Mel Gibson on chasing Hugo Weaving for Hacksaw Ridge and shooting in Oz
In conversation last week at the Sydney Film Festival, Mel Gibson spoke at length with Fairfax's Garry Maddox about his upcoming directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge.
Shot in Sydney late last year, Gibson called his fifth directorial outing a "100 percent Aussie film."
"The crew and most of the cast [were Aussie], it was part-financed here and shot here. Portaying a story that takes place in Lynchburg, Virginia and Okinawa, and they totally pulled it off."
Gibson has just returned from test screenings in Lynchburg (the home town of the film's main character, Desmond Doss) and said the locals "wondered how we got in and shot there without them knowing."
The story of Virginia farmboy Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) landed on Gibson's desk after a long development process, and appealed to the Oscar winner for Braveheart because of Doss's "singular" nature.
"He was the first conscientious objector to be given the Medal of Honor. He never fired a gun. He was criticised by his peers, the army tried everything to kick him out, and he endured that because he wanted to serve as a combat medic in the worst place on earth."
"Okinawa was a bloodbath. The highest death-toll in the Pacific. And when nobody else would go in there, he went in and saved 75 guys in one night – one at a time, under fire. And he did that again and again in places like the Philippines, and Guam."
"Most Medal of Honor winners do something insanely courageous in an instant. But he did it over and over again over the course of months. He really didn't care about his own life."
Doss was guided by his faith, and particulary the commandmant 'thou shalt not kill'.
"His line was that there was so much killing going on, he should do something to go the other way," said Gibson.
The battlefield scenes were shot on a farm in Bringelly, an outer suburb of Sydney.
"The battlefield at Bringelly was 100 metres by 75 metres, because that's what the budget allowed us," Gibson said. "But you can make a little bit of land look enormous with the right camera angles."
Gibson said that the film, his first in the director's chair since 2006's Apocalypto, will be largely unadorned with digital effects.
"We did do some digital stuff, and I'm getting more and more comfortable with that, although I don't dig it. I like to do stuff actual, in-camera. We had devices on this I hadn't seen before, so it made the combat stuff really cool. It's pretty brutal, but that's the nature of it."
Maddox, who visited the set during shooting, observed that Gibson seemed like a very physical director, often acting out scenes himself.
"Sometimes you literally have to demonstrate things if people don't get it," Gibson said.
"So I find myself going through the motions, and sometimes it's just to figure it out for yourself. So yes, I tend to be very physical in those situations. But it's getting harder. You never trip as much as when you're directing. Because your attention is always somewhere else, and there's always crap lying around. It's a hazardous occupation."
"I remember one time I went out to talk to Andrew Garfield, and it had been raining, and I did one of those pratfalls where your feet go up in the air. He came up to ask if I was alright, and I just whispered directions to him through gritted teeth."
Gibson said he was "so fortunate" to have gotten the "amazingly warm" Garfield, best known for films such as The Social Network and 99 Homes.
"He's the nicest guy on earth, and very talented. He gets completely immersed. I don't work like that personally – probably shows – but I'm not knocking it. It works. He never slipped out of character the whole time he was in this country. He never let the accent go, but he functioned in conversation with wit and spontaneity. He wasn't some kind of robot."
Hacksaw Ridge is stuffed with well-known Australian actors – Richard Roxburgh, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Sam Worthington – but Gibson was at pains to praise the lesser known members of his ensemble.
"There's a huge talent pool of young men here who are all just fantastic," he said.
"Sometimes they had no dialogue, but during the course of the shoot they ended up with dialogue. It wasn't them being greedy or anything, it was just, okay, we need somebody to do this: and you'd get one of these guys and [clicks fingers]."
Also in the ensemble is Vince Vaughn – whom Gibson calls "hilarious, but serious. Serious as a heart attack but funny. The guy can't help being funny" – and Hugo Weaving, as the father of Doss.
"Hugo's performance is one of the first things people want to talk to me about after screenings," Gibson said.
"Because he is truly amazing. He's a really great actor, this guy. I killed myself to get him. He wasn't going to do it but he finally did, and he pulled it off."
Weaving's son Harry Greenwood is also in the cast as a member of Doss's unit, as is Gibson's son, Milo.
"Yeah, nepotism's not dead," Gibson said, to laughter.
"One of my other sons was one of the camera guys on it, a steadicam operator."
Does that mean they work cheap? "Yes. Peanuts."
Lionsgate is releasing the film in the plum awards season slot of November 4, but Gibson said he wasn't planning the release around winning gongs.
"I never will. You just release it at a good time."
The Lethal Weapon star added that he worked largely independent of studios these days.
"Hacksaw was independent and was [then] picked up by Lionsgate, so it's a large independent film, but we got a lot of bang for our buck. [Producer] Bill Mechanic pulled it together. You end up with enough to make a reasonably big budget independent film, which is not a big film."
Hacksaw's budget is estimated to be around USD $55 million. The film is currently in the final stages of sound post at Fox Studios' Soundfirm and picture post at DDP Studios in Lane Cove.
While Gibson praised NSW as "a fantastic place to make film," whether he returns will depend on what he does next, he said.
"I've been developing one thing for over 15 years, set back in the fifteenth century in Italy, and it's a true story."
"It has all the trappings of a Jacobean tragedy, and I want to make it like that, even to the point of soliloquys and stuff. [So] I guess it depends: you're not going to do 15th century Florence here. Well, you might have a stab at it, but it'd be tough."