In the 'Rust' set shooting death, a sharpened focus on the assistant director

·3 min read
The set of "Rust" at Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, N.M.
The Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe, photographed the day after a prop gun killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

The outrage and disbelief over the death of “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, shot by actor and producer Alec Baldwin during rehearsal of a scene Thursday, have many in the Hollywood production community talking about one man at the center of the tragedy: first assistant director Dave Halls.

According to a search warrant filed by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department and obtained by the Associated Press, Halls picked up one of three guns from a mobile cart that had been prepared by the production's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed. Halls allegedly declared “cold gun,” meaning the weapon was not loaded, as he was handing it to Baldwin.

On a recording of the 911 call placed by script supervisor Mamie Mitchell, she presumably refers to Halls when she can be heard saying, “the f— AD that yelled at me at lunch, asking about revisions.” On the recording, obtained by the Albuquerque Journal, she adds: “He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happens on the set.”

Halls did not respond to The Times' request for comment.

An industry veteran with credits dating to the early ’90s, Halls has worked on films such as “Bone Tomahawk,” “Balls of Fury,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Bad Santa,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “A Simple Plan” and “Fargo.” In a grim coincidence, he worked as the first assistant director on the second unit of the 2000 movie “The Crow: Salvation,” the sequel to “The Crow,” the film on which Brandon Lee died in an on-set gun accident in 1993.

Halls also was first assistant director and had a small on-screen role on the 2019 film “Darlin’,” for which Hutchins was the cinematographer.

The duties of the first assistant director can include overseeing set safety and keeping the production moving and on schedule.

Filmmaker Aaron B. Koontz, who also knew Hutchins, worked with Halls twice: on the 2020 film “The Pale Door” and the 2017 film “Camera Obscura.”

“Dave is extremely efficient and he’s very good at keeping the pace going and just moving at the speed that you have to move at in order to make your days,” Koontz said Saturday, emphasizing he has no direct knowledge of what happened on the “Rust” set.

“He was a good manager of the day. Which all ADs have to be.”

"Rust” crew members who spoke with The Times said they were mystified how Halls could have handed a loaded gun to Baldwin without thoroughly checking it. The role of the AD has been a subject of debate following the shooting, but some production workers said the protocol on many sets is for the first AD to check the gun for safety.

“You don’t hand an actor a loaded gun,” said one of the “Rust” crew members who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Crew members reported tensions on the set. A half-dozen camera operators and their assistants walked off the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set earlier in the day. Crew members who spoke with The Times described what they saw as an imperative by producers to keep the 21-day shoot on schedule and on budget. “Every day on that set, it was just go-go-go,” said one of the crew members. “They were in such a rush to get things done.”

There were three actors with guns during the scene being rehearsed when Hutchins was killed.

Following the 2014 death of assistant camera operator Sarah Jones on the set of the film "Midnight Rider," assistant director Hillary Schwartz was found guilty of manslaughter and criminal trespass and sentenced to 10 years' probation.

As part of Schwartz’s probation, she also received a $5,000 fine and was restricted from working as a director, assistant director, producer or any department head in charge of crew safety.

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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