We all know that the Hollywood crowd is more or less against guns. Yet, how you noticed how weapons in movies have been increasing? Just look at some of the biggest movies this year. Deadpool, Rogue One, Civil War, The Accountant, Jason Bourne; we can keep going if you want. All had guns. Even glorified them. Let’s face it, guns are “making the liberal bias a lot of money”.
BURNISHED BY THE LOW LIGHT OF GLASS-WALLED DISPLAYS, THEY seem like ancient artifacts, but the objects here are beloved contemporary icons. One case houses the massive Smith & Wesson Model 29 wielded by Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan in the 1973 film Magnum Force. In another rests the Beretta 92F used by Bruce Willis in Die Hard. All the great shoot-’em-up classics — The Bourne Identity, Pulp Fiction, The Wild Bunch — are here. This exhibit, celebrating cinema, isn’t in Hollywood; it’s thousands of miles away, in a museum at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.
The NRA is proud of its “Hollywood Guns” exhibit. It’s the most popular of more than a dozen rooms and multiple showcases, which include the gun that Theodore Roosevelt took on a 1913 expedition to the Amazon. The shiny allure of the Hollywood gun room comes last in the museum tour — “like a reward,” says an NRA official.
The exhibit highlights the sometimes uneasy but fruitful partnership between the gun industry and Hollywood, where firearms are an integral part of life and storytelling. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers say that there’s no better way to brand, market and sell a weapon than to get it placed in a big Hollywood production. And most of the time, it’s free — product placement at its finest.
You could be forgiven for doubting the cozy partnership between the two industries. After all, in a speech earlier this year to the organization’s members, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre repeatedly lashed out at Hollywood for societal ills ranging from violence to political gridlock and squarely blamed it for “dousing our kids with reckless, gratuitous, irresponsible gunplay.” From the NRA’s point of view, Hollywood is full of out-of-touch liberals who try to foment public hysteria in an effort to push gun control on America. Meanwhile, scores of movie stars, including prominent gun-control advocates such as Matt Damon and Liam Neeson who lambast real-world firearm violence, have made fortunes wielding guns onscreen.
We’re talking about a lot of guns onscreen. Since 9/11, America’s obsession with everything spy, terrorism and war-related has grown — and the content the population consumes increasingly reflects that. A 2015 report published by The Economist concluded that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985. And an analysis undertaken by THR found that the number of gun models pictured in big box-office movies between 2010 and 2015 was 51 percent higher than it had been a decade earlier, suggesting that the public’s appetite to see guns in entertainment is on the rise. (In the real world, research shows that the number of new gun owners is declining, while owners are buying record numbers of guns.)
Simply put, two industries that position themselves as mortal enemies have a lucrative, symbiotic relationship. This is the story of how that relationship works.
A CLASS OF ARTISANS SIT AT THE CROSSROADS WHERE THE GUN meets Hollywood. They’re called armorers, and they have one foot firmly planted in each world. “Until they stop making films and outlaw weapons altogether, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” says Gregg Bilson Jr., president of the American Entertainment Armorers Association and head of the Independent Studio Services, one of Hollywood’s biggest prop houses.
ISS is a massive, family-owned business — renting everything from Chinese takeout containers to canoes. With more than 16,000 guns in its arsenal, nearly all real, ISS is the largest armory in Hollywood (about 80 of the guns at the NRA’s Hollywood exhibit are on loan from ISS). Bilson’s crew of armorers and gunsmiths helps finicky directors from Michael Mann to Oliver Stone find and use historically appropriate weapons, train A-list actors (like Bradley Cooper, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) in how to wield them safely and shepherd complex projects to completion. “You can’t have a modern movie without a car rolling down the street or someone taking out an iPhone,” says Larry Zanoff, an ISS armorer who has worked on many big Hollywood productions. “Seventy-five percent of the time there’s at least one gun involved.”
Bilson agrees: “We’re just telling a story. Sometimes it’s told with a meal and two actors, sometimes it’s told in a hostage standoff.”
Few visitors get to enter ISS’ weapons department, but THR reporters were buzzed through the caged gate and into the linoleum-lined beating heart of Hollywood’s gun culture. Tucked amid the scraggly foothills of the San Fernando Valley, big rigs queuing out back, it’s a Willy Wonka wonderland for some, a nightmare war zone for others. Housing thousands of firearms of every conceivable type — from black powder pirate muskets to Uzis and flamethrowers, the ISS inventory is organized and displayed with an archivist’s care. All are carefully modified to shoot blanks for the screen.
Need dozens of AK-47s to outfit a band of terrorists? How about a range of Glocks for a police procedural? It’s all available in the weapons department, and if it’s not, they’ll make it for you. An industrial 3D printer can spit out precise custom parts. And the artists in the molds department create frames around existing firearms, or entirely new rubber ones of varying flexibilities, from firm to slack enough to pistol-whip.
