Brandon Lee’s death sparked calls for stricter rules… so why did they fail Halyna Hutchins?
Thirty years ago a promising young actor’s life was cut short when a prop gun fired a dummy round into his abdomen.
Bruce Lee’s son Brandon Lee’s death on the set of the 1994 movie The Crow sparked calls for stricter safety measures on film sets.
Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, was shot in the abdomen by a makeshift bullet that remained in a gun from a previous scene. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the production $84,000 for violations after the actor’s death, but the fine was later reduced to $55,000.
But Halyna Hutchins death 15 months ago after being shot by Alec Baldwin proves Hollywood still hasn’t learned its lesson.
Despite some industry reforms following previous tragedies, the federal workplace safety agency in the U.S. is silent on the issue of on-set gun safety. And most of the preferred states for film and TV productions take a largely hands-off approach.
Actor Brandon Lee died in March 1993 after he was shot in the abdomen while filming for The Crow. Just 15 months ago Halyna Hutchins was accidentally shot by Alec Baldwin on the set of Rust in New Mexico
California Senator Dave Cortese – who has been leading the campaign after Hutchins’ death – doubled-down on his intention to improve safety on Thursday following the announcement that Baldwin (pictured in October, 2019) is to be charged with manslaughter
New Mexico, where an assistant director handed Baldwin a loaded weapon and told him it was ‘cold,’ or safe to use, has no specific safety laws for the film industry.
Much of the legislative debate over the industry, as in other states, has focused on tax credits and incentives to lure the lucrative entertainment business, not what happens on sets.
How a dummy round killed rising star Brandon Lee – son of martial arts icon Bruce
Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, was a rising star before one of the most tragic deaths in Hollywood history cut his life short.
In the scene, Lee’s character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped, before a thug fires a Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum revolver at Lee’s character.
In the shooting of an earlier scene, the prop gun – which was a real Smith & Wesson revolver – had been loaded with improperly crafted dummy rounds, cartridges which have the powder charges removed so that in close-ups the revolver appears loaded with normal ammunition.
The crew failed to remove the primer from the cartridges and at some point, prior to the fatal incident, one of the rounds was fired.
Although there was no powder cartridge, the energy from the ignited primer was able to separate the bullet from the casing and push it up into the gun barrel where it got lodged – known as a ‘squib load.’
In the fatal scene, the gun was to be fired from 12ft away, with dummy cartridges being replaced by blanks, containing powder and primer but no bullets.
But the gun was not properly checked and cleared before the blank was fired by the actor playing the thug and the .44 bullet lodged inside the weapon was discharged and struck Lee in the abdomen.
After six hours of unsuccessful emergency surgery, Lee succumbed to his injuries at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina at just 28.
The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the production $84,000 for violations after the actor’s death, but the fine was later reduced to $55,000.
That approach has worked well for New Mexico. In addition to attracting some large film productions, the state is home to major production hubs for Netflix and NBCUniversal.
It had a record $623 million in direct spending on productions between July 2020 through June of this year.
Soon after the fatal shooting, lawmakers drafted two California Senate bills to establish mandatory rules for guns and ammunition on film sets – including penalties for rule violations and mandated on-set firearms supervisors.
But neither bill made it past the committee stage over divisions within the industry over which new rules were acceptable.
California Senator Dave Cortese – who has been leading the campaign after Hutchins’ death – doubled-down on his intention to improve safety on Thursday following the announcement that Baldwin is to be charged with manslaughter.
‘Over the past several months, I’ve been working with stakeholders and leaders in the industry, including many entertainment workers, to push these real reforms forward and to avoid yet another tragedy on set,’ Cortese said.
‘What we’ve learned is this is an issue that needs to be addressed across the industry, rather than incident-by-incident, to bolster safety as a whole and ensure we keep productions safe for everyone.’
Victims of the on-set tragedies have long-called for tougher rules.
Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce, was just 28-years-old and filming for his breakthrough role when his life was cut short.
