It's a testament to the success of Hacksaw Ridge that the film has become more than just Mel Gibson's comeback. A violent war film that centers on a man who will do no harm — Seventh-Day Adventist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the only conscientious objector to ever win the Medal of Honor — Hacksaw Ridge embraces its contradictions, resulting in an idiosyncratic and effective character portrait infused with Gibson's particular brand of artistry. But Hacksaw isn't just the work of Gibson, and its remarkable sequence of the struggle to take the titular ridge during the Battle of Okinawa is a testament to the collaborative aspects of filmmaking. Vulture caught up with the film's production designer, Barry Robison, who walked us through how they recreated World War II's Pacific theater in an Australian cow pasture.
On his first discussions with Mel Gibson about Hacksaw Ridge:
Once I came onboard, we started just talking about it conceptually. He wanted the ugly intensity of war to be on display. That’s a rather abstract term, so we started talking about other films, other war films. We talked about [Stanley] Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, of course [Steven Spielberg's] Saving Private Ryan, and [Akira] Kurosawa’s Ran. That seemed to be the one that really sparked Mel’s interest the most, because of Kurosawa’s artistry as a filmmaker. They weren’t World War II battle sequences, they were ancient battle sequences, but Kurosawa was able to add clarity to it through the use of color. He shunned the idea of his work being based solely on images, because he really thought that there needed to be emotional underpinnings, and Mel felt the same way — he felt that without emotional support, the image is just an empty promise.
On splitting the battle into three parts:
Mel talked a lot about the three sequences of the battle. The first is during the day, when the [soldiers] rise up and over and onto the battlefield — that’s a late-afternoon day. It’s just been shelled, heavily bombarded, so there’s smoke from trees on fire and burned earth — the real fog of war. The guys are at the top of the escarpment, and the land is laid to waste, and you see the body parts and the maggots and the rats, just horrifying, horrifying images. The second sequence is at nighttime, and Desmond and Smitty are down in their foxhole or crater, and they’re hunkered down for the night, and Desmond goes to sleep and has nightmares. It’s the dream-sequence element of the battlefield. The third sequence is the last battle, all set in that fog of bombardment, with burning, searing images of flamethrowers on the horizon, men being burned and the scorched earth. That third sequence, Mel decided that he wanted it to be more theatrical, led by a great score and also using slow-motion as a technique. And then finally, the Japanese surrender.
On preparing to re-create the battlefield:
To prepare for the shooting, we had to build a model, a one-inch scale model. Mel didn’t want to use any of the modern technology that’s available to us, no 3-D modeling, no SketchUp, no Maya, any of those kinds of things. And it was the right decision: He wanted it as a three-dimensional model, much like they would use in World War II. So my model maker, Geoff Kemmis, and I began to sculpt the battlefield out of clay; Mel was then able to show it to the VFX supervisor; Simon Duggan the DP; and the stunt coordinator Mic Rogers, and be able to go, This is how I want to see the battle here, and get the camera down there. They were all able to look at it and sense what the challenges of the battlefield were.
We then took that model out to the dairy farm we were using as our battlefield, and we set it up on a table out there. We left it for our greens department to sculpt the land. It was a pristine dairy farm, and they scraped the land to dig down and build the bowl that the battlefield became. That allowed us to put in effects rigs, special effects, and smoke tubes, and place effects charges in the ground. With any movie, it’s set, and the set has to be reset for each take, and we have to do it in a speedy way.
On the most difficult part of the battlefield to pull off:
The battlefield was really cool — we were out in the middle of a cow pasture in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, we dug a bowl to hide all the eucalyptus trees, and we were on an 18-degree slope. The top of the battlefield was the high point of the cow pasture, and then it came down, and in the low section, that’s where the actual cliff face would be. But we didn’t build an actual cliff face — we had gone to a place called Bringelly, where there was this amazing cliff face, and that’s shot in the movie and you see it and it’s huge. Mel shot it out, and he had his editors edit the sequence together, and then he and a producer came to us one day, and they go, “Hey, guys, we’ve got a little challenge for you.” [Art director] Mark Robins and I go, “Oh, yeah? What is it?” And they go, “You’ve got to build the cliff face at the battlefield.” And we went, “Oh my God.” It was enough of a challenge just to get the permits to build the battlefield from the town council. Now what we’ve got to do is, because we’re on an 18-degree slope, and they want it at the low end, now we’ve got to trench down 30 feet into the ground, 30 feet by 70 feet wide, and we have to put in drainage, and we have to put in gravel, and we have to get permits. And then we have to erect scaffolding, go back up to Bringelly, take molds of the rock faces, bring them down, put them up onto the scaffolding, and have it all set and ready to go in about three and a half weeks. Then we had to restore the entire property back to its pristine state, so we couldn’t use anything that wasn’t biodegradable.
On why all that hard work was necessary:
It was very difficult to get up to the actual face itself at Bringelly. So they could do all the wide shots, but they couldn’t get the close-ups of the actors. And Mel also wanted, rather than using VFX tricks, he wanted a one-shot of following the guys up the rope ladder and getting to the top of the battlefield and then showing it wide. It’s in the movie, and it makes me so proud, I can’t even begin to tell you.