Oscar-Winning ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Editor John Gilbert on Assembling a Harrowing, Heroic True Story

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Facing healthy competition against the films Arrival with editor Joe Walker, La La Land with Tom Cross, Hell or High Water with Jake Roberts, and Moonlight‘s Nat Sander with Joi McMillon, this past February editor John Gilbert took home the Oscar for his work on director Mel Gibson’s war epic Hacksaw Ridge. First nominated in 2001 for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gilbert was awarded for his take on the tale of World War II Army medic Desmond Doss, played humbly by Andrew Garfield, who refused to fire nor even carry a weapon, and yet was awarded the Medal of Honor after saving an estimated seventy-five wounded soldiers.

Following the lethargic pace of Doss’ upbringing and basic training, the narrative plummets bootstraps first into the massively bloody titular battle at Hacksaw Ridge, shot at a frenetic pace that lasts for more than an hour of the film. Gilbert speaks below on his experiences in working with Mel Gibson as well as his team’s work with the Avid system, which he has been using since the mid-nineties.

Editor John Gilbert

S&P: In addition to a 2002 Oscar nomination for Lord of the Rings and multiple wins and nominations for your talents in the editing room from the likes of BAFTA, ACE, and the AACTA, you won the Oscar this year for Best Achievement in Film Editing for Hacksaw Ridge. That must have been quite an experience! What first brought you into editing? Did you ever see yourself achieving an Academy Award for your work?

John Gilbert (JG): I grew up in New Zealand, which had almost no film industry at the time, so I never imagined I could have a career in film, let alone win an Academy Award. I loved movies, but I was at university majoring in history and happened to get a job at the National Film Unit in my summer holidays. They made tourist films and some documentaries. I enjoyed it, and never went back to university. I got into editing later at Television New Zealand and found that was the heart of moviemaking for me.

S&P: Producer Bill Mechanic has been trying to get Hacksaw Ridge off the ground for more than 13 years, and there were even attempts at Doss’ story going all the way back to Hal B. Wallis, who produced Casablanca. Why did the right environment for the project culminate with director Mel Gibson? What was it about Hacksaw Ridge that personally drew you to the project and how did you first get involved?

JG: Desmond Doss was a very private and modest man who had turned down many offers to tell his story. I believe they sent Audie Murphy to talk to him in the 1950’s. But much later in his 80’s, his church persuaded him that his story should be told.

Bill always thought Mel was the right director for the film, but he had to ask him three times before he said yes. I was working with Bill on another project and heard about Hacksaw, and he gave me the script. I saw right away that it would make a great film, with the combination of a great character standing up for what he believed against huge pressure, and then his forgiveness and heroism in the face of almost certain death.

It was a very moving script, and with Mel directing, if he could bring to it what he brought to Braveheart, I thought it could be amazing. They were doing recess in Australia, so I organized with Bill to meet Mel. I flew myself from New Zealand over to the Gold Coast, we chatted for a while and had dinner, and a month later I had the job.

S&P: Every nominated film in the Best Editing category used the Avid Media Composer system. Why did you go with Avid for Hacksaw Ridge and what was your setup?

JG: I have used Avid since 1994, and am so comfortable with it I don’t feel the need to try anything else. I have my system set up so that I can work without thinking about the mechanics of what I am doing; it’s fast and intuitive. I’m not hugely technical, I don’t remember the Avid version number we were using. I leave a lot of that stuff to my assistant.

Editor John Gilbert

S&P: I’m sure you must be immensely proud of the work that your crew put together. What was the editing breakdown like for you and your team? Where was primary editing done?

JG: We did most of the editing at Soundfirm in Sydney. It was a small team, first assistant Carly Turner, VFX editor Kathy Freeman, and myself. Carly handled all the dailies and did a lot of sound work once the shoot finished. We didn’t have a huge budget, I did all the music temping myself, and Kathy worked long hours tracking the VFX.

S&P: Also employing Avid, Pro Tools, Kevin O’Connell, who had been nominated more than 20 times previously, took home the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing alongside Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie, and Peter Grace. You yourself have worked as a freelance sound editor as well. What was the workflow like between yourself and sound on Hacksaw Ridge and how did Avid play a part in that?

JG: We were at Soundfirm, so the sound editors were working down the corridor. We could drop in and see them whenever we needed, and Kevin came down to do the premixing there, also in the same building. ADR was done there too, so we didn’t waste any time. My assistant Carly made whatever outputs they needed as the edit progressed, and for me it was seamless. I imported the premixes back into the Avid, so I could make any trims reacting to the sound teams work easily.

When I worked as a sound editor in the 80’s I worked on a Steenbeck, on 35mm film, so there is no comparison to what we are doing now.

