Veteran armorer turned down ‘Rust’ job over ‘red flags’

(NewsNation) — A veteran armorer who turned down a job on Alec Baldwin's "Rust" movie said there were red flags about the production that caused him to back out even as he was packing to go to the set.

Neal W. Zoromski is a veteran on movie sets with three decades of experience. In an exclusive interview with NewsNation, he said he was initially intrigued by the project.

“I just wanted to do something really artistic and beautiful, resonant, memorable that would stay with people for a long time. And this was that project, but for all the wrong reasons," he said.

An opportunity to work on the 'Rust' movie

When his phone rang in 2021 about an opportunity to work as a prop master on the Western "Rust," starring Alec Baldwin, Zoromski listened as the project was described.

“A very taut, suspense-filled story with the backdrop of New Mexico sun sunsets. And I thought to myself, I could already see the movie forming in my mind," he said.

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But after days of meetings with the production team, those feelings started to change.

“We're talking in late September, definitely the second week of September, and they were talking about an October 6th start," Zoromski said. "So there was virtually no time.”

FILE - This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M, Oct. 23, 2021, used for the film "Rust." A New Mexico judge is scheduled to consider at a Friday, June 21, 2024, hearing, whether to compel a movie set armorer to testify at actor Alec Baldwin's involuntary manslaughter trial for the fatal shooting of a cinematographer during rehearsal for the Western movie “Rust.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)FILE - This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Oct. 23, 2021, used for the film "Rust." A New Mexico judge Monday, April 15, 2024, sentenced “Rust” movie armorer to 18 months in prison for fatal on-set shooting by Alec Baldwin. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)"Rust" movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed stands by her defense team during her involuntary manslaughter trial, Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at the First Judicial District Courthouse in Santa Fe, N.M. A jury convicted Gutierrez-Reed of involuntary manslaughter Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal on the set of the Western movie “Rust.” (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, Pool, File)FILE - Alec Baldwin emcees the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award Gala at New York Hilton Midtown on Dec. 9, 2021, in New York. A jury convicted movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed of involuntary manslaughter Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal on the set of the Western movie “Rust.” Baldwin has been indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty ahead of a July trial date. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)In this screen grab from lapel camera video provided by the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, movie set armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, right, speaks with a sheriff’s deputy as other colleagues stand with her on the set of the western move “Rust,” shortly after the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins by Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal, Oct. 21, 2021, in New Mexico. A judge will consider allegations of due process violations in the prosecution of Gutierrez-Reed, who is accused of involuntary manslaughter and evidence tampering in the death of Hutchins, at an online court hearing scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Charges against Baldwin in connection with the shooting were dismissed in April. (Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office via AP)Alec Baldwin speaks on the phone in the parking lot outside the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office in Santa Fe, N.M., after he was questioned about a shooting on the set of the film "Rust" on the outskirts of Santa Fe, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza, officials said.

The schedule would have given him 10 days to prepare for a Western full of shooting scenes, a job Zoromski said usually requires a minimum of five weeks of preparation.

“So I felt that they were being extremely loose and rather cavalier with cementing this position on the crew," he said.

Zoromski voices his concerns on the 'Rust' set, warns crew

Zoromski said he voiced those concerns and requested a staff of five trained gunsmiths and armorers. He said the production team agreed, but right before he left for the airport, he got an email.

“They had made the decision to reduce my staff to three, and they let me know that, you know, please be aware that this is a low-budget, ambitious production," he said. "At that point, I felt that our entire negotiation fell apart due to bad faith. The clothes were in the suitcase. This is how close I came."

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Zoromski decided to decline the job, and in his response, he warned the team about the risk they were taking.

“And the only thing I would do in closing is just suggest that you not deter from what I have delineated here on how to do this job safely, how to do it right, and how to staff it properly," he recounted. “I didn't want them to have a calamity. I didn't want loss of life. I didn’t want someone to die.”

Weeks later, while working on a different set, Zoromski heard the news. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed in an accident on the "Rust" set, and Baldwin was holding the gun.

“And I literally, I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. And I had to go throw up in the honey wagon. And I stayed in there for a little while, and I was really heartbroken," Zoromski said.

He told NewsNation he knew of armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was hired after he left the film.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed trial

Gutierrez-Reed is now serving prison time after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter in March.

“She was over her head from the moment she took the job," Zoromski said.

Prosecutors called Gutierrez-Reed's conduct on set "unprofessional and sloppy," alleging she didn't completely check the gun that was given to Baldwin to make sure it didn't contain live rounds.

Footage and photos shared during her trial showed cast members walking around haphazardly with firearms and Gutierrez-Reed's ammo cart in disarray. Zoromski said he would never have tolerated the cart.

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“Yes, if the cart looked like the cart that I saw in these photographs and images from the set, there would be a release of duty for the technicians who were managing that," he said. "It screams inexperience. It screams, 'I don't care.' It screams, 'I'm not very good at this job.' It screams accident waiting to happen. So I would never in a million years have a young person who was unseasoned, unskilled and [had] bare minimum credentials wrangle weapons on a major film for with a major star.”

Zoromoski on Alec Baldwin's trial

Baldwin, who was also a producer on the film, is about to have his own day in court. He is facing an involuntary manslaughter charge that could result in prison time.

He has maintained his innocence, saying publicly that he did not pull the trigger.

Zoromski said he finds that hard to believe.

"I believe that he did. He did pull the trigger because it's a revolver. And in order for that bullet to come down and be struck by the firing pin, you have to pull the trigger," he said.

He also said it was a red flag that Baldwin was handed the gun by the film's assistant director and not Gutierrez-Reed herself.

“If Mr. Baldwin is a seasoned actor, he should have refused that from anyone other than the armorer," Zoromski said.

As the actor and producer on the film, Zoromski said he believes Baldwin knew corners were being cut. He also thinks the actor would have known about his reasons for turning down the job.

"He is a producer. He's an executive producer. He's the star of the movie. So regardless of whether he was a laissez-faire or a hands-off producer, he would have been advised of all of those personnel changes. And he was more than likely notified that I did not take the job as well."

Zoromoski said an experienced armorer on the set could have prevented the tragedy.

“You know, many people have said, well, 'Neal, had you been there, you would have been thrown into the culture on the set, and there's no knowing whether it still would have happened with you there,'" he said. "I can unequivocally say it would have never happened had I been on that set."

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