaders, such as Halls, the assistant director. BuzzFeed News reported on several instances in which he violated long-standing, standard safety protocols and put those on set at risk.
On Monday, a producer of an upcoming film called Freedom's Path confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they fired Halls in 2019 after “a crew member incurred a minor and temporary injury when a gun was unexpectedly discharged.” The assistant director was “removed from set immediately after the prop gun discharged,” the producer said, adding that “production did not resume filming until Dave was off-site.” CNN first reported the incident.
"Upon wrapping production for the day, Dave Halls was officially terminated and given the specific reasons for his termination. Dave was very remorseful for the events, and understood the reasons he was being terminated,” the producer said in a statement. “A new assistant director as well as a new armorer were hired for the duration of principal photography. Production of the film finished successfully.”
Halls could not be reached for comment.
Despite the intense focus on safety violations and missteps, Merrick emphasized that Hollywood “is the safest it’s ever been with actual firearms” given the millions of blank rounds that go off without incident. Rust, he added, is an example of what can happen when deteriorating conditions and staff concerns are ignored.