Australian Cinematographer Simon Duggan ACS (The Great Gatsby) shoots Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, a gripping wartime tribute to faith, valour and the courage of remaining true to one's convictions - by Garth Cecil
Mel Gibson’s first big screen directorial offering since Apocalypto (2006) is a visual sledgehammer that tells the true story of Corporal Desmond Doss and his actions during the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific Theatre of World War II.
Andrew Garfield plays Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist from rural Virginia who claims Conscientious Objector status and, although refusing to carry a weapon, serves as a combat medic. Doss heroically saved the lives of over 75 infantrymen at Okinawa and was the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honour.
Garfield delivers a commanding performance while fellow import Vince Vaughn continues his recent run of dramatic roles as the unit’s wise cracking Drill Sergeant. The internationals join an impressive list of Australian talent including Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington and Teresa Palmer while Hugo Weaving and Luke Bracey shine as Doss’ traumatised WWI veteran father (complete with an angry southern mumble that would make Jeff Bridges proud) and tormentor turned confidant, Smitty respectively.
Subtle is an adjective unlikely to be used when speaking of a Gibson film and that certainly doesn’t change with Hacksaw Ridge. The journey of Doss and his Comrades is skilfully woven though with the viewer left in no doubt of the supreme bravery of these men or the importance of Doss’ faith.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan ACS (The Great Gatsby, I Robot, 300: Rise of an Empire) shot the film for Gibson around Sydney and speaking to Australian Cinematographer Magazine from Los Angeles was full of praise for the iconic Director.
“Gibson has forty years of acting experience behind him,” says Duggan, and while this was the first time he has worked with a director from an acting background, he is a fan of the benefits such an approach brings. Gibson would just “jump in and show by example,” a capability Duggan feels was of particular benefit given the ensemble of young men on set; “He’s a great storyteller and really knows how to structure a film. He works very closely with the actors and knows their onscreen characters back to front.”
While the pair hadn’t worked together before, an initial meeting at Gibson’s LA office went well, uncovering many mutual friends in the industry and a new team was born.
In commencing work the team’s primary reference points were film from Okinawa and pictures from Virginia at the time. “We’re telling a real story about a real event in World War Two so our reference really was the war footage… and whatever we could find of Virginia in the 1930s and 1940s.” Duggan says they didn’t draw on other war films as they “had something concrete that we wanted to try and be as truthful about as we could.”
The war footage shot by combat cameramen on the front lines of the battle shows, amongst other horrors, the significant role that flame throwers played. While it’s easy to try and draw a link between these hellish weapons and a little fire and brimstone in a movie that highlights the triumph of a man’s Christian faith, Duggan says this is simply a realistic depiction of the battle; “it looks like we’ve gone over the top with the flame thrower idea, but that’s how it was, that’s what was happening.”
Confronted by the almost impenetrable network of underground tunnels and bunkers created by the Japanese, “the army realised the only way to flush them out was by using flame throwers shooting straight into the tunnels. On the lower parts of the Island they actually used tanks with massive flame throwers attached to their turrets. There was some horrific footage from the actual war.”
Both Cinematographer and Director have imposing resumes of high action battle filled films and although the action in Hacksaw Ridge is visually stunning with a cutting edge appearance, they didn’t draw on much that wasn’t available in Braveheart (1995) or Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Duggan expands; “In essence we used the tools that have been around for over twenty years with the main difference being shooting digital rather than film,” although “the equipment is more sophisticated allowing us to work more efficiently.”
“We used the Scorpio telescopic crane extensively and occasional cable cam on the battle field to glide over the top of rough terrain and bunkers. The remainder was Steadicam, handheld and we also had a couple of Black Magic Pocket cameras placed right under soldiers running through SFX bomb explosions.”
