Editors Note: This story originally ran on December 1, 2016.
When Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield gather to speak on their WWII film Hacksaw Ridge, each has jetted into LA from Europe where they are making other movies. Gibson left the set of The Professor and the Madman, a movie he’s starring in with Sean Penn. Garfield was deep into developing the semi-schizophrenic character he was about to start playing in Under the Silver Lake, but it doesn’t take much time for them to snap back into Desmond Doss mode.
The moment they received a sustained standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, Gibson and Garfield put themselves into the awards season race with Hacksaw Ridge, capping a remarkable 15-year ordeal to bring to the screen the story of the first conscientious objector to win the Medal Of Honor. That medal was pinned on Doss by President Harry Truman for courage under fire that included pulling 75 wounded men to safety one night during a siege gone horribly wrong in the Battle of Okinawa in the waning days of WWII.
The clock started on the drama when producer David Permut brought Terry Benedict, who had befriended Doss while making a documentary about him, to Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium offices. Benedict’s documentary took Doss and a few of his surviving platoon-mates back to Maeda Escarpment. It was the site of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific, where the army medic’s heroism stunned soldiers who labeled Doss a coward for his unwillingness to pick up a rifle—or even to fight on Saturday, which fell on the Seventh-day Adventists Sabbath day. Benedict, who had been granted feature rights by Doss and his church, brought to his meeting with Mechanic an appearance by Doss on This is Your Life that left the producer pulling out his checkbook to buy the property.
He figured there would be a short path to the screen. After all, the biggest problem was that Doss’ heroics were so extreme they had to be downplayed in the movie simply because audiences wouldn’t have believed the full extent. That included the level of cruelty his commanding officer and fellow enlisted men displayed toward Doss as they tried to drum him out of the army on a Section Eight discharge for mental instability. But it most profoundly played out when Doss proved himself the bravest man in Japan on a day when the medic and his men were overrun by the Japanese forces, driven down from the high ridge, leaving dead and wounded soldiers behind by the score. The Japanese had designs on killing and torturing the injured, but Doss had ideas of his own. Using his faith as his guide, he dodged and evaded the enemy and dragged his own men to a cargo net, lowering them to safe ground below with a long rope.
“At the point where Desmond is injured by a grenade and they are pulling him out on a stretcher, what actually happened was that some other soldier was wounded and Desmond rolled off the stretcher,” Mechanic says. “He was just blown up by a grenade, but he treats this other guy, and he is out there for another five hours sitting there. He gets shot twice and straps on a rifle butt as a splint. When they don’t come get him, he crawls. There were things that left us thinking, ‘who would believe that?’”
Turns out Doss had 17 pieces of shrapnel in his body and his arm was shattered. The key to the story was the fact that, while Doss might have used part of a rifle as a splint, he held true to his vow to never raise a weapon to kill the enemy.
How could such a heroic WWII tale remain untold on the screen for over 70 years?
It was not for lack of trying. Hal Wallis campaigned for the rights, even bringing Audie Murphy with him to persuade Doss. They were sent packing because the last thing the humble Doss wanted was to glorify his achievements. It was only in his later years, following the death of his wife, that Doss relented to the call from his church that the time felt right for his story to be told.
“He didn’t want to publicize himself, didn’t really want a movie made of his life and it wasn’t until he was in his 80s that his friends convinced him that his story had to live past him,” Mechanic says. “We brought on Robert Schenkkan to write it, sold it to Walden Media, with an eye toward protecting the religious content. Not to dial it up or down, just tell the story as it was.”
Nothing came easy, not even landing Gibson to make his first directing project in a decade. The script by Schenkkan—the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind The Kentucky Cycles who wrote four episodes of the WWII miniseries The Pacific—was strong, but Gibson wouldn’t bite. He turned it down twice. Mechanic, who, while a top Fox exec, acquired the foreign rights on Braveheart that got the Best Picture winner financed, immediately thought of the filmmaker.
“I felt that Desmond was, in a way, like William Wallace without the sword,” he says. “One was violent and the other non-violent, but they were both men prepared to die for what they believed in. I pitched the film to people as a different form on Braveheart and sent it to Icon. They said they loved it, but it was a no. I sent it again, same thing.”
