Hacksaw Ridge: Why It Took a Lifetime to Make (Plus 10 Years)

We sit down with Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of Hacksaw Ridge, to discuss a long odyssey to screen.

Hacksaw Ridge, this weekend’s new and poignant World War II film from director Mel Gibson, has been a long time coming. More than 70 years since those hellish days on the island of Okinawa, the courage and heroism of Desmond Doss, a Medal of Honor recipient who ran into combat and saved dozens of lives while refusing to ever lift a gun, has been mostly lost to the sands of time. This is in part because Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, never felt comfortable sharing the story of his life to strangers—especially to those of the Hollywood variety, war movie icon Audie Murphy notwithstanding.

Yet, near the very end of his life, his church was able to convince Doss to welcome the spotlight, illuminating how a man written off as “Conscientious Objector” by the Army became the pride and inspiration of his platoon in ‘45. Sadly, by the time Robert Schenkkan, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter, was brought onboard to adapt the harrowing wartime trials and tribulations of Doss for the screen, Desmond was already on his way out, passing away in 2006. And it took Schenkkan, as well as producer Bill Mechanic, another decade to get that story on the screen.

When I sat down with Schenkkan for a phone interview on Halloween, it all obviously seemed to payoff for the filmmakers. The reception for Hacksaw Ridge, from the Venice Film Festival to our very own review, has been glowing. And for Schenkkan it is the culmination of a long journey that began even before working on HBO’s The Pacific or his writing of All the Way, a play that starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson and went on to win the Tony for Best Play in 2014.

In our below discussion, we talk about his obvious fascination with American history, and these focal points where forces as large as the Civil Rights Movement or the Second World War (particularly in the Pacific) sweep up individuals to do extraordinary things. We also chat about the unusual presentation of Hacksaw Ridge, with its two-act structure going from something “old-fashioned” to something that is brutally, relentlessly, and violently contemporary. And, of course, we discuss the real-life Desmond Doss and why it took a lifetime—plus 10 years—to get his experiences on the screen.

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I understand that you were in Venice when the film received a 10-minute standing ovation. What was that like?

Oh my gosh, it was fantastic. I had never been to Venice before. It’s such fun, but this, I’ve never really experienced anything quite like this, the film. And the audience stood up and applauded, and it’s a large venue—and they turn around so they could face us, Mel and I, and the cast were all sitting in the back, and as you heard, applauded for 10 minutes. Or, as I like to say, one minute of applause for every year of my life on this movie.

Had that been the first time you’d seen the finished film?

I had seen an early version that was not finished. There was still some green screen, the composer hadn’t finished his work, but enough that you could really get a sense of how powerful it was. So yes, this was the first time I had seen it all put together. I was just knocked out. Even having lived with it this long, it was just so impressive what Mel had achieved, and what Andrew [Garfield] and the entire cast had done. Just a very, very compelling picture.

You said you spent 10 years of your life on this project, so when exactly did you begin work on Hacksaw Ridge?

Bill Mechanic, the producer, brought me on in 2006. He had just acquired the rights from David Permut, another producer, who had gotten the rights from the committee that Desmond had set-up within the Seventh-day Adventist Church to manage the licensing and overseeing pace of production on his rights. So 2006.

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If it was 2006, were you actually able to speak with the real-life Desmond Doss before he passed away that year?

I was not. He died only weeks later, before my deal had even been concluded. So I was very disappointed in not to be able to do that. And what I had then was this black and white documentary that I had to work with. This black and white documentary and transcripts of tape recordings of interviews that the director of the documentary had done: Desmond and Capt. Glover, and some family members, and other people in the military who had known Desmond. So it wasn’t really a lot to work with.

I know one of the reasons this project is only coming about now is that it wasn’t until the very end of his life that Desmond wanted his story told, cinematically or even in a documentary. He seemed very reluctant to pass the story on. Did that affect how you approached the material at all or did it inform this film?

You’re quite right, he was very modest and never wanted to be seen as bragging about his achievement. He would always say the real heroes are buried over there. In fact, a studio sent [war movie icon] Audie Murphy to his house to try and convince Desmond to sell his life rights, and he refused.

