On November 4th, Summit Entertainment released Hacksaw Ridge, a new action drama set during World War II. Directed by Mel Gibson, the feature tells the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), who chose to serve as an unarmed army medic on the frontlines in Okinawa. The story details how he was able to save the lives of 75 men without ever firing a weapon. The film also stars Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths and Vince Vaughn.
John Gilbert, ACE (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), edited the film, which was actually shot in Australia. Here, he talks with Post about his year on the project, his Avid workflow, working with Mel Gibson, the director, and the thought that went into cutting the feature’s brutal battle sequences.
How did you get involved in this project?
“I knew (producer) Bill Mechanic, as I’d done one previous film with him. He was coming down to Australia to shoot, and wanted a predominantly-Australian crew. As a New Zealander I count as an Australian due to a long-standing free trade deal with Australia. I had read the script and wanted to do it, so I flew myself over to meet Mel when he was location scouting. Happily, I got the job.”
The film was released on November 4th. When did you complete work?
“We finished maybe six weeks ago or so. I think about the end of August. We mixed in Los Angeles, but it was essentially made in Australia, and being set in Lynchburg, VA, and Okinawa. Hopefully no one can tell. There was a screening in Virginia and some people said, ‘Oh, we didn't see you. How did you manage to slip in and out shooting without us noticing?’”
You are from New Zealand. Do you have a home studio or do you travel?
“My home is in Wellington, New Zealand, but I work in Australia, the States, and the UK as well. I am an international traveler these days — since I did Lord of the Rings, I guess. I've only done two films in New Zealand, and the rest I've been on the road in various places.
“I always get Avids set up on location or go into a post facility, and they provide two or three Avids — whatever we need. I don’t like owning editing gear, it’s always been a headache whenever I’ve done that.”
What camera formats were used to shoot Hacksaw Ridge?
“It was digital. It was principally Arri Alexas, with some additional Red cameras, plus some smaller Blackmagics used for stunts. Up to ten cameras on two units on the battlefield scenes.”
There are a number of different settings and timeframes in this film. Were you working linearly or in blocks?
“The scenes in Virginia were pretty much shot in a block in a little country town in Australia. The film opens there, with a rich, colorful kind of look. They shot that first, then the army barracks scenes, which were a mixture of studio and locations near Sydney. Then they shot the battlefield scenes, which were pretty arduous, maybe six weeks in the heat of summer with tons of smoke and dust.”
Can you talk about the different looks?
“Virginia was a warmer, more saturated look, and the film became less saturated and cooler as it moved into the battle scenes. There was a blue, steely look for the latter part of the movie — the battlefield, which was pretty oppressive.
“The battlefield was about an hour's drive outside of Sydney. It was a piece of turned-up dirt, basically. The art department will probably raise their eyebrows at me calling it that, but the idea was it being a piece of ground that had been bombed and shelled and fought over several times before, so it was pretty much a wasteland.
“Also, there was a lot of smoke. The shelling and gunfire produced a huge amount of smoke. So that was an interesting exercise to maintain continuity of smoke level. The VFX people helped us out a lot to maintain the illusion of continuity in that area.”
You were cutting in an Avid. Was there an on-set DIT creating DNx files for you?
“The on-set DIT worked with Simon Duggan the DP to make the LUTs, and the DNx files were made by Deluxe, the post house in Sydney handling the film for us. That all ran pretty smoothly. I try not to get involved with that, and my assistant Carly Turner had it all under control. With all the cameras there was a lot of footage, especially on the battlefield. I think the record was nine hours one day! Nine hours of footage, but more regularly four to five hours.”
Were the battle scenes the biggest challenge in a film like this?
“There are three main battle scenes in the film. The first one is 11-minutes long, and keeping the energy and chaos of the battle sustained was a nice challenge. Mel (Gibson) shot the bulk of it with the main unit, including everything with the cast. The second unit shot a lot of stunts and more detailed hits and explosions. Then, once I'd done the first pass of those scenes, we would get the second unit to go out and shoot what we needed to enhance or expand them, with carefully designed additional shooting. Mel always had in his head what he wanted, but it’s tricky being the second unit guy, having to interpret that. Mic Rodgers did a great job staging some beautiful stunts for us. Mel was keen for us to push the boundaries with the visceral, violent mayhem of battle. There's quite a lot of bloodshed, and the second unit came up with some of that.”
What was your mindset in cutting the battle sequences?
