Like all films that Mel Gibson has directed, “Hacksaw Ridge” contains amazing heroics and spiritual transcendence. And, like other Gibson films, it’s violent.The person responsible for capturing that mayhem was Australian cinematographer Simon Duggan (“The Great Gatsby,” “I, Robot”).
With Sydney, Australia doubling for West Virginia as well as Okinawa, he used the Alexa with Panavision Primo Anamorphic Prime lenses, and the Red for hand-held shots.
“Everything was quite contained, including the battlefield, and we tried to simplify down how much we saw and really focused on the performances and stayed really tight to the storytelling,” Duggan said.
To help create that intensity, the second unit placed Black Magic pocket cameras among stunt guys when running through bombs, which allowed for the creation of dramatic cutaways.
While action was a key storytelling element, “Hacksaw Ridge” hinges on pacifism — and Gibson calls it a love story. It’s based on the true-life story of Army Medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who refused to carry a gun yet earned the Medal of Honor for saving more than 75 soldiers while under enemy fire at the Battle of Okinawa.
Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge was located on the island’s white coral outcrops; white rock at the Sydney location made for a suitable stand in. Duggan said that to create the titular ridge, he utilized a cutout once created for a railway line, with a practical build for close-ups of rope climbing.
“For battle scenes, we stripped off the top of a hill about the size of a small football field,” Duggan said. “And I said to Mel, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get away with this unless we smoke the whole thing up.’ So we brought in trucks with smoke machines. That creates its own environment from anything else, including Okinawa.”
Gibson divided the battle into three sequences. In the first, they go over the ridge and discover the force of the Japanese army, hidden in bunkers, and get blown off the mountain. Doss’ miraculous heroism inspires his comrades, and they mount a successful assault and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
“There’s the anticipation and mystery of finally getting up to the top of the cliff face and now knowing what they’re up against: a faceless, relentless enemy. The goal was then to blow up the bunkers,” Duggan said.
“I tried to make the three sequences different by starting with the opening battle sequence with just slightly less saturation than what we saw in the West Virginia barracks,” Duggan said. “The second one I tried to pull a lot of color out and the third one [shot in slo-mo for a surreal effect] we pulled even more color out, so it was a gradual turning toward black and white.”
Gibson created meticulous storyboards for the battles, but Duggan said the director came up with even better ideas during the shoot, including a beautiful shot of water and blood streaming down the face of Doss, which recalled “The Passion of the Christ.”
“We tried to do this film our own way, and not get swayed by any other reference,” Duggan said.