(l-r) Luke Bracey with Mel Gibson. (Photo credit: Mark Rogers).
It was third time lucky when Mel Gibson signed on to Hacksaw Ridge in 2014, having been offered the film by producer Bill Mechanic twice before.
“I approached Mel in 2002, in 2010, and then again in 2014, which is the first time he said yes,” says Mechanic.
“He’s the only one I approached twice. I guess in my mind he was always the perfect director for it. I just had to get it in his mind that he was the perfect director for it.”
Before his third attempt, Mechanic brought on Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart, to take a pass at the script.
“Randall’s changes were not earth shattering,” says Mechanic. “He won’t be credited in the final screenplay. But I think it might have made it more appealing to Mel to read [that] Randy was working on it.”
The WWII action drama is the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh Day Adventist from Virginia who refused to pick up a weapon but saved 75 fellow soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa.
The film in many respects is a companion piece to Braveheart, its lead character going from child to grown-up romantic to war hero.
“I went to Mel for a reason,” says Mechanic. “I used to pitch this to people as a different form of Braveheart. To me they’re both ultimately the stories of men who are reluctant heroes. What they both have in common is that they’re men who are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in.”
Mechanic has been trying to get the film made for 12 years, and describes the financing as “impossible”.
“I had somebody who would make the movie but they would only make the PG-13 version of the movie, and actually a soft PG-13. So for years I was trying to buy it back to finance more independently so I could make the movie I thought it should be.”
The first budget Mechanic did, in 2003, was twice what Hacksaw Ridge ended up with (USD $40 million after Australian tax incentives). Shooting the film in Australia was crucial to making the film it for that amount.
“The U.S. dollar was strong at the time we made the movie, and being qualified as an Australian picture [helped]. If we didn’t have the producer offset, if we didn’t qualify the picture and didn’t have the currency fluctuation, I couldn’t have put the rest of the movie together.”
“The only way this picture got made was with Australian assistance. And Mel helped on that process. Would people give us the $100 million to make the movie with Mel directing? No.”
The screenplay, by playwright Robert Schenkaan – “a Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony winner and every other kind of winner,” as Mechanic describes him – was revised once Gibson came on board.
“The script was always very good,” says Mechanic. “What it really needed was the battlefield [stuff], which is why I was always interested in Mel: it’s really a director’s vision of what happens.”
Mechanic and Gibson brought on Australian writer Andrew Knight for a final go-round on the script.
“Once it was determined to make it in Australia, I introduced Andrew to Mel and we all got on pretty well, and agreed over some of the changes we wanted. And Andrew just became an integral part of what we were doing.”
Knight beefed up Desmond’s backstory, in particular the scenes involves his alcoholic WWI-veteran father, played by Hugo Weaving in the film.
Researching the subject over years, Mechanic became “terribly interested in the impact of war not just on the men who died but the men who lived.”
“And both Andrew [Knight]’s father and Mel’s father suffered in some ways from PTSD. And so the character of the father, Tom Doss, became a central point for everybody.”
Mechanic originally tried to convince Gibson to play the role himself, but was blown away by what Weaving did with the role.
“I think Hugo Weaving is as good an actor as I’ve ever seen. I think his performance is outstanding in the picture in terms of the depth which he brings to that character. It’s hard to imagine [another actor] just as it’s hard to imagine anybody other than Andrew Garfield playing Desmond Doss.”
Garfield impressed Mechanic in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, and he had the right look: the producer “always wanted the physicality of the real Desmond – he was a slight guy.”
With Garfield and Weaving known quantities, the film’s breakout performance comes from Home and Away alum Luke Bracey, as Smitty, the unit’s alpha male. Initially sceptical of Doss, Smitty comes to respect his courage on the battlefield.
Bracey, who shares an agent with Garfield, was sent the script at the start of 2015 and was immediately hooked.
“I put it down and called him and said ‘I’ll play a tree, mate,” Bracey recalls. “I’ll do anything I can in this film. The character of Smitty was something I thought I could do quite well, given the opportunity. I was very scared of it, but I thought I could do it, especially with Mel helping me.”
