2021 Notebook: Alec Baldwin and the movie-set shooting
THE BACKGROUND: On Oct. 21, on a movie set in New Mexico, what was supposed to be fiction lurched into reality in the most destructive of ways.
Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed by a prop gun held by Alec Baldwin, one of the country’s most prominent actors. The ensuing anguish and investigation revealed what some said were dangerous gun-handling protocols on a set where some crew members had complained about conditions.
Baldwin has not been charged, though the investigation continues and lawsuits have been filed. Authorities still do not know how a live round ended up in the prop firearm, and Baldwin has said he did not pull the trigger.
Here, some Associated Press journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.
CEDAR ATTANASIO, reporter, Santa Fe:
I grew up in New Mexico. And a lot of folks that I grew up with, when they thought about their future, it was like, “We don’t have industry here.” This is a poor state, and the film industry has become a way for people to have a career and do something exciting. It’s very much a state that’s just full of storytellers.
I moonlit — worked on few film sets — when I was younger. And then I worked with people who worked with the people that worked on this set. So when when this happened, it was really surprising and I knew right away how how much of an anomaly death from a firearm on a film set was. So whatever celebrity was involved or whatever the film was, I just knew right away it was going to be a huge story because this hasn’t happened in — what? — decades.
I think it’s a really extreme example of looking at accountability and there not being immediate answers. This shooting, and this dispute with the workers on the set happened as the film unions were negotiating new terms around working conditions, and as there’s a labor crunch across the country, and other unions are fighting for different working conditions. This incident sort of broke out of Hollywood, and it kind of had a ripple effect and spoke to all of the other labor issues that were happening in the country. I think that people look to stories about celebrities to learn something more about the zeitgeist in the country. And this celebrity story was very much about safety and very much about labor unions. And I think that it got a lot of attention at a time when other labor unions and other industries were using their power in this labor crunch to demand better working conditions.
MORGAN LEE, correspondent, Santa Fe:
It’s extremely challenging to journalists to sweat through the conflicting interests, and certainly nobody has stepped forward and sort of said, “Yeah, the buck stops with me. I should have done something.” The film industry really takes care of its own here in New Mexico. There’s a long history of ineffectual and sometimes corrupt union representation and that resulted in a shakeup a few years ago, and it seems like we’re in a poor state that relies on the film industry for a promising growing piece of revenue to cover basic services. And the state has perhaps the richest subsidy for film productions to come here in the nation. So you’ve got that sort of sign that all is not well, but people not wanting to shake up the golden goose.
RYAN PEARSON, West Coast entertainment video editor, Los Angeles:
It remains unclear exactly how much it’s going to shake things up in terms of, “Oh, we’ve been doing things wrong,” because it is so rare that something like this would happen and real guns have been used on sets regularly every day in productions for years and years, and it’s super rare that these kind of things happen. And so the immediate response from a lot of people was, “there had to be one, two, three, four or five things that went wrong, things that were missed, the protocols that were not followed in order for this to happen.”
I think everybody was shocked and increased their focus on safety, and they kind of said this was an outlier case and it was highly unusual that all of these protocols were missed along the way, and to have something like this happen. Dwayne Johnson, who’s one of the more well-known stars in Hollywood, said his production company, moving forward, would only use rubber guns and no more real guns on his films. But he said, “You know, I can’t speak for all the movies that I’m in working for Disney or Warner Brothers or anything else. But on ones that I can control, I’m going to make that change.” There was an ABC cop show called “The Rookie” that they grabbed right away the day after and said, “We’re not going to use real guns ever again.”
But that has not been a universal call. There were a number of producers who came out and said, “Hey, this was crazy unusual. We have multiple (people) on set whose job it is to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not going to happen. It hasn’t happened to us before. It’s not going to happen in the future.”
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us