Gibson suggests that it took time for the script to rattle around his head before the visuals changed his mind. But he was carrying the shrapnel of a series of self-inflicted public outbursts, the most serious of which came in the back of a cop car in Malibu when a drunken Gibson spouted anti-Semitic remarks that left him persona non grata. Mechanic thinks that for whatever reason Gibson was too preoccupied to take his overtures seriously. “I don’t think he ever really read it closely because on the third approach he committed in one day.”
“I passed on Braveheart. I kind of liked it and thought, maybe…I don’t know,” Gibson says. “One reason or another. Then it’s like what happened [here]. The wheels start going around and you start visualizing it.”
Braveheart was initially offered to Gibson as an acting role alone. But he was looking to step up after doing the small character piece The Man Without a Face. “I started visualizing it, a lot. I would think about how cool could this be? You’d have a shot list in your head and visualize what you wanted to see. Two years later, I’d finished a movie and someone said, ‘What do you want to do next?’” Gibson remembered Braveheart. Hacksaw Ridge reverberated the same way, “I looked at it again and I just saw it with new eyes,” he adds.
By then, Garfield, fresh off The Amazing Spider-Man, was being eyed for the lead. Even though Gibson isn’t a fan of superhero movies, he’d seen the British actor’s work in films like The Social Network, where he played Mark Zuckerberg’s estranged college pal Eduardo Saverin. The empathy that Garfield exudes more than just about any other actor of his age convinced Gibson and he was in.
But, although Walden Media sparked to the faith-based heroism, the company set the budget very tight, and ultimately dropped out when the filmmakers could not meet the contractual requirement to make a PG-13 film. “Braveheart was 50% more expensive than this movie and that was 23 years ago,” Mechanic says. “We got the budget down but I just didn’t think there was a chance in hell this was anything less than R. Mel doesn’t have it in his being to take that script and not show it on screen. That defined who Desmond Doss was. His beliefs aren’t real until he proves it on the battlefield. Anyone could say, ‘I’m not going to pick up a weapon.’ Put yourself in a situation when you’re the only guy out there and 1000 Japanese soldiers are coming after you. That’s when your beliefs are tested. Without that violence, to me it’s not a story.”
That meant starting from scratch and piecing together a budget for a $40 million movie only made possible by shooting in Australia with nearly the entire cast down under — Garfield and Vince Vaughn were among the few exceptions, and while Gibson is American, he was born in Australia. It was his first movie back home in 30 years after starting his career there with films like Gallipoli and Mad Max.
Even though Cross Creek Pictures came in for a piece, the lack of a big visual effects budget required inventiveness with the requisite explosions, with charges that could detonate practically under the noses of actors playing the soldiers. “We just didn’t have any money and that was the single biggest obstacle,” says Mechanic. “Mic Rodgers, our stunt guy and one of the few guys we brought in from outside Australia, had done all Mel’s pictures and he brought in this technology. He’s up on the battlefield with our head stuntee, who has this camera, and Mic is demonstrating the bomb. It goes off about a foot away from him and you see dirt, but no Mic. He was gone. The stuntee is like, ‘Holy shit, I just blew up my boss.’ It was the funniest thing as Mic got up.”
It was this technology that made the action achievable at this budget level. “It was supplemented by digital effects, but all that stuff was real and stunt-driven,” Mechanic notes.
All the financial wizardry still left them short as they ended with battle scenes. Mechanic says he and Gibson personally covered the costs needed to get the required shots.
Gibson stopped short of playing Doss’ father — a violent drunk who eventually would help his son in his fight against the army to be sent into battle. He said he would have played the part if no one better emerged. But putting Gibson in that role might have been a bit too on the nose given the circumstances that kept him from behind the camera the last decade, even though he has been sober now for longer than that. He found Hugo Weaving. “The guy killed me,” Gibson says. “I thought he was great. He became the obvious choice to do that part. You get somebody like Hugo, you use that guy. I can’t do what he can do.”
The shoot was arduous. “I don’t know if I was ever frightened because I had that Desmond energy inhabiting that character,” Garfield says. “I don’t know if Desmond had the time to be frightened, whether he turned that into physical action or a prayer, but it was thrilling to have the physical things happening around us as actors and extras. And stunt guys were dealing with all these box bombs and explosions with mud flying. There were times where it got tricky, especially when we were trying to achieve something intimate while mud was landing in the back of your throat.”