S&P: I know from a previous Sound & Picture interview with Kevin O’Connell that a lot of the dialogue and sound effects during battle sequences were ADR. What is it like to edit an action movie like this when you’re often working with audio that will come in near the end of your editing process?

JG: We added temp sound FX in the battle sequences, so even though a lot of it was replaced later we had a good idea of how those scenes would play. Carly did a great job with the guns and explosions, and I always had in my mind where I needed extra space for sound to play. It’s important to get the impression of a full soundtrack in the picture edit to get the pacing right. If you don’t have it you could cut the picture too tight and leave no room for sound.

S&P: The edit seems to more or less halve the film into two: Doss’ background in Virginia and his challenging military training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, followed by the utter mayhem of the attack on Hacksaw Ridge on the island of Okinawa, Japan. In contrast to the melancholic, almost Southern charm of the pacing during the first half, the rapid-sequence battle scenes were some of the most violent that I’ve seen outside of horror… It must have been a sensitive tightrope in compassionately navigating the heroics of Doss’ moral struggle while at the same time staying true to the gravitas of war.

JG: We deliberately played the first half of the film a bit leisurely, so that when the battle scenes happened the change of pace would be more pronounced. We played the opening as a tease of the battle so that the audience would know what was coming later.

We wanted to place the audience in the battle scenes, so they would feel the mayhem and raw randomness of life and death. We didn’t have a huge budget, so there weren’t a lot of big staged shots, so the editing had to do a lot of the work. We tried to make it as real as possible, though I guess we pushed it occasionally.

S&P: How did you stay fresh with the editing, particularly in the battle sequences, when there have been so many films about war? I see influence from directors like Peckinpah and Malick. Were there any editors or previous films that you looked to for guidance?

JG: I didn’t look at other war films for ideas. I just wanted the film to play true for the story in front of me. I did look at Saving Private Ryan, as that is the one film that is constantly referenced. It’s quite different from Hacksaw in that you have no knowledge of the characters as the scene opens the film, whereas we had the first half of the film to set up our main guys.

S&P: The actions of Desmond Doss in the situations that he faced were so, so, so impressive. I’m sure that there must have been a lot of hard choices when it came to narrowing down the final story and edit. Were there any scenes that you wished were still in the narrative that may have ultimately been cut?

JG: We didn’t trim much of the battle. Some scenes Mel had so little time to shoot we really milked what we had. For example, the night montage where he drags all the wounded to the edge and lowers them, he shot in just a couple of hours, and I used everything he had. We debated cutting the first battle a bit shorter, but after previewing we found the audience was so overwhelmed by it that we decided to keep it long.

The first half of the film we trimmed more substantially, but there was nothing I regretted losing.

S&P: I loved the addendum footage from real-life interviews with Doss and several of the key players. I’m assuming that footage was sourced from Terry L. Benedict, who also co-produced Hacksaw Ridge and directed the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, about Desmond Doss?

JG: Bill sent me the Terry Benedict documentary before we started shooting, and I put that end sequence together then. I found the clip where he talks about wiping blood from the wounded soldier’s eyes, and they liked it so much that they wrote that scene into the movie. It’s a fabulous ending, for Doss to say, “If I hadn’t got anything more out of the war than that guy’s smile, I would have been well rewarded.”

Editor John Gilbert

S&P: You’re currently working on the upcoming The Professor and the Madman, which stars Mel Gibson, another biopic, this time centering on Professor James Murray and William Chester Minor in their work starting the Oxford English Dictionary. The film is directed by Farhad Safinia, who wrote Apocalypto. What is it about this seemingly tight-knit filmmaking crew that has made you feel so at home as an editor?

JG: I enjoyed working with Mel, he was so very receptive to what I had to offer, and I felt he had a great understanding of the essential driving themes of the story. We disagreed on very little. So when The Professor and the Madman came up, I was interested right away. Farhad is surprisingly accomplished for someone shooting his first film. He was the creator of Boss, the TV show with Kelsey Grammer, as well as writing Apocalypto, and again has great clarity in what he does.

S&P: I’m also looking forward to another feature you’ve been editing, director Toa Fraser’s 6 Days, which concentrates on the April 1980 Iranian Embassy hostage situation. Would you care to discuss any of your work on that? This Oscar win must be opening a lot of doors for you; what’s next?

JG: I really just came along at the end and helped out a little. They had a cut that was nearly done, and needed help cutting in some new material, plus tidying up some other scenes. Dan Kircher deserves all the credit for that one. I am looking at a few options, but can’t say anything right now. There are certainly some exciting projects out there, and the Oscar helps get me into the conversation for sure. I’m hoping I can get onto something exciting and challenging!

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Lionsgate & John Gilbert

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