Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams came onto Hacksaw Ridge – the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his heroism at the Battle of Okinawa – late in the post process, with the timeframe for creating the score “squeezed” even more when the film was accepted into the Venice Film Festival. The film was Gregson-Williams’ first collaboration with director Mel Gibson.
“He wasn’t looking for a conventional war epic score,” stated Gregson-Williams. “Of course it needed some of that in places, I think he was trying to get a connection spiritually. It was quite a quick process. Mel’s storytelling is pretty sharp with understanding story.”
The film contrasts peaceful, pre-war existence with the raw violence of battle. The love story in the film was the first thing that struck Gregson-Williams. The first cue the composer wrote was the love theme. Gregson-Williams felt the music helped set-up the stark difference, using the score to “get us into a warm place” during the early scenes of Doss’ simple, rural life – where he is revealed as a loving, spiritual man – before “we are really smacked in the face with the brutality of war” during the first ten plus minutes of the initial battle sequence that has no music at all.
In forming themes, the story and character were fundamental. When Gregson-Williams first screened the film with the director and talked about the story, the composer felt Gibson did not want him to leave the room until he understood the character, especially the moment Doss decided to stay on the ridge to rescue the injured instead of retreating to safety. Before he wrote the first note, Gregson-Williams spent a number of days discussing character and developing trust with the director. Gibson was very precise about where the sound and music were to be placed and which one would be dominant in a scene.
“It was an interesting process because we weren’t in the same country for the first week or so,” explained Gregson-Williams. “I went over to Sydney and we spent a couple of days together and then I came back to England and spent a week of so writing. Every day I sent him something. He had comments on everything. Every day we spoke until he really felt that I understood the character. Luckily it happened quite quickly. It’s a powerful film. You can’t help but be on lots of different levels.”
At the beginning of the film in Virginia, Gregson-Williams used guitar and solo cello, played high and almost like an Appalachian fiddle, and repeated that instrumentation again for a few moments in full battle because he and Gibson did not want Doss to just be a hero who saved many souls. He was a man who desperately wanted to get back to Dorothy, the love of his life.
“Those colors I used in some of the battle scenes to hark back to Virginia. The instrumentation helped me bring Desmond home, if you like,” revealed Gregson-Williams.
Asian instruments reinforced the Japanese perspective. The deep taiko drums and shakuhachi, Japanese flutes, were used at the peak of the battle in the moving sequence when the Japanese general knows the battle is over and the Americans will take the ridge. Everyone in the platoon felt very spiritually about Doss; they could not believe what he had accomplished and refused to return to the ridge without him. Gregson-Williams used the guitars and cello to represent the spiritual heart of Doss and his platoon. By the end of the battle, the instrumentation of the opposition groups collided.
The most challenging area for Gregson-Williams to score was when the Americans were pushed off the ridge that is being bombarded by the Navy. Doss doubts himself and questions his faith.
“That moment for me was very difficult to write. I didn’t want to be heavily pious or be too bombastic or heroic when he ultimately runs back into the smoke,” shared Gregson-Williams. “It was always tricky for me to get the balance of this spiritual questioning and the heroic nature of it. I probably wrote it a dozen times before I felt I got it right.”
During the process of composing the score Gregson-Williams started to get a clearer understanding of what he was trying to achieve. He had written the beginning and ending, but after he wrote everything else, he went back and rewrote those cues.
“My ideas developed and I got more emotionally attached to Desmond. That’s quite tough when you are halfway through the process and you decide there is a better way of doing it.” Gregson-Williams concluded, “You learn from the emotional journey of it.”