Rob Ackerman is a playwright, member of IATSE Local 52, and former prop master for “Saturday Night Live.” Four of his plays, including the Drama Desk Award-winning “Tabletop,” have been produced Off Broadway by the Working Theater. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)As a union prop master, I have spent a lot of time thinking about last week’s tragedy on the set of the movie Rust. A cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, was shot dead, and a director, Joel Souza, was injured due to — by many accounts, including those detailed in an affidavit filed by a detective from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office — a lack of diligence on set.
Could that have happened on my watch? Rob AckermanFor more than 20 years, I led the prop department of the “Saturday Night Live” film unit and coped with grueling days, cramped schedules and demanding bosses. During our most difficult moments, I reminded my team that this was fun, a form of make-believe for grownups, an honorable and blessed craft. Read MoreWe had to stay alert and persist. Sometimes I’d joke, sometimes I’d yell, but it was always about keeping our collective eye on the ball, about our shared pride in the tiny movie we were making for a show on national TV. Call this cheerleading if you like, but it worked, along with the support of attentive producers. Our assistant director began each morning with a safety meeting to outline the challenges of the day. This too brought us together. Confidence breeds confidence, and when we feel confident, we tend to work well. In my view, a sense of shared purpose must have been lacking on the set of “Rust.” We don’t yet know all the details of what occurred during this shoot, so we can’t draw firm conclusions about what led to that terrible Thursday. (“We will continue to fully cooperate with any and all law-enforcement investigations as they work through the details of this heartbreaking tragedy,” a spokesperson for the production company behind the movie told CNN.) But if multiple media reports, citing accounts from people who were working on the set, reflect the truth, days ran long, proper accommodations weren’t provided and morale was low. A source close to the production told CNN there was a “full safety meeting” the day of the accident. But David Halls, the assistant director on “Rust” who handed Alec Baldwin the gun that fired the fatal shot, told investigators that he did not check all the rounds loaded in the weapon, a detective wrote in a search warrant affidavit made public Wednesday.Guns can be safely used on a film set — but only if you follow the rulesTwo people who worked closely with Halls during productions in 2019 told CNN that he was previously accused of a disregard for safety protocols. The woman who acted as armorer on the movie, Hannah Gutierrez, was 24 years old and had recently completed only her first job as head armorer on a film.Two crew members who worked with her on a Nicolas Cage film last summer told CNN that Gutierrez mishandled weapons on that set. The techniques required to prepare and handle guns can’t be given short shrift or learned in a hurry.A gun was accidentally discharged at least twice earlier in the film shoot, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing accounts of “people familiar with the daily operations of the production.” And accounts that a slew of camera crew workers walked off the job just ahead of the fatal shooting incident speak volumes. How many red flags does a production need? Distrust breeds distrust. Lack of confidence breeds lack of confidence. Essential to the prop master’s job is admitting what you do not know and being unafraid to ask for help. I know plenty. I can spray baby food onto an actor’s face or spin a replica of a human head around a parking lot or rig an actor’s wardrobe to make his pants fly off. I can do fake plumbing, fake electrical work, and fake carpentry on fake walls, fake ceilings and fake floors. At “SNL,” I took care to hire a diverse crew with real and varied skills, so I could listen to their advice, along with the expertise of stunt coordinators and key grips who share a responsibility for safety. Get our free weekly newsletter
Sign up for CNN Opinion’s new newsletter.
But I am no expert on guns. I have not devoted the countless hours required to achieve that mastery. So, when a director wanted to fire live rounds on an SNL set, I called in a weapons specialist, a veteran certified armorer whose sole job was the preparation, handling and safety of firearms, and whose life experience gave him the authority to help enforce protocols.We slowed down. We triple checked. We stayed safe. Three people inspected each gun before handing it to our talent. It would have been unthinkable that we would fail to take such steps. Production managers and assistant directors must create and enforce schedules, muscle work forward, expedite and control costs. The film business is, after all, a business. But the best production people understand that slower can mean faster, that patience and listening often lead to better decision making, that fairness will be met with gratitude and excellence. It’s ironic that the screenplay for “Rust” was meant to tell the story of an accidental shooting and its consequences. Perhaps film producers will learn that a failure to respect workers is not just shameful, it can be fatal.