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Just a few days before the Nov. 4, 2016, nationwide theatrical release of “Hacksaw Ridge,” Julio Muñoz and Kimberly Luste Maran from the NAD Office of Communication interviewed Terry Benedict, a producer on the film who also produced and directed the award-winning documentary, “The Conscientious Objector,” about the life of Desmond Doss.
|Terry Benedict on the set of "Hacksaw Ridge"
Photo provided by Terry Benedict
Question: What stood out for you personally when you first heard about the life of Desmond Doss?
Benedict: I grew up without a television. My parents had the foresight to not want us unduly influenced until we were about 12 years old, so I read voraciously. I read The Unlikeliest Hero, by Booton Herndon, when I was about 10 years old — that was my first brush with Desmond's story. And it was unlike any other book I had ever read, any other hero I had ever read about. It just sort of twisted me up in a way and got me thinking differently about what heroes were all about.
And then I met Desmond a couple of years later at a summer camp, and that was pretty amazing for me too. I was incredibly impressed, and I really felt like he cared about every single person, every single kid that was there in the group with me. He was very down-to-earth, and I truly admired him.
Desmond Doss is not what most consider a “typical” hero; why is his story so powerful? What message does that give people?
The thing that makes Desmond stand out — and I saw this demonstrated at the Medal of Honor reunions that I've been to when he was alive and just seeing him around people in general — is that he was a very unassuming man and yet as solid as a rock in his faith and his relationship with God.
The primary reasons he agreed to let me tell his story was that there are universal things that everyone could find useful in their lives. One of them was that no matter how tough things may be in your life, if you have spiritual underpinnings, your faith can always carry the day. You tend to care less about consequences because you are trusting in your faith in God, and that ultimately God will take care of you.
Desmond felt that planting seeds by telling his story would let people know that there are spiritual options available to them always, no matter where they are in life — good, bad, or ugly. That was certainly a big thing for Desmond.
The second thing is about serving others, about serving your fellow man. Desmond combined his faith in God with living that faith by serving others, especially the men up on Hacksaw Ridge.
|World War II veterans who served with Desmond Doss (on bench, right) are interviewed during the filming of "The Conscientious Objector."
Photo provided by Terry Benedict
It took about 15 years to get to this point where “Hacksaw Ridge” is about to be released. If you would have made it a faith-based movie, a religious movie, it probably would have been a lot easier. For you as a producer, why was it important to take this to a wider mass audience?
When I started shopping and talking to producers and production companies back in 2002-2003, it really was about planting seeds and not just preaching to the choir. Desmond wanted people to [develop] a spiritual lifestyle. And so while those of us who are already believers can appreciate and love the story of Desmond and his journey, it was a vision to be able to go “out there” let others who didn't know of spiritual options that were available, and communicate Desmond's story without being over-evangelistic —just lay the story out there and let everyone see it. Let everyone take away from it what they were touched by.
And in fact, all these pre-screenings that we've been doing — and when I've been doing the Q&As — people walk out of the theater and the first thing that ends up happening is they start evaluating themselves: "Where do I fit in? Could I do that? Where am I in my faith? If it gets tough, am I getting weak-kneed?" you know, or, "Am I strong? Can I be strong?" And that's what always impressed me about Desmond's story when I was a kid that he was like a log. He literally didn't seem to even bend much. He was just very stalwart.
You were on the set during much of the “Hacksaw Ridge” filming and you took Andrew Garfield around Lynchburg, Virginia, to prepare him for the role of playing Doss. Some have said you have been instrumental in making this film.
I promised Desmond I would protect the essence of his character, so I was happy that Andrew came onboard wanting to take ownership of the role and crawl into Desmond's skin and unpeel the layers of Desmond's onion in a way that gives his character depth. Bringing Andrew down to Tennessee and then taking him up into Virginia gave us time for Andrew to learn Desmond through his five senses — and then work on his accent. Andrew was full of questions about things, even little things that Desmond would do, little gestures or little tweaks and twitches.
If you watch the documentary and then see “Hacksaw,” it's incredibly uncanny the transition — it's almost seamless — to seeing the real Desmond into seeing Andrew's performance of Desmond. It’s rare that an actor is able to have that kind of resource available to them.
|Terry Benedict and Desmond Doss work on the documentary "The Conscientious Objector."
Photo provided by Terry Benedict
For me, I fulfilled what I promised Desmond. That was super important to me. I wanted Desmond to know that that was followed through; and even though he's not with us any longer, I know that the mission has been completed.
So how has this journey been for you, as a filmmaker who's a Seventh-day Adventist telling this story about a man whom you admired and respected? A man whom you were close to?
My dad, when I was a little boy, would say to me, "What would the world be if everybody behaved just like me?" That's one of the reasons why Desmond's story is so powerful because what would the world be like if everyone behaved like Desmond? No doubt, it would be a better world. Desmond wasn't perfect, but certainly what he did — this world would be a better place if we all acted like him.
I think that when we [see his story], that reflective part of us looks at it and evaluates and we say to ourselves, "Maybe there are some things I can improve upon in how I treat others, how I serve others. What are my beliefs? Am I a faith person? Am I really? How am I demonstrating that?"
This has been a once in a lifetime experience, reading a book as a kid and seeing it come to fruition as a major motion picture and documentary in-between all of that, and making the promises that I made to Desmond and having my relationship with Desmond — he was very grandfatherly to me through the years. It just brings a great deal of satisfaction to me that I know that the mission's been completed.
I still miss him. That part is still difficult. But the fact is that when I watch the documentary or the film, [his story] lives through those films.
I used to joke around with him and say, "Listen, when you kick the bucket, your story's going to live on because of this stuff that we're doing, these films that we're making."
And so, for me, that's just incredibly satisfying.
And it has been a very long journey— it's been almost 18 years now with the first conversations about the documentary. But it’s very gratifying; . . . I still have people calling me months after seeing the documentary saying, "You wrecked my guts; you changed my life," and I say, "Good, you know, I'm glad." [Laughs]
And that's what I hope really comes out of “Hacksaw Ridge” — for people to say, "Hey, you wrecked my guts and you changed my life, and I'm a better person now."
That's what would make Desmond smile. He had that big grin, and I see his big grin every time someone says, "Thank you for telling that story." I see Desmond smiling.