WILMINGTON — Almost three decades after “The Crow” filmed in Wilmington, the nation is reflecting on the fatal and accidental shooting of Brandon Lee — a tragedy that shook the Port City and shifted Hollywood’s view on firearms. A similar incident Thursday on the set of “Rust,” starring Alec Baldwin, in New Mexico left a director injured and a cinematographer dead after the actor discharged a prop gun. Many are questioning how the industry let history repeat itself.
In March 1993, actor Michael Massee fired the weapon that killed Lee while filming a scene for “The Crow” at Carolco Studios, which EUE/Screen Gems acquired in 1993. Lee, 28, was famously known as the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, though “The Crow” would have been a breakthrough role for the budding star.
Charly Coleman, a Wilmington-based armorer with a decade’s experience in film, said the firearm consultant, James Moyer, was sent home early the day Lee was shot. (Coleman said he never met Moyer in person but was friendly with another armorer on the project.) After Moyer already exited “The Crow” set, the director had a change of mind and chose to pursue the scene.
“This was before cell phones. They had already sent James home, and they wanted to save a couple bucks,” Coleman said, adding that the armorers’ hours were reportedly cut back.
Weeks earlier, the same revolver was filled with dummy rounds to appear as loaded when aimed close to the camera. The tip of a bullet broke off and was lodged inside the barrel, but the gun was stored away and went unchecked by an expert.
“They check the gun, but they didn’t know what to look for,” Coleman said. “They put a blank behind it, and that blank went off, and pushed that round out, and it went.”
Clyde Baisey, the sole medic on set at the time, said the day started like any other of filming. It was routine for scenes to involve gunfire, explosives and stunts. Baisey was watching from behind the camera, about 15 feet away, when the actor fired the weapon and Lee fell backward. The crew thought Lee was performing at first.
“My reaction was the same reaction I had every other time that there was gunfire,” Baisey said. “When they called ‘cut,’ I went to the actor and asked, ‘You OK?’ … but this time, he did not respond, and I called to clear the set and dispatch 911, and did what I had to do until EMS got there.” Baisey couldn’t divulge specifics due to patient confidentiality.
Accompanied by Baisey, Lee was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where he died in surgery. The bullet traversed through his stomach and was discovered in his spine.
Production wrapped for the night, and the set was taped off for the investigation, Baisey recalled. After pausing production to plan next moves, the remainder of “The Crow” was completed with the help of a stunt double and special effects. The movie, about a musician who returns from the dead with supernatural powers and a craving for vengeance, debuted at the top of the box office in 1994, grossing $94 million.
“It was a great movie,” Baisey said.
Without evidence of willful or wanton negligence, then-district attorney Jerry Spivey did not file criminal charges against the production. A negligence lawsuit by Lee’s mother against the film’s producers Crowvision Inc. and its parent company, the director, the supplier of the blanks and ammunition, and others was settled on undisclosed terms.
“That happened in 1993. 1994 was the safest year in the film industry for firearms, period,” Coleman said.
Safety Bulletin #1, an industry-wide outline for safe firearms handling, sets recommendations for deploying blank ammunition. Coleman said it is his job to check a weapon for potential hazards before scene and allow everyone in the environment to check it as well, “whether they are a broom pusher, or Bruce Willis or an extra.” After “The Crow,” it also became more common to aim at an offset angle when possible, not directly at a performer.
“If there is something in that gun, one-in-a-million chance, and it does come out at a high speed, if we’re offset, it’s one more level of safety,” Coleman said.
Coleman said he has anticipated an accident, such as the one on the set of “Rust,” for six months. The demand for content, stemming from a rise in streaming platforms, has productions working under tight and rushed schedules. A six-month film hiatus at the onset of the pandemic created a backlog of unfinished and unexecuted projects.
“With the trends of shows trying to push the envelope and trying to go faster, I started seeing and hearing stories from other people of, ‘Oh, we got to go faster. Oh, we got to go faster. Oh, we got to sleep less and work more,'” he said.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday two misfires happened on “Rust” on Saturday and one the week before. Tensions were also high on set. According to the LA Times’ sources, Halyna Hutchins, the director of photography who died, was pushing for safer conditions. At one point, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union for behind-the-scenes workers, were directed to leave set and nonunion replacements were brought in.
Thursday was the 12th day of the 21-day shoot. Production has halted.
According to multiple media outlets, one local union told its members that Baldwin fired a “live single round,” meaning it was loaded with a material, such as a blank, in preparation for a scene. Authorities have yet to confirm the type of projectile.
When Baisey’s friend texted him early Friday morning about the shooting involving Baldwin, he said his first reaction was: “Movie companies just never learn.”
“A lot of things were learned in the film industry after the incident with Brandon, and a lot of rules were changed,” Baisey said, “and it’s just a blatant showery that everything did not get done the way it was supposed to be done.”
On Lee’s official Twitter account, his sister Shannon Lee wrote early Friday morning: “Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on “Rust.” No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
Baldwin also tweeted Friday: “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours.”