Oscars: 'Hacksaw Ridge' Producer Says It Had to Be "R-Rated and Violent and Bloody"
Bill Mechanic revealed the real-life warfare behind the making of the film.
Twenty-two years after Bill Mechanic joined forces with Mel Gibson for the Oscar-winning film Braveheart, the two reteamed on another war story, Hacksaw Ridge — about a real-life combat medic who saved dozens of lives during World War II, without ever touching a gun. Last time, Mechanic was the 20th Century Fox chairman who greenlighted Gibson's picture; this time, he's one of the producers. The industry veteran, who also produced the 82nd Academy Awards, described Hacksaw's 15-year journey.
How did Hacksaw come to you?
It goes way back to 2001. Terry Benedict, a documentary filmmaker, secured the rights from Desmond Doss, who had bequeathed them to his church, the Seventh-day Adventists. He never wanted to sell the rights, so he'd been turning people down for 60 years. But [at age] 80, his friends told him to do it. So he made a deal to do a documentary and feature film, and I watched a two-minute clip from [the documentary] This Is Your Life, and it was a great story.
Did you ever meet Doss?
No. I didn't want to. I didn't know if he'd be happy or not [with the adaptation], because he didn't want publicity. You don't really want to get too involved with the people you're making a movie about, because you're going to change things, and when you mess with people's lives, even little things become important.
Why did the film take so long to get made?
I funded a script by Terry, which didn't really work. Then we started over with Robert Schenkkan, and he came up with the structure. I set it up with Walden [Media] and looked for where to shoot it: Australia, New Zealand or Hawaii. The budget was $70 million-something, but then Clint Eastwood's [WWII] picture Flags of Our Fathers came out in 2006 and didn't work [at the box office].
The picture went into deep freeze for a few years but was revived. How?
I cut the budget in half, because Walden said they'd make it at that price. Then Walden said, "It has to be PG-13." I thought, I don't know how to do that, because this is about the second-bloodiest battle of World War II, where 300,000 people died. When Mel said yes, I told Walden: "Mel's going to direct, and it's not even going to be a soft PG-13 — it's going to be R-rated and violent and bloody, and that's what it needs. You either have a problem on your hands or you let the picture go." Finally, they let it go.
Wasn't Casey Affleck supposed to play the lead?
He really wanted to, but at that time I couldn't sell him to Walden. Interestingly, I saw Casey at one of the recent awards shows. We hugged, and then he turns to [Manchester by the Sea writer-director] Kenny Lonergan and goes, "This guy didn't want me in his movie." Casey was and is an exceptional actor, but he needed something like Manchester to put him over the top commercially.
Once you had Andrew Garfield on board to play Doss, where did the financing come from?
We qualified as an Australian-content picture, which was the big breakthrough. That gave us a big subsidy, and New South Wales, where we shot, gave us a smaller subsidy. Then IM Global came in and provided foreign-sales guarantees, and Cross Creek Pictures put up the equity. We had $42 million.
That's a fraction of Braveheart's budget.
Braveheart was $67 million and 23 years earlier — with no bullets or bombs.
What was the toughest part of filming?
We started shooting on Sept. 1, 2015, and went for 10 weeks, so we only had 42 principal shooting days and 19 days of second-unit, battlefield stuff. Mel and I ended up funding the last three days ourselves. One day, on the battlefield, we had hail the size of big pebbles and had to shut down, and a week and a half later we had 160-degree radiating heat. Everything about the battlefield was extremely difficult. But the only person who ever got injured was Andrew's stand-in: He tripped and broke his ankle, leaving work.
What surprised you about Mel?
It took him a while to settle in, but he was great. The two best scripts I've worked on, where a director made someone else's work better, were Fight Club and this.
How did your career as a studio executive help you as a producer?
They're different cuts of the same cloth. What the studio teaches you is to think about the marketplace, that whatever you're interested in, you should know if there's an audience.
What's the biggest change you've seen in the industry since you left Fox in 2000?
It's less about what you're making and totally about the marketing. The studios aren't trying to make great movies, but rather successful movies. When they're not trying to make great films, but prefab houses or the flashiest cars, the business suffers and so does the art. Big isn't inherently bad and small isn't inherently good, but there isn't an ambition to make the big films great.
Is there a dream project you've been unable to make so far?
The story of [Chicago Prohibition agent] Eliot Ness. It was a great script by Ehren Kruger. We almost made it six years ago and were headed into preproduction, then Paramount changed its mind.
Would any studio finance Hacksaw today?
Not a chance. But nobody was going to make Braveheart. Nobody wanted to make Titanic. I got put in boiling water for Fight Club. I had to let go of Traffic. Films like Hacksaw Ridge weren't something anyone wanted to do back then — and they want to do them even less now.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.