So I came into this certainly aware that there were strong feelings on the part of Desmond’s family and Seventh-day Adventists about this story, and I understood their concern that it not be—that the seriousness of Desmond’s faith and his achievement not be diminished. But quite honestly, I never saw that or felt that as a burden.

I don’t think you could do justice to this story if you omitted that. The challenge, for me and for [co-screenwriter Andrew Knight], who came on after me, was not to let this story go in the other direction and become a kind of retelling of a secular saint. Desmond Doss is not. He’s very, very human, very flesh and blood. Idiosyncratic and a flawed human being like anyone else. And I think what’s important about that is it makes his extraordinary achievement on the battlefield, his heroism, that much more inspiring. And also, that much more available to any of us watching this movie.

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Desmond did not talk a lot about his internal life. As I said, he was very modest and also very devout, so he would sort of give it up. But I can’t help but believe that on the battlefield that his faith was seriously called into question, certainly his courage was. So my goal was to really make that clear. So what I seized on, to kind of give you the best examples of this, is the whole issue about why Desmond would not touch a gun, which has nothing to do with Seventh-day Adventism or necessarily pacifism.

I made a mystery out of that in the movie. It sort of comes up in the middle of the first act when he’s in the boot camp, and he’s pressured first by his commanding officer and then by an army psychiatrist to explain, and you’ll notice, he’s kind of sly in the way he handles it. He doesn’t really answer the question directly, and indeed, he doesn’t answer the question until the evening of his first awful day of baptism by fire on Hacksaw Ridge when he finds himself in a foxhole with Smitty, who’s been his primary tormentor throughout boot camp and this Army experience.

They see each other and watched each other out of the corner of their eye during this day of combat, and begun to rethink who that person is. And in this moment of shared intimacy, they begin to open up to each other, and Desmond explains why he doesn’t pick up a gun. Why he won’t touch a gun, and it’s not the answer Smitty was expecting, or even maybe the audience was expecting. It’s not about sitting in judgment of other people; it’s that Desmond is so keenly aware of his own innate violence, he’s so keenly aware of how easily he could kill and that’s why he doesn’t touch a gun.

It seems there’s a real affinity for you with the World War II generation at large. I don’t know which project came first for you, but in addition to Hacksaw Ridge, you were nominated for several Emmys for your work on The Pacific. What attracts you to that era and the Pacific Theater, in particular?

You know, do you find the story or does the story find you? That’s a hard question to answer. Hacksaw Ridge preceded The Pacific. I will say my own father served in the Pacific in World War II, and he was a demolitions expert; he defused unexploded Japanese ordinances, and I grew up in a house that was full of the seashells that he had collected from the Pacific islands on which he served, and there was an umbrella stand by our front door that was made out of artillery shells, and defused hand grenades on the bookcase. [Laughs]

So I was very, very aware of that aspect of my father’s life, and certainly in both instances, I carried that with me into the project with the intensity of I wanted to be sure that I’d get it right and honor these men. Not just my father, but all of those who served in this campaign, and do them justice. That was the most important thing for us in The Pacific, and I’m pleased to say that that was the response of all the veterans that we talked to. Because it was so violent, so savage, and so different from Europe, that those men came home and never talked about it, they never talked about it.

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Desmond himself returned both physically injured but also emotionally. Clearly, he suffered from PTSD the rest of his life. So there was certainly an imperative on my part to get it right.

My grandfather also served in the Pacific and he was actually at Okinawa.

Oh my gosh, really? In the Army or was it Marines?

Army. I heard about three stories my entire life that he would tell about [combat]. He did not want to talk about the violence of the war.

It was brutal.

Branching out from that, your work includes an obvious fascination with history itself, with both All the Way as a play and then a film, as well, on the darker side, The Quiet American. What is it about these sweeping moments in American history that grabs your attention, and what are some of the challenges in exploring them as a dramatist?

