No Guns On Set

The accidental shooting on set of the low budget western Rust has people wondering how a gun could have been fired on set, and how a real gun could have been used in the first place. After all, movies are the realm of make believe. The walls are fake. The backdrops are fake. Why should the props be real?

On stage, of course we never use real guns. That would be preposterous to even consider. I’ve done a few plays by Agatha Christie, and plenty of interactive improvisational murder mysteries. Occasionally a character I was playing had to handle a gun, and almost all of those were toy props that looked convincing from a distance.

In one show, the gun had to fall on the floor and make a loud sound. Metal hitting wood. So we used a starter pistol, which is not an actual weapon. Unless you throw it at someone and hit them in the head. Which is what my cousin Catherine did to me when we were kids. I had a pair of silver cowboy guns with white handles. Not sure why she threw one of them at me, but there was enough blood to scare the grownups and I still have the faint trace of a scar on my forehead.

In another show, the gun had to be fired, so we used a cap gun. It would make the sound of a blast, and there would be a little smoke and the smell of a match strike. The audience’s suspension of disbelief would fill in the rest. Of course no one was expecting a real gun to be fired, and if one was, the audience probably would have run screaming from the theatre.

That right there is the principle difference between stage and screen. In the movies, people expect the illusion to be real, even when they know it isn’t.

When I first moved to LA, I worked on the tv show Deadwood for a year and a half, as one of the background townspeople. The show was filmed at Melody Ranch, which is a large western town built as a permanent set. A great deal of attention had been paid to the historical accuracy of everything on that set, but it was just a set. Once you walked through a door, you were backstage. The whole place was fascinating to explore when I was not being used in a shot.

The costumes were real vintage clothing from the period. So were the props, or at least they were as close as they could get to accurate. So we had to take care whenever handling them. Especially the guns, and for more reason than one.

If you were given a pistol, it was never loaded, and you were not allowed to take it out of the holster. Even so, there was always an actor getting in trouble for doing just that and pointing it, or twirling it around his index finger like Butch Cassidy. An entirely understandable temptation. (See silver cowboy guns with white handles above…)

I was usually given a Winchester rifle. I would have to sign for it in the morning at the props department, and return it the same way at the end of the day. I was responsible for that rifle at all times. No one else was allowed to touch it, nor was I allowed to leave it unattended. So I carried the heavy rifle with me to the buffet table at lunch, to my car when on a break, or even to the bathroom.

For a period show, it made sense that the guns were actual antiques. No one found it odd that real guns were being used, because we could see the effort being made to travel back in time.

The same thing was true when I worked on one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as a pirate. We were all sent down to San Pedro to spend a day on the Black Pearl, and learn from the weapons master how to load the cannons, and fire the muskets. It was absolutely thrilling to be on that set, as a part of that film.

Just like with Deadwood, they were aiming for accuracy in the period. Even though none of us would be allowed to use a firearm in a shot, they wanted us trained in how to handle them, so we looked comfortable around them. I remember the musket was tricky to fire. You had to light a small piece of cloth, then tip the gun to the side so the powder would fall into the chamber. Then pull back the hammer. (I may be getting the order wrong here, but I only fired it once, the only time I’ve ever fired a weapon in my life.)

That is the only justification I can come up with, however questionable it may seem in retrospect. After all, a studio props department could certainly fabricate reproductions, and on a much smaller budget than would be needed to acquire expensive antiques.

For a contemporary tv show or movie, I can’t understand why real guns would ever be used, under any circumstance. No one in the audience would even notice, sitting in their living rooms, or in a movie theatre looking up at the screen, if the weapons were real or fake. No one would be able to see whether or not bullets were flying through the air, and as for them hitting the floor, well that is easy enough to do from off camera. Just have a props person drop them into the shot.

Aside from that, all sorts of special effects are done in post production, so if a director wanted some hyper realistic blasts of light or smoke, then that could be added later. I find it odd that actors, many of whom have never owned weapons and may dread the idea, are expected to handle real guns, when most of the time they are given empty cups of coffee and told to mime drinking in the scene. How on earth does that make sense?

Some actors do seem to know their way around guns. When I was working background on the film Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there was a moment when the director was asking Angelina Jolie to point her gun farther to her left, and she refused.

“Why not?”

“Because there is an actor standing there.”

Meaning me. I was the actor standing to her left. She looked at me and smiled and I have to say I fell a little in love with her right then.

On a different day, I was standing in for a dead body. The stunt man in the scene had already been shot, so they needed someone to lie there pretending to be him. Since there would be blanks flying around, the set was closed to everyone except the handful of people in the shot. After the first take, the director saw that I was not in the frame, and decided there was no reason to have me stay so close to the action. He knew that even a blank can do damage and he didn’t want anyone in danger.

So I sat a safe distance away and read my book. Happy to be getting the higher rate for standing in, and happy to be in good hands on that production.

As we have seen on other sets, that isn’t always the case. Guns are dangerous even if everyone is being careful, and everyone is not always careful all the time. So why have the threat at all, when it can be so easily avoided?

I hope this latest tragic incident will lead to real guns being banned from use on all sets from now on.


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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