Perhaps you saw the headlines on October 10, 2011: SWAT Team Raids Set of Brat Pitt Movie. From the headline, one would assume that Brad Pitt was accosted by members of SWAT while filming World War Z. The story first appeared in X17, a gossip website:
Police seized 85 weapons (left) — all of which were still functioning with live ammunition. Most of the weapons were automatic, military-style assault rifles, including AK-47s and sniper rifles.
A police spokesperson called the arsenal “a disaster waiting to happen,” and said a deadly accident could easily have occurred on set.
You can view photographs at that that site as well. The story leaves a lot of questions, and it has some questionable phrasing, but let’s move on to the rest of the facts.
The “Hungarian Police” then decided to release a statement to US Magazine:
“We can confirm that weapons were confiscated at an airport,” Hajdu Janos and Zsolt Bodnar, the director and deputy director of Hungary’s Anti-Terrorism Unit, tell US.
The problem, a source says, is that the guns came with paperwork claiming they were non-functional — but they’re actually in working order.
“This morning a private plane brought guns wrapped in a parcel from a company to an individual [in Budapest],” Janos and Bodnar add. “Guns like these are highly illegal to transport even if they were to used as stage guns, which hopefully they weren’t.”
Finally, People Magazine jumps in the fray with their own reporting:
“The 85 weapons were seized in Budapest at a warehouse because they were not fully inoperable as they were supposed to be,” Hungarian authorities told PEOPLE.
You can watch a brief video at CBS as well, but it basically quotes these three articles.
Something about these articles made me skeptical. Part of which is how Brad Pitt, who has made one or two movies before, would allow fully-functioning guns on his set. As an aside, where would the film’s props department even find 85 fully-functioning “automatic, military-style assault rifles”. Secondly, why are all these reports coming from what are essentially gossip columns?
Let’s look at the first headline: SWAT Team Raids set of Brad Pitt Movie. A SWAT team is a part of some American police forces. Other countries may have “SWAT-style” units, but to use the term in this context is misleading. János Hajdú is the head of the Terrorelhárítási Központ (or TEK, a Hungarian Counter-Terrorism Unit), and Bodnár Zsoltot is the deputy director. TEK is more comparable to the US Department of Homeland Security or the ATF rather than any SWAT.
The first sentence of the first article also states that the weapons were seized at a warehouse which was storing the weapons, which contradicts that they were seized “on the set”. So without even digging further, we can already say that the SWAT Team did not raid the set of Brad Pitt’s movie. The more accurate statement is that the Hungarian TEK confiscated weapons at a warehouse airport near Budapest which they claim were not fully inoperable and illegal to transport.
In the video, one of the guns is tagged with Zorg, Ltd., a British film and television armorer which has been around since 1997. Their credits include films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Black Hawk Down, V for Vendetta, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Bourne Ultimatum, so presumably, they know how to safely transport and use blank-firing guns on location in foreign countries. We hear from the film crew in MTI, summed up and translated in this article by Reuters:
Weapons expert Bela Gajdos, who has worked on the filming of zombie movie “World War Z” to ensure the safe handling of the weapons used, told national news agency MTI that each firearm had been converted to restrict its use to blank ammunition.
Gajdos added that the weapons were completely harmless and had already been used on a shoot in London.
Curious and curiouser. Are Hungary’s prop weapons laws more strict than London’s, where even the police don’t carry guns? The article continues:
“We had a police permit to bring these guns into the country,” Gajdos told MTI, adding that the production had contracted arms experts to establish whether the guns complied with Hungarian laws.
But the guns were seized before experts could inspect them.
As I noted above, Zorg, Ltd. has a bit of experience in these matters. Is there something else going on?
According to the video, some weapons could be re-converted to use live ammunition by removing a single screw.
Hajdu said the firearms had not been properly disabled and could not be allowed into the country less than two weeks before a national holiday commemorating the 1956 uprising, MTI reported.
Before getting to the second sentence, I want to look at the first one first. Since most of my readers come from theatre, not film, you may be more familiar with theatrical blank-firing guns, which are guns specifically manufactured to only fire blank ammunition. Films typically use real guns which have been converted to fire blanks. Now, the rules and regulations are highly specific to your country and even your city, but typically, the conversion must be done by a licensed gunsmith, and you must still possess a license and keep the gun registered with local authorities as if it is a real gun.
The last sentence certainly appears something else is going on. TEK must have received a tip about a private plane dropping off crates of guns a mere two weeks from the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which led to the toppling of the Soviet-aligned government. By October 14, less than a week after the initial seizure, we learn that the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (NNI), otherwise known as the Hungarian National Bureau of Investigation (or NBI; it’s their version of the FBI) is not going to be questioning Brad Pitt. Bartha László, an NNI spokesman, told reporters (but not tabloids):
“There is currently no data that would justify questioning Brad Pitt in relation to the seized weapons.”
This is after the NNI examined the weapons and ammunition, as well as all the supporting documentation. The filming was not delayed, but in fact began the very next day. Sorry for the links to Hungarian news sites; the English-speaking gossip columnists seemed to have lost interest in the story.
TEK itself was only formed in 2010 by prime minister Orbán Viktor for the purposes of preventing terrorist attacks, protecting the prime minister and president, and dealing with kidnapping and weapons crimes. It was to be separate from the centralized police force, which already had an anti-terrorism unit. Further, Hungary already had a Republican Guard Regiment for protecting high-level officials such as the prime minister and president, known as the Köztársasági Őrezred. This overlapping of duties with already-existing entities, combined with the massive amount of funding it has received, has caused some to speculate that Orbán created the TEK (headed by Hajdú, Orbán’s private bodyguard while in exile) strictly for use as a private army:
There are signs that Orbán has over the years become quite paranoid–sometimes with good reason. For example, on the fateful afternoon of October 23, 2006, when he obviously had an inkling that the peaceful demonstration might turn violent, he had an armored car standing by in which to leave the scene in a great hurry.
In any case, an anti-terrorist unit was set up headed by Hajdú, who was named brigadier general. The unit received ten billion forints at a time when the police’s financial troubles were only too well known. There are stories that they didn’t have enough money for gasoline. On the other hand, not long ago TEK purchased some very expensive Mercedes SUVs.
The article continues with a good summing up of what TEK did in the World War Z incident:
Moreover, it turned out that the film company had the necessary permits to import these props to Hungary. There was a detailed list of the contents. But this didn’t seem to impress Hajdú and his men. They questioned Béla Gajdos, a weapons supervisor for “World War Z,” and for good measure they searched his house and confiscated the permits received from the proper Hungarian authorities.
Emphasis mine. On a final note, I should point out that yesterday was October 23rd, the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, which is what initially concerned Hajdú about the guns. It seems Orbán’s paranoia is not entirely unjustified, as tens of thousands rallied against the Hungarian government. The protesters were, of course, non-violent. Perhaps Hajdú was hoping the weapons seizure would provide pretext to crack down on the protesters. He probably would have too, if they didn’t turn out to be the props for someone as internationally well-known as Brad Pitt. It seems that in real life, just as on the stage, props tell the story.