Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks talk about 'The Pacific'
Image Credit: David James/HBOThe second chapter of the ten-part HBO mini-series The Pacific airs tonight, wrapping up its portrait of the grueling WWII campaign on the island of Guadalcanal. (Click here to read Ken Tucker’s assessment of last week’s first installment.) I spoke with exec producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks a few weeks ago about the $200 million production, including why you won’t see any more naval battles, what helped to ring up the production’s mammoth price tag, and what it was like when Spielberg reunited with the kid from Jurassic Park. Here are the highlights.
EW: With Band of Brothers, you had the source book by Steven Ambrose, but there wasn’t that kind of definitive narrative history of a single company from the Pacific theater of World War II. How did you settle on these three real-life marines — Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda) — as your narrative engines for The Pacific?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: Unlike Easy Company in Band of Brothers, when all the stories existed, in this case we were looking for true stories of marines that knew each other, or where stories would intersect.
TOM HANKS: We said, look, there’s gotta be some great combat memoirs out there, as opposed to the overview books — tactics and maps and stuff. And by finding both Sledge’s book With the Old Breed and Leckie’s book Helmet for My Pillow, and realizing that Sid Phillips, who was Eugene’s best friend [and is played by Ashton Holmes], happened to be in Leckie’s outfit — that gave us three characters right there that converged. Basilone is a very well chronicled story.
We also had for awhile Flyboys by James Bradley, thinking that we were going make manifest a bunch of different areas [of the Pacific battle]. But it just became too problematic.
SPIELBERG: We got, I think, a very comprehensive sampling. But by no means the entire story.
EW: Exactly — I was wondering if there were parts of that theater you wish you had had a chance to get to, like perhaps Leyte Gulf?
SPIELBERG: No. The naval engagements of Leyte Gulf and Midway and the Coral Sea battle, I think that’s a separate miniseries. [Laughs]
HANKS: What you really have to do, you have to find these guys, you’ve got to follow them, and you’ve got to have in some ways the discipline and in a lot of ways the daring to say no, our camera is underneath their helmets. Quite frankly, you could do another miniseries on guys on a ship that go through hell on Earth. You can’t service all masters here. You’ve got to stake your claim.
EW: This project took nine months to shoot on location in Australia, on top of 20 months of post production, and cost nearly $200 million. When did you guys stare down the reality of this massive undertaking?
[They both start laughing]
SPIELBERG: I think the reality was the undertaking stared us down. But HBO had to pay for it!
HANKS: You should’ve seen the looks on their eyes! We had a lot of meetings with guys on couches at HBO’s headquarters, and they were all saying, ‘Whaaa? Hooow?’ I said, ‘Sorry, guys, it is what it is.’
SPIELBERG: Exactly. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of sets. It’s very deceptive. When you see Band of Brothers, you say, oh, I understand, that was a backlot, that was a village in Holland, grey sky and mud. When you see all the episodes in The Pacific, you see a lot of jungle, you see a lot of palm trees, and you say, ‘Well, what did they build?’
HANKS: Jungle and palm trees!
EW: So you built some of the jungle yourselves?
SPIELBERG: Yeah. We had to terraform, to be able to match the historic topography of where they were fighting.
HANKS: And we couldn’t damage the rainforests in Port Douglas, that northeastern section of Australia. But really, [with] HBO, we joke. It is a big chunk of money, but once they decided just to do it, it was all in or nothing. They never hesitated about the cash after that. [Chuckles] They had to feel as though they were going to be getting something — what’s the word I’m looking for — as relevant as Band of Brothers turned out to be. They’re looking for something on HBO that will actually get a couple hundred people to subscribe for the first time.
SPIELBERG: [Smiles] A couple hundred people subscribe for the first time pays for the wrap party. [Laughter]
EW: Steven, Joe Mazzello played the young kid in your 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. What was it like to have him walk through the door to audition for The Pacific?
SPIELBERG: This is the truth. I didn’t ask to see Joe. Meg Lieberman was our casting director. We trust her. We didn’t have a wish list that we handed to Meg and said bring these kids in. I would come to Playtone [Hanks’ production company with producer Gary Goetzman] every day for auditions, and I would operate the video camera. Tom and Gary Goezman and [series writer] Bruce McKenna and some of the directors and I — we’d all be sitting there, they’d bring in the actors, and they’d read for us, just like a normal casting session. I showed up at Tom’s office one morning, and got my schedule to see who was coming in, and there was Joe Mazzello’s name! I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Hey, he played Timmy in Jurassic Park! I know that kid!’ He was a USC film student. I didn’t know he was back to acting again; I thought he wanted to be a director. And I swear to you, he earned this role. And he came in more than once. Nobody got the job the first time they walked through the door.
EW: There are really infinite stories to tell from World War II, of course, but what was there new to say about the war itself?
HANKS: [To Spielberg] May I? [Clears throat] The war in Europe was almost recognizable in many ways, as far as from a moralistic and ethical point of view. There were boundaries, there were surrenders. There was an understanding of unmitigated evil that need to be vanquished from places like Paris and Belgium and England.
The war in the Pacific was a war of racism and terror. Terror in the ways that we will terrorize you with suicide attacks, but also terror in that, you will be on an island with absolutely no escape, and you will be reduced to subhuman levels in order to survive. And racism based solely on the shape of your eyes and the color of your skin — on both sides. Now does that sound familiar by any chance?
I think in many, many ways, just as Star Trek can take events from the 27th century and make the relevant to the way we’re living today, I think we’ve done the same thing with the Pacific. It’s about today. Yes, it’s about the mechanics and the airplanes and all that stuff is definitely rooted in a time and place, just like Star Trek is. But it’s about human beings getting up and deciding, you know what, I don’t hate that guy anymore, or I hate that guy so much I’m going to kill every single one [of his kind].
SPIELBERG: The thing of it is, you know, in Europe, when we fought the Wehrmacht [i.e. the regular Nazi armed forces], prisoners were always taken. When we fought the Japanese on these islands, there were no prisoners to take. On Iwo Jima, with 26,000 entrenched Japanese, only 215 prisoners were taken. So it was a savage, savage war, where men, young boys, who were on a plow, driving a cab, in college, getting just a high school diploma, taking care of their brothers and sisters — in four years time, many of these kids were in danger of losing their souls because of what they went through in the Pacific. Not just [fighting] the Japanese, but basically being eaten whole by those jungles.
HANKS: Cheerful stuff. Where’s the room service? [Laughter]
SPIELBERG: The next question is, Steven and Tom, when are you going to do another Catch Me If You Can again? Let’s lighten up here.
EW: Well, are there other parts of WWII that you guys want to burrow into? You’ve mentioned possibly doing a mini-series on the navy.
SPIELBERG: What Tom was saying earlier applies. Sure, I’d like to do a naval engagement series, but the most interesting naval engagements that you should watch today are the documentaries that have been made that are often on the History channel and PBS. The only way I would get involved, and I’m sure Tom feels the same way, in doing the story about the United States navy is through the characters. All of this starts with the people. The battles and the historical events almost become incidental. Because the people have a very narrow cone of experience, and the only way you get up to see a naval battle is by being in an airplane, following a character who occasionally can tip his wings and look down at it. Otherwise, you’re just making a kind of b.s. Hollywood spectacle, and that’s not what interests us.