Bay Area Accessories Professionals Discuss Gun Safety Protocols Following “Rust” Tragedy

This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, NM, Oct. 23. The person in charge of the weapons on the set of the film at the ranch where actor Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins said on November 3 that she suspected someone put a live bullet into the prop pistol that Baldwin fired. Photo: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

The security protocol for the prop weapons used in the movie is almost like a movie plot itself. As the heavily armed revival of “Nash Bridges” kicks off on USA Network on Saturday, November 27, and amid ongoing investigations into the October 21 tragedy on the set of “Rust,” The Chronicle spoke to three specialists. from the Bay Area props weapons on to the rigorous procedures they use to keep cast and crew safe without sacrificing thrill.

What types of weapons are used on television and movie sets?

When a film production plans to depict gunshots, the props department typically has three versions of each “hot” weapon – one intended to be fired. The former is used during an alignment shot, when the director and cinematographer are still determining the staging and camera angles, and the actors are still combing their hair and to put on makeup. Actor replacements are on set, and their propeller pistols could be as simple as water pistols or even a stick.

Then when the actors show up to rehearse the scene, a second version of the prop gun appears. It is often made of rubber or plastic, but it reflects as closely as possible the look, feel and weight of the weapon to be used during filming, to help the actor prepare.

According to three seasoned Bay Area prop professionals, this industry standard is just one of the protocols that appear to have been violated recently on the set of “Rust” in New Mexico, where a prop gun accidentally discharged by actor Alec Baldwin killed the film’s director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, and seriously injured its director, Joel Souza, a native of Fremont.

The cause (s) of the Oct.21 crash are under investigation by local authorities, but industry guidelines make it clear that the weapon to be used in filming is not meant to be the same weapon than that used during rehearsals.

Actor Cheech Marin is seen filming the upcoming TV movie “Nash Bridges” in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Still, some actors insist on using this third and final weapon even during rehearsal, said Patrick Musni of San Francisco, who has overseen film, television and theater props in the Bay Area for more than 25 years, including on “Nash Bridges”, both the original series and the upcoming movie, and the movie “The Rock” from Alcatraz in 1996. But even then a props master or a gunsmith – a gun specialist which is usually brought to films with a lot of accessory weapons – should first inspect it.

How do you become a master accessory or a gunsmith?

There is no set path to becoming a prop master or gunsmith. Accessory professional Sean House of Vallejo completed weapons training in the US Navy; Musni took a course. “In order to work on ‘Nash’, the LA props master asked me to take firearms training, which was real live-fire training,” which included many police trainees, said remembers Musni. He fired live ammunition and learned of lethal force.

Attachment safety guidelines are typically passed on from senior workers to apprentices rather than relayed in a codified written manual. In California, prop owners must have an entertainment firearms license to rent guns for a movie set, but the app is more about background and identity verification of applicants than the app. proof of a certain level of training.

An actor in a shooting scene while filming the upcoming TV movie “Nash Bridges” in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

What are the best practices for prop weapons?

There aren’t supposed to be live bullets – like real bullets – anywhere on the set, let alone in a propeller pistol. The guidelines state to use only blanks (which can make a small explosion, blow some smoke out of the barrel, and give an actor recoil) or dummy bullets (which look like bullets but cannot explode).

Prop guns are never meant to be left unattended in the open, and an assistant director isn’t meant to be the person handing a gun to an actor.

How does a prop gun go from storage to an actor’s hand on a movie set?

The gun used during filming is in a locked safe in a prop truck or gun truck that no one except the props department is allowed to enter. Only two or three people have the combination of this safe.

Before this weapon is released, all those who do not absolutely have to be on the set are eliminated, to even minimize the risk of exposure. The prop master, assistant prop master, or gunsmith inspects every aspect of the weapon as she removes it from the vault to make sure it is empty of any type of cartridge. The person may also attempt to fire the empty weapon on the ground several times as an added precaution.