“So I put a self-tape down. That went off and then I was supposed to actually sit down with Mel in person but I got tremendously sick. I’d been in the desert of Utah doing some reshoots for Point Break, and I left it till the absolute last minute to see if I could go see him in person but I just physically couldn’t, and I thought I’d blown it. I was devastated.”
Bracey’s phone rang three days later, and it was Gibson on the other end. The pair chatted for forty-five minutes: “by the end of it he kind of goes, ‘Alright great, I’ll see you in Sydney’. I went: I think I got the job (laughs). So it was a really interesting way of getting it but a really nice way of doing it.”
Mechanic and Gibson were talking to DP Andrew Lesnie about shooting the film before his untimely death last year.
“Mel would say the same thing – I’ve never been in a meeting with a cinematographer better than that meeting,” says the producer.
“He was just amazing: had thought through the movie, had ideas for the movie, and as soon as he left we both thought, okay, we’re done. The only thing we had to wait for was he had to be cleared by his doctors, which he did a few days later. He got the greenlight and then he passed away. It’s tragic that a man at that age and that kind of artist passed away that young.”
Lesnie was replaced by DP Simon Duggan, whose CV – full of CGI-heavy films shot on soundstages such as The Great Gatsby and 300: Rise of an Empire – didn’t make him an obvious candidate for the gig.
“He was good in the room,” says Mechanic. “He understood the movie, [and] he had the vigour. Especially once you get to the battlefield, you wanted something very visceral. We were always going to shoot practically and he answered the bell on everything we wanted.”
One of the biggest challenges of pre-production was finding the right locations to mimic Virginia, Kentucky and Okinawa.
“The locations were as hard [to find] as any movie I’ve done,” says Mechanic. “I don’t think the public will notice it at all.”
“It’s one of those things. We didn’t have enough money. Nobody wants to make movies like this anymore, so they’re precious to make and they’re impossible to make at the same time. Braveheart, which I did with Mel 23 years ago, cost 50 percent more than this movie, which is crazy, because this is a much more complicated movie with modern firepower and bullets and bombs and technology that you have to use. So the harshness of the process really wore on us all. It was a really, really, really difficult movie to make.”
“What he did on Braveheart was great, what he did on Apocalypto is probably even more accomplished. He’s one of those few directors who’s gotten better. What he’s done on this movie – and I know he doesn’t see it the same way – but I think he’s in rarefied air as a director, truly rarefied air.”
Like those films, Hacksaw Ridge features scenes of men ribbing each other, and Gibson was at pains to keep the set light, according to Bracey.
“He’d just come up and make jokes in between takes. And when you’re doing something so intense, to have that breath, and then you can come back into it – it gives it a pulse.”
Gibson’s method of directing his actors was all about the “melding of the truth and the technicality,” says Bracey.
“You’ve got all the emotion there that you’re trying to get across, but sometimes you might give the look [clicks fingers] just a little too early or a little too late. He knows where to place that look so that the emotion you are giving is absolutely coming through in the best possible way. There were days when he’d come up to me on set and just say, just go and be Steve McQueen today. [I was like] ‘Mel Gibson thinks I can be Steve McQueen. Maybe I can! Yeah, alright, no worries! Let’s do it!’ You know.”
Bracey accompanied Gibson, Mechanic and the rest of the cast and crew to the Venice Film Festival in early September, where the film debuted to strong reviews.
“I was really excited about being in Venice, that was an amazing experience and then you watch the movie and get a ten minute standing ovation and then we had to run off to a Hollywood Foreign Press interview thing for half an hour, and then we went to a dinner, so you didn’t have time to digest it that way.”
Bracey only took it all in properly at the film’s Australian premiere at Sydney’s State Theatre.
“My whole family was there and when the lights came up I looked over and my whole family [and] we couldn’t speak. For that half an hour after the movie you feel like you’ve run a marathon. You were kind of tense.”
Bracey hasn’t signed on for another film since shooting Hacksaw Ridge, which was recently awarded six Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director.
The actor is waiting to see “how it changes things and what it can open up. And also, what am I gonna do after this? This is potentially the best movie I’m ever going to be in in my life. Like, fuck (laughs).”