In 2001, veteran producer David Permut was on the set of Disney movie “Double Take” when he heard about Desmond Doss — the only conscientious objector to ever be awarded a congressional Medal of Honor for heroism.
Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who became a medic and served in World War II while adhering to his religious convictions. He saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa.
“It stopped me in my tracks — the notion that he would not even touch a gun,” Permut recalls from the Oz set of “Hacksaw Ridge,” Doss’ story helmed by Mel Gibson. “He’s a forgotten hero. This is such a unique way into a war story — a man who stood by his convictions.”
In its 14-year path from idea to production, “Hacksaw Ridge” picked up eight producers and a $53 million budget. Besides Permut, the producers include Demarest Media CEO William D. Johnson; Cross Creek’s Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson; Bill Mechanic through Pandemonium Films; Gibson’s longtime producing partner Bruce Davey; Australian producer Paul Currie; and Terry Benedict, who directed and produced the 2004 Doss documentary “The Conscientious Objector.”
Steve Longi, a co-producer on the project, recalls that in the early days, writer Greg Crosby had been negotiating with the Seventh-day Adventist Church for rights, but the church opted to give control over to Benedict, who was working on the documentary. “We teamed up with him and then brought the project to Bill Mechanic,” he says.
Permut says Mechanic said yes within a few minutes. “It was the fastest yes I’ve ever gotten.”
Mechanic, who was based at Disney at the time, funded the first screenplay, but was dissatisfied and started again with Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, with a rewrite by “Braveheart” screenwriter Randall Wallace and a polish by Andrew Knight.
“Desmond Doss is just an amazing person in that his belief was that a war can be just, but that killing is always wrong,” Mechanic says. “It’s a different version of ‘Braveheart’ — which is why we got Randall to work on it.”
Disney wasn’t interested in the movie so Mechanic and Permut brought on Philip Anchutz’s Walden Media to produce and finance in 2006 — which eventually led to a difficult problem.
“Walden wanted a PG-13 movie and I thought the story would be hurt if we went that way because it’s so intense,” Mechanic says. “So they didn’t want to make it, but they also did not want to let it go. Ultimately, they did, and they were very gracious about the process.”
Wallace, who had directed Gibson in “We Were Soldiers,” had been attached to direct but in late 2014, Gibson came on board as director.
Oliver’s Cross Creek and Johnson’s Demarest Media soon came on board.
“Mel, as a director, has never made a bad movie,” Oliver notes. “Figuring out the rights was complicated because it had been in development for so long.”
The financing structure firmed up at the Berlin fest in February, where Lionsgate bought U.S. rights and Stuart Ford’s IM Global sold out most territories at a market where there were relatively few large-scale projects for sale.
“We came on at the point that Mel and Andrew had come on board so we moved very aggressively and made a split-rights deal,” Ford recalls.
Ford says he’s impressed the movie is already shooting. “At Berlin, Bill told us that he would be in production by late summer. Often, that means that you drum your fingers for a year.”
On Aug. 17, YooZoo Pictures acquired Chinese rights in the first high-profile acquisition for the company, which will also have a presentation credit in international territories.
“We always thought the script was magnificent and Mel has demonstrated that he can make a movie with a heroic protagonist. When those kinds of projects are available, you have to jump quickly,” says Mechanic.