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Hanks and Spielburg Go From Europe to ‘The Pacific’

For all the fiction in which the world's fate hangs in the balance, a real event - the Second World War - may be the most dramatic of all.

"World War II was a crossroads that would spell the difference between freedom or oppression, probably forever," Steven Spielberg says. "It's not Hollywood hyperbole, just fact."

That's a big reason Oscar winners Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who collaborated on the film Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, are teaming up again for a different take on that epic conflict: The Pacific (HBO, premiering Sunday, 9 ET/PT).

The $200 million, 10-part miniseries is the biggest movie to date for all involved, says Gary Goetzman, an executive producer along with Hanks and Spielberg. More than 1,000 people worked on the project, which filmed for 10 months in Australia.

Veterans, including Spielberg's father, Arnold, and uncle, Irvin, inspired the executive producers to embark on their third joint venture into WWII.

"We determined we needed to acquit the other side of the world. It was really important to us, and also based on the very positive response of veterans to Band of Brothers. Many veterans who were applauding Band of Brothers were also saying, 'But I fought in the Pacific and wonder if you are going to tell our stories,' " Spielberg says.

He and Hanks, history buffs with a strong interest in the war, didn't need much persuading. Both talk passionately about the project, which is based on a mountain of research, including two Marine memoirs. Hanks becomes animated simply by explaining the workings of a WWII-era flamethrower.

Spielberg already was pushing the idea backstage at the 2002 Emmys, when they were honored for Band, a phenomenon that has become HBO's best-selling DVD and the highest-grossing TV-on-DVD release ever.

"We're just coming off stage, and Steven turns around and says, 'Listen! Listen! We've got to do something on the Pacific, we've got to do something on the Pacific!' 'OK! OK! All right! We'll try, we'll try, we'll try,' " Hanks says.

In his urging, "I almost stabbed myself in the eye with the Emmy's wing," Spielberg says.

The Pacific touches on everything from boot camp to brutal battles on tiny islands that brought the Allied forces closer and closer to Japan. Its length allows time to show the Marines on a rare break in Australia; the mood on the U.S. mainland, where Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda) went on a war bonds tour; and the aftermath of the war, when servicemen tried to adjust.

Retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, a senior military adviser who put the actors through a 10-day mini-boot camp, says Pacific raises the high bar set by Band. "It's a more psychological, emotional look at men at war," he says. "It takes (the) time to spend time with these guys when they're not on the battlefield slugging it out. . . . It really gives you a look up under the helmet of what's going on."

A different 'hell'

The battle against the Japanese was a far different type of conflict from that taking place in the European theater, where Ryan and Band took place.

The war in Europe, a continent with world cities familiar to many Americans, was "oddly glamorous, strange as it is to call it that," in comparison to the Pacific, with its obscure islands, Hanks says. Both were "hell beyond hell," but in some ways the Pacific "was the opposite of what did happen in Europe."

The miniseries, told from the American point of view, details a horrific environment with seemingly endless battles on such islands as Guadalcanal, Peleliu and New Britain; rat-infested, illness-inducing living conditions in the jungle; and instances of barbaric behavior by both sides. In one episode, a Marine pulls gold-filled teeth from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.

"One of the things I'm really proud of is there's not a single act of gratuitous violence in the series," writer Bruce McKenna says. "Every act of violence, every horrible moment has a direct impact on the psyches of our characters."

The Pacific war, with heavy hand-to-hand combat, was a more savage conflict, he says; Japanese soldiers would fight to the death rather than be taken prisoner. There was a racial animosity that differentiated the Pacific war from that in Europe. Producers say it's their responsibility to portray the whole story.

The Marines and their stories "are what lead you to the truth. We don't make it up," Goetzman says. "They're telling you about it and facing what happened. It's our place to represent it."

The enormity takes a toll on the fighting men.

"It brought out in them the horror of war, and what they saw, and friends dying left and right and broken limbs, and all the atrocities that affected them so greatly that that hatred was built up," says actor Joe Mazzello, whose character, Pfc. Eugene Sledge, hardens over time. "War is a brutal, ugly mess, and the emotions that came out of them were whatever was going to be able to get them through it."

