(NEXSTAR) – Several members of the camera crew walked off the New Mexico set of “Rust” in protest hours before lead actor and producer Alec Baldwin fatally shot the cinematographer and wounded the movie’s director with a prop gun, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The half-dozen camera crew operators and their assistants left the set of the Western over a dispute about working conditions, including long hours and low pay, three people not authorized to speak publicly told the newspaper.
An unnamed “knowledgeable person” said that there had been three prop gun mishaps before the fatal shooting – two on Saturday and one last week, telling the Times, “there was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”
Tension on the set at Bonanza Creek Ranch outside of Santa Fe, had been simmering for days before crew members arrived for work around 6:30 a.m. before gathering their things and walking off, a source told the Times.
One of the reported points of contention was lodging – crew members said they were told their hotel rooms in Santa Fe would be paid for, only to find out that they were instead told to stay in Albuquerque, roughly 60 miles away.
The crew members, who are part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, reported seeing non-union employees arrive to replace them Thursday as they prepared to leave the set, the Times reports.
Roughly six hours after the crew members packed up and left the set, Alec Baldwin fired the prop gun that killed the cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the director, Joel Souza.
Alec Baldwin said Friday that the shooting was a “tragic accident” as authorities investigated the shooting.
A spokesperson for Baldwin said a prop gun with blanks misfired. A spokesman for the Santa Fe County sheriff said detectives were investigating what type of projectile was discharged and how. No immediate charges were filed.
It was not clear if Baldwin was performing at the time of the shooting or how many rounds were fired, and little was known about the weapon.
“There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation,” Baldwin wrote on Twitter. “My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Juan Rios said detectives were at the set Friday morning gathering evidence and information. Baldwin is permitted to travel, he said.
“He’s a free man,” Rios said.
Images of the 63-year-old actor — known for his roles in “30 Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October” and his impression of former President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” — showed him distraught outside the sheriff’s office on Thursday.
Guns used in making movies are sometimes real weapons that can fire either bullets or blanks, which are gunpowder charges that produce a flash and a bang but no deadly projectile. However, even blanks can eject hot gases and paper or plastic wadding from the barrel that can be lethal at close range. That proved to be the case in the death of an actor in 1984.
In another on-set accident in 1993, the actor Brandon Lee was killed after a bullet was left in a prop gun, and similar shootings have occurred involving stage weapons that were loaded with live rounds.
Gun-safety protocol on sets in the United States has improved since then, said Steven Hall, a veteran director of photography in Britain. But he said one of the riskiest positions to be in is behind the camera because that person is in the line of fire in scenes where an actor appears to point a gun at the audience.
Hutchins, 42, was airlifted to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Souza, 48, who was wounded in the collarbone area, was taken by ambulance to a medical center.
Sheriff’s deputies responded about 2 p.m. to the movie set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch after 911 calls described a person being shot there, Rios said. The ranch has been used in dozens of films, including the recent Tom Hanks Western “News of the World.”
“This investigation remains open and active,” Rios said in a statement.
One of Hutchins’ final social media posts was a photo of the “Rust” actors standing together in solidarity with crew members. She belonged to the IATSE union that represents crew members. The union is to vote soon on a new contract with producers after threatening to strike in recent weeks over issues including long hours and on-set safety.
Hutchins, a 2015 graduate of the American Film Institute, worked as director of photography on the 2020 action film “Archenemy” starring Joe Manganiello. She was named a “rising star” by American Cinematographer in 2019.
“I’m so sad about losing Halyna. And so infuriated that this could happen on a set,” said “Archenemy” director Adam Egypt Mortimer on Twitter. “She was a brilliant talent who was absolutely committed to art and to film.”
Manganiello called Hutchins “an incredible talent” and “a great person” on his Instagram account. He said he was lucky to have worked with her.
Hutchins had Ukrainian citizenship, according to Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko. The country’s consulate in San Francisco was working with U.S. law enforcement officials.
Baldwin teamed up as a producer with Souza on the 2019 film “Crown Vic,” which starred Thomas Jane as a veteran Los Angeles police officer on a manhunt for two bank robbers. Souza’s first credited film, 2010’s “Hanna’s Gold,” was a treasure hunt adventure featuring Luke Perry.
After the shooting, production was halted on “Rust.” The movie is about a 13-year-old boy who is left to fend for himself and his younger brother following the death of their parents in 1880s Kansas, according to the Internet Movie Database website. The teen goes on the run with his long-estranged grandfather (played by Baldwin) after the boy is sentenced to hang for the accidental killing of a local rancher.
Lee, son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, died in 1993 after being hit by a .44-caliber slug while filming a death scene for the movie “The Crow.” The gun was supposed to have fired a blank, but an autopsy turned up a bullet lodged near his spine.
A Twitter account run by Lee’s sister Shannon said: “Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust.’ No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum died after shooting himself in the head with a prop gun blank while pretending to play Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum on the set of the television series “Cover Up.”
Such shootings have also happened during historical reenactments. In 2015, an actor staging a historical gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, was shot and wounded with a live round during a show that was supposed to use blanks.
In Hill City, South Dakota, a tourist town that recreates an Old West experience, three spectators were wounded in 2011 when a re-enactor fired real bullets instead of blanks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.