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Front Page - Friday, November 4, 2016

In the trenches with ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ producer


Benedict discusses the life of Desmond Doss and what his story means today



Hacksaw Ridge producer Terry Benedict - Submitted

Terry Benedict grew up expecting to be an archaeologist who would discover the Holy Grail. But he took a detour instead and found himself in Hollywood supervising chase scenes, most notably for “The Terminator” and “Marked for Death.”

Benedict’s passion for filmmaking led him to produce and direct the award-winning documentary, “The Conscientious Objector,” which pro?les the life of Desmond Doss. Doss was the only American soldier in World War II to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed killing under any circumstance was wrong. During the Battle of Okinawa, he saved 75 men in a matter of hours. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After making “The Conscientious Objector,” Benedict scripted the ?rst draft of the theatrical narrative project based on the documentary, and is part of the producing team of “Hacksaw Ridge.” On Wednesday, Oct. 26, he spoke with the Hamilton County Herald about the life of Doss and what his story means today.

How are people responding to the film?

The response has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Everyone, especially critics, has had their chance to mouth off, but no one is because it’s an amazing film. It’s inspirational and moving. You’ll leave the theater evaluating yourself and thinking, “How do I measure up? Is my faith strong enough that I could face what he went through?” It’s a conversation starter, which is what we love as filmmakers.

When did you first come across Desmond’s story?

When I was 10 years old, I read a book called “The Unlikeliest Hero.” I was a voracious reader because my parents had decided we weren’t going to get a TV until we were about 12. As a boy, I became attracted to the war culture, so I went through the whole World War 2 cannon: “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Guadalcanal Diary,” books about Pearl Harbor, and so on. Then I came across Desmond’s story, which is so different and unique, and it spun me around. It impacted my life in significant ways and helped to set my compass. Desmond was one of my first role models other than my parents.

How did Desmond’s story affect you?

My parents brought us up with a principled perspective that included faith, and seeing how Desmond stood up because of his faith, and how he was so deeply convicted of various philosophical and theological ideas that he couldn’t be detoured away from them, served as encouragement and an example. To me, that’s what role models are about; they provide a possible road map through life. And that helped me. If he could do that, I thought, I could do this one little thing.

How did you come to develop a relationship with Desmond?

I met him at a summer camp a few years after I read the book. He really impressed me; he was a simple man, very easy to approach, and I felt like he cared about those of us who were at the meeting. I reconnected with him at the end of the ’90s and got to know him. I wanted to tell his story, but he had been denying Hollywood since 1945. He knew he was fading, though, so I developed my relationship with him to the point that he agreed to let me tell his story, and off I went to do the documentary knowing I would start developing the feature movie after that.

I told Desmond nobody should do anything else until we get the documentary done because I was worried about people fading off. And, sure enough, that’s what happened as we went on that three-and-a-half-year journey. One of his commanding officers died two weeks after I interviewed him. Others passed away a few months later, but most of them were able to see the finished product, including Desmond. I was with him three days before he died, and then I was in Washington D.C. receiving an award from the Seventh Day Adventist World Church the moment he passed away. It was uncanny.

Did anything about him surprise you when you got to know him?

Most of us would harbor ill feelings toward the people that are grieving us and seek retribution. Desmond saved the guys on the ridge, but then what happened? Did he give them the what for? No. When we talked about that, he said, “Terry, they didn’t understand me. It was that simple. And how could I fault them for that?”

What are some things people are taking away from Desmond’s life?

Desmond didn’t want to be glorified. He wanted the honor and glory to go to God. He didn’t want his character to be impugned or compromised. so I told him outside a Village Market one day, “I will do everything I can to protect the essence of your character. I’ll answer to God first and you second, and everyone else can get in line. I’m not going to compromise your story.” So the documentary is an accurate portrayal of who he was and who his men were. You could peel countless onion layers off him and still see his core of love, compassion, and caring, and his reliance on his faith in God. I learned to try to be more patient with people and to try to be more forgiving.

Talk about the development of the feature film.

I had the theatrical rights, so when I started looking around town, I was introduced to Bill Mechanic, who was the president of 20th Century Fox during the “Titanic” and “Castaway” days. He was very successful during that time, and then he went off to be an independent producer. Bill got the magnitude of Desmond’s story, and I knew he would champion it and protect its integrity, so we partnered up.

Bill got Mel involved. Mel saw the documentary, read the script, and became convinced that this was a story worth telling. He saw the magnitude of the story, too, and understood its relevance to today. He also wanted to keep the story pure, which made good on the promise I made to Desmond.

During that process, I brought Andrew Garfield, who was the Amazing Spider-Man, to Chattanooga, and took him to the National Cemetery, where Desmond is buried. He wanted to crawl into Desmond’s skin as deep as he could. I also took him on a road trip to Virginia, where Desmond grew up, and let those five senses go to work. Then I worked with him on his accent.

I was, unfortunately, the only person around who knew Desmond deeply and personally. Even though it was a grandfatherly relationship, Desmond said things to me he’d never shared with anyone – even his own family, which was not uncommon for his generation. As a result, Andrew was able to become much more nuanced and create a character that was very enriched. If you watch the documentary and then watch the movie, it’s amazing how close he comes to the mark. Desmond, Jr., was at the Hollywood premiere, and told Andrew he nailed his dad.

The end result is very close to the actual story. Some variances in terms of compositing were necessary to keep the story moving, but I’m very happy with how it turned out. Based on my conversations with Desmond and the time I spent with him, I believe he’d be happy, too.

World War 2 has been deeply mined by Hollywood. For people who might feel like they’ve seen enough of that time period on film, why should they see “Hacksaw Ridge?”

Since the story is about a medic, the point of view of the battlefield is 90 degrees different from what you would expect to see in a war film. Mel [Gibson] did a terrific job of putting Desmond’s heroics in the proper context in terms of the graphic nature of war, and he walked the tightrope of heroism and carnage so we could appreciate what Desmond accomplished on that hill.

You mentioned how Desmond’s story is relevant to today. Can you touch on that further?

It’s always good to have a set of beliefs and be convicted of those beliefs strongly enough to be able to stand on them in the face of high winds, because right is right and wrong is wrong. In today’s world, there’s a lot of ambiguity, but the principals that guided Desmond weren’t base on dogma; they were based on the first commandment – the umbrella commandment of loving your fellow man. When I was a kid, my dad would ask me what this world would be like if everybody was like me. After reading Desmond’s book, I knew the answer. If we all acted like Desmond, this world would be a better place.

So all of us on the filmmaking team are really hoping that when you walk out of the theater, you’ll be evaluating yourself and asking, “Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I stand for? Would I do what he did, or would I compromise my principals?” We’ve seen this at the previews as people are walking out. That’s a conversation we want to take place, whether among faith-based audiences, the military community, or the secular population.

We should all be having that discussion. The military culture had a rigid policy everyone had to follow, but they failed to recognize that some diversity can be helpful in certain situations. They miscalculated that Desmond joined because he wanted to serve, and because he had a specific passion and gift to serve as a combat medic. If they had just trained him for that from the beginning, the two-and-a-half-years of abuse he suffered during training wouldn’t have happened. So the military community learned from Desmond’s story. I saw this firsthand when Desmond and I visited the Pentagon while I was making the documentary, and three- and four-star generals were saluting him. He was in his civvies – he wasn’t even wearing his medals – but they knew who he was. They respected him for the contribution he made to their community.