Following Hutchins’ death on the set of Rust in New Mexico in October, 2021, Lee’s sister Shannon urged the industry to introduce compulsory firearms training.
‘I think that mandatory gun safety training (should be required) for the actor so that they can check the guns themselves and know how to use them appropriately,’ Shannon said.
‘And so that they can keep others safe,’ she added, saying she found the lack of gun safety ‘frustrating.’
George Clooney, a friend of Brandon’s, also weighed in after Hutchins was killed.
Referring to Brandon’s death he told The Hollywood Reporter: ‘That was a series of stupid things. … My cousin Miguel was going to be his best man the next week at their wedding.’
Clooney said that because of what happened to Lee, he adheres carefully to safety protocols when he is given a prop gun.
‘Every single time I’m handed a gun on the set … I open it, I show it to the person I’m pointing it to, I show it to the crew. Every single take, you hand it back to the armorer when you’re done and you do it again,’ he said.
‘After Brandon died, it really became a very clear thing: Open the gun, look down the barrel, look in the cylinder, make sure,’ he said. ‘It’s a series of tragedies. But also, a lot of stupid mistakes.’
Cut short: Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, was a rising star before one of the most tragic deaths in Hollywood history cut his life short
Brandon is the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee (pictured in the Way of the Dragon)
Experts have said that a litany of failures led to Hutchins’ death, including that a prop gun should never have been loaded with live ammunition.
Zak Knight, a pyrotechnic and special effects engineer, told DailyMail.com after her death: ‘There should have never been live rounds on a movie set, that’s number one.
‘Number two is every single person on a movie set has a right to inspect a weapon before it’s fired. And number three is, there is no reason to ever put a person in front of a weapon that’s firing.
‘Anytime you see a movie where the barrel is pointed down the camera lens, there should not be an operator behind it.’
Whatever happened in the moments leading up to her death, Knight said it was caused by a ‘cascade of failures’ by multiple people.
Instead of regulating firearm use on film and TV sets, some states leave it to the industry to follow its own guidelines.
Those recommendations, issued by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, call for limited use of live ammunition and detailed requirements for the handling and use of firearms of all types.
Safety meetings are to be held, actors are to keep their fingers off the triggers until they’re ready to shoot, and guns should never be unattended, the guidelines state.
Without specific state or federal regulations, it’s primarily up to the people working in productions to ensure guns are used safely.
Brook Yeaton, vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union that represents workers in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi and Alabama, said his approach is to act like all weapons are real and to never allow live rounds on a set.
‘They shouldn’t be in the truck. They shouldn’t be in the same car,’ said Yeaton, a prop master for more than 30 years. ‘You really have to make sure your inventory is totally separate from the real world and everything you bring on set is safe.’
Baldwin claimed he did not know Halyna died until the end of a police interview, when he was photographed on the phone speaking to his wife, Hilaria
The gun fired by Baldwin on the ‘Rust’ set shooting
In one of the world’s premier film centers, New York City, productions are required to adhere to a code of conduct that spells out rules for parking, notifying neighbors and other details, including specifying that the sound of gunshots should not ring outdoors between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. For use of a weapon or prop firearm, the city also requires authorization from the police department and an officer to be on set.
The website of the Texas Film Commission states that productions using prop weapons — which can be replicas or real guns that fire blanks rather than live ammunition — must have safety policies, expert weapon handlers and proof of insurance. The Texas governor’s office, which oversees the commission, did not return calls from The Associated Press asking about how those rules are enforced.
California, still the capital of the film industry, requires an entertainment firearms permit, though it’s not clear how permit requirements are enforced.
Hutchins’ fatal shooting near Santa Fe followed previous gun-related deaths and injuries on movie sets.
In 2005, more than 10 years after Lee’s death, OSHA fined Greystone Television and Films $650 after a crewmember was shot in the thigh, elbow and hand. It turned out that balloon-breaking birdshot rounds were in the same box as the blanks that were supposed to be used in rifles.