Bilson, who took over the business his father founded in 1977 in his Culver City garage, built the weapons department. Today, Zanoff and Karl Weschta oversee a small staff of harried, passionate employees who manage the day-to-day of Hollywood’s gun ecosystem. At any moment, between 5,000 and 7,000 of ISS’ weapons are in circulation. On one day THR visited, carts were packed with guns marked for delivery to such popular shows as Pretty Little Liars, Preacher, Shameless and Scandal.
Unceremoniously tucked away in a black metal closet at ISS are shelves of firearms that were held by A-list protagonists in big movies: Tom Cruise’s HK45 fromCollateral, the M1 Garand utilized by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, the silenced shotgun employed by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Staffers call it the “hero cabinet.”
LIKE ALL BELOW-THE-LINE SPECIALISTS, ISS PRIDES ITSELF ON its commitment to service and craft, manifesting a get-it-done mentality born of long hours, tight deadlines and demanding clients. Staffers are compulsive about ensuring safety on set, the specter of Brandon Lee’s accidental 1993 shooting death in the midst of filming The Crow looming. “To be able to repeatedly do an action scene safely but still make it look like, ‘Hey, that’s fire and brimstone coming out of that gun!’ — it’s something that’s highly engineered, highly regulated,” says Zanoff, an Israeli Defense Forces reconnaissance unit veteran.
To serve Hollywood’s marquee felons like Mark Wahlberg (currently brandishing a Glock 17 as a cop in Patriots Day) and Danny Trejo (most recently armed with an M1911A1 pistol in 2013’s Machete Kills) — who aren’t allowed by law to bear arms — ISS has a roster of realistic electronic guns (also known as e-guns or non-guns) that can stand in for everything from Smith & Wessons to Uzis. “They get a lot of use on hip-hop music video shoots,” says one weapons specialist. Producers working with ex-cons or shooting outside in neighborhoods with noise restrictions rely on them since they discharge at a much quieter level. They also are used in close-fire situations like a point-blank execution scene, where real weapons firing blanks are deemed unsafe (e-guns don’t eject shell casings).
ISS’ arsenal allows the firm to be on trend. “Right now, Gatling guns are sort of a fad, particularly with steampunk going on,” says armorer Gary Harper (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) of the spring-loaded, hand-cranked forerunner to the machine gun, most recently seen in The Magnificent Seven and Westworld. “On The Last Samurai, we had two. I worked with ISS on that.”
And then there’s the Gatling’s descendent, the sixbarreled M134 Minigun, which fires 6,000 rounds a minute and initially was brought to market by General Electric as a helicopter-mounted weapon during the Vietnam War. Zanoff — who periodically is called upon by law enforcement agencies and military branches to teach trainees about weaponry they might encounter in action — observes that more blanked shots likely were discharged in the service of filming 2001’s Black Hawk Down than there were real ones in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu incident that inspired it. Subsequent years saw a cinematic boom in M134 Miniguns — installed on helicopters (Jarhead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Jurassic World), a truck cab (Terminator: Salvation), even a Ford Mustang GT (Death Race).
ISS collaborates with gun manufacturers on research and development of new products and accessories, particularly for government contracts. (The company wouldn’t disclose the names.) “They’ll do some of their own R&D and testing with our weapons so they can go to the government and say, ‘See, I have documented proof that [the modification] will work on an M240 or an M16,’ and so on,” says Zanoff. Occasionally these firms also will be inspired by the creative license ISS has taken with its merchandise for the screen to innovate their real-world product lines. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the weapons department’s workload is in these areas. Zanoff and other employees declined to discuss these partnerships in detail.
Of course, the deepest collaboration remains with armorers, prop masters and directors, including such repeat clients as Quentin Tarantino (four armorers worked on Django Unchained) and Eastwood. “For Flags of Our Fathers, we had nine people just handling the firearms alone,” says Weschta, who notes that audiences’ expectations for verisimilitude have increased dramatically. For American Sniper, ISS relied on a Navy SEAL Team 3 veteran, who served with Chris Kyle, to determine authentic equipment and usage. “Nowadays with social media,” says Weschta, “if you don’t do it right — you don’t use the proper prop in the correct way — you get in a lot of trouble.”
THE FIRST PEOPLE TO POINT OUT SUCH MISTAKES TYPICALLY are the editors of the Internet Movie Firearms Database. IMFDB.org is a wiki list-serve that functions as a clearinghouse for every possible bit of trivia, analysis and commentary on the interplay between guns and movies. Able to be cross-referenced by virtually any metric — actor, movie, firearm or manufacturer, for instance — the site is a testament to the appetite for information on Hollywood guns. There are 71 gun manufacturers listed and more than 1,500 pages in the “gun” category, along with thousands of actors and more than 5,000 movies.