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Interview: Production Designer Barry Robison Takes Us into the Trenches of Hacksaw Ridge

Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector who went into battle. Serving during the Battle of Okinawa, he refused to carry a weapon, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts of bravery. Production Designer Barry Robison explains he was tired of working on comedies, and wanted to get into drama. His agent arranged a meeting with a friend, and before he knew it, Robison was meeting director Mel Gibson and discussing Hacksaw Ridge. The film itself is haunting. It’s raw, it’s intellectual, and it is visually stunning, as Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) deals with the bloody, moral dilemma of war and the battlefield.

Robison tells us how he used photographs from the well-documented Battle of Okinawa to conduct his research, but he reveals his biggest challenge of taking on one of the bloodiest battles of World War II was re-creating the entire set not in Japan, but in Australia.

Read as Robison gives us an in-depth look into his production design process.

Awards Daily: How did you get involved in this project?

Barry Robison: It’s a fun story. As you know, I’ve been doing a lot of American comedies, and I got stuck in it, and I said to my agent that I wanted to get back into drama. A few weeks later, he asked if I wanted to meet a good friend of his, David Permut. I agreed to, I knew his reputation, and we hit it off. He talked about his projects and he asked, “Would you be interested in meeting with Mel Gibson?”

I practically fell on the floor. I was nervous because I’m gay, and Mel was in the penalty box for a while. I was a bit nervous taking the meeting, but once I read the script, I fell in love with it. I just fell in love with Hacksaw Ridge and Desmond Doss. I was desperately wanting to do it. I met Bill Mechanic and Mel. I think there were a few reasons we hit it off. Mel was half-Australian and so am I. When I went to this meeting, it was like a production meeting where we talked about locations around Sydney, we talked about the crew, and it was great. Mel put me at ease, and then I left. I didn’t hear anything, and I didn’t hear anything so I talked myself out of being disappointed, but two weeks later, I got the call from Bill.
The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Sydney. The whole adventure was something else.

AD: The story is set in Japan, but you shot the film in Australia, what problems or challenges does that pose for you as a production designer?

BR: That’s a great question, it’s so good. You know, it’s hard doing a period film in the US in the 21st Century as the landscapes are constantly changing. You multiple that when you go to a foreign country. Australia is fantastic, it’s familiar to us, and it’s like a California landscape, but it is different because it’s also British-centric. You have the brick and Victorian houses. The landscape is dotted with eucalyptus.

Let’s talk about the Virginia sequence. We were in Lynchburg. We looked and we could not find the right feeling. I went out with my art director Mark Robins and we were in the Hunter Valley. We came across a town called Richmond, and it was most definitely Australian, but there was one street and four corners that if you squinted hard enough it could make an American town. It ended up being downtown. We changed the signage and storefronts.

They drive on the left in Australia, so we had to change all that, but we also had to find period cars with left-hand drive. That was a trick for my transportation coordinator because we found the right cars, but the steering wheel was on the wrong side. We took the steering wheels off and put fake ones in, and everyone ended up fake driving the cars.

In the scene where Desmond is going off to training, and he has to get on the bus. Everything was on the wrong side, and most people don’t know this, but we flipped the film, and we had to put the names on the uniform in reverse. It was funny to watch, but when you see it, you can’t believe how it works.

At the opening, Desmond is a little boy, running up hills, and we did that in the harbor. You can see how well it looks, however, if you had turned the camera 180 degrees, you’d be shooting the bridge.
Chris Godfrey, our visual effects coordinator put in a greenscreen when the boys get to the top and they’re looking over the mountains, that’s done as a visual effect.

Our biggest challenge was the battlefield. It was done in a Western Suburb outside of Sydney called Bringelly. It’s where old dairy farms were brought up, and suburban and urban sprawl. We shot the battlefield in our third choice place as the first two fell through. It was a challenge to talk Mel into it, it wasn’t necessarily ideal for what we wanted to do, however, I knew it was ideal for the movie. This beautiful farm gave us the ability to do the Road to Okinawa, The Japanese farmhouse, Battlefield Command HQ and the battlefield. We were able to use it almost as a mini backlot which was really important for production because most people don’t know this, but we didn’t have that much money to do this movie.

We had to be really super creative and this was one way that production design was able to help production by keeping a lot of locations grouped together.

We were driving around the property, and we came across this old cowshed which was on the edge of this gorgeous pond. I thought it was going to be a perfect japanese farmhouse. We were able to use the roof structure of the cowshed, and we filled it with the bombed out farmhouse.

When we got to the battlefield HQ, I had done a lot of photographic research about the Battle of Okinawa which is really well documented. I found this one photograph of the headquarters, I’m not sure which one it was, but it was placed at the base of a Presbyterian church that was in Okinawa. I went to Mel, and he’s so open to suggestions. He has his wants, but he loves for you to bring ideas. I showed him the photo and told him how great it would be to quietly reference Desmond’s beliefs without hitting the audience over the head.

He thought it was fantastic. We found this whole stone structure that was built on the property from the 1800’s and I turned it into a church and we put all the tents and vehicles at the base of it, and it worked so well.

For the battlefield, my first task when I arrived in Sydney was to find the ridge. Mel and Bill had gone out a few months earlier and had looked all over Australia for the right ridge. He couldn’t find anywhere. When I arrived, you could tell that Bill and Mel were frustrated, and I told them, “This is why you hire a production designer. Let me go out with the location department and see if I can find it for you.” Sure enough, I found it fairly easily because I’m a production designer. I used GPS, and we found some interesting topographical areas to look at. I spoke to our first AD, he thought it was a bit far away, and said, “If it’s where we have to go, we’ll go.”

I found this cliff face that had been cut by the railroad in a town called Goulburn, which was two hours from Sydney. We went there, showed Mel, he said yes, and I was thrilled.

A footnote to that, the cliff face turned out to be unstable. There was a lot of loose rock and it made it dangerous for our stunt coordinator. So we were up in Bringelly, building the battlefield which we did in six weeks, and it involved a lot of manual labor.

Mel also wanted a 3D model of it, so we built a huge model of it and it was about six feet long, and it allowed him to add small soldiers, get his lens down there, and he was able to take the stunt co-ordinator through what he wanted to do and achieve.

The battlefield itself was on a 30-degree slope. We built it on this slope, and because it was surrounded by eucalyptus trees which we couldn’t really cut. Mark Robins and I decided to lower the ground by 9 feet and created a huge earth bowl. We put trenches in there, and with all that earth, we put that around the edges. The camera could come into the bowl and we’d see earth all around us in the sky, you couldn’t see the trees. We could also put in visual effects rigging and it worked out so well.

Mel was a bit skeptical at first, and Bill was very skeptical. Bill is a great producer, he’s so creative that you listen to them. I was telling them it was going to work, and he was saying, “No, it’s never going to work.” Bill trusted me. [laughs] and once we got there, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Going back to our ridge, they’re in the middle of constructing the battlefield and Bill calls saying there’s a slight problem. He said I had to build the cliff face at the battlefield. We had built that battlefield at the bottom of the slope, and the bottom portion is never referred to in the script, and we called it the gates of hell. It was two rock pinnacles that announced you were going on to the battlefield. This trench was 30 feet deep and 60 feet wide. We’d go back to Goulburn and took molds, made them into fiberglass, and built our cliff. When the guys are climbing up the ladders they’re really climbing up our rock face. What that allowed Mel to do was to get a one shot. He could follow an actor all the way up a rope and reveal the battlefield without having to do a cut. Again, we were on a tight budget, and we had to keep all the effects to a really tight number, and we used a lot of old school tricks.

Check out more about Robison’s Production design in this slideshow below: