Interview: Producer of Oscar-nominated "Hacksaw Ridge" has lived with the story most of his life
By Michael D. Peabody
Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, is the Oscar-nominated true story of a Seventh-day Adventist army medic who single-handedly saved the lives of 75 men while refusing to touch a weapon. Hacksaw Ridge highlights non-violent action in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and explores themes of religious dedication and accommodation.
Terry Benedict, a producer of Hacksaw Ridge who also created the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, has been living with the story of Desmond Doss for most of his life. He is in Los Angeles for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony.
MP: You got to know Desmond Doss personally and spent a lot of time with him before you put your documentary together. How did you get to know him?
TB: My parents were genius enough not to let my sisters and me have a television while we were growing up. So that forced us to figure out other things to do like go outside and play kick the can or read. I read voraciously. When I was about ten, like most boys, especially back then, you went to the library and were attracted to war stories about heroes. So, I read through the World War II canon of books. Guadalcanal Diary, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and of course Pearl Harbor.
Then I read Booton Herndon's book, The Unlikeliest Hero. It was like no other war story I had ever read. It's about a guy, Desmond Doss, who didn't want to carry a gun, they harassed him and tried to kick him out of the army, and then he ended up saving the lives of 75 of these guys who hated him by lowering them down a hundred foot cliff using a rope with this knot he invented called the double bow line. And he did all this incredible stuff under heavy gunfire.
As a boy, my mind was going wild, picturing how all of this happened and reconciling the pieces of that puzzle and what it must have been like.
A couple of years later, when I was about 12, I had the chance to meet him at a church summer camp. He was just this humble 150 pound guy who's very soft spoken. He'd come up and give you a hug or shake your hand. You knew he really cared about you. He spoke about how important having a moral compass and a relationship with God was and how that's what got him through his difficult times, not just during the war but even post-war being disabled like he was.
That really just stuck with me and helped me with challenges in my own path. So many years later in the late '90s when I had a chance to meet Desmond again, we went to a couple of Medal of Honor reunions that all the guys do annually. Again, I saw the same humble man, and how the other Medal of Honor recipients treated him and put him on, I wouldn't say a pedestal, but they seemed to regard him higher than themselves. He was appointed as their chaplain for many years.
They just respected him so much because of his uncompromising values and beliefs. It was self- evident that Desmond had this unconditional love towards mankind and it emanated from him. Everybody knew he would not just give the coat off his back, he'd give his life for anybody. Most importantly, the military recognized that the men he saved were alive because he would not compromise his relationship with God and manifested proved that relationship in his service to his men.
So how did you get Doss to let you tell his story?
Hollywood had been after his story since 1945 when he got the medal. But he didn't want to be glorified, he wanted that to go to God and he was also concerned that his character would be compromised. So he had always said, "No."
However, Desmond was very interested in having his story told to youth because that was his passion. And I told him, "I get that, but there are universal themes that the whole world can benefit from by your example." He hadn't thought about it in that way before.
One day we were standing out in front of a little grocery store in Collegedale, Tennessee — a small town outside of Chattanooga. We were talking about it and he said, "Do you really think that this would work as a film?"
I told him, "Desmond, it'll work crazy good. And you know what? I know you're concerned, but I promise you this, I'll answer to God first, you second, and everybody else can get in line."
He thought for a second, got a big grin on his face he said, "Okay, let's do it."
So my idea was that we would do the documentary, The Conscientious Objector, in order to establish the credibility of the story. I used to joke with him, "Your Medal of Honor citation reads like a big fish story, it's unbelievable. When you're gone, that's all that's gonna be there and people will say, 'well that was just an exaggeration.' So while you're living and whoever else we can find still breathing, we need to do the documentary first and then there's always time to do the movie."
In 2000 we started the documentary and the challenge began to find the last few vets that had shared the war experience with him.
We finished in the spring of '04 in an effort that took almost four years — twice as long to make as I thought it would. But I had told Desmond that we get one shot to do it right and we needed to maintain a standard of excellence because it's a first class message of hope and inspiration.
We didn't have to wait long to find out. The Conscientious Objector was accepted into Cinequest, the 10th ranked film festival in the world at the time, and started an amazing two year run on the film festival circuit. The film experienced quite a winning streak. We were very blessed with all the accolades and recognition. I was most happy though that Desmond got to see the fruits of all the hard work and the impact that his story had on people.
You also have been at the front lines in the world of emerging technology.
Yeah, I took a chance and made the decision to film in a brand new hi-def 720p format which was still in the engineering stage. Panasonic and Canon came on board as sponsors and we were using prototype cameras and lenses. It was risky because we didn't have manuals and had to call the other side of the world for tech support, but I knew the story deserved to live in perpetuity in the hi-def world and not a soon to be archaic format. It was the first feature length documentary to be shot in 720p hi-def and blown to Super 35. It went on IDA's In-Fact documentary tour so it could qualify for the Academy Awards. I had an incredible crew of creatives who really contributed to what has become a timeless work of art.
