This is just a corner of the cemetery, where row upon row of tombstones stand. All of Desmond’s father’s close friends lie there and he is devastated by the loss. They all went to war together but he’s the only one who came home...
Ft Jackson, headquarters… With the knowledge that Doss’s wedding was planned for that weekend Colonel Sangston [Robert Morgan] tells Doss [Andrew Garfield] that in order to get a pass like everyone else, he has to hold a gun like everyone else... Doss refuses and is subsequently thrown into the brig, charged with the court martial offense of disobeying an officer and a Section 8 for mental stability...
Dorothy calls Desmond’s parents to let them know the situation, and tells them he said, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”
Ft Jackson barracks… So he returned to his company and barracks as a medic.
For the sets, Cohen reveals, ”I actually found a Military document that laid out how the barracks functioned, what each solider was issued with, down to the centimeter of how their beds were to be made, even how they were to present their shoes and clothing...”
Cohen slipped some individualization for character into the very properly regimented barracks... the few personal items each soldier was allowed enabled her to help the actors flesh out their characters...
“This shows the small living and cooking area. We actually fully dressed the whole set, then dismantled it and destroyed the wall panels, to make it look as if it had been bombed, with the roof timbers fallen in and debris and dirt everywhere,” Cohen recalls...
Okinawa, bivouac… The night before the first battle, and Doss is alone. His men don’t trust him and think he’s a coward. As they ready for battle, the troops returning from the ridge tell him to strip away the medic logo on his helmet and to not wear his armband because the snipers always shoot the medics first to lower morale...
Hacksaw Ridge… Each day the troops have to climb the escarpment. The battle is at the top of the ridge. These were the same cargo nets that the men had used to climb down from the army personnel carriers into the landing crafts that took them ashore...
Hacksaw Ridge… “Okinawa Maeda Escarpment is an approximately 350-foot high ridge that runs across most of the island of Okinawa. The real Desmond Doss said, ‘The Japanese had been there for years. They had that mountain honeycombed with tunnels, holes, caves and camouflaged pillboxes...’ ready to cut down any enemies who approached. The escarpment was so deadly it was dubbed Hacksaw Ridge.”
Hacksaw Ridge… Under heavy mortar, artillery and machine gun fire, Sgt Howell [Vince Vaughn] calls for his men to retreat...
Besides the bodies, body parts and debris, bullet casings/spent shells were essential elements to be scattered about. Cohen says, “I had about 5000 empty bullet shells, not enough! So it became the job of the Onset Dressers and Props to pick them up after every close-up shot to use again somewhere else!”
Alone at the top of the ridge Doss makes a rope pulley of sorts that allows him to lower each soldier over the cliff edge and down the escarpment. Over and over he slips onto the battlefield searching for wounded, bringing them to this edge and lowering them down...
Cohen relates, ”Mel was very keen for us to convey the reality of it all.
For us, the hard task was finding all these medical elements. As you can imagine, the real items that we obtained were antiques. So we set about re-creating all the bottles, medic packs, IV drips, morphine needles, and so much more, and that was after getting the proper tents!”
In the Spring of 1945 – as the war in the Pacific entered its final, most deadly days and U.S. forces in Okinawa encountered some of the most ferocious fighting ever witnessed – a single soldier stood out from the rest. This was Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector, who despite vowing to never kill, served boldly as an unarmed medic in the infantry single-handedly saving the lives of dozens of his fallen fellow soldiers under lethal fire without firing a single bullet.
Atop a steep, looming 400-foot cliff known as Hacksaw Ridge lay heavily fortified machine- gun nests, booby traps and Japanese soldiers in caves who vowed to fight to the end. It was there that Doss demonstrated that he was made not only of principle but also rare courage. Facing a desperate assault of heavy fire, Doss refused to seek cover. When his battalion was ordered to retreat, he alone remained behind and ran repeatedly into the kill zone, with nothing but his convictions, to drag to safety an estimated 75 badly injured men who were destined to die had he not intervened.
HACKSAW RIDGE is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss [Andrew Garfield] who braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. --Summit Entertainment
Set Decorator Rebecca Cohen SDSA, Production Designer Barry Robison and their teams worked to bring about Director Mel Gibson’s homage to Doss. “In a cinematic landscape overrun with fictional ‘superheroes,’ I thought it was time to celebrate a real one.... I’m grateful for everyone’s contributions. It was a privilege and an honor to tell this story...”
Cohen, who was also the set decorator for the recently released and starkly beautiful THE LIGHT BEYOND OCEANS, talks with SET DECOR about creating the degree of realism that underlies these films and give us details about the making of HACKSAW RIDGE.
SET DECOR: We spoke with Director Derek Cianfrance [Director’s Chair] re: the making of THE LIGHT BEYOND OCEANS. Both films convey a glimpse into the aftermath of war, WWI to be specific. HACKSAW RIDGE then continues into the midst of one of the ugliest battles of WWII.
But, even with one film set in Australia and the other beginning in Virginia, the home-life of each seem to have a similarity of quiet, simple living...
Set Decorator Rebecca Cohen SDSA: Yes, for LBO, the natural environment of the town and the lighthouse and their isolation suited what was needed for the characters and storyline. Being near the sea was fundamental to Hannah’s character and her hope that her husband and child may have survived, and also gives Isabel the gift of a child.
In LBO it was about the interiors, and HACKSAW was about the landscape of the battlefield, but small-town life allowed us to show Desmond’s innocence about the world. One thing that was important for us to convey is that both before and after the first war, there was the Depression, and people did live very simply. This can be said about both films.
In Desmond’s case, being Seventh Day Adventists, his family lives modestly and by a strict code of ethics, so that affected the way we dealt with his home environment. The tones were all muted earth colors. The framed Ten Commandments was the most decorative element, an essential part of the story and intensely relevant to Desmond.
We followed Desmond Doss through his enlistment and the subsequent training of recruits at Fort Jackson, SC. What can you tell us about these sets? The barracks and headquarters?
The barracks and Army headquarters were probably some of the easiest sets to reproduce! We had many real pictures of Fort Jackson, also great documentation of Army officers’ headquarters and training camps.
I actually found a military document that laid out how the barracks functioned, down to the centimeter of how their beds were to be made, what each solider was issued with and even how they were to present their shoes and clothing. We made the beds from the pattern that was supplied in the document. The blankets all came out of a US surplus shop in the States, and we made the mattresses as well. We did personalize all the characters in the barracks, with details like magazines, books, photos, dominoes and playing cards.
I wanted it to feel real for the actors as well, so everything was quite functional in the sets, allowing them to have that freedom.
The military document also laid out the obstacle training courses and basically every detail for a soldier’s life in Fort Jackson at the time. So that became my bible.
The only thing we did manipulate was the color palette, which I think added to the atmosphere of the Army Base.
The Court Martial/Section 8 hearing actually took place in a hall, as on a training base they wouldn’t have had any courtrooms. So, again, I drew from references that we found of other hearings, which like the offices and barracks were very simple and functional.
We know you did your research! Was there anything particularly difficult to find, reproduce, etc? Were there any special finds or set elements we should know about?
We did do a lot of research!
As you can imagine, the army had a lot of paperwork, documents on soldiers, regulations, etc. On the desks, I particularly made sure that we had the appropriate and accurate dressing. Finding the right files and paperwork was an arduous task! And the official stamps that they used as well. So we really tried to be true to this, even down to the desk plaques.
What can you tell us about the Okinawa sets? The arrival and staging of troops, the field hospital/medical station?
Having watched 100s of hours of actual footage of this war, as it was so well documented, it was a pretty grueling task to watch what the men went through.
But again the footage showed such detail, of the field hospitals, base camps, and their bivouacs.
For us it was the hard task of finding all these elements, and, as you can imagine, the real items that we obtained were antiques. So we set about re-creating all the bottles, medic packs, IV drips, morphine needles, packed food/rations and so much more.
I would have to say these were some of the hardest sets to do, as we needed to get them as close to what they had as possible. It was one of the most important elements to the film, and Mel was very keen for us to convey the reality of it all.
An Okinawa farmhouse was the first bivouac. We notice the set elements that show us we are not in the US or Europe, the baskets and chest, the table and floor pillows, the tatami mats...please tell us about creating this set.
We actually fully dressed the whole set, then dismantled it to make it look bombed, with the roof timbers fallen in and wall panels destroyed.
The upper level of the farmhouse is where they would have stored supplies and basically lived in a very small area of it. Directly below, they would keep animals and store grain and crops, more like a barn/house.
To bivouac there, barely sheltered among the detritus of others’ lives would be pretty disheartening, but nothing would compare to the approach to Hacksaw Ridge and the battlefield atop it.
