You’re watching the chase scene in an action film that’s supposed to take place in Seattle and, whoops, there it is—that NYC or L.A. landmark in the distance. Or you’re watching Superman or Spiderman winging their way over the streets of New York, and go right over a Chicago street where you once had great deepdish pizza. It’s just a reality that many of the big-screen and TV adventures we love were not actually filmed in the locations they’re “supposed to be.” Vancouver, Canada plays the part of Seattle in Harrison Ford’s Firewall. Sydney, Australia doubles for Superman Returns’ NYC stand-in “Metropolis.” Dallas, TX reports for duty as Iraq in Saving Jessica Lynch. Shreveport, LA is a fogbound Castle Rock, ME in Stephen King’s The Mist.
Bring Your Money… But Leave Your Guns
It’s municipal tax incentives and budget concerns that keep these films from filming in their actual locations, but when these big action films show up on location, they have bigger concerns than what hotels to house the crew in—namely, how do the local gun laws affect their plans for rip-snorting shootout scenes? With assault weapon bans having sprung up around the country, sometimes the crew finds themselves in a “gun unfriendly” locale with the need to bring in cinematic firepower.
Movie savvy cities like L.A. and New York have permitting offices that are friendlier to film companies when it comes to the use of weapons, while their laws put more severe restrictions of their own citizens! John Parmerton, a self-professed “Pariah” among movie weapons suppliers, explains the process, “[The] First step in using gun props in film/television production is to acquire all necessary production permits for the jurisdiction you wish to film in. The Director of the Motion Picture / TV Bureau of the county can help with acquiring and processing all necessary paperwork. This entails informing the film bureau that firearm props will be used during production. You will then be provided with a list of local qualified suppliers of gun props for the jurisdiction. In New York, these suppliers will be licensed as Theatrical Gun Dealers by the NY State Police, as well as being licensed federally for such work. A regular retail gun store owner is not allowed to ‘rent’ his inventory for film use, nor can a private citizen use their personally owned firearms in a film production.”
Being a film director in production is like being the world’s most spoiled child: Anything you want, just ask for it and someone will get it. Like the director of the upcoming Blackwater Transit who demanded a shiny chrome Barrett .50 for his film. Against their better judgment, the prop supplier chrome plated the giant Barrett. So you can imagine my surprise, on traveling to Winnipeg, Canada, which would double as Alaska for the TV action movie A Family Lost, to find that the only guns available for rent there were the five pistols personally owned by the city’s only licensed on-set armoror: a 6-inch S&W 686, a Glock, a Beretta 92, a Colt 1911, and a .38 snubbie. A call to a Vancouver gun rental house secured the Walther P-99 and silencer required by the script, at an additional cost.
Gun Hassles in the Big Apple
Amazingly, in NYC, where a privately owned pistol is as rare as a Republican, and even blank-firing replica guns are forbidden to civilians, licensed movie prop houses can apply for permits to field anything from Law & Order’s TV Glocks to the heavy machine guns combating the giant monster invading the city in this year’s Cloverfield, as long as they are willing to do some radical surgery on their weapons.
Rick Washburn, whose NYC-based Weapons Specialists has been supplying arms for more than 20 years on hit films such as Godzilla, Die Hard, With A Vengeance, and I Am Legend, explained some of the pitfalls he’s faced navigating the shoals of the city’s treacherous permitting process. “New York is a city where no one is allowed to possess a pistol without a license. But when you’re filming an action movie, you have to hand a pistol to an actor, and the minute you hand it to them you have a problem because they are not licensed to possess a firearm in the city.”
How does Rick handle that? “In New York we are required to modify all our firearms so that they can be loaded and fire a blank, but can not fire live rounds anymore. They are considered ‘prop guns,’ disabled from firing live ammunition, and so they are legal to be in the possession of an actor.”
In other states, like California, movie armorers can temporarily modify their guns to shoot blanks, but in New York it has to be a permanent modification. That’s why out-of-state prop houses don’t ship guns to NYC. Because his guns meet the strict requirements of NYC, Rick can ship his guns to other states and even other countries where tight gun laws make it difficult to rent the right weapons.
What’s happened is that laws have been made on a piecemeal basis, a patchwork quilt of gun laws. Chicago is the worst city for gun prohibition laws for film use, with NYC close behind. California, the home of Hollywood studios, is quickly trying to catch up. Dealing with the L.A.’s gun laws is made even more complicated by the, uh, how do I say this? “Colorful” social lives of many of today’s A-list actors, who now include criminal mugshots with their headshots. The problem is when actors have debilitating felonies and misdemeanors, which preclude them from ever touching a “live” firearm—but here is the film’s armorer, asked to hand a blank-loaded Glock or MP-5 submachine gun to an actor with a criminal record.
No Beretta for Baretta
One weapons supplier who asked to remain anonymous admitted, “We’re not supposed to do it, by law. We can’t hand a gun to a ‘prohibited person.’ But sometimes he or she’s the star, and we have to, and let the film company deal with the local law. It is rare that the production company performs a criminal background check on their actors, so now it falls to the gun wrangler to make sure who he is working with prior to arriving on-set with converted firearms. It is also not unheard of for other members of the crew to have a criminal past. These people can make or break a production by committing one single act of handling a prop gun.”