Gibson adds, “You’re trying to play a moment and being hit by that stuff, it’s just awful. I remember in a film I did years ago, the wind is blowing this filthy sand into my eyes while I’m trying to emote. You watch it back and think it worked out okay, but you are just having a miserable fucking time trying. You’ve just got to try to relax because any skill requires that.”
Garfield came to Hacksaw Ridge after completing an equally difficult shoot on the Martin Scorsese-directed Silence. He said that film was harder, partly because the shoot was solitary and he starved himself to look the part of a Jesuit priest. “This was a new thing for me with Mel, and the way he works, and the feeling that he creates on set, and the feeling he creates within the company,” Garfield says. “It feels like you’re a traveling theater company and that’s Mel’s background as well; drama school in Sydney. I did mine in London and started in theater and it felt like a company of traveling gypsies. There was a real joy on the set, amidst the trickiest, most harrowing stuff we had to do.”
Garfield says the cast bonded like a battalion might. “You have to laugh to keep from crying as you imagine what those guys went through. There’s an absurdity you’re witnessing on a daily basis where, if you truly let the reality deeply in, it’s going to destroy you. That is when the psyche cracks and the PTSD sets in.”
“There was something so spirited and joyful and loving about the Hacksaw experience; not that those things weren’t present on Marty’s movie. But Silence was much more isolating, where on a personal level the primary relationship is between my character and a god that may or may not be there; a silent god. I was isolated, hungry, lonely and celibate for six months. It was absolutely fucking fascinating. But [on Hacksaw], having the brothers and the wife and a great leader in Mel, and maybe the odd beer on the weekend, made it ever so slightly easier.”
Many of the visual flourishes that make Gibson’s films singular come in the moment. Garfield recalls an 11 p.m. text from Gibson saying he was planning to change a big scene in which Doss is doused in water, scheduled for the following day. “I was anxious because you like to have a framework, and you’ve already laid that out. But you just totally trust it because he’s operating from this deep guttural instinct, not dissimilar to where Desmond was operating from within his life. Mel is very, very in touch with his primal nature and that still, small voice inside. He’s a very emotional filmmaker, a very visceral, physical filmmaker.”
Says Gibson of the seminal ‘baptism’ scene: “I just wanted a moment where it was like this kind of transition, this cleansing moment. And it became literally that. He comes off the hill and he’s all covered in blood and mud, and I needed that moment where you just focus in a kind of spiritual or ethereal, lyrical way. It was something I cooked up on the spur of the moment, and we threw it together. You have these moments of clarity that are hard because they’re not on the schedule and the budget is so tight. But you just go, ‘oh no. I have to fit this in.’”
Another scene, in which Doss covers an injured soldier—all except his eyes—in dirt to conceal him from Japanese soldiers, was the same. “You think, that guy’s eye, in the ground, now that would be a cool image. And then you’ve got no choice but to find a way to do it.”
It fell to Mechanic to explain each of these detours to the bond company. But when he ran Fox, Mechanic was also the point person for James Cameron as he mounted Titanic. Coming through Hacksaw Ridge has left him feeling that the market for literate movies is as bad as any time he can remember.
“The business is in a very weird place,” he says. “To me, this is the worst of times. It’s probably the lowest ebb of motion pictures ever, maybe since the late ’60s led to the ’70s films. I keep waiting for the phoenix to rise, or for the whole thing to fucking crumble, and then maybe we can pick back up and get real movies made again. But to me, this is a period of just abject terrible movies. Nobody cares, and there is no alternative. Studios, right now, are manufacturers. Like Detroit. They’re manufacturing cars, looking for this year’s model of the Chevy. Other than a Dark Knight, which breaks the rules, we’re in a business where almost all the quality is being pushed into tiny little pictures, and I’m not interesting in making little pictures. Mel is not a perfect person, but he has improved on each of his pictures, and Andrew is the finest young actor of his generation. I had this experience on Titanic, and on Braveheart, and here, also. When you look in the eye of Jim Cameron, and when you look in the eye of Mel Gibson, it makes you feel, okay, we’re putting all our money on this guy.”