The war film is a genre unto itself, but there are only a few that have truly been able to convey something close to the true horrors of battle. For all its faults, director Mel Gibson’s new World War II film Hacksaw Ridge — based on the true story of a conscientious objector whose bravery during the Battle of Okinawa won him the Medal of Honor without ever touching a weapon — is one of those films.
The planned chaos of such a massive undertaking fell on the shoulders of Production Designer Barry Robison. His work on the film’s battle sequences drive home the claustrophobic and harrowing experience that Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and troops on both sides endured in the brutal fighting in the Pacific theater.
Inverse chatted with the veteran designer about having to create Okinawa in a cow pasture in suburban Australia, being stressed out about small budgets, and learning how to plan battle scenes from the films of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
The film’s color palette seems to follow Desmond’s state of mind as he goes to war. Was that something you wanted to convey?
Absolutely. Production designers think a lot about using the color palette to help tell the story, but this was a true story so I couldn’t push it too far. We had to be subtle. So, for example, look at the light of the hospital in the Lynchburg scenes. In research photos we saw that hospitals of that period were extremely pristine and clean. So that allowed us to introduce Dorothy, Desmond’s eventual wife, in an angelic way when they’re falling in love.
But we always had to be careful, because it warranted a definitive visual style. But we weren’t interested in making it a docudrama. I tend to be a pretty theatrical designer, but I also never wanted to take the audience out of the true story.
Mel Gibson certainly isn’t a newcomer to huge battle scenes. What did he specifically want out of those sequences from you for Hacksaw Ridge?
We talked a lot about Akira Kurosawa and how he dealt with war and structured the battle sequences in films like Ran. Even though the war sequences were chaotic and horrifying, they needed to be clear and you had to visually understand everything.
Mel had been away from directing for ten years, and when he started on this, you could tell he was a bit tentative. We pretty much shot the sequence in continuity, and as every week went by he became stronger and surer. If you look at the battle, it’s broken up into three parts, and we talked a lot about three different visual styles for that. There’s scrambling up over the ridge and the chaotic fog of war, then you go into a night sequence that becomes a bit more dream-like, and the third is the shortest portion of the battle where the Americans take the ridge. In the last sequence he wanted it all told in dream-real terms: slow motion and fog and flames.
Describe the actual Hacksaw Ridge set. It seems like you stressed practical locations and effects instead of CGI.
Mel didn’t want to use modern art department tools like 3D computer modeling and had us build an actual model so he could physically feel and plan out the landscape. We did a tremendous amount of site prep to make it work. We found the location in eastern Sydney, way out in the suburbs because it has huge tracks of dairy land, and we carved the battlefield out of a cow pasture. We also used that location for the Japanese farmhouse and the U.S. army headquarters, which was really production-friendly, because we were able to jump from location to location. And we actually brought the model out on location so my team could understand how it needed to be sculpted.
The battlefield location was surrounded by a lot of eucalyptus trees. Hacksaw Ridge is not a big-budget film and extensive CG effects would be too expensive, so we suggested digging down into the field about 12 to 14 feet to build up the sides of the battlefield to hide the trees. We basically created a big battlefield bowl, and you only saw sky above and on the horizon. Digging also let us sculpt in plumbing lines and drainage ditches but also let us add terrain if Mel needed a different look.
What about the ridge itself?
We found a ridge in a place north of Sydney called Goulburn, and we used that in the movie. However, it was very difficult for the cameras to get to the actual ridge face, so Mel came to us and said he had a challenge. We needed to build the cliff face on the battlefield set. The cliff face needed to be at the low end of the location so we ended up taking plaster molds of the real cliff in Goulburn, digging a trench down even further on the battlefield location about 30 feet deep and 60 feet wide, and attaching the molds to scaffolding down there.
In the movie you see troops climbing the rope ladder to get to the battlefield and the camera is able to follow them up and over in one shot without visual effects. It’s old school tricks.
It sounds like you had free rein to sculpt this entire cow pasture.
Free rein isn’t quite accurate. We had to go through the town council and everything had to be approved, and we had to use biodegradable materials. We had to put the entire battlefield back to its pristine state when we were down as we found it. So there were actually a lot of restrictions that needed explicit approvals and permits, especially when we had to do multiple takes of big explosions.
What are some of the challenges in designing something this massive that people might not realize. What problems aren’t obvious?
We had an incredibly tight budget, and it stressed me out a lot. We could only afford three Jeeps, two trucks, and one tank. And we had to figure out how to make it look like a big war movie with such small numbers of armament and not a lot of CGI. It’s thrilling to see everything put together by Chris Godfrey, who is a brilliant VFX supervisor, and his team by “tiling,” where you can duplicate the vehicles in a computer and make a mosaic in the shot to multiply them. It looks absolutely real to me.
We’d do tricks like make one of the Jeeps into an ambulance for shots and then turn it into an officer’s transport. We’d use a supply truck in one scene and then it’d be a troop carrier in another. We stayed scrappy.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.