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This article was published 27/6/2017 (787 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries... shooting a gun like Keanu Reeves.
There’s one person on Earth who can say he’s been shot twice in the stomach by Sir Ben Kingsley in a bar on Pembina Highway. His name is Dave Brown.
Brown, 61, has been the firearms safety co-ordinator on pretty much every major film that’s been shot in Winnipeg in the past 25 years. He is the guy who has helped make actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Williams, Keanu Reeves and, yes, the man who once played Gandhi, look like they know what they’re doing with a gun. He is basically the Jedi master of firearms, although that’s not how he’d put it.
"I don’t work with guns," he says. "I work with people who happen to work with guns."
Today, I’m one of those people. We’re at the Gateway Gun Club, and I am learning how to shoot a gun like Matrix star Keanu Reeves, who trained here a few months ago for the film Siberia, shot in rural Manitoba in the spring.
"The whole idea of today is to give you a peek behind the magic," Brown tells me. "One of the things I always say is acting is the only profession everyone in the world thinks they can do but they don’t understand the work that goes into it. So for someone like Keanu Reeves, or Samuel L. Jackson or Robin Williams or all the other people I’ve worked with over the years, they put a lot of time and effort into making their characters look real and natural and easy."
Long before Brown works one-on-one with an actor, he’ll meet with the director, producers, art directors and prop masters. "Making those characters look real takes a lot of very talented people and I’m a tiny cog in a big wheel," Brown says.
Siberia director Matthew Ross pulled Brown aside and gave him some specific instructions: "He said, ‘Dave, (Reeves) is not John Wick in this movie."
Unlike the titular super-assassin he plays in the John Wick action series, Reeves is "an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances" in Siberia. And weapons — including how, when and why they are used — are a small but critical part of a character’s development. "To me, the gun is a character in the movie," Brown says. "It has to make sense. Why is it in the character’s hands in that moment?"
So, Brown and Reeves spent two days together before they went to camera. Brown describes Reeves as a quiet perfectionist, and the most intensive actor he’s ever worked with. Before they did any shooting, they talked about his character, as well as the physiology of stress and what happens to the human body when placed in a life-threatening situation (bad guys trying to kill you, for example). And they talked about his character’s weapon: the Mosin-Nagant, a famous rifle developed by the Imperial Russian Army.
"It’s highly prized for its accuracy, not highly prized for its smoothness," Brown says. "It takes a lot of effort to slam that bolt forward and bring it down. That’s one of the things we really had to work on is how to make that look real, like he’d been doing it for his whole life. But, at the same time, you don’t want to make it too smooth because he’s not a superhero." He pays attention to all those little details, right down to how a character is holding the weapon. Part of Brown’s job is telling very famous people they look goofy.
The more critical part of his job, however, is keeping film sets safe. No live rounds are ever fired on a film set, nor is live ammunition permitted. Instead, real guns are outfitted to shoot blanks, which are full of gunpowder but no bullet.
"There is actually more gunpowder in a blank so that it burns in the air and gives it a bright flash," Brown says. A gun should never, ever be pointed directly at another actor. Blanks can cause injury and, at contact distance, they can be deadly. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed by a blank during filming of the CBS television show Cover Up in 1984.
Brown’s steadfast attention to detail keeps everyone safe. He performs regular and thorough safety checks. He even makes his own dummy cartridges — which have a bullet but no powder or primer, and are used primarily in close-up shots of, say, a gun being loaded — because he knows sloppy handling can cost lives.
In 1993, actor Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts great Bruce Lee, was killed in an accidental shooting on the set of The Crow. The accident was a result of a tragic chain of errors, including an improperly deactivated dummy cartridge getting lodged in the barrel of a revolver, and a blank essentially turning that dummy into a fatal live round.
I’ve never shot a gun before, and that story was in the back of my mind when it was my turn to shoot. But the thing about Brown is this: he puts people at tremendous ease.
Once my eyes and ears are covered, I try a revolver first, but it turns out my hands are too small and weak to actually pull the trigger, which is both embarrassing and anticlimactic. Next, I try the Remington 870 shotgun, which is the gun the bad guy uses in the film Siberia. It’s heavy. I pick up two acting tips, here: one, keep your finger out of the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot, and don’t over-exaggerate the kickback. Unlike a live round, there’s no recoil when you fire a blank.
Firing the Remington was also a small lesson in expectations vs. reality. In my mind, I am Ellen Ripley from Alien. I am Sarah Connor from The Terminator. I am Tank Girl. Unfortunately for me, Free Press photographer Ruth "Straight Shooter" Bonneville is here to supply photographic evidence to the contrary. It’s loud, bright and hot — so I close my eyes and purse my lips as though I am about to be punched in the face. I’ll bet Keanu kept his eyes open.
If I were a real actor, I’d be learning to shoot while walking and kneeling, but as I am barely capable of standing while shooting, we stick with that. I try everything from a Glock to a blanks-firing-only Uzi, which Brown stresses you cannot put actual live ammunition in. The adrenaline rush is intense.
While you won’t exactly forget that you’re handling lethal weapons while working with Brown, he instils people with confidence, not fear. He recalls working on sets in Toronto, and the first line of the Ontario safety guidelines is GUNS CAN KILL.
"I shake my head at that," he says. "Manitoba’s safety guidelines, which I wrote, say, ‘Guns are as safe as any other prop when used responsibly.’ And that’s the difference in philosophy."
What he doesn’t want are people to be on edge because they’re working with guns that day.
"When I walk on a film set I want people to be able to say, ‘Great, Dave Brown’s here. We can relax and do our job.’"
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 10:04 AM CDT: adds missing words