The Pacific is specific about the moral cost of WWII, but its themes also apply universally to war. "It was always our intention, and Tom and Steven and Gary were very clear about that: 'Yes, we're doing the Pacific war, but make sure this is as timeless and as epic as we can make it,' " McKenna says. "It should speak to the Peloponnesian War, the Gulf War, the Civil War, young men who are in the trenches and what they go through."

Real-life characters

Pacific veers from Band in how it tells its story: While Band followed one group of soldiers, Easy Company, Pacific weaves together the separate stories of three real-life Marines, two who wrote memoirs and one who received the Medal of Honor for heroism.

Pfc. Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale) wrote Helmet for My Pillow, and Sledge (Mazzello) wrote With the Old Breed, memoirs that are "fiercely honest," McKenna says. A detailed historical record tracks the experience of Medal of Honor winner Basilone. The three, all members of the 1st Marine Division, have passed away.

"They're very different takes on the memoir itself. Sledge is a very proper, gentle soul who ends up going through hell and never had a scratch on him," Hanks says. "And Leckie was the absolute opposite, a debauched guy who hated authority and went on his own extensive and pretty profound crisis of faith."

Sledge's best friend, Pfc. Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), served in Leckie's unit, which provided the bridge to connect the stories, Hanks says. "History allowed us to bring Sledge into the story on the same battlefield, same island that Leckie leaves."

Though Pacific is not a documentary, the producers sought authenticity. In addition to the memoirs, sources included 50 books, McKenna says, and extensive interviews with veterans. It was an education for the actors.

"We all did so much research. There was so much paperwork and documentaries just from boot camp," Seda says. "We had to learn what Marine jargon was like. We had to learn weapons and about the camaraderie, too."

The Pacific also has a different look from Ryan and Band. Spielberg desaturated the color in those but oversaturates it in Pacific, reflecting a bright sky and ocean that contrast sharply with bloody island battles. "It was like hell in the middle of a lush jungle, with blue sky just poking out between palm fronds. The things we associate with vacation and relaxing is the hell they have to endure," Spielberg says.

As with the earlier projects, the look of the battle scenes was inspired by Robert Capa's famous D-Day photos. Spielberg developed the style of filming on Ryan as a contrast to depictions in earlier war films.

"If you suddenly lock the camera down the way they used to in a lot of old World War II films and shoot the explosions in slow motion, it's glorifying and beautifying the reality. We're much more likely to use handheld cameras, a device called a shaker lens, which vibrates the image, and a full-open shutter to capture pieces of debris without blurring. All this adds up to a sort of neurotic nature of combat."

If the miniseries succeeds, Spielberg would be open to another WWII project with HBO. Before that, however, he also would like to do another feature film on the war starring Hanks.

"We have an idea we've been kicking around," Spielberg says. "I don't want to go into it right now, but it's another area of World War II that I'd like to do very much with this guy."

Past and future

For the producers, Pacific, as a story about real men, transcends the usual making of a film. (Separate documentary pieces will feature interviews with surviving vets. The producers started researching the project by filming interviews conducted by late historian Stephen Ambrose. His son, Hugh, also interviewed veterans.)

"The investment we have is raised up a bit more because we're impacting generations that lived through it - hopefully, they say, 'Wow, that was pretty authentic' - and generations to come that are going to be looking at this (and saying), 'Wow, I wonder what I would do if I was in that situation,' " Hanks says.

The actors feel a bond with the individuals they portrayed. Dale, who met Leckie's wife, Vera, several times, says he feels like he has lived with the Marine for the past three years. Mazzello says it's important to get it right.

"You're playing their dad, their husband, and they're protective of his legacy," he says. "It took a big leap of faith for them to say, 'We'll let you tell the story.' "

As years pass, fewer veterans are alive to tell the story, and new generations grow more distant from the conflict. Spielberg asked his children about the island of Peleliu, which is not as well known as Okinawa and other battle sites, and they knew it as a setting for an edition of Survivor (Peleliu is part of Palau).

He and Hanks hope Pacific inspires young people to learn more about the war. "When a young person can Google Leckie, Sledge, Basilone or Bougainville, Tarawa or Peleliu, all of a sudden it has a relevance that fiction and science fiction do not have in the same way," Spielberg says.

And there was no need to add drama to make the film compelling, Hanks says. Just the sight of Sledge and company disembarking a beach-landing vehicle amid a fusillade of bombs and bullets conveys the jeopardy. "You don't have to make up something else."

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