While acting on four seasons of FX’s “American Horror Story,” Leslie Grossman estimates she’s been called upon to shoot a gun “several times.”
“They’re never real guns,” she says. “Nine times out of 10, I’m using a rubber gun.” When the scene does call for a more dramatic close-up of a gun firing with a physical recoil, Grossman says she usually shoots an air gun instead, with effects added in post-production to enhance authenticity. On the most recent season, “American Horror Story: Double Feature,” Grossman recalls only using rubber guns, even while shooting them.
“I even said, ‘Wait, is this gonna look super fake?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, we can fix anything later to make it look super real.’ And they did, and it looked really real,” she said.
The deadly shooting on the set of the independent film “Rust” that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza involved a real firearm fired by actor Alec Baldwin that contained live rounds rather thank blanks. In the tragedy’s aftermath, the industry is facing the question of whether real firearms should ever again be allowed on a set.
In response to the “Rust” tragedy, ABC’s cop drama “The Rookie” banned real firearms. Eric Kripke, showrunner of Amazon’s gritty superhero series “The Boys,” tweeted that he was taking “a simple, easy pledge: no more guns with blanks on any of my sets ever.”
A Change.org petition to ban real guns from movie and TV productions has nearly 70,000 signatures. California state senator Dave Cortese says he plans to introduce legislation to officially ban real firearms and live ammunition from all productions, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her state would take similar action should the entertainment industry not adopt such a ban voluntarily.
Bandar Albuliwi, a filmmaker and author of the Change.org petition, is incredulous that the practice of using real firearms carries on, citing deaths of actor Brandon Lee on the set of the 1993 film “The Crow” and camerawoman Sarah Jones on the 2014 production of “Midnight Rider” (unrelated to firearms) as prior examples that should have made set safety a top priority across the industry.
“This shouldn’t have happened after Brandon Lee basically shot himself,” said Albuliwi. “Hollywood hasn’t changed in 30 years. We again thought we’d learned our lesson about better protocols with ‘Midnight Rider.’ That caused a little stir but dissipated. This speaks volumes about our industry because, in this event, this only got attention because it involved an A-list actor like Alec Baldwin.”
Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland mass shooting and gun control activist, agrees with Albuliwi. “All real guns should be banned from sets,” he says. “Fake guns look very real. If studios have even the slightest regard for workers, real guns would be completely out of the question.”
For decades, real firearms with blank ammunition have been used in film and TV productions because they visually recreate actual gunfire. But in discussions with industry insiders and visual effects experts, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, many said that advances in visual effects technology mean banning real weapons would result in virtually no sacrifice to the look and feel of a finished piece of content.
“If in the background, there’s a dinosaur running around, you know, that’s where the money is,” said one longtime VFX artist. “A couple of ‘bang bang, smoky smoky’ things is a sneeze compared to almost anything else.”
Often times, there is minimal lifting required in post-production to make a fake gun look as if it has been discharged, experts said. A “muzzle flash,” or the appearance of smoke and light from the barrel of a gun, is easily created with software used by editors and digital intermediate houses.
“Doing just a muzzle flash, it’s nothing,” says the effects artist. “It’s minutes of work per shot — maybe a tiny glow, maybe a tiny bit of interactive light.”
More elaborate sequences involving gunfire, especially those that involve an actor flinching in reaction to an overpowering weapon, could necessitate more intensive visual effects work.
“It’s essentially performance modification, and that’s what would move it to the next level,” says the artist.
But even in these cases, this artist notes these are actions an actor “can absolutely mimic” in their performance.
Taking real firearms off a set would also remove potential lethal hazards caused by the kind of negligence that’s been alleged to have occurred on “Rust” — from union crews walking and the hiring of scabs, to improper protocols handling weaponry. Veterans in the production coordination space, basically those in charge of “Hollywood’s back office” as one put it, said that standard safety protocols often go overlooked, particularly on productions outside entertainment’s backyard in Los Angeles.
“West Coast unions require safety classes through CSATF,” said one top production coordinator, referring to the digital portal Contract Services, which provides training and other functions for film and TV shoots.
Through Contract Services, employees take state-mandated courses like sexual harassment education and, of course, safety training. These union-mandated program also issues daily safety bulletins with the production call sheet, briefing the entire production on the stunts and other hazards of the day.
“We’re supposed to check the status of each and every union crew member before they are hired,” says the coordinator. “This isn’t nationwide and people don’t often use it.”
These issues speak to a larger, more pernicious attitude involving on-set safety and wellbeing — and a culture of silence that has kept people from speaking up.
“There can be a vibe of, like, ‘Well, I’m assuming they know what they’re doing,'” says Grossman, who notes this isn’t the case on “American Horror Story,” where the safety team operates under strict guidelines even when she’s firing a prop gun. “But I’ve had other jobs where I feel like, if I speak up, I feel like they’re gonna think I’m a pain in the ass or roll their eyes at me because I’m an actor. On sets, there’s this general idea that ‘somebody’ — and I’m using quotes when I say ‘somebody’ — is in charge, and many times, nobody’s in charge.”
For Grossman, in that kind of chaotic environment, it makes no sense to have deadly weapons available of any kind, period.
“There is no reason for one second to put anyone in jeopardy to make a pretend story,” she says. “That’s ridiculous.”