What’s one of the main staples of a Hollywood action film? Guns. Lots of them.
And let’s face it, some of the best movies wouldn’t exist without guns: Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Indiana Jones.
They all have guns!
After editing and sound mixing, films make it appear as if characters are being shot dead, but we as audiences know it’s just effects. The truth is, however, those scenes are still filmed by a production crew with props, replicas, and sometimes even real firearms.
When Movie Magic Gets Real
Let’s say you’re on set waiting for everybody to light, block and prep a scene. It’s the climax of the movie in which the lead actor walks in a room and is shot in the chest unexpectedly by the villain.
“Pretty standard scene,” you think, and you start going through the usual motions of your job.
After a few rehearsals, the propmaster brings the gun onto set with the utmost care. It isn’t even handed to the actor playing the villain until right before the cameras roll. With the crew ready to shoot, he inspects the gun one last time before turning it over to the talent.
The director yells “Action!” and the scene starts playing out like it did during rehearsals: The lead actor rushes in and *pop!* the gun is fired. The squib sprays blood and the actor falls to the ground in dramatic fashion.
Finally the director calls for a cut and everybody starts working to reset the scene. The set is vibrant again — except the actor isn’t moving.
You stop what you’re doing to watch the set medic run to him and call for more help. You watch as the “prop gun” is quickly examined and found to have fired a real bullet. You watch as the actor is loaded, unconscious, into the ambulance and rushed to the hospital.
But that wouldn’t really happen. An experienced crew would know better, right?
Actually, this did happen. It’s how Brandon Lee died in 1993 while shooting The Crow.
The crew who loaded the gun did, in fact, load it with blanks, but only after rushing through turning real ammo cartridges into dummy ones. As a result, the primer unintentionally leftover in the cartridge propelled a real bullet into the barrel of the pistol. When the first blank was fired, it provided just enough force for the real bullet to expel into Lee’s abdomen.
So whose fault was it? Brandon Lee trusted his director, the director trusted the crew, and the crew thought they were being safe.
The incident was ruled an accident, but not without costing the life of a celebrated performer.
A Risk (Not) Worth Taking
What happened on The Crow is an isolated incident, but that doesn’t mean other film sets are immune to negligence. Even though guns are precise instruments, they are subject to human error.
For the safety of yourself, you should always assume guns are dangerous on set even when they are not-functional, fake, or props.
If you think that’s too extreme, remember that when Brandon Lee died everybody thought the gun was a safe prop.
Here are three precautions you should take to ensure your own safety:
- Don’t ever stand in front of the weapon while it is loaded. You should lock off the camera and walk away from it before the gun is even loaded and handed to the talent.
- When the gun is meant to be empty, ask to see that it’s unloaded. I have done this every time a gun is used in a scene where it points towards or near the camera.
- Wear proper protection. Ear plugs and eye-wear (if necessary) are your friends.
On any set there should be only one person in charge of firearms who is appropriately licensed and trained. If you doubt their qualifications, ask for credentials. Don’t be afraid to ask any questions you might have about the weaponry. When it comes to your safety, it’s best not to be shy.
It is standard to have this person announce when they are bringing the firearm onto the set, when they are loading it, and when the gun is live. If none of these things are happening, the most professional thing you can do is express your concern with production.
If, for some reason, you are met with resistance for any of these procedures, stand your ground. Your life is not worth risking for any movie, ever. If the production thinks otherwise, they’re not worth working for.
Take Your Safety Into Your Own Hands
When Brendon Lee died, it was nobody and everybody’s fault at the same time. That’s the scary part of the story. Everybody thought they were being safe, but in reality, there was a very real danger lurking inside the barrel of that pistol.
You can only trust others so much with your own safety, so don’t leave it up to them.
Filmmaking is tremendous amounts of fun, but there are inherent dangers on movie sets and you have to be willing to prepare for the worst. I’ve always commended being cautious with cameras, lenses, and equipment — if you aren’t already on it, add yourself to that list.
Have you ever felt like you were in danger on a film set before? Whether with guns, other props, or being in a precarious spot? What actions did you take to make the situation more safe?