Guns on Sets

The recent death on set of a Director of Cinematography and the injuring of a director by a “prop” gun, prompts this post. Something needs to be said.

This account says that the gun “misfired”. That’s not accurate. If a gun misfires, it doesn’t shoot. In this case, the gun discharged. It should not have happened.

I have had at least one accidental discharge of a firearm on a movie set. I’ve also had a firearm incident that could have had very serious consequences. These have resulted in my personal rule for guns on set – unless they are absolutely necessary for technical reasons, don’t allow them. It’s very easy now to generate very realistic CGI versions of muzzle smoke and bullet impacts. Possibly more difficult are automatic actions and shell ejection, and they may justify real, functional firearms where CGI budgets are limited. But then there are ways to make them safe.

The first rule should be that anybody who handles a functional firearm, actors as well as props people, should be trained to inspect it and make sure it is not loaded. It’s the first thing they teach in a firearm safety class. Never take anybody’s word that a gun is not loaded. Inspect it. Take out the magazine. Open the action. Make sure there’s nothing in the chamber. If Alec Baldwin had done this, there’d be a cinematographer alive today.

Not having somebody on set to initiate this training and enforce safety rules is egregious negligence on the part of a production.

My younger brother spent twenty five years as a prison guard, handling a pistol grip shotgun every day. He had an accidental discharge that, thankfully, only resulted in a huge pile of paper work. Here’s how it happened: He KNEW his gun was empty. He’d removed the shells himself. But he sat down for a break, and another guard sat down beside him. When the other guard left, he picked up the wrong gun. My brother stood up, picked up the other guard’s gun, pulled the trigger expecting to hear a click and BOOM. Simple as that. So in addition to the first rule of inspecting a gun that is handed to you, the second rule is inspect the gun if it’s been out of your hands. Even briefly.

I hired my brother to be a Special Business Extra on “Terminal City Ricochet” because I knew I could trust him with guns. We still had an accidental discharge. I don’t know the details, but my brother told me he warned the props guy that he was being unsafe, only to get a surly “I know what I’m doing.” response. Two minutes later and, again, BOOM. You don’t want to hear that on a film set. So make sure there are clear lines of authority. Encourage everybody to challenge situations that are questionable.

The most frightening moment on the set of that film was my fault. My actors were driving a car that was fictionally bullet proof. They were to run a barricade in that vehicle. A guard was to step out in front of them with a shotgun and shoot at the windshield. It was my brilliant idea to have a real shotgun fire a wax bullet at the windshield. Because of the slope of the windshield and the softness of the wax, I was confident that it would just leave a nice skid mark with no further damage. I personally tested that idea, firing several wax slugs at our hero car, and it seemed to work perfectly.
On the day I had my brother act as the guard, knowing he had the skill to fire accurately. Which he did. He waited until the last possible minute, fired, and dove out of the way. But when I called “cut”, he came on the walkie-talkie saying we might want to call an ambulance. The wax bullet had gone right through. The actors weren’t hit directly, but there was a lot of shards of glass flying around.

The most disturbing part of this story, for me, is that I hadn’t made sure the actors in the front seat of the car were even wearing safety glasses. Neither had the set safety officer. A good example of how a real gun on a set can cause a tragedy. I’m just hung with horseshoes the actors weren’t hurt.

Another very scary moment on that shoot: In another scene, a prison guard was to be shot in the back by “friendly fire” from another guard. The special FX team told me that putting him in a down vest with a squib behind the down would give me a beautiful shot of feathers flying through the air. Sounded good to me. Rig it, boys.
The guard who was to be shot had to push his own button to set off the squib. When he did so, his vest bulged out but there was no beautiful explosion of feathers. He just collapsed. Oh. My. God. What happened? Did they put the squib in backwards and kill the guy?
What had happened was we were shooting in heavy rain and the down vest was soaked with water. The feathers were no longer fluffy. They were a solid mat, and the squib’s impact was just just directed right back at the performer. It was like punching him very hard right over the heart. We were lucky it didn’t kill him.*

Bottom line: I if you are on a set with guns and explosives, train your people. Think things through. Accidents will still happen, but there’s really no excuse for the recent death on set. That one was pure negligence and somebody needs to be disciplined.

*I have to hand it to that performer. He had the cojones to do take two, and push his own button again.

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