As the entertainment industry reels in shock following Alec Baldwin’s killing last week of a cinematographer with a prop gun on the set of the movie Rust in New Mexico, the consensus in Israel is that such a tragedy could not happen here.
There are several factors at work, but the main one, many entertainment insiders say, is that due to compulsory military service in Israel, Israeli directors, crews and actors are simply more familiar with firearms and have more respect for what they can do.
There have been injuries on movie sets of various kinds in Israel, but no one in the industry here could remember a cast or crew member being shot with a prop gun.
Israeli film director Avi Nesher’s latest film, Image of Victory, is set during the War of Independence, and gun battles play a key role in the plot. In his 40-plus years in the movie industry here, no such accident had taken place, he said, adding that this kind of tragic shooting has happened several times in Hollywood.
“In Israel, we take guns really seriously... Being in special forces [General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, or Sayeret Matkal], which takes on the most dangerous missions and has the lowest mortality rate, I learned something important: to fear the power of firearms,” Nesher said. “In this case, fear is very much an asset. You learn in your training that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and you learn that your weapons are as dangerous to your compatriots as they are to the enemy.”
Nesher, who has used prop guns in many movies, both in his career in the US and in Israel, said he was proud that “there has been tons of gunfire in my movies, and nobody got close to being scratched... People joke about how cautious I am.”
“No one is allowed to stand in the line of fire” on his sets, he said.
Nesher said he makes all his actors rehearse first using their fingers as guns before they are even allowed to touch a prop gun. The rehearsals are meant to increase safety and to make the gunfire scenes more realistic, he added.
“In America, you have these professionals who are in charge of the props and the stunt coordinators, and few know anything about real firearms,” he said, which is why “in Hollywood movies, so many characters shoot without aiming.”
Although the accident is still under investigation, Nesher said he thought it was likely that a live round of ammunition had been placed in the gun and that basic precautions were not taken.
Ophir Award-winning cinematographer Tobias Hochstein posted a tribute to Halyna Hutchins, the victim of the shooting, on his Facebook page: “Sad and tragic. I’m thinking about her kid and family and friends. No excuse for live fire on a set in 2021. As the facts emerge, I’m sure we’ll be witness to people cutting corners in the pursuit of saving some money... at the expense of someone’s life and the worlds of other people that have been destroyed as consequence. I believe in Safety before everything in order to preserve life as best as we can. RIP Halyna.”
Kobi Machat, who recently directed the movie Full Speed and who has used prop guns on a number of productions, echoed Nesher, saying, “In the army, there’s a saying, ‘Even a broom can shoot somebody,’” the idea being that even an innocuous object should never be pointed at a human being, much less a firearm.
“We have very well-trained people who handle this” in the Israeli film industry, Machat said. “And in most cases, the directors themselves know how to open up the gun and check without having to ask anyone else.”
In general, he admitted, directors are not expected to take care of checking the safety of prop guns.
Machat said another factor that protects crews on Israeli movie sets is: “When there is more money involved, you have more people in the chain. A gun will go from person to person to person, and that doesn’t happen here.”
Although Rust, the movie in which the tragedy occurred, is a low-budget film by American standards, even the lowest budget in America is high compared with the amounts of money invested in Israeli films.
“In this case, one advantage of our low budgets is that you have fewer people involved, and there is less potential for something to go wrong,” Machat said.