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Yeah, well, I’m always drawn to a great story, and at the center of which is a strong, compelling character whose internal conflict is at least as great as his or her external conflict. And it just so happens that on a number of occasions, that story has been predicated in fact and a natural historical moment. The other advantage to telling a story like that is that often times, these are moments of hinge points in history where an enormous change unfolds and unfolds as a result of the actions of a mere handful of people. And I find those transformational moments really fascinating and important for us as an audience member to be aware of and to share, because they empower us in our own lives to believe that we can be agents of change, we can be transformational.

The challenge of course is that you’re not a historian, you’re not a documentary maker. You’re a fiction writer; you’re telling this story as entertainment and you have a very specific point of view, and a very limited time frame to tell that story. So you have to be very, very specific what the theme is, what you’re about here, why are you telling this story, and why are you telling this story now?

And in terms of Desmond Doss, that was very clear to me that this extraordinary individual, such an outsider, such an outlier, really. A pacifist who wants to go to war. I think violence, as H. Rap Brown said, is as American as apple pie. And it’s certainly a staple in American cinema.

But Desmond Doss is a very unique take on the whole idea of violence. In the typical American movie, the hero, the man of principle, rejects violence. In Act One, he refuses to pick up the gun. By Act Two, his family has been violated. And in Act Three, he picks up the gun and delivers justice, and becomes a man.

Or Grace Kelly does.

[Laughs] Or Grace Kelly, yes, exactly. And to me that’s a really good story to be putting out there. That’s a really good story to be putting out there now. So the trick is with this fact-based story—stories serve as history—to tell that story in the must human way as possible. To open it up to a contemporary audience, so that they can feel, find themselves emotionally, and engage in it and identify with it. That’s the challenge always.

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Obviously, Mel returning behind the camera gets a lot of attention, especially in a story that deals with faith, but neither of you are Seventh-day Adventists. How do you view the role of spirituality in this movie? You said you didn’t want to make it secular.

Yeah, it’s a great question. I said I didn’t want to make him a secular saint. I think Desmond is clearly a man of faith, but he’s also a man of principle, and I think that’s the thing that cracks this story open to the widest possible audience. Whether they’re faith-based or not, Desmond is a man of principle, and his principles are under terrific siege over the course of these two hours. And how does he manage this? How does he balance the challenging and often conflicting calls of his religious practice and his patriotism? His desire to protect his country from what he feels is assault.

Desmond was not a proselytizer; he never sat in judgment on his fellow soldiers. He wasn’t out there to save anybody else’s soul. He just wanted to practice his faith as he understood it and to serve in the Army. What’s interesting, I think, in telling, is the one compromise that Desmond makes, the one time that he actually goes against one of his fundamental principles, is there in the latter half of the movie when Capt. Glover comes to him and says, “Look, we have to go back to Hacksaw Ridge, and the men aren’t going to go without you, and it’s your Sabbath.” And we’ve seen what that means to Desmond, we’ve seen the abuse he’s taken to protect that aspect of his belief system, and here the captain is asking him to set it aside, and Desmond agrees.

Why is that? It’s because there’s a greater principle at stake, and that principle is Desmond’s feeling for his fellow man. And that sense of self-sacrifice trumps any kind of rigid ideology, and there again, he becomes just so human, I think. And that is such an extraordinary moment, and I think is part of what again makes this character and story interesting, and available to anybody, regardless of whether you share Desmond’s particular ideology or not. I do not. Nor does Andrew [Knight], and yet we felt this really deep, profound emotional response to this man, because it’s a principled stand. And that’s really compelling, theatrically and cinematically too.

It’s a tightrope to walk, because Desmond’s internal life, which makes up most of the first half of the movie, is so at odds with the hellfire he ends up running into. Was it your decision to broaden the story to include so much of his home life from the time before Okinawa?

Absolutely, the structure of the film is absolutely the structure that I originally created, including the very brief flash forward at the beginning of the film from Hacksaw and coming back to his childhood.

