Under the Radar

'Hacksaw Ridge' Producer Bill Mechanic Talks About the Oscar-Nominated Movie

Hacksaw Ridge earned six Academy Award nominations this year, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Andrew Garlfield's, Best Director of Mel Gibson, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The movie is based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a World War II conscientious objector who joined the Army as a combat medic even though he refused to use a weapon. During the battle for Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa, Doss is credited with singlehandedly saving 75 men without firing a shot. After the war, President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Hacksaw Ridge (out this week on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray and Digital HD), Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus DVD and Digital HD), DVD, On Demand and Digital HD) didn't have much pre-release hype. Its box-office success and awards recognition came about because people responded to its heart, power and craft. Gibson is a savvy filmmaker. For the first hour or so, Hacksaw Ridge seems like an old-fashioned Hollywood war movie and the movie never telegraphs the upcoming shock and chaos of the battle scenes. Garfield, Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn give outstanding performances and the impressive battles scenes were created with a minimum of computer-generated imagery.

We had a chance to speak with Hacksaw Ridge's Oscar-nominated producer Bill Mechanic. Mechanic was president of Fox studios and worked with Mel Gibson on Braveheart back in the '90s. He told us the story of Hacksaw Ridge's long journey to the screen, why Gibson was the best director to make this movie and how he's approached his own career in a volatile business.

Bill Mechanic sports a Dodgers cap on the set of "Hacksaw Ridge."

Congratulations on all of the movie’s Academy Award nominations.

It's nice. It's a tribute to the quality of the movie, so we're pleased.

This film took a long time to get made. How did you first learn Desmond Doss’ story and why do you think it took so many years for Hollywood to tell it?

Desmond never wanted to sell his life rights. I don’t think he particularly believed in movies and really didn’t want to publicize himself. He was very well known within the Seventh-day Adventist Church and he was very well known in military circles. He went to the Medal of Honor ceremonies most years and, from what I've heard, was considered to be a hero among heroes, because what he did was so distinctive.

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Trailer for "The Conscientious Objector," Terry Benedict's documentary about Desmond T. Doss.

But he didn’t want to be a self-publicist, so it wasn’t until he was 80 or 81 years old that his friends in the church said that his story should last beyond his life. They convinced him to do a documentary with Terry Benedict. That film is The Conscientious Objector. Along with that, he agreed to sell his life rights.

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Desmond Doss relives his inspiring story on the hit 1950s TV show "This is Your Life."  

Terry came to Hollywood in 2001 with just smidgens of footage and he met the producer David Permut. He called me and I saw two minutes of Desmond’s appearance on This is Your Life and thought this was a great idea. Desmond was a unique hero.

So it's taken us 16 years now to get to here. And that was the beginning of it all.

Was there resistance when you first started taking it around to studios?

Well, I didn’t take it around the studios. Out of my own funds, I bought the option for the rights on Desmond's life and the documentary. I hired the writer Robert Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Kentucky Cycle, to do a screenplay.

It wasn’t until I had a screenplay that I was happy with that I took it around and got no real interest from the studios. One of them said to me, “We don’t do things with dust.” He meant that they didn’t want any period movies. “Who cares about World War II?” and attitudes like that.

There was one place that I thought was a good home for it. That was Walden, a smaller production company which is most famous for making The Chronicles of Narnia books into movies. They were interested in either faith-based movies or positive image movies. Desmond’s faith is a big part of the story, but you don’t want to dial up the religion to be more than it is and you don’t want to dial it down. It's ultimately about making a film about just who the character is as opposed to making a movie about Seventh-day Adventists.

So I sold it to them. That turned out to be a long, hard process. They thought the budget was too big and, to finally get them to agree to make the movie, I had to cut the budget in half. We made Hacksaw Ridge for less than what we spent to make Braveheart. I did Braveheart with Mel 20 years ago and that cost 50 percent more than this movie. So that was condition one.

Then I found a director. At that point, Mel had passed twice on directing the movie. I found another director I was happy with. After we’d agreed to meet their budget, they said, “No, it has to be a PG-13.” For the next six years it was they wouldn’t sell the rights back to me and they wouldn’t make the movie and they kept trying to find directors to do a PG-13. I always believed that was the wrong thing to do.

The defining moment of the movie is the battle. Okinawa, as you may know, was the bloodiest battle of World War II other than Stalingrad. You have to show the horrors of war in order to understand the Desmond’s heroism. I finally got Mel to read it a third time. This time he said yes but there was no way his movie could be a PG-13. We went back to Walden and asked them to drop out and they did.

Over the course of his career as a director, Mel’s vision of battle is more intense than anyone else’s.

Right. I agree, obviously. I've never taken the same movie to the same director three times. It's not like I'm a glutton for punishment. It was more that I agree with you. What Mel had done in Braveheart was to present the most realistic battle sequences of an ancient battle with spears and medieval weaponry. He put you in the middle of the action.

I hate current cinema that uses too much CG so that nothing seems real. It's fake army against fake army and fake humans against fake humans. I thought the practical shooting of the battles was part of the story, so I kept going back to Mel.

There's no other director that could have done what he did. When we did Braveheart, he had studied every battle sequence from probably every movie in history. I knew he was well-equipped to know what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, even though this is a modern war, not ancient war.

It was a great experience. We took battle accounts from Okinawa and we read lots of individual diary material from soldiers who fought during the campaign. Almost everything that happens in the battlefield was truthful, even if it wasn’t specifically truthful to Desmond.

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This Oscar nomination represents a big comeback for Mel Gibson. A lot of Hollywood turned its back on him while he worked through some personal issues but you chose to work with him.

For me, it wasn’t really about all that. He was always the best guy for the movie. I offered it to him two times where he passed before he said yes the third time I asked. To me, he was always the right person to direct this movie, even if he didn’t think so at the beginning and even if Hollywood didn’t think so at the current time. I didn’t really care about that. I cared about how we could make the best movie.

I thought his transgressions were made while he was drunk, which doesn’t make it excusable. After ten years, and he's been sober for the ten years, that at some point you should move on. If there's no forgiveness in life, then I think it's a poor world we live in. And I just didn’t think it was something that I should pay attention to, so I ignored it.

You’ve had an interesting career. You ran a major studio at Fox. That’s something a lot of people would consider a dream job. Once you had to leave that post, how did you figure out the transition to your new career path?

Actually, it wasn’t very difficult. I believed running a studio was like coaching a football team or managing a baseball team, that in some ways you're always hired to be fired. So you shouldn’t get attached to the artifice of the office and all of that stuff. I treated it like it was just a job and that actually made me better at what I did and helped me to ignore all the pressures or the perks.

The day after I left the studio I went down to an Office Depot and took a shopping cart and bought all the things I would need to run my new office. After that, I just went in and did what I always do. I did the job and didn’t worry about what people think or worry about anything other than what's in front of you.

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