Bryan W. Carpenter is a Carthage native who has worked as an armorer on a number of projects, and also provides armorer and stunt services and consultation through his company Dark Thirty Film. He is also a producer with several upcoming Mississippi-made projects through his production company 13 South Productions.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Carthage and graduated from Carthage High School. I went to college briefly but went straight into my first career.
What was your first career?
I worked in the security contracting world. I did private security contracting, intelligence work, etc. I spent around 20 years doing that, and worked on several tactical law enforcement groups, including New Orleans SWAT during Katrina. And I was a professional trainer for around 11 of those years. I trained military and federal and state law enforcement units, mostly on firearm tactics.
How did you find an interest in working in film?
A friend of mine from one of the units I was working on had got an offer for a job to work for an actor as a bodyguard. You see, most of the time, bodyguards are big guys that can stop around 99 percent of any problem, but there’s that 1 percent of people that aren’t intimidated by big guys, and they’re the ones that can be really dangerous. High-level celebrities sometimes need a trained professional that can blend in and really help to affect an outcome against those types of people. So, I got offered a job too.
At first, I turned it down and I said, I don’t want to work with any actors. (laughs) I remember specifically saying that. But then my buddy just kept saying you need to go talk to them. And I said, you’ve put your foot in your mouth, you promised them somebody, didn’t you? And he goes, yeah, just go talk to him. So, I had the interview, and the job ended up being a bodyguard for Denzel Washington. He’s an awesome guy, just an outstanding person. I ended up working on his crew for a while. He was filming the movie Déjà Vu at the time. I had never even really thought about film before that.
After that I got a very, very nice recommendation letter from him and his crew and that opened new doors for me. It got me thinking about using the skill set that I had to train actors and stunt performers on proper firearm usage and how to convincingly play roles like military special forces and spy intelligence officers in film.
Where did you get your training from?
I was very, very fortunate to have some of the best mentors and trainers that are just legends in that industry. Like Colonel Jeff Cooper, the man who wrote the four safety rules and author of the modern technique of the pistol. I was trained by his personnel and people that were very, very proficient in the art of handgun tactics and operations. I was also able to go to lots of military schools. I took the advice of some of my mentors back then to take every class that was offered. I’ve got pretty much of a laundry list of training schools, but I always enjoyed that. I love learning. I love anything that allows me to learn a new skill or better an existing skill.
What was your first on-set job?
Well, as a bodyguard I got to be on set a lot. I was also part of the personal security detail for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie when their daughter Shiloh was an infant. That was during the time of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I started seeing more and more of how the whole world of film worked and how a crew worked.
The first official job I had working as an armorer was a Lifetime TV movie called I Killed My BFF, which was made in Mississippi in 2014. And my first job as a lead armorer was a low budget horror feature also made in Mississippi called The Neighbor in 2015.
What does an armorer do on set?
What we do, first and foremost, is to ensure the safety of the cast and crew while firearms are being used on set. That’s the number one thing that you’re there for. And that doesn’t just mean making sure they’re loaded or not loaded, that means the entire environment is safe: no one is doing anything unsafe or, say, have brought any firearms-related foreign object onto the set that is unsafe. You ensure that the weapons are under a constant scrutiny and control.
And then the second part is the actual application of those firearms to affect whatever outcome the director wants, and to make sure that we give them suggestions and/or directions on how they should be used safely on set and, lastly, to make sure that they work and that it looks good on-screen.
I believe in a soft handed approach to things. But at the same time, you need to be stern enough that when there is something being done that’s unsafe or there is something that you should speak up about, you can do so in a professional manner where people will listen to you.
Besides Colonel Cooper, has anyone else been an influence on your career?
Nigel Thomas was one of my mentors, he’s a very well-known British SAS member out of Wales. Nigel is still a very trusted friend and mentor.
What has been the most surprising thing for you about working with movies?
