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Arms expert lends films a hand

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RICHARD HOOPER makes a living as an arms dealer. So to speak. For more than 30 years, the British gunsmith has provided firearms and the training necessary to use them so that films such as "Children of Men" and "Casino Royale" could be executed with a proper bang.

Hooper, 53, has long had a fascination with weapons, even studying military history while attending college in the Cotswolds. "I was interested in firearms not necessarily because of shooting them particularly, but just because of the mechanics and the way that they've been built over the centuries," he says. "And the work of some of the antique ones in museums is phenomenal. . . . You sort of marvel at how crisp and precise the engineering is."

At 19, Hooper began working at a London company that supplied different types of weaponry, reproductions and otherwise, for use in the film industry. After some two decades of stockpiling technique and information, he struck out on his own to become an independent armorer.

Most recently, the London-based craftsman's lent his expertise to “Wanted,” Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov's shoot-'em-up action thriller about a milquetoast accountant (played by James McAvoy) who discovers he's part of an ancient society of assassins called the Fraternity. Hooper not only taught the cast members the rules to using their weapons, but in one specific instance, how to bend them a bit as well.

Too hot to handle: "Everybody has a notion of how to hold a firearm," observes Hooper. "You hand a gun to someone, and they always put their finger on the trigger straightaway. But you have to teach them where not to put their hand and also not to keep [their] finger in the trigger all the time." To that end, Hooper spent two weeks training star McAvoy about the finer points of gun handling.

"The most fundamental issue is making sure that everybody is safe, so you have to make sure the actor is confident in what he's doing," says Hooper who had to ensure that the actors and crew were mindful of where implements were aimed. "It looks on camera that they're actually shooting at people," he says, "but they're pointing at a space where there is nobody."

Way of the gun: Director Bekmambetov wanted each Fraternity member's weapon to be "almost an extension of their being, their personality," explains Hooper. So each character was assigned a specific gun -- Morgan Freeman's Sloan, leader of the Fraternity, was given a Mauser C96, an old-school piece commonly known as "the Broomhandle." But he also worked with each actor to develop his character's shooting style. "When [McAvoy's Wesley] first joins the Fraternity, he has no idea how to use the gun at all, so we made him slightly comedic and fumbly," says Hooper.

One particular production challenge was that "the director wanted to somehow emphasize to the audience a way that the Fraternity members got the bullets to curve around corners," says Hooper. After discussing how to achieve the desired effect -- including ricocheting bullets off trees or shooting over the tops of buildings -- Hooper developed a wrist-twisting method of arcing the gun and bullet that became known as "the table tennis move."

"To actually curve a table tennis ball through the air you flick it left or right, which gets the ball to spin in a left or right direction," he explains. So, the actors were essentially trained to play ping-pong with blanks. After all, it's not like bullets can bend in real life, or, as Hooper points out: "Not yet, anyway."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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