For the coverage of action around the cliff face at heights of eighty-feet leading to the battlefield our Grip Toby Copping and team built the Scorpio Crane on top of an industrial crane with a large working platform designed by Grip Paul Hamlyn called ‘The Stinger’. Second Unit also had the Scorpio crane suspended in a truss cube from above the cliff face for further stunt work.
“With lighting on the battlefield Gaffer Shaun Conway used an array of very portable LED units run off batteries for fill light as we were very restricted running cable throughout the set. We surrounded the accessible perimeter of the set with HMI’s to maintain the backlit quality of the smoke which was pumped in by two truck mounted smokers continuously circling the set. For our night shoots the moonlight was constructed from a large array of LED softlights hanging from an industrial crane.”
Fancy toys and newer devices like the Stabilised Head help the end product but nothing beats human skill Duggan says; “It’s all about getting the camera into the right position, into that exact position that you want it and getting the camera movement that you want.”
“The second attack was the Japanese army in stampede mode pushing the US soldiers back to the cliff edge prompting the US to call in heavy artillery to end that encounter.”
“The third and final attack was the US soldiers finally overpowering the Japanese army and their surrender. For the end battle Gibson didn’t want to go back to the frenetic visual pace of the previous battle scenes so we shot most of this sequence in slow motion giving a much more surreal feel to it.”
“Interspersed with all of the battle were all of the scenes showing Doss’s story saving many of his injured soldiers and even compassion for a couple of the injured Japanese. Our 2nd Unit Director Mic Rodgers designed some amazing additional choreographed action sequences along with 2nd Unit DP Damien Wyvill ACS.”
Editor John Gilbert was also important in helping to pace the battle scenes and provide a finished product that the audience could keep track of, Gilbert would “often send messages” requesting additional shots or giving feedback to keep the frantic action followable.
Location wise, the film stayed an all Aussie affair, contrary to initial expectations; “It was very difficult finding locations that worked for both Okinawa Japan and Virginia, USA. Production Designer Barry Robison and Art Department headed by Jacinta Long and Mark Robins researched a lot of reference and realised that even if we had gone to the real locations there was not much existing from the 1940s. Instead we spent weeks with Gibson finding suitable locations in and around Sydney and managed to get away with it with careful framing and propping. Every scene except for the interior training barracks, a network of underground tunnels and small prison cell were shot on location.”
The imposing cliffs of Okinawa were in-fact a rail cutting near Goulburn in NSW that fortunately offered a near perfect match of the white coral cliffs of the Japanese island.
A smaller set of cliffs was built on set at Bringelly, west of Sydney, to allow the actors and crew to work more easily (and no-doubt to placate insurers). A dairy farm in the area offered a sufficiently elevated horizon to mimic the real life clifftops and, with a little digging and dressing, an area about half the size of a football field became the expansive battlefield we see on screen.
The rural set also forced some production choices for Simon; “One of the main considerations I had about the battle scenes was not revealing the existing backgrounds of trees and neighbouring farms around the location as it was supposed to be a cliff top with a clear horizon. I decided early on to have continuous smoke rolling through every shot. With the addition of smoke it provided a more mysterious environment creating a very monochromatic set with blackened earth combined with the muted colour of the uniforms.”
The choice of what to shoot on was far more straight forward; “It was a given we were going to shoot digital as there was no film processing in Australia. The Alexa was my choice for main cameras and we shot spherical as we also used an array of smaller cameras and lenses. In post-production I was going to try some film grain but Gibson and I decided the film just didn’t need it.” Simon chose Panavision Primo lenses to capture the action.
Simon has been able to work with an unchanged Grip, Gaffer and camera department on most of his Australian films and is glowing in his praise; “Mark Goellnicht was my A/Steadicam Operator with Calum McFarlane on 2nd Camera, both very proactive guys when it comes to blocking action. David Elmes was A-Cam 1st AC and ran the camera department with Jake Iesu as his 2nd, and Gerard Maher and Rebecca Crowe were 1st and 2nd ACs for McFarlane.”
“For the battle scenes we called in my 2nd unit DP Damien Wyvill ACS who shot some great imagery along with operators Christian Gibson and Ricky Shamberg. They were assisted by Scott Dolan, Meg White, Cara Bowerman, Jani Hakii, Hilary Crombie, Meg White, Scott Wood, Ehran Edwards and Inaki De Ubago.”
“With such a professional crew you can put your total trust in them allowing you to concentrate on the creative process. We never had to worry about focus or camera problems during the whole shoot. The battle environment was particularly tough for them to work in. Not to forget my DIT, Sam Winzar, who I worked very closely with creating looks as we filmed as well as closely watching scene to scene continuity.”
Before and after shooting Simon had clear ideas on the approach he wanted to take to colour; “After scouring through all the 1940s photo reference we decided on a desaturated Kodachrome colour palette of secondary colours whether it was painted finishes or wardrobe and then skies and foliage were further balanced in the colour grade,” Duggan then “colour-graded the film with Trish Cahill at DDP Studios Sydney. I briefed her about what I was after and had her balance out the film before I came in to go through all the looks.”
“The film has a subtle colour progression of desaturation commencing in the 1930s with a slight sepia feel for the younger Doss family, lessening as we transition through to the training camp. When the soldiers hit Okinawa I started draining the colour out further and as each battle progressed we gave it different amounts of tint, whether cool or warm to separate different times of the day. The battlefield had a very different feel to the base camp situated a few miles away and was given a warmer dusty feel. Even though quite subtle I felt it was important to make each scene on Okinawa slightly different so each battle or location didn’t meld into one another.”
Looking back at the film Duggan is happy with the way it came together “both structurally and emotionally.” A powerful finish to this tale of superhuman heroics is the real-life footage of Desmond Doss as an older and unremarkable looking man shot by a documentary film maker who had previously chronicled the Doss story.
Duggan’s tips for aspiring cinematographers and filmmakers are drawn from his own journey, there is no substitute for building relationships and getting on a real set, he says; “Especially if you’re still a teenager, no one knows what you’re capable of doing so the best thing you can do is just work as hard as you possibly can and get to know as many people as you can and earn their trust.”
While Duggan agrees filmmakers of today may have outlets not available to prior generations with YouTube and easier access to cameras and film making tools, this can only take you so far; “A lot of people can go out just with their camera on their own and put this material together but they’re really not finding out what the industry’s about itself. If you want to be involved in feature films you’ve got to start working with the whole crew to get an idea of how it works.” However he says, creating is still important, and “if anyone is talented enough to make their own stuff and get it up on YouTube they’d definitely get noticed.”
Duggan has practiced what he now preaches over the years. He got his start when his father, who worked in advertising, helped him get an interview Ross Wood Film Productions at eighteen. He was hired into the camera department and worked his way up through the ranks to Director of Photography after several years. It was here that he got into lighting, “My real love is creating atmosphere through light,” he says. But it was the ability to soak up knowledge from working production staff, demonstrate his competency and build relationships that laid the foundation for a career.
Relationships continued to serve him well. Alex Proyas, with whom Duggan had worked on multiple projects including Garage Days (2002), fought to keep his collaborator as DOP for I, Robot (2004) when filming was moved from Australia to Canada. While the studio had angled for a more established Cinematographer with production going ahead in North America, it was Proyas that kept Duggan on the US studio film that showed his skills on the big stage and launched his career to a new level.
Between films, Duggan is now based in Los Angeles and happily shoots commercials while waiting on feature opportunities he wants to take on. While I Robot, 300: Rise of an Empire and this year’s Warcraft: The Beginning may lead one to pigeonhole Simon as a Visual FX film guru, he’s looking for something a bit more human in his next project. When asked what, he says “I’d love to do some serious, award-winning drama.”
With a recent trip to Camerimage in Poland where Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for the Golden Frog, he may have already done it.
Garth Cecil is a freelance Writer based in Melbourne.