It’s time to end gun violence – on movie sets 

Massachusetts can lead in ensuring filmmaking safety 

A 16-YEAR-OLD BOY shivers. It’s cold, dimly lit, and windy outside an old, abandoned city warehouse. He should have worn more than his thin hooded sweatshirt. He pulls the hood tight against the cold. Car headlights approach. Hand in a pocket, he steps out from the shadows. The car stops, the window lowers. The boy pulls out a bag of pills. The driver pulls out a large handgun and shoots twice. Huge flashes and gunshot sounds erupt from the gun barrel, briefly turning night to day. Blood bursts through the hoodie fabric as the boy slumps to the sidewalk.

“And cut,” comes a voice. 

The boy’s father and I, along with the prop master, stand from our crouches behind garbage cans where we’ve been hiding from the cameras on the film set. The young actor, a teenager from Dorchester, comes to life, stands, and removes his bullet-ripped hoodie, now covered in fake stage blood. We all take out ear plugs.

The shooting scene I watched unfold several years ago came back to me in vivid detail after the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer on the film set of “Rust” in New Mexico. She was shot by actor Alec Baldwin using what was supposed to be a prop gun during the filming of a scene of the Western movie. The film’s director was wounded, but not seriously hurt. While details are still in flux, it appears there were hundreds of live ammunition rounds on the set. 

As we shake our heads in shock, it’s important not to see this as a faraway horrific tragedy, but as one with direct relevance to life here in Massachusetts. We have a strong and growing film, television, and advertising production industry here. And it is poised for continued growth following the Legislature’s move earlier this year to make permanent the state film tax credit first approved in 2006. We can – and should – create a set of best practices to make our productions the safest in the nation. 

All film or TV productions involving actors who are minors are required to have “set guardians,” adults who are there to look out for each child-actor’s welfare. I’ve served as a set guardian on more than 200 shoots in the Boston area. 

A scene from the 1997 Boston-based movie “Squeeze.”

This came about through the decades I’ve spent as a youth outreach worker in city neighborhoods. The agencies where I’ve worked have developed relationships with production companies that allowed us to connect them with young people from under-resourced Boston neighborhoods who want to act in film and TV productions. These youths have often needed coaching, transportation and, in some cases, set guardianship to take advantage of these opportunities.

Before the filming that I described of the shooting scene with the Dorchester teen, there was a safety meeting. It followed union-industry safety protocols. Live ammunition was banned from the entire set. We inspected the gun, and off-center camera angles were established so that it was never pointed at a person. “Treat this exactly like it’s a real loaded weapon,” the prop master said. “At close distances, even blanks can cause serious injuries and death.” He was the only one to touch the prop gun other than the actor using it. 

“Rust” is a low-budget independent film. It had a fast-paced, 21-day shooting schedule. Everyone must work closely under these conditions. There are two child actors in the film’s cast. As a set guardian, I can imagine the trauma and grief these youths and their families are experiencing. 

In 1997, I served as story writer, associate producer, and social worker on the Boston-based movie “Squeeze,” directed by Roxbury filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill. In this story of the lure of urban gang life, we also used prop guns that fired blanks. We didn’t have the budget to afford the technology to simulate gunshots and muzzle flashes. Now most productions do. 

“If we can use computer graphics interface to create a monster that scares the hell out of us, I think we can make a fake gun look and sound real,” said Boston filmmaker Tim Ney. 

He’s right. Here is how CGI works. On the set, the actor pretends to shoot an unloaded replica prop gun and mimes the recoil. There is no sound. Editors create or buy online a digital muzzle flash and add it to the image of the gun during post-production. Gunshot sounds are created by computers or purchased the same way. Even if a traditional prop gun with a blank charge is used, editors usually add a CGI muzzle flash and sound to enhance the effects. 

Filmmaking makes use of all sorts of fakery. Pool cues used for fights are made of rubber. The same for knives and hatchets. Gory flesh is made from foods, like chocolate sauce and sponge cake. That cute baby you love is often an identical twin or triplet taking turns on camera.  “We fake most everything else, why not the damn guns?” says Matt Parker, a Roxbury indie filmmaker. 

Kate Taylor, an award-winning, Boston-based PBS producer, goes even further. She encourages writers and other ”creatives” to avoid guns all together when telling their stories. “We should not glorify the use of guns,” said Taylor. “Filmmaking should be fun, not jobs where we go to risk our lives.” 

We need to get to the bottom of what happened on the set of “Rust.” But with thousands of Massachusetts residents employed in our production industry, now is the time to create a set of best practices to make sets safer here. At the top of the list would be removing functional guns, blanks, and ammunition from film sets altogether. Even the blood squibs I described can now be triggered by pressurized air instead of a small explosive charge. 

Change is already occurring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pledged this week to stop using real guns on his productions. Others will follow. 

Massachusetts and other states could independently verify a production’s use of CGI for gunshots or their compliance with best safety practices through their departments of public health or other state agencies with oversight of film sets. The state could issue a certification of safety that would appear in the credits of the production. 

Meet the Author
Massachusetts should take the lead in ensuring safety on film sets and set a standard that other states would surely look to also meet.

Emmett Folgert is senior advisor and Safe City program coordinator at MissionSAFE, a Boston youth services agency.