We were surprised to learn that one of the stars of Steve Carell's Get Smart is actually a Swiss Army knife, albeit one whose talents are slightly more impressive than your own trusty multi-tool. It's got your scissors, saw, magnifying glass and can opener, but how about a flame thrower that shoots six feet? Or a crossbow with stow-away bolts? Or a blowgun with its own fold-out sight? The crazy part is, even though this thing is a movie prop, the producers had to make it really work. We scored exclusive schematics of the knife itself, and caught up with prop-meister Tim Wiles to learn how the thing was made fully operational for the cameras.
In Hollywood, the same rule that applies to babies and cars applies to key props: There has to be more than one. In the shooting of Get Smart, there were a total of seven functional Swiss Army knives, three with working crossbows, and two each with working flamethrowers and blowguns. There were also a dozen or so rubber versions for shots where the knife flies through the air or takes some other kind of a beating.
Wiles—whose prop mastery has been seen in everything from Magnolia to You Don't Mess With the Zohan, and whose inventory includes USPS-friendly sex dolls, magic remote controls, a diver stuck in a tree and a "crazy hair stimulator" for Jack Nicholson—was naturally excited to be on the Get Smart gig. As you'd expect, the script called for numerous gadgets:
• Dental floss detonator, explosive floss
• Tooth transmitters ("We got fake teeth from a dental supply company, embedded microchips and hollowed them out to make them look like toothcaps," says Wiles.)
• Bracelet receiver made from an existing Marc Jacobs watch, with a slide-out antenna and compartment for wireless bugs
• Smoking compacts
• Glowing coin transmitter
• Piano bomb with countdown timer
• Violin tuning peg laser for cutting holes in walls
• And of course, the Cone of Silence
But it was the knife that was the centre of Wiles' attention. He got clearance from the companies who own the Swiss Army licence (Wenger and Victorinox) to feature a souped-up version in the movie. "Then we bought 50 or 60 big fat Swiss Army knives and gutted them—took them apart and built frames to house the mechanisms to do what we needed it to do."
As you can see in the sketches above, the crossbow concept requires a little "suitcase" for the bolts, while the flamethrower makes sense only when the knife has its own propane tank, so Wiles had to add both, on either side.
When it came time to deploy the functional units for scenes, some trickery was still required. For instance, the flamethrower did manage to shoot a jet of fire four to six feet, says Wiles, but it was assisted by a line to an actual propane tank that was hiding just off-camera and controlled by "the effects guy."
The crossbow totally worked, but its bolts were rubber tipped. Even though Carell appears in the stills below punctured with bolts, Wiles and the crew assumed the real ones probably wouldn't have done too much damage. Nevertheless, on the day of shooting, the crossbow turned out to be all too powerful, and they had to "back off the tension" before someone lost an eye.
"Even though they were rubber harpoons, they still hurt if you got hit by them. In that confined space [an aeroplane bathroom] , while we were shooting, they ricochet all over the place," says Wiles.
It's great to know that Hollywood isn't all CGI these days, and that actors are willing to put their lives (or at least their eyes) on the line for a solid visual gag. Below, you can see the knife featured in its various configurations—and hopefully in the movie, which opens on Friday, June 20, we'll get to see the knife (or knives) fully in action. Now, if they could just install an electric screwdriver, I'd be sold. [Get Smart]