A surprising thing for me, and it’s why I brought our companies into producing, were the similarities between working an intelligence operation and producing a movie. It’s amazingly similar, because in the intelligence world, you’ve got an operation and you’re tasked to do a thing, let’s say, upgrade some helicopters in the middle of Syria on a black operation. And your job is to get those aviation techs in there to that location, upgrade the helicopter’s components, and then get them out safely. That exact same thing, you can roll that right over into producing a movie because what you’re doing is you’re taking assets that you discover, find and/or cultivate and using those assets to affect an outcome. And that’s exactly what you do in film. You decide you’re making a movie, say, the movie we’re about to film next year, Tempest. Your producers come in and say, we would like you to do our movie. The producers would be the government, you’re the line producer, which is like an independent contractor. You then take your knowledge of people that you know and your know-how for producing a movie or, likewise, safely conduct an operation, and you find the right people for the right jobs. You put those people in place and manage them until the job is complete. And when you’re done with that job, you start back over whenever the next one comes around. The similarities between those two things were, in my opinion, very shocking. And that’s why I knew that with enough experience and learning everything I can about every department and making the right connections in the film industry, I could take Dark Thirty Film Services and our other companies and we could be successful in producing movies.
What are some of your current or recent projects?
I’m very happy to say that we produced and I directed a project called Little Brother of War. It’s a Native American documentary about the game of stickball that they have played for thousands of years. The Choctaw tribe would use it to prevent full scale war with other tribes. Whenever there was a dispute, instead of going to war, they would play the game of stickball and try to settle the matter that way. And they henceforth called the game “little brother of war” as a nickname. We went up to the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi and shot a beautiful documentary following one season. We also co-produced The Minute You Wake Up Dead with Morgan Freeman and Cole Hauser in Canton. Then we produced The Last American House Party. It’s a music and visually-driven documentary that we did about the Neshoba County Fair. And we currently have in the works a documentary series called The Devil’s Backbone, about the history and culture of The Natchez Trace Parkway. And then lastly, we are set to produce the movie Tempest, which is a sci-fi drama. And we’re going to be going into pre-production in January and shooting in February.
The tragedy on the set of Rust has brought into focus the vital role of armorers in the film industry. Has it affected your work in any way?
There are very few people in the entire world that did what I did in their past career that work as armorers in the film industry. We’re talking about two handfuls of people in the whole world. When that tragedy occurred, I was called upon and hired as an expert investigator and witness to be able to help them navigate what happened. And we’ve been working on that now for some time. I’ve been intimately involved in that case from the start, and I have been trying to navigate the waters of what’s normal and what’s not normal when it comes to the making of a film and the safety therein, and the rules of the roles and responsibilities of everyone including the producer, line producer, director and assistant directors, and, of course, armorers.
I’ve been trying to give the most objective, factual information possible to help them understand what’s right and what’s wrong. And for me, the importance of this, regardless of the outcome, is to hopefully prevent this kind of tragedy again by getting movie companies to be very conscious and aware that you can’t just hire anybody for a job. When you take on the responsibility of bringing a live firearm onto a movie set, you take on a fiduciary responsibility for the protection of your cast and crew. And cutting corners and not spending the money to ensure safety is just not acceptable.
Has being from Mississippi help you stand out in the industry in any way?
I’m Mississippi born and raised and I do believe that our southern hospitality and my attitude and professionalism make me stand me out very much. We put this on our website: come down to the South and you get filmmaking with a side of Southern hospitality. And that makes a difference. It really does. This is entertainment. It should be fun. If you’re fighting and screaming and everybody’s unhappy, then you’re not doing it right.
If you could make a movie or a scene built around a location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
Number one, I love the Natchez Trace Parkway. I love the sunken trace and I love a lot of the visuals that you get driving up and down the parkway. That’s one of my favorite areas in the state. Like I said, we’re doing our documentary The Devil’s Backbone, but also an upcoming horror Western and I’d like to film a lot of that around the parkway.
Also, recently I discovered an abandoned park up in northeastern Mississippi that you could easily film as the foothills of Virginia. It’s mountainous, it’s got caves, it’s got waterfalls, and the whole place had been abandoned since the ‘60s, with log cabins and lodges. It would be an outstanding place to film a multitude of movies there. The fact that it’s been abandoned for so long, it’s just got this creepy, eerie visual quality. The place is just begging for somebody to film any type of movie there, some type of post-apocalyptic movie or horror movie would be outstanding.
Do you have a favorite moment working on a project?
Yes, every once in a while, you really get to experience something unique in film. While filming Benjamin Button, there was a part where the troops were coming home from World War I and they were celebrating. They were shooting down in the warehouse district down in New Orleans, and they had rented an entire two or three blocks of street there that had buildings that were era-correct. They blocked the entire street off and had a parade, burning pitch and shooting fireworks. Even the fireworks they were setting off were authentic to the period. Everybody was dressed exactly as they would have been. They were shooting a long take and I needed to be close to Brad. So, what I did was I dug myself back into a little alcove while they were shooting up and down the street so they couldn’t see me. Every time they said action, it was like going back in a time machine to the end of World War I. It was amazing. That was a really cool moment.
Another story I’ve got is probably one of the best wrap parties that I ever went to in my entire life was 22 Jump Street. We had a huge wrap party in Puerto Rico at the beach with Channing Tatum, who was already a fun guy to be around anyway. I got Channing a bottle of Puerto Rican moonshine. I had been messing with him, telling him that I could copy his moves in Magic Mike when he danced to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” And he called me out in the middle of the wrap party to have a dance off with him. (laughs)
What would you say to convince a producer to bring a project to Mississippi?
Well, it’s exactly the same spiel I gave to bring Tempest to the state. I told them, you know, you can go anywhere in the country. But number one, our state incentive program, in my opinion, is better than any other, because you can tell somebody they’re getting tax credits or this or that, but a check in hand at the end after the audit is something that’s hard to turn down. Number two, I tell them that we’re a nicely hidden secret here in Mississippi because we’re a very eclectic state. We’re a very friendly state when it comes to business. People want to engage in film. They want to be nice to you and you’re not going to get that elsewhere. I tell them that logistically, in the center of the state of Mississippi, we have everything you could possibly want right here, from housing to entertainment to airports, etc. They don’t have to travel out of a 60-mile radius. And lastly, and most importantly, they’re going to have fun filming down here. They’re not going to be dealing with people that are burnt out on film. They’re going to be dealing with people that are kind and will give you the shirt off their back. The thing that I say about Southern hospitality is real. And I say, don’t let us tell you. Let us show you.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
I think we need to build our crew base and get more people working in the industry. I’d like to see them increase the incentive by maybe by 10 or 20 million more dollars. I would also very much like to see the legislature write in enforceable rules on safety as well as crew quotas to ensure they’re hiring and protecting Mississippians. I’d like to see us build a major production studio again. I’m actively in negotiation with several builders and film investors, both from and outside of Mississippi, to build a new soundstage in the state. I recently took a group on a tour of Starlight Stages down in New Orleans so they could see what it would take to build one.
I’m doing what I can to help build the industry. I have a lot of ancillary companies. I have Dark Thirty Film Services, which focuses on specialty stunt and armorer services. Then we have 13 South Productions, which produces, and underneath that we have several companies that do different things for film. We have Shadowbrook Road Construction, a construction crew that can build artifices for film. We have Red Shift FX, a special effects company that can do mechanical special effects. We may eventually move into more in-depth special effects. We did the special effects on The Minute You Wake Up Dead with all the car wrecks and whatnot. We have Lost Boys LLC, we rent picture cars and have a great network of people that we can get just about any picture car, vintage, current or antique. And then we have Wolfman Studios, it’s a full studio camera and lighting rental company. We have about an $8 million inventory, everything from robotic arms and mechanisms to the best modern cameras out there.
What advice would you give to somebody that wants to work in film?
I would say find the right person and the right company to work with that’s reputable and that does it the right way. You want to learn all you can. I’ve worked with some people that did it the wrong way, but I learned a great deal from them too, so I know now what to look out for. But I was fortunate enough to also work with good people that were filming and making movies the right way and respectful way. Work hard to learn the industry and never turn down a moment to train or a moment to listen to somebody who has experience because you can certainly apply that to down the road to whatever craft you want to get into. I’d also say to stick with the state of Mississippi. We’re growing quick here, and I think that all we need is more good people for our crew base and we can be the next mecca for film right here where we’re standing.
What do you do when you’re not working? What are your hobbies and interests?
You mean a day off? I don’t know what you’re talking about right now. (laughs) I don’t do well with boredom. I must have something going almost always to the detriment of my wife. She’s like, “Don’t you just need a break?”
I very much like traveling and going to different places and seeing things I’ve never seen before. That’s probably one of my favorite things to do. And then I enjoy antique cars and motorcycles. I’m always messing with some car that needs work or some motorcycle that needs rebuilding.
How can people find or reach you?
I tell people to just Google me as “Bryan W. Carpenter,” you can find out everything you want to know, including some interviews where I get more in-depth about safety concerns and the Rust tragedy. And our websites are darkthirtyfilm.com and 13southproductions.com.