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Image: Joe Mazzello
David James  /  AP
"You get the full scope of what it's like to be an American Marine in that time," says "The Pacific star Joe Mazzello, shown in a scene from the HBO miniseries.
updated 3/10/2010 2:24:11 PM ET 2010-03-10T19:24:11

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg swapped other people's war stories to groundbreaking, heartbreaking effect in "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers."

The unsparing and visceral depiction of battle in their World War II collaborations is revisited by "The Pacific," a 10-part, $195 million miniseries debuting Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on HBO. Also intact is their celebration of the American veteran.

But "The Pacific" carves its own path across a lesser-known theater of war with parallels to current conflicts. It also breaks the "Band of Brothers" mold by following its battered Marines home with a coda reminiscent of the classic World War II film, "The Best Years of Our Lives."

The challenge "was to take human beings and put them through hell and wonder how in the world they would approach the world when they came back," Hanks said.

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"Part 10 is the first time we went for it," he said.

The new HBO miniseries was born of its predecessor, 2001's acclaimed, Emmy-winning "Band of Brothers," which dramatized the true story of a company of paratroopers fighting in Europe.

"We only told a partial story in 'Band,'" Spielberg said. "My own relatives were saying to me, 'We all fought in the Pacific. That's a different story. It was jungle warfare.'"

The filmmaker's father, Arnold, battled the Japanese in Burma and an uncle flew B-29s over Japan. Other Pacific theater veterans wrote to Spielberg, "wanting me to tell their story."

The challenge for executive producers Hanks, Spielberg and Gary Goetzman was that the U.S.-Japanese conflict sprawled across a series of remote islands and lacked the European landmarks that gave "Band of Brothers" an instant familiarity.

The men of "The Pacific" fought for dirt on Guadalcanal, New Britain, Pavuvu, Peleliu and Iwo Jima. The miniseries opens shortly after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, follows the path of three young Marines and ends on the home front in 1946 after Japan's surrender.

"You get to see who these men were before they come into the war, where they came from, why they wanted to get into it. ... You get to see how they came out of it, if they did at all," said cast member Joe Mazzello. "You get the full scope of what it's like to be an American Marine in that time." Video: WWII hero inspires Hollywood epic

Mazzello, like his co-stars, plays a real member of the First Marine Division. The miniseries focuses on Eugene B. Sledge (Mazzello) and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), both privates and authors of memoirs used in developing the miniseries, as well as Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), awarded the Medal of Honor.

"The hardest part was portraying these men and trying to tell their stories truthfully," said Dale, a sentiment echoed by Mazzello and Seda during a joint interview.

Even as the producers vowed to go deep into the truth of the Pacific fight and whether U.S. troops emerged as heroic or not, producer Goetzman said he eventually realized, "You just can't help but have such an unabiding respect for these vets."

According to Hanks, the Pacific theater they faced was far different from the European one.

"The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we've seen ever since, a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions," he said.

Image: The Pacific
HBO
Actor Jim Seda is shown in a scene from "The Pacific," which was shot primarily in Australia.
Besides the suffering faced by soldiers, there are scenes in the miniseries depicting Japan's forced use of civilian islanders as unwilling suicide bombers. In one scene, a woman is blown up by a body bomb; her infant is in her hands.

"We want the viewing public to be prepared that there is a level of savagery in 'The Pacific' that is more intense than in 'Band of Brothers,'" Spielberg said.

"Anything less than the graphic nature of that war, or for that matter any war, would have been met by scorn by the veterans who fought in it," he said. "It would have just been one more Hollywoodized portrayal of an event that rends your body ... and often doesn't create even a memory of your existence. That's war, that's what happens."

Co-executive producer Bruce McKenna, a writer who started research for "The Pacific" shortly after working on "Band of Brothers," said the violence is historically accurate.

Okinawa was the site of the "most horrible battle that Americans fought in World War II," he said. "There were 8 million artillery rounds fired, one every second."

The estimated death toll, according to several historical accounts, included more than 100,000 Japanese troops, at least 75,000 Okinawans and more than 12,000 U.S. troops.

Australia stood in for most of the miniseries' locations, including the war zones and U.S. scenes, during more than a year of filming from August 2007 to May 2008. More than 90 sets were built, with 62,000 tons of earth excavated at a quarry outside of Melbourne to build Iwo Jima and Okinawa battlefields.

There were six writers and six directors on the project, with retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye serving as military adviser as he did on "Band of Brothers."

The actors acknowledge that conditions fell short of actual war but were hellish nonetheless.

