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Big-time producer goes indie

Bill Mechanic returns to MSU to talk film industry, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘real movies’

MSU alum Bill Mechanic oversaw some of the biggest movies of the ‘90s as head of 20th Century Fox’s film division. He returned to campus last week to screen his latest film, “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Photo Courtesy MSU College of Arts & Letters
Producer Bill Mechanic oversaw the creation of some of the biggest movies of the mid-‘90s as head of 20th Century Fox’s film division. But you wouldn’t know it from the way he talks about his career.

“I feel like a failure half the time,” he said during a Q&A at Michigan State University last week. “You make a movie and you think, ‘I could have done better.’ If you become self-satisfied, then stop doing what you’re doing.”

An MSU graduate, Mechanic returned to his alma mater Tuesday to screen his new film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” which opened nationwide last week, and talk about the movie industry with students from MSU’s College of Arts and Letters. The visit, he explained, was a way to give back to the community that helped shape him.

Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the story of American World War II soldier Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win a Congressional Medal of Honor. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss refused to even carry a weapon. Mechanic was drawn in by the pacifist angle, but it took 15 years to turn the story into a film.

“I thought it would make a great idea for a movie,” he told City Pulse in an interview before the screening. “I didn’t think it would take me forever to make it.”

Mechanic first heard Doss’ story in 2001. Co-producer Terry Benedict, who was finishing up a documentary on the soldier, came to Hollywood to sell the life rights for a narrative feature on Doss’ experiences. Mechanic was fascinated by the story of a man who “believes the war is just, but killing is wrong” and bought the life rights immediately.

Mechanic guided the film through the entire production process. He brought on Gibson to direct, which was no easy task. He first offered the film to the Oscar-winner back in 2002 and again in 2010, but Gibson turned it down both times. Mechanic was persistent though. He thought Gibson was perfect for the project, citing his interest in religious themes and reputation for shooting acttion practically, using CGI only when necessary.

When Mechanic made the offer a third time in 2014, Gibson finally agreed.

“I think this was the first time he actually read it,” Mechanic said. “He was the only one I ever offered it to.”

While he was waiting on Gibson, Mechanic oversaw development of the script with writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. He also secured funding through government subsidies from Australia, where the film was shot.

“If it wasn’t for the Aussies, this is not a movie,” Mechanic said. “Anything that’s independent, you cannot make a movie without some form of subsidy.”

While government subsidies are increasingly important in the movie industry, it does create challenges for historical films.

“Sometimes it’s a trap,” Mechanic explained. “It’s really hard to find Lynchburg, Va., in Sydney, Australia.”

So far, it seems like the challenges were worth it. The film pulled in $14.75 million opening weekend, and it earned an 87 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, which aggregates film critic reviews. It gets an impressive 96 percent from the site’s audience reviews.

“It’s a real movie,” Mechanic said. “If I had nothing to do with it, I would still think it’s a good movie.”

The idea of “real movies” was a recurring point in Mechanic’s Tuesday Q&A. He candidly discussed his frustration with the film industry and its disinterest in making quality films.

A native of Detroit, Mechanic graduated from MSU in 1973 with an English degree and went on to attend graduate school at the University of Southern California. He worked his way up the studio ladder, becoming a senior creative executive at Paramount Pictures and then an executive at Disney from 1984 to 1994. During his decade at Disney, he built the company’s home video business into one of the biggest in the world. In 1994, he became chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox’s film division, where he green-lit and co-produced blockbusters like “Titanic,” “Fight Club,” and “Independence Day.” Mechanic left 20th Century Fox in 2000. While he officially resigned, it was widely reported that Mechanic was under intense pressure from News Corp., the studio’s parent company. Chairman Rupert Murdoch openly loathed the graphic violence of movies like “Fight Club.”

“I got fired for making those movies,” Mechanic told his MSU audience, which laughed at the irony.

Since then, Mechanic started his own production company, Pandemonium Films, which had a hand in making “Hacksaw Ridge.” While his career has been marked with both critical and commercial success, his frustration with the direction of the film industry often boiled to the surface during his MSU talk. When asked by a student what advice he would give to an aspiring filmmaker, Mechanic was less than encouraging.

“Find another job,” he said. “Only do it because you have to.”


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