Oscar-Nominated Producer of 'Hacksaw Ridge': What It's Like Being in Development Hell for 16 Years
David Permut spent 16 years in the development trenches with Mel Gibson's 'Hacksaw Ridge.' Here's how it all went down.
At the heart of Hacksaw Ridge is the kind of story that begs for a movie. It's a wonder, then, that it took 16 years to get the film made. Thanks to veteran producer David Permut's dogged determination, the independently-financed Hacksaw Ridge has clawed its way from the depths of development hell to be nominated for six Oscars on Sunday, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.
Mel Gibson's World War II film is the story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist soldier whose defining moment came in the 1945 battle for the Maeda Escarpment, known as "Hacksaw Ridge" for its precipitous, sawed-off appearance. Though the ridge was violently defended by the Japanese, Doss carried his fallen comrades one by one to safety, lowering them off the 400-foot summit—all while refusing to touch a gun. The battle came to be known as one of the bloodiest of the war; Doss saved hundreds of lives.
Aside from the principled hero at the fore, Hacksaw Ridge will be remembered for the deeply visceral experience Gibson created to depict war as hell. Using CGI only where absolutely necessary, Gibson employed mostly in-camera effects; his team even invented a practical effect they termed the "bomb box," a device that functioned as an alternative to standard battle-scene tools.
Permut, who has described himself as a "pit bull in heat" when it comes to producing, got an audacious start: at 21, he produced the first-ever live-filmed stage play, Give Them Hell, Harry, in a single take. (It went on to be nominated for an Oscar.) No Film School sat down with the producer to learn about Hacksaw's 16-year trajectory from script to screen, the secret to being a successful producer, and more.
"I am often asked to define the producer. I say, 'a producer has to be impervious to rejection.'"
No Film School: How did you first get involved with the 16-year project that was Hacksaw Ridge?
David Permut: I was on set shooting a movie. Joe Kramer, a prominent stunt coordinator who has worked with me, comes up to me and says, "I know somebody who knows a man named Desmond Doss, who has an interesting story to tell."
He told me it took place in World War II, that this young soldier [Doss] wanted to serve his country, but he wanted to go to the front lines with the other men without a weapon; he wanted to save people as a medic. I knew that the army doesn't send a medic to the front lines without being trained in riflery. They needed to protect themselves and others. They needed to have a gun in addition to their medical equipment. 300,000 lives were lost in this battle, one of the bloodiest in the war. It seemed impossible. I couldn't even believe the story.
Permut: And then I found out that I wasn't the first to discover this story. Darryl Zanuck, who founded 20th Century Fox, and Hal Wallace, an esteemed producer from Hollywood's past, and other legendary royalty from Hollywood had been at Desmond Doss' doorstep proposing to make this movie long before I ever existed. He's a very humble, modest man, and never considered himself a hero, and never felt comfortable exploiting his story as a movie.
Finally, a man named Gregory Crosby helped soften the ground and convinced him that there could be some good in the world in telling his story about a man who stood by his convictions at all costs. Ultimately, after Gregory had spoken to him countless times, what Desmond decided to do was to designate the church to make these decisions for him. He was 80 years old at the time. This is 16 years ago. The man who really became the conduit for allowing us to proceed in telling this story was Terry Benedict, who produced the movie with me. He was a member of Desmond's church and he was also very close to him. At one point, he had endeavored to make a documentary about his story.
It's been a 16-year journey. The first obstacle was getting Desmond Doss and the church comfortable with myself, with Bill Mechanic, who produced it with me, and Terry Benedict, who became the real key to that door, as a producer with us in getting the rights to be able to tell the story.
"In the movie business, it's always like pushing boulders up mountains. Every movie that gets made is a miracle."
Then, over the course of the many years, the challenge became developing the script. It took a long course because it was a totally independently-financed movie, not a studio-financed movie. There were a lot of challenges in terms of getting this movie made—countless, countless challenges over the years. It was a great story, a terrific script by a world-class screenwriter, Robert Shankdon, who wrote the original draft, and then Andrew Knight did additional work. Then, of course, Mel Gibson became involved about three years ago, and he's really been the captain of the ship.
I think the film resonates more today than it would have 16 years ago. In the dangerous world we're in today, we need a hero more than ever. Desmond Doss speaks to that on every level.
NFS: What keeps you moving through 16 years of starts and stops in development hell?
Permut: I am often asked to define the producer. I say, "a producer has to be impervious to rejection." I think in life, we all need to be impervious to rejection. You as a journalist, too—there are a million no's. All you need is one yes in a sea of no's. In the movie business, it's always like pushing boulders up mountains. Every movie that gets made is a miracle. It's a very uniquely complex and difficult task to make a movie.
It all starts with a good idea: Desmond Doss telling his story. But how do you tell a war story in a uniquely different way than the great war movies that have been done? How do you make it better, or as good as like Saving Private Ryan, or The Thin Red Line, or Patton? [We wanted] to make a war movie from the perspective of somebody who's not going to touch a gun. What a unique idea. How could you not stay with a project and never give up when you have that great idea?