Ironically, it was the Department of Justice in California that started with this prohibition of actor gun use—the DOJ started calling prop houses and saying they would be prosecuted if guns were supplied to certain felon actors. While many productions chose to ignore this warning and beg ignorance of any actor’s legal history, the threat of DOJ sweeping onto the set of a Wesley Snipes action film, for one example, has kept a gun out of the legally challenged actor’s hands in his last few roles.
When Good Actors Go Bad
Okay, even if you do satisfy all the federal, local gun laws, filming on location can bring big problems on the day of the shoot. The film company’s permit must say exactly where they are filming, so that the local precincts can be informed. Still, armed actors moving to and from the set are often seen by civilians who call the police. In one incident a half dozen actors staging a bank robbery found themselves facing a hopped-up tactical team who were responding to a “shots fired” call. Luckily the actors immediately ate dirt, saving them from more than an embarrassing incident.
Sometimes the location’s gun laws actually prevent any firearms from being used. For film industry armorers like Bill Davis of Hollywood’s Tactical Edge Group, that’s the most frustrating situation, “We were filming the horror movie Chubacabra Terror in the Turks and Caicos Islands on location in the Caribbean. The beautiful locale, a British Overseas Territory in the West Indies where a lot of film companies shoot—but they don’t allow any firearms there. None. Even for film shoots.” Davis laments, “So we had to make the film entirely with fake guns, and then computer generate muzzle flash in afterwards!”
Ironically, Turks and Caicos law did allow the use of real explosives by the film crew.
Weapon Specialist’s Rick Washburn has also supplied guns to films shooting in foreign locales as far away as Finland, and even to the rigidly gun-regulated country of Japan for the Michael Douglas star in Black Rain. He recalls, “It was horrendous! We were bringing in machine guns, pistols, and sawed off shotguns. They refused to accept the sawed off shotguns and the pistols, because of their laws—but they allowed the machine guns! Their laws are written so tightly for prohibiting pistols they couldn’t allow them, but since the books had no specific rules about machine guns, they had to let them in.” Like all the films shot in Japan, non-firing replica models equipped with “sparking” muzzles had to be used.
In other cases, leaving the country to avoid U.S. gun laws can be downright dangerous. When TV’s Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno was in the Philippines shooting the post apocalyptic action movie Desert Warrior, the prop master handed Lou an M16 loaded with live 5.56 ammo and instructed him, “Shoot over the actors’ heads—we don’t have the money for blanks.” Needless to say, Lou changed the rules before shooting continued.
In Hollywood, many big-budget productions choose to avoid the morass of rules and regulations for location shooting by fleeing to the studio back lot, but that doesn’t always ensure things will run without a hitch. When Walter (Deadwood, Another 48 HRS) Hill was filming his rock n’ roll western Streets of Fire at Universal Studios, they had to film at night to avoid the studio tour, so they put a gigantic tent over the entire back lot street and lit it like daylight. Unfortunately, during the big shoot-out scene, the studio city neighbors reported the sound of gunfire and explosions to the Sheriff’s department anyway.
So the next time you’re watching cable in the middle of the night and see an action film like Scott Glenn’s The Challenge shot in Japan, and the muzzle flash looks like firecrackers have been shoved into the end of a replica model, it probably is. But that’s not the fault of the film’s weapons supplier, it’s to satisfy the local gun laws of the location.
TW Sounds Off:
Good Hollywood: My personal choice for the new James Bond of the movies was English actor Clive Owen. Recently his work in City of Men and other genre films has established him as a real action hero. The films themselves, however, stretch the spectrum from Good to Worst Hollywood.
Derailed with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston culminated with an incredible gun battle that showed great attention to detail and execution. Clive Owen interrupts blackmailers in the act, and the standoff quickly becomes a shootout involving Owen, the blackmailer, a bodyguard, an innocent bystander, and Jennifer Aniston—complete with realistic wound ballistics and tactical reloads—all in a 10-foot-square hotel room.
BAD Hollywood: Sin City. Okay, I love this movie as sheer popcorn. On one level it’s a two-hour commercial for Springfield Armory’s excellent 1911s. On the other, it is a brutal comic book with bad gun handling. But when good-hearted hit man Clive Owen sets up a final battle against the pimps, and says the way to win is to have a lot of friends “bring a lot of guns.” I’m there.
Baddest Hollywood: Shoot ’Em Up. The title and the trailer for this action film starring Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti looked like a rip snortin’ gun fest—little did I know that I was dropping a 10-spot on a virulent anti-gun screed. Filled with gun control stereotypes and myths, this mish-mash is actually trying to be a perverse, live action Bugs Bunny film—with Clive Owen as Bugs (carrot and all) and Paul Giamatti as Yosemite Sam. When Owen’s Olympic marksman/black operator kills something like 50 assassins in one scene, Giamatti asks, “Is he that good or do we suck that bad?” This movie sucks that bad.
You’re watching the chase scene in an action film that’s supposed to take place…
by Combat Handguns / May 1, 2008