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It’s interesting, this film, to speak for a moment in structural terms, is actually in two acts; it’s not in three acts. That’s very unusual for contemporary film. Secondarily, this first act, a number of people have commented on how old-fashioned it feels. And they’re not being critical, there’s a kind of sweetness to it, leavened with the darkness of his father’s violence. So there is both a bucolic, small town, America in the 1940s, and yet within that, we already see the shadow of the violence that his father brought home from his wartime experiences. So it’s kind of great foreshadowing in that. But the point is to set Desmond up in this milieu, so that we understand where he comes from, and the set of principles and beliefs that are, in many ways, naïve, certainly innocent. And then to catapult him with that set of beliefs and his faith into, as you say, the hellfire of combat. And that is quite intentional.

If the first act feels somewhat bucolic and old fashioned, the second act is relentlessly contemporary. It’s a very contemporary affectation of war and combat, and violence. And the shock is intentional, it’s meant to make the audience identify with Desmond, not just visually, but emotionally, kinetically, with his experience of the horror of war.

It did remind me of some classic Hollywood movies that were testimonies the heartland, like Capra, or the Quaker objectivists in Friendly Persuasion. Were you looking at some of the movies from that era in which Desmond went to war and came home to inform his worldview?

I did not as a research issue, and I’m certainly familiar with it. And I think that definitely played a part as I was approaching the material, and sort of feeling my way through this. Definitely, my familiarity with the filmmakers you’re describing, and the cinema of the era, certainly bled into what I was trying to create.

Once we are in the war, how closely did you feel compelled to hew to the historical record of Desmond’s exploits on Hacksaw Ridge?

It’s not like we have a minute-by-minute chronology of his actions on the ridge. We have Desmond, his testimony that was presented by his commanding officer when he recommended Desmond for the Medal of Honor. We have some of Desmond’s interviews when he described some of his experience, so much of this is imagined rather than based on literal fact. There are moments, like the soldier who has been concussed and has had dirt blown in his eyes, and can’t see and fears that he’s blind. And Desmond washes his eyes and restores his vision. It was a simple act that has a miraculous kind of feeling to it, because this man can see again. That actually happened.

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And you’ll notice at the end crawl, one of the sequences is where we see Desmond himself, he is describing that very event. So there certainly were events that happened that we used, but I would say three-quarters of what is there has been created. It’s all, I feel, absolutely accurate. Nobody has challenged us on that, I feel very comfortable. But it’s a really interesting, from a screenwriter’s perspective, challenge.

Essentially, your hero, here we are in the culmination of the film, but his physical action is actually repetitious, you know? It consists of moving across this devastated landscape, avoiding the Japanese, finding a wounded soldier, temporarily binding his wounds, and somehow getting him to the edge of cliff and lowering him down. How can you make that interesting, over and over again?

The challenge then was to find as many ways to demonstrate Desmond, the character’s creativity, his brilliant improvisation in the moment, so that each time he begins this task, this Sisyphean task, it’s different. It’s a different group of Japanese, the terrain is different, the wounded soldier is different, and Desmond’s response of how to get away with this and stay alive, and keep his casualty alive is so clever and so smart, and so entertaining as a consequence, that was a really interesting challenge from a screenwriting standpoint. And I think ultimately we met that challenge, and then Mel just shot the hell out of it and added his own touches to it as well.

So he really did save or attempt to Japanese lives?

He did, more than one.

What lessons do you think Desmond’s heroism has for the modern world in 2016 as we move into our own American moment right now?

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There are two, of course. One is that we live in a world that is full of conflicts great and small, and so many of these conflicts are created by religious differences. And here’s Desmond Doss, who goes to war but whose religious motivation is to end suffering and to save lives. I think that’s a really good thing to keep in mind. And number two, here we are in the Age of Trump; there’s a certain kind of masculinity being modeled currently that’s all about domination and self-interest, and cruelty. And Desmond offers the very different kind of masculinity, which is about subordination of self to a greater good, compassion, and self-sacrifice. And I think that’s a really important model of masculinity to be putting out there right now.

Robert, thank you so much for doing this today, it’s been terrific.

Thank you, David, and I as well. Great questions.