After it was revealed that assistant director Dave Halls handed actor Alec Baldwin the prop gun that discharged, and struck two people on a film set in New Mexico last week, attention has focused on the role of a first assistant director — and the extreme pressures inherent to the job.
Halls was responsible for coordinating and managing almost everything that happened on the set of “Rust,” handling all logistics so the director could focus on actually filming the western. He had performed a similar role in more than 80 other productions before the Oct. 21 shooting, which killed “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured the director Joel Souza.
But some of Halls’s former colleagues on those films wondered whether he had a habit of cutting corners to remain on schedule.
Assistant directors act as a “liaison between the director and the crew,” said Douglas Schulze, a filmmaker and co-founder of the Motion Picture Institute in Michigan who has never worked with Halls. “There’s a reputation of fearing the AD a bit in the crew world, because the AD is the taskmaster. They’re responsible for keeping the shoot organized, running and on time.”
Schulze said that the first AD is usually under great pressure from studios and producers to keep to that schedule. If a day runs long, “on really, really tightly budgeted films, they begin to pull pages, which means dropping scenes.”
“It can move toward a hurried approach, and it can move toward sloppiness and things like that,” he added.
There are training programs for becoming an assistant director — the most competitive program is run by the Director’s Guild of America — but many ADs learn simply by working under others.
“The film business is an apprenticeship-type industry. People work their way up by working in a particular department, usually by starting as a production assistant,” Maureen A. Ryan, a film producer and author of “Producer to Producer: A Step-by-Step Guide to Low-Budget Independent Film Producing,” said in an email. “They learn from the [head of departments] and other experienced crew members and producers and eventually move up the rungs of their department and industry.”
Halls spent more than 25 years working as an assistant director on movies such as “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Bad Santa,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “A Simple Plan” and “Fargo,” before becoming the first AD on the set of “Rust.”
An affidavit filed by a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office detective states that Hannah Gutierrez, the armorer on set, had set up three prop guns in a gray cart before the shooting. Halls grabbed one of them, brought it to Baldwin and yelled, “Cold gun!” to indicate that it did not contain a live round. According to the affidavit, he was mistaken.
The detail that Halls had handled the weapon alarmed Jeremy Goldstein, an Israeli military veteran and Hollywood armorer.
“No crew member should be handling a weapon of any kind other than the armorer, designated prop person or actor. Full stop,” Goldstein told The Post in an email. “The armorer must clear all firearms with the [first assistant director] when bringing them to set, and verify that they are unloaded. Then the armorer does the same with the actor, but the firearm does not leave the custody of the armorer or designated prop person.”
In a 911 call obtained by The Post, script supervisor Mamie Mitchell said, “This f---ing AD that yelled at me at lunch asking about revisions, this motherf---er … He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happened,” referring to Halls.
Halls carried a reputation in the industry for being a taskmaster who was particularly skilled at keeping productions on schedule. Though some allege that, at times, he cut corners and bypassed safety protocols to do so.
Halls did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Washington Post.
Kaylon Damazio, co-owner of Gravity Production Services, a transportation logistics company, blamed Halls in part for lapses on the set of the action thriller “One Way” in Georgia in February. Damazio’s team was there to operate the Russian Arm, a high-speed mobile camera on the end of a crane-like arm that’s attached to the top of a car to film moving vehicles.
“Usually we come in the day before, and we talk over everything with the first AD and the stunt coordinator,” Damazio said. “Not only is it very expensive equipment, but there are human lives” at stake.
In this case, “there were no rehearsals. There was no game plan. … Everything was just very vague,” he added. “At first we went with it, thinking they have it all under control. Which was far from the truth.”
The roads they were filming on weren’t fully cleared of outside traffic, Damazio said. The walkie-talkies, which should remain quiet, save for the team operating the Russian arm, were filled with chatter. At one point, two vehicles on the set almost collided.
After that incident, Damazio threatened to pack up and go home unless everyone on set began adhere to the proper safety protocols. Halls “either truly didn’t care, or he was that bad at his job that he could not comprehend why I was so mad and what I was raising hell about,” Damazio said.
His experience with Halls does not appear to be an outlier. Maggie Goll, a prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, worked with Halls on Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror anthology series in 2019. She said he regularly failed to hold safety meetings and often didn’t announce the presence of a firearm on set.
“The only reason the crew was made aware of a weapon’s presence was because the assistant prop master demanded Dave acknowledge and announce the situation each day,” Goll told CNN in a statement. She added that the prop master “frequently admonished Dave for dismissing the talent without returning props, weapon included, or failing to make safety announcements.”
Others viewed Halls in a more positive light. He was “always professional and to me, when I was involved in set, always safe and on point with weapons,” stunt coordinator Tim Mikulecky, who worked with Halls on several productions including “Into the Dark,” said in an email.
The same year, Halls was fired from the set of “Freedom’s Path” after a crew member was injured following the unexpected discharge of a firearm, according to a producer on the film who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the New Mexico investigation.
“Halls was removed from set immediately after the prop gun discharged,” the producer told The Post. “Production did not resume filming until Dave was off-site. An incident report was taken and filed at that time.”
During the filming of “The Pale Door” in 2019, lightning caused the production to pause. Halls allegedly pushed to break protocol and begin filming earlier than industry guidelines allowed, prompting safety complaints.
“Even though Dave thought that we could go, we did not go. We waited until the proper safety measures were adhered to,” said Aaron B. Koontz, the director and a producer of the movie.
They have not worked together on a film since.
Some of the allegations against Halls likely would have raised red flags to potential employers, if they knew about them.
But Koontz, who had previously worked with Halls on 2017′s “Camera Obscura” without incident, said there is no formal process for vetting crew members, and no centralized log where past complaints or incidents are recorded.
“There’s no database. You have to call other producers that worked with them. It’s just word of mouth,” Koontz said. “And we all have to be more vocal.”
Sonia Rao contributed to this report.