Then the weapon is placed in a smaller locked case and transported to the assembly. Blank ammunition is collected separately.

Sometimes the recovery of blank ammo is done by a separate person, so the two don’t meet, ”said House, who has credits on multiple“ Matrix ”,“ Red Tails ”and“ Nash ”reboot titles. Bridges ”. “This is not always the case, but it is a good practice because there is then no chance of contamination of the weapon by the prescription before it arrives on the set”, a- he declared.

Hugo Weaving, left, holds a pistol in “The Matrix” (1999). Right: Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003). Photo: Getty Images

On the set, earplugs are distributed. The weapon undergoes an additional inspection while it is still empty, as well as the discharged cartridges. Then the pistol is loaded with the exact number of blank or dummy cartridges that the shot will need, no more.

An assistant director announces via all the radio stations that there is a hot weapon on the set, so that even those further away know not to be surprised. If Musni is filming in a town, he also asks his police contact to notify a dispatcher, in case neighbors call 911 to report gunshots.

At least three more inspections follow – first within the prop team, then by an assistant director, then by the actor who will use the weapon. Anyone else who wants to inspect it – other actors in the scene; cameramen near the firing line – have the option to do so as a courtesy. During this whole process, Musni said, “there is no rush.”

In this process, however, there can be small variations depending on the weapon, the needs of the scene and the individuals involved, said Bill Martin of Pacifica, who has 30 years of experience in theatrical props. (His credits include the films “Venom,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Terminator Genisys” as well as the upcoming “The Matrix Resurrections.”)

“I was trained to demonstrate that every round is a blank or a dummy to the first assistant director before loading the gun and handing the gun to an actor,” he said. “I will also demonstrate to the actor this fact if necessary.”

Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd in “Ant-Man and the Wasp”. Photo: Ben Rothstein / Marvel Studios

But the last step is always the same.

“The prop is waiting to make sure the actor has acknowledged that he has seen the gun and that it is in the condition the actor expects it to be, to be unloaded, loaded with blank bullets or loaded with dummy bullets, ”Martin said. “The prop then hands the gun to the actor and backs up, and the scene begins.”

Once the scene is over, the prop immediately retrieves the actor’s weapon – first to prevent it from being dangerously pointed, and then to make sure it performed as intended and is really empty.

The process repeats for additional takes, until the weapon can be returned to its locked safe.

How safe are propeller guns, despite what happened on “Rust”?

Musni, Martin and House agree that movie props are extremely safe almost All the time. The closest house to danger is usually correcting ignorance long before it becomes a problem.

Often times, a cinematographer who is not used to it would like to see the barrel of the gun pointed directly at the camera when discharging, ”he said. “It’s crazy, even if it’s just a blank shot. There is still propellant coming out of it. So you explain to them, ‘No, that’s not safe. The actor can aim the gun in a mirror so that you can achieve the shot. In the worst case, a broken mirror and dirty pants. “

Actor Don Johnson during the filming of the upcoming television series “Nash Bridges” in San Francisco. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Regarding the drama on the set of “Rust”, he evokes a saying from his eight years in the Navy: “An accident is almost never the result of a single mistake. This is usually a multitude of errors.

Martin agrees.

The reason we have all these protocols is that you can make 10 mistakes and not kill anyone, because you did the 11th thing right,” he said. “What happened in New Mexico on this plateau is really not normal. We shoot great things every day in this business. Think about every movie you’ve seen, every shot. We throw cars off the bridges and no one gets hurt.

All three noted that the last major incidental weapons tragedy in the film industry occurred almost 30 years ago, when actor Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow “.

Martin says the “Rust” tragedy is a good reminder “that the actors who play roles inhabit a different personality.

“Not all of them,” he said, “but part of their process is to become someone else. This is how they become great actors. We always have to remember, when we do them. let’s give a sword, something to shave your face, a gun, that they rely on us to take care of them at that time.

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