The weekend is upon us again. It’s a holiday weekend; for those of us in the theatre, that means we have to go to work despite all the stores and banks being closed. It is also the unofficial end of summer. But don’t worry; I have some fun links below!
Curtains without Borders is a fascinating-looking project. It aims to record and restore all those hand painted theatre curtains found in town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses. It is mostly preserving those painted between 1890 through 1940. The site itself has some photographs (albeit of a small size) from across the country showcasing these valuable pieces of our theatrical history.
The National Park Service just completed a huge project. Thousands of images from their collections across the country are searchable and viewable online. These objects and specimens give a wide range of information from America’s history and are great for research.
Here are some pretty cool vintage ammo boxes. Unfortunately, none of the images are dated, but the enterprising prop master might be able to use them for further research. And while we’re at it, the whole Accidental Mysteries blog where this came from is filled with interesting vintage stuff and historic oddities.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
On October 2, 2010, David Birrell was appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar Warehouse in London. During a performance, one of the blank-firing guns used apparently had a problem, and Birell sustained an injury to his right eye. He may lose his sight in it. According to a spokeswoman for the theater, “It appears that during the duel scene in ‘Passion,’ David Birrell’s licensed replica stage gun misfired causing some debris to enter his eye.” Further sources claim it was actually an antique flintlock gun.
Accidents happen. Equipment malfunctions. Because blank-firing guns are so inherently dangerous, it is vital that even more attention is spent on following all the best practices of safety with them. I would go so far as to say that prop masters should not handle them: pyrotechnicians should handle the loading and handling of blank ammunition, experienced handlers should be in charge of selecting and maintaining the weapons, and skilled fight choreographs should block the scenes in which they are used. Of course, a prop master can also be a licensed pyrotechnician or be qualified to handle weapons (at the higher levels, many are); I am not saying being a prop master precludes one from using blank-firing guns, I am saying the title of “prop master” is not the sole prerequisite.
On April 15, 2010, Darrell D’Silva, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company was rehearsing a scene with a prop gun. He accidentally shot himself in the hand. It was during tech rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra. He underwent surgery and returned to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Apparently when it was handed to him, he thought it was unloaded. It took a big chunk off of his finger and blood spurted everywhere. Here is an incident where the accident came not from bad or malfunctioning equipment, but from bad communication. The actor was not told the gun was loaded, but more importantly, he disobeyed the cardinal rule of stage guns: treat every gun like it is a loaded weapon. An actor should never pull a trigger on a gun until the fight director commands him to.
November 15, 2008. Tucker Thayler, a 15 year old student at Desert Hills High School kills himself with a gun intended to be used as a sound effect for their production of Oklahoma. Apparently it was a real pistol with blanks. Apparently it was allowed as long as a parent was there to fire the gun. And I’m not sure how some schools still allow actual working firearms to be brought on campus. In most municipalities, you need a pyrotechnics license to fire blank ammunition for theatrical purposes; it is different than a standard gun license. After all, there are any number of firecracker and fireworks that average folk can use in their backyards legally in certain parts of the country, but once you want to fire them off inside a crowded theatre, the rules become much more stringent; the same is true of blank-firing guns.
Having a license means you have used blank ammunition before, the government trusts you to use blank ammunition in accordance with all safety standards and laws, and you are held liable for any accidents that may occur because of your negligence. If your area does not require licensing, you should still act as though it does and follow the same guidelines. Anyone handling or discharging blank ammunition should be familiar with it and know all the standard practices. Just because you can run out and buy it and “see what it does” does not mean that is in any way safe.
On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was filming a scene in The Crow. One of the thugs had a gun loaded with blanks to shoot at him. Because the blanks used were not correct and the gun was tampered with (stories are mixed), the gun had enough primer to push the cartridge out. Lee was hit in the abdomen and the bullet lodged in his spine. Several hours later, he died at the age of 28. A lot of the analysis of this tragedy points out that the thug should not have been aiming his gun directly at Lee. This goes back to the need for a qualified fight director; it’s not enough to know how to acquire and setup blank ammunition. Once also needs to know how to choreograph the scenes in a way to maximize safety.
On October 12, 1984, Jon-Eric Hexum was filming a scene in “Cover Up”, his first big role. He had a prop .44 Magnum loaded with blanks, and apparently was unaware that it could still expel paper wadding. Bored during a delayed scene, he began playing with his gun. It was loaded with 2 blanks and 3 empty cartridges. He held it to his head, quipped, “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me”, and pulled the trigger. The paper wadding hit hard enough to dislodge a quarter-size piece of his skull and push it into his brain. Six days later he was pronounced dead from the massive bleeding in his brain. This event is just screaming with its lack of safety protocols. Why was an actor left with a loaded pistol for such a long time when it was not needed? Why was he unaware that it was loaded, or that blank ammunition at point-blank range can be just as lethal? And whether it was loaded or not, he should not have pointed it at his head; he broke the cardinal rule where one treats every gun like it is a loaded weapon.
I, for one, find it absurd that one would want to put so many people in potential danger (by using blank-firing ammunition) for, essentially, a sound effect. I mean, do we drop stage weights from the grid to the stage where actors are because we like the sound it makes? Why is that ridiculous, but igniting gun powder is acceptable? Regardless of your beliefs, you will probably face the situation of dealing with blank-firing guns at some point in your career as a prop master. When one is faced with the situation of having to use them, all the appropriate safety precautions should be followed to the letter.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies