Producer David Permut brings a soldier’s valor to the screen in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

February 24, 2017
Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Photo by Mark Rogers

In his Beverly Hills office recently, producer David Permut — a Hollywood veteran with a dash of P.T. Barnum — recounted colorful stories from his long career.

Back when he was 21, he said, he was startled to find himself at the Academy Awards with a movie that Permut and his first mentor, producer Bill Sargent, shot in one take for $60,000 in 1975. Their film was a live performance of James Whitmore’s one-man show, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” about President Harry Truman, and the monologue not only grossed $11.5 million at the box office, but also earned an Oscar nomination for Whitmore.

Now, with more than 40 films and TV projects under his belt, including the movies “Face/Off” and “Dragnet,” Permut has again earned an Oscar nod, this time for serving as a producer on Mel Gibson’s World War II epic, “Hacksaw Ridge.”  The drama has received six Academy Award nominations, including nods for director and best picture.

Based on a true story, the film stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon while serving as a combat medic during World War II — but who nevertheless rescued an estimated 75 of his comrades during the bloody Battle of Okinawa. In 1945, Doss became the first conscientious objector ever to receive the Medal of Honor.

Over the decades, Hollywood icons such as Darryl Zanuck came calling on the veteran to purchase the film rights to his story, but Doss (who died in 2006 at 87) consistently declined. “He was a very humble and modest man, and he never felt comfortable with the idea of a movie,” Permut said. “He didn’t want to exploit his story.”

Permut persevered for 16 years to make the film, and finally succeeded in getting Doss’ permission with the help of his fellow producer, Terry Benedict, a Seventh-day Adventist who had first met Doss at a church summer camp and went on to make a documentary about the hero.

“Being a producer means being impervious to rejection,” Permut said.

Permut has been in love with Hollywood since he was a boy in Los Angeles, when, he said, he “studied the trade papers like the Talmud.”  He was thrilled to discover stars such as Buddy Hackett in synagogue with him at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Elvis Presley lived in Permut’s neighborhood in Holmby Hills, and he had friends whose parents worked in Hollywood. So at 15, he set up a canvas director’s chair at Sunset Boulevard and Ladera Drive and began selling his own maps to the stars.  The price was negotiable, but Permut’s pockets soon overflowed with cash. 

When residents circulated petitions to oust Permut and two elderly women who also hawked star maps in the area, Permut hired a personal injury attorney who had previously represented him when his electric blanket had caught on fire. Permut made a black-and-white movie of one of his colleagues getting arrested, which made the lead story on the NBC news. Eventually, Permut’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court of California, which ruled in his favor.

In the meantime, Permut had met Sargent, a redheaded Irish-American from Oklahoma, who claimed he was going to reunite the Beatles. Permut was skeptical when he met the producer at his office, which turned out to be a utility closet with a couple of folding chairs in a musty building in Beverly Hills. “He told me had made millions in the 1960s,” Permut said. Sargent described outlandish tales of producing “Hamlet” with Richard Burton and the first live concert film with such greats as James Brown and the Rolling Stones.

“I didn’t really believe this guy in the closet had had all that success,” Permut recalled. “But then I went to the library and researched him, and it turned out that he had.”

David Permut
David Permut

After a project the two men were working on couldn’t get financed, Sargent disappeared for a time, only to resurface in 1975, when he whisked Permut off in a white Rolls Royce to his luxurious suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Their ensuing projects included a taping of  “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,” which cost three-quarters of a million dollars but brought in more than $30 million at the box office.

Some years later, Permut was channel surfing one night when he happened to see an old rerun of TV’s “Dragnet.” “I was laughing, because it was such a heavy-handed, procedural drama,” he said. The same evening, he saw actor Dan Aykroyd in a “Saturday Night Live” skit parodying that show. “I got the idea that you could maybe translate this old television series into a feature film as a comedy,” Permut said. 

Soon thereafter, he and Aykroyd walked into an office at Universal and pitched the film by singing the opening notes to the show’s theme song. The project immediately sold. “It was the shortest pitch in film history,” Permut said.  The movie went on to become one of the top grossing films of 1987. “So that was my first big narrative picture and paved the way for all of the other movies,” he said.

The producer was on the set of his film “Double Take” in 2001 when he first heard about Desmond Doss from the movie’s stunt coordinator. “But I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought, a combat medic doesn’t go to the front lines with no weaponry. … And then of course I found out that it was true.

“As a producer, I’m always thinking about how you can sell a movie,” added Permut, now the head of his own company, Permut Presentations. “What’s the hook? How do you make a World War II movie that’s distinctly different from the great war movies of our past, whether it be ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or  ‘The Thin Red Line?’ And I thought that a man who never touches a gun on the front lines of World War II — that was a gold nugget of an idea.”

One production company eventually offered to sign on, with the condition that the film would be rated PG-13. But Permut and another of the film’s producers, Bill Mechanic, declined. “We decided that we didn’t want to homogenize it to conform to that rating, because one of the thematics of the movie is the horrors of war,” Permut said. “So we got the project back and took it to Mel Gibson [in 2014].  We thought Mel would relate to the story of this heroic individual … and also would put the audience viscerally on the battlefield.”

Gibson had already put innocent characters through gruesome ordeals in films such as “The Passion of the Christ.” But he hadn’t made a film since 2006’s “Apocalypto,” partly because he had become a pariah in Hollywood after his anti-Semitic, drunken tirade against a Jewish police officer in July of that year.

Was Permut troubled by news of Gibson’s statements at the time? “I don’t think anybody would not have been disturbed hearing remarks like that,” he said. “But I heard that everyone who’s ever worked with Mel say that … they love him, they revere him, whether it’s Jodie Foster or [director] Richard Donner. 

“I never make a decision about somebody until I get to know them,” he added. “Then I met with Mel, and I loved his passion, his vision, his creativity. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world to be in business with him. There was nothing off limits we didn’t talk about.”

Permut now attributes Gibson’s anti-Semitic slurs to his alcoholism and a “personal crisis” at the time. “But he’s not the person people accuse him of being because of the incidents of his past,” Permut said.

Although “Hacksaw Ridge” has been in large part well reviewed, some critics have noted the irony inherent in a film about a pacifist that also is filled with blood and gore, including exploding human bodies and rats feasting on soldiers’ flesh. The New Yorker went so far as to declare, in a headline, that the movie is “religious pomp laced with pornographic violence.”

In response, Permut said, “I lost an uncle in the Pacific during World War II, but I don’t know the horrors of war because I’ve never been there. The closest I’m going to get is through a movie like ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ showing me … and what Desmond did despite all that.

“You know, it was bashert that the film took so long to get made … because it was meant to be that our paths crossed with Mel Gibson’s,” he added. “I’m proud that it’s also been a personal journey for Mel. He’s on solid ground now; he’s been sober for 10 years, he has a great relationship and a new baby. It was incredible when we screened the movie at the Academy and we received a standing ovation. I’m really happy for Mel and I think he deserves it.”

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