When you have something that you believe in—that you have conviction in—you don't give up. You stay with it. 16 years is not the longest of the projects that I've had. I have some projects that go back 20 years, that I'm still working on as I'm sitting here on the phone with you right now.
"In Hollywood today, you need to be as creative on the financial model of getting a movie made as you do on the actual creative side."
Then there are projects that move quickly. We just finished a film starring Jack Black [The Polka King], a very different movie, but also a true story. It premiered at Sundance. From the time I started that—with the life rights to a true story as well, till it got made—was three years. That's considered lightning. The average is about seven years. As you probably know, most movies that get developed into screenplay form never see the light of the screen. They never get made. There are millions of dollars expended in development, with scripts stacked up on shelves at every studio and every production company in Hollywood.
NFS: Can you tell me about the process of going to different financiers to get this complicated financial structure in place outside of the studio system?
Permut: Making a movie independently, you're a squirrel looking for a nut. You're always looking for financing. When Mel Gibson became involved three years ago, we already had a studio that wanted to make this movie. They financed the development, but this particular studio wanted it to be a PG-13 movie.
Permut: Now, Robert Shankdon already had a great script. As a producer, when you've got a great script, that's like honey to bees. It all starts with the foundation of a great script. So we had a studio ready to finance it, but they wanted it to be PG-13. You could potentially homogenize or compromise the film, but we didn't want to do that, so we got the project back. The horrors of the war, with 300,000 lives lost on this escarpment, played into the thematic material of the movie.
The next step was to finance it independently, which we did. The government of Australia, which is where we shot, has a tax incentive. That was part of it. IM Global's Stuart Ford is also an executive producer on it. He was able to sell the foreign rights in Berlinale.
Then we had some other great financial partners who were executive producers on the film. It's really a mosaic, financing a film. In Hollywood today, you need to be as creative on the financial model of getting a movie made as you do on the actual creative side. That's the uniqueness of the business we're in today.
NFS: I read that Gibson didn't want a lot of CGI in the film. Practical effects must have been extremely difficult from a producorial perspective.
Permut: Mel is the type of director who likes real action. To a certain extent, we were helped by some CGI, and a great team of people doing that, but I must say that a good part of what you've seen was the reality of what was created hands-on, right there while we were shooting. We had a great stunt coordinator, Mick Rogers. Mel's done all his films with him. He was the part of the team who really helped bring that home.
Mel decided to put an actor in a movie, Damien Tomlinson, who had never acted before. If you recall a scene in the movie when a young soldier gets his legs blown off, and he's sitting in the trenches bleeding and [Andrew Garfield] gives him the shot of morphine and carries his half body off the field...Well, Damien was blown up in Afghanistan. He was a real hero. Here you have a real soldier, who fought in Afghanistan and his Humvee was blown up. Mel didn't want any CGI and he also felt the value of putting Damien in this scene, knowing that if he could pull it off, which he did brilliantly, it would have an effect on the other actors. I remember when we shot that scene, there wasn't dry eye behind or in front of the camera.
"That's my focus as a producer: the foundation of every movie is a good story."
Mel is a man of incredible instinct. When he created that battlefield, you felt you were in the war. I watch the audiences watch the movie now, having seen it so many times, and they have visceral reactions to it. It's a horrific thing. It just grabs you by the throat. Mel puts you right there. It's an immersive experience.
The people who deserve the credit [for the practical effects] are all the people behind the camera who made that war real: the pyrotechnics team, the stunt team, the production team, the production designer. There are so many people behind the scenes who created that environment.
If the scope of the movie looks like a $100 million, it wasn't anywhere in the neighborhood. It was $40 million picture. There are so many details, down to the rat wrangler and the maggot wrangler. There are so many intricacies that sometimes you see the movie and you don't really think about that. That split second you saw those rats—well, where did they come from? They were movie rats.
NFS: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming or aspiring producers?
Permut: Be impervious to rejection. If you believe in something, you never give up. This film took me 16 years. Some take less, some take more. If you believe in something, you never give up. Go with your heart and soul. You have to be creative. You've got to think out of the box.
If you're a producer and you don't have the ability or talent as a writer, find out who does. I'm not a writer. I'm not a director. I'm a producer. I've been doing it a long time. I've 40-some-odd movies. I wrote my Oscars speech when I was 13, so it's been ready for a long time. I've always endeavored to do what I'm doing. I've always been driven by it.
"I wrote my Oscars speech when I was 13, so it's been ready for a long time."
When I speak at the various universities, I always tell [young producers] not to try to anticipate what people are going to like or what they're not going to like, because nobody knows. I'm not always right. I've made movies that have done well; I've made movies that haven't done well. The most important thing is to be impervious to rejection, go with your heart, and really focus on story.
Mel Gibson, and Andrew Garfield, and all the many people who are responsible for making this movie—they didn't make it because they like me. They made the movie because I had a great story to tell. A filmmaker like Gibson is very selective, but he's always looking for a great story. That's my focus as a producer: the foundation of every movie is a good story. Whether it's Hacksaw Ridge or Moonlight, or any of the Oscar-nominated stories, they were all uniquely different, and they were all told [by] filmmakers and producers who had a passion to tell them. So, that's it in a nutshell.