I've heard that the documentary is being re-released.
Yes, it's never been released on Blu Ray, so this will be the first time people will be able to get it in a high-def format. I've also gone into the studio to re-record the voiceovers. When we were on the Film Festival circuit, for two and half years, the film lived in the best possible scenario on large theater screens. So it's about time that everyone can see it in its original format.
At the end of Hacksaw Ridge, they play clips from your documentary.
Yes. There are some key clips that bring home the idea this was a true story. In fact, one clip circles back to the wounded soldier who had thought he had been blinded. Desmond washed his eyes out on the battlefield and he could suddenly see. That was one of Desmond's favorite experiences of the whole war time period for him. Seeing the real people and knowing the story is true has touched a lot of people's lives.
So what was it like working with the cast of Hacksaw Ridge after working on the documentary with Doss and being around the people who had been on the battlefield?
The cast and crew were terrific. Everyone was very engaged, Mel saw to that. He screened the documentary before filming started. That really created a common point of reference and appreciation for Desmond's story.
Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, truly wanted to honor Desmond with his performance. That went beyond just learning the nuances of Desmond's accent, gestures, and little ticks. Before filming on Hacksaw Ridge started, I brought Andrew to Chattanooga, Tennessee to immerse him in ‘everything Desmond.’ We went to where Desmond lived and is buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery. Then we did a road trip into Virginia where Desmond grew up in Lynchburg. We visited Desmond's boyhood home. Took him to the train trestle where Desmond used to put pennies on the rails and watch the trains come by and flatten them.
I showed him the path through the woods where Desmond walked 5 miles to donate blood. That sort of thing. Oh, yeah, we went to a place, this isn't in the film, but Desmond used to…well, let's say he wasn't always an angel. …he used to grab the back of the milk truck on his bicycle and let the truck pull him along and then sling him around the corner, sort of like crack the whip. He got in big trouble for doing that.
I took him to where his life happened. Because of my relationship with Desmond, the point was to give Andrew a chance to absorb, not just the environment, but ask a lot of questions about Desmond's way of thinking.
As result, he did an amazing job layering Desmond's character in subtle and nonverbal ways that clearly comes across in Hacksaw. So much so, if someone sees the documentary and then watches Hacksaw; they will witness a seamless transition between the real Desmond and Andrew's performance. I'm very proud of Andrew for what he did and the commitment he made to giving 100%. His Oscar nomination is well deserved.
It seems that one of the themes in your films is the idea of an ordinary person ending up in an extraordinarily bad situation where life and death are in the balance and still not backing down from their convictions.
There’s a quote that I've been living with for a very long time. In 1963, Martin Luther King said, "If a man hasn't discovered something worth dying for, he isn't fit to live." I really think it speaks a lot to our obligation of accountability to be here and not just to take up air space, but contribute to society in a positive way – that includes social justice. So the stories I gravitate to, are stories that have universal themes, that inspire us to be better people, inspire us to take action in our lives and the lives of others. We should leave this world a better place than how we found it.
It's true. That's a universal theme that I believe will always resonate and inspire an audience. One of the things I've realized in doing some of my non-profit work like working against sex trafficking in Nepal, is how relevant many ordinary people are making an extraordinary impact.
Desmond Doss and Troy Davis both exemplified an ability based on their faith in God to be unwilling to compromise even in the face of death.
So what's coming up next for you?
I'm anxious to get a new story out about what it’s like to fall between the cracks of the justice system. Given our political situation and the dynamics that have gone on, it's going to be a timeless cautionary tale. But I've got other projects that are more outright fun – inspirational stories that families can be entertained. One of our films that we’re developing is a true Native American story that is a Stand By Me meets Last of the Mohicans.
So I'm actually really excited about the new projects we’re developing. I don't know if I told you that my new producing partners, one of them is my exec producer from Hacksaw, but all of us, and when I say all is that this group is growing now. It's gone from three, four, five, it may even reach out into six. All of us are Pepperdine Alums. You went to law school there, right?
Yes – and I'm almost done paying for it. By the way, I've got to ask you one question that's a bit off-topic. One of my friends in the industry told me that your name was the inspiration for "Terry Benedict," who is the casino owner in Oceans 11. Is it true?
Yeah, Andy Garcia, who played Terry Benedict in the Oceans films, my good friend, writer, Richard Wenk (The Equalizer, Magnificent Seven) and I were going to do a film together back in the early '90s and it ended up getting delayed, but we got to know each other. Anyway, it's not uncommon for writers to use their friends' names and things like that in screenplays. So yes, there's some truth to that urban myth.