Please tell us about the battle staging and the collaboration between departments on this...and details like sandbags and ammo...
The battlefield was pretty complex, as the field itself was quite a small location. The Greens Dept and Construction worked on moving the landscape around with bulldozers and trees to change aspects of the battlefield depending on what stage of the battle they were shooting. As you can imagine, this was a pretty arduous task, as it would have to happen after filming at the end of each day or early in the morning..
We had a crew just for the fake bodies and body parts, so that each day they could be moved around into different positions. Then they would be re-dressed with blood and dirt to make it feel fresh. We had only 25 to 30 fake bodies, and the body parts were made by the Prosthetics Dept. Also, we used real actors for many of the dead bodies!
Sandbags!! In any war film, they are a very grueling effort. I realized from working on other war films that you have to actually use sand to make them sit properly. Lightweight ones just don’t work, especially when you have stunt guys being blown up and shot amidst them! I also wanted to add as many bullet holes as I could into the surface of them, to add to the authenticity of the battle. We did on many occasions have 10-15 people moving sandbags to different locations within the set.
Spent ammo, bullet shells...
The scattering of the bullets was another key dressing point. Again, when you see the real footage of the battlefields, they are littered with debris: spent bullets, hand grenades, clothing, helmets, bodies, food canisters, etc. So I had about 5000 empty bullet shells, not enough really, and it was the job of the Onset Dressers and Props to pick them up after every close-up shot to use again somewhere else!
The Japanese tunnels were in reality quite dismal places, as they had been in the tunnels for such a long time during the war. Many soldiers did commit suicide in those tunnels, and they were close to starving during the end of the war. Again, there was such great reference to draw upon for us to re-create what was in those tunnels, and certainly, the ammunition piles were a key element. The Japanese also dotted the tunnels with small shrines, which was an element I embraced.
Actor Luke Bracey, who plays skeptic Smitty Ryker says, “It took your breath away. When they drove us up to the set to shoot the first scene, it was really confronting. There was a nice grassy hill and then a little bit of red clay, but beyond that it was just desolate, an absolute wasteland, full of crater holes, and shell holes, and burnt trees — we got this jarring image of a landscape that’s been completely torn apart, and we understood a little bit of what those soldiers must have felt.”
As I mentioned before, the entire Art Dept worked hard on making the whole film feel as real for the actors as possible. Even when I saw the battlefield for the first time, it gave me chills to think what both sides would have gone through. And once you started adding the SPFX and soldiers, it really became a Battlefield.
Both you and PD Barry Robison have had a lot of filmmaking experience. How did you two approach this film? Tell us about your collaboration...
Barry and I have done many projects together, and have established a visual language for all the projects that we have done.
We saw HACKSAW as having 2 parts: Doss’s life at home and then The Battle. We were limited as to what we could do due to the budget, so decided to really strip it back to the essence of each part. But the challenge we set for ourselves was that very simplicity, paring back, versus the chaos of War.
Thankfully, Barry has a great sense with colors and that’s always a key element to guide me with the decoration.
How involved in the specific visuals was the director?
Mel was very involved in the sets. And locations...
He works emotionally to the sets as well. The battlefield was the main focus for him. He had spent years on researching this, so really he brought a lot to us from the very beginning, which is wonderful. As I said before, he also wanted us to be accurate in what we did set-wise, that was very important to him.
And how large a crew did you have for this project?
Since the budget for this film was quite small, we did not have a very large Art Dept or Set Dec Dept. We dressed and sourced for all of the sets. I did have 2 people working solely on the War sets all the way through. I had additional crew when it came to setting up the tents, which we had remade from original patterns and sourced many original ones as well.
I have to thank my crew of dressers and buyers for doing such a beautiful job, under such hard circumstances. For instance, sandbags are not much fun setting up! But they are such a key element for the film, and I have to say they are quite beautiful in their functionality.
After this and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, are you still willing to do a period film?!!!
I am drawn to period films. The textures and craft that existed always make for a wonderful experience in terms of Set Dec. The wallpapers, lighting, fabrics, furniture designs, still thrill me. And I think having greater knowledge in that area helps me in being more creative in the contemporary and fantasy films that I do!
What was your takeaway from this film?
Firstly it would be the utter horror of War. And what people endure and become during War.
It was so wonderful to do a film that shows the humanity of one real person in this horrific situation, and the compassion he showed to all men.
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