“The first battle is maybe 11-minutes long, and I wanted it to be immersive and relentless, so the audience would feel like they were really caught up on it. I'm sure it's impossible to experience what it's really like to be in a situation like that, where you're under attack and your friends are being shot down all around you, but that's what we were trying to do. Our battlefield is smoky and you can't see the enemy a lot of the time, and I wanted you to feel that anything could happen, anytime. Your nerves are shot with the randomness and chaos of it all.
“I guess [Saving] Private Ryan is similar in a way, but because our battle is later in the movie, you are more familiar with all the characters, so it’s more emotionally affecting, hopefully.”
With so many cameras shooting, was it hard to keep that battle at 11 minutes, and not, say, 20?
“I didn't ever want to take the foot off the pedal. It just keeps going. I didn't want there to be any room for the audience to recover. So it wasn't really a problem. We probably could have done a slightly shorter . There was a bit of debate about that. It goes on for quite a while, and I guess we want to sort of overwhelm the audience with it, so we didn't want to make it tidy and short...It's not just storytelling. It's an emotional thing to put the audience there and really kind of knock them out with it.”
What was the status of the visual effects when you were editing?
“They were working on them all the way through. There were maybe 600 to 700 visual effects shots, I guess. We were still working on some of them while we were doing our final sound mix. Visual effects was challenging because we didn’t have a huge budget. We had to be careful about not wasting money on work that won't end up in the movie. It's always a balancing act between releasing visual effects early, so you can get them done on time, but not so early that the cut hasn't developed far enough to ensure that those shots end up in the movie.
“We also wanted to use as many practical effects as possible. The stunt teams had these box bombs that I think were a great innovation. They looked like the real thing, but a [stunt person] could run over one of these as it exploded and not be injured by it. And because they are practical on-set, the actors react to it. The camera reacts to it. And I think we've got something that looks a lot more real because of that. I think explosions are quite difficult, digitally. We had some background explosions that were digital, but the foreground ones were pretty much all real.”
Who handled the visual effects?
“It was mainly done by Slate, a Sydney company. Chris Godfrey was our visual effects supervisor. He'd just come off The Great Gatsby.”
Were you working with temp music?
“I did a temp score myself, so we didn't have a music editor. I always enjoy creating a temp, as it’s such an integral part of the edit. I find that because I'm connected to the drama of the scene, I kind of know what I need. The main thing is finding the time, as it’s pretty time consuming. We previewed it with my temp and I think it played pretty well. Mel was very happy with it.
“One thing I did was, the first battle scene, I played entirely without music. It's sound effects only. The sound guys were quite taken aback that they had such a huge scene to themselves without music. They said, ‘We would never get a scene like this. It's always covered in music.’ So they were really pleased with that.
“I wanted the three battles to have a progression, so the first was sound effects only, and then the second battle — where our guys get overrun — to escalate emotionally, so it has a big score. And the third battle is more impressionistic — a kind of a ballet.”
How long were you working on this film?
“I think they started shooting in 2015, September, so the whole thing was pretty much a year. They shot up until Christmas of 2015. And we were previewing in May, I think, so it came together pretty quickly. And then after that we were really fine tuning the score and VFX, and so on, through July and August.”
You had multiple Avids for this film. Who did you have assisting you on the edit?
“My first assistant was Carly Turner, who is Australian, who I've worked with on one previous film. And I had a visual effects editor comp’ing in rough VFX. So there were three Avids. Carly was running dailies, and I had her adding temp sound effects as well. Kathy Freeman was the visual effects editor. She did a fantastic job tracking everything, as you can imagine [all the] logistical nightmares because the cut keeps changing — tracking all of those visual effects.”
What was your experience working with Mel Gibson? What kind of feedback did he give you on the edit?
“I will say that I really enjoyed working with Mel. He was fantastic to work with. He was very trusting of me, and he didn't micro manage me. There were some things that he was very particular about. As an actor he has a great sense of what he wants performance wise, but he also let me do my thing and we had a great time. He likes to tell a few jokes too, so that helps.
“There were particular scenes in the movie, key scenes, which were very important to him, that we worked over very thoroughly. There's a scene where Andrew Garfield has to make a choice whether to escape and save himself or run back into the battle to probable death. The tiny nuances of the performance and making the decision — key moments like that — we edited over and over again. There were a few frames here and a few frames there, until he felt they were perfect. There were a few scenes like that — a few key moments, which were very important to him. But a lot of the other scenes I put together and he was really happy with the way I had done it, and we just went forward.”