"You were not comfortable on that set for one day," said Mazzello, with 110-degree weather that made clothes burn against skin and with an unending supply of flies "trying to get in your nose and eyes."

"They actually CGI'ed out flies because there were too many on our faces," Seda said, using shorthand for computer-generated imagery.

Narrowing the 'generation gap'
Spielberg and Hanks are intent on honoring both history and those who lived it with their World War II films, helping to narrow what Spielberg calls "the generation gap" between his father's generation and the ones that followed.

There are other ambitions for their latest project. Asked if they expect "The Pacific" to resonate with viewers when it comes to the conflicts America faces today, Hanks responded quickly.

"We want it to resonate completely," he said. "The war in the Pacific was a war of terror and racism, of suicide attacks. Both sides viewed the other side as being subhuman dogs, from a civilization that didn't recognize the advancement of human kind.

Image: Tom Hanks, Dale Dye, Steven Spielberg
David James  /  AP
Tom Hanks, left, Dale Dye, center, and Steven Spielberg are shown on the set of "The Pacific."
"Sound familiar? Sound like something that might be going on?" he asked, referring to the U.S.-Middle Eastern conflict.

He noted that Americans who once bitterly dismissed the Japanese as barbaric now accept them as friends and equals.

"Right now we're facing a different part of the world where they view us and we view them as an aberration of humanity," Hanks said. "There's a possibility that somewhere down the line, 60 years from now, we can look at the people that are trying to kill us and we are killing now as we do the Japanese today."

The two Hollywood A-listers acknowledge that their earliest collaboration, a slight 1986 film comedy in which Hanks starred and that Spielberg produced, gave no hint of their future roles as respected war chroniclers.

"When we first worked together, on 'The Money Pit,' if somebody had come to me and said, 'You two guys are gonna get a job telling historical stories ... more specifically, World War II history,' I would have said, 'You're nuts,'" Hank said, smiling broadly.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Tom Hanks puts face on WWII theater

  1. Closed captioning of: Tom Hanks puts face on WWII theater

    >>> figure out what you're saying.

    >> welcome back to " morning joe ." this is the part of our show, we do it every day, speech therapy with tom brokaw . tom, thank you very much for being with us. tom, so we brought in because --

    >> i'm here to gump this morning --

    >> you're a member of the family. we have brought in a specialist to help you break up your syllables and pronounce your consonants.

    >> you have to be careful in showbiz, the person you made fun of last night on nationwide television, you have to apologize to in the morning on nationwide television. tom, i have great respect for everything --

    >> so you're on the west coast , so you have no idea who we are, but i love you.

    >> periodically, i've seen you in hotel rooms around the country.

    >> we should talk about that part.

    >> my caddy knows nothing about it.

    >> by the way, go after the caddy. that's always a good -- that's a good journalistic avenue for -- that was some prized footage. that was quite a -- what did he call it, a scoop.

    >> that is a scoop. so, anyway, let's talk about "the pacific ." " band of brothers ," tom and i were talking about how " band of brothers ," i think touched so many americans in a special way. it helped get a lot of us through a really tough time. 9/11. you now release "the pacific ." i mean, my wife and i saw a billboard in new york and we almost started tearing up just looking -- oh, my god. how do you follow up something that was as special as " band of brothers " to so many people?

    >> it was the stories. i particularly read history and read the stories of that era, because i was born in '56. every grown-up i knew when i was growing up had a distinct connection to this time of the war.

    >> your dad fought in the war?

    >> well, my dad fixed things in the war. my dad was a machinist and he hated being in the navy. there was nothing romantic about it for him. but his life was uprooted and for five years he didn't know where he was going to be and how long h he was going to be there. but we found the stories of these memoirs, eugene sledgy's and robert leckeys and it just so happened that they were in the same place at the same time for a while.

    >> the guys that fought in the pacific , that fixed things in the pacific , worlds away from the glories of marching down streets if paris. they're on islands, specks in the pacific , that nobody's ever heard of.

    >> these guys if the pacific got to essentially play naked volleyball when they had time off. and the guys if europe got to go to paris, france, and go see shows in lester square . the glory and the glamour is distinctly --

    >> and a far more brutal war in the pacific . if you read things like " flags of our fathers ," as barbarous as the nazis were to jews and others, there were still some rules of engagement on the battlefield, but if the pacific , it was just savagery all the time.

    >> well, this is interesting. " band of brothers " came out, it was premiering -- it actually premiered during nc9/11. we did not know what the reaction was going to be. if it was going to be the last thing anybody wanted to see or if it was going to be some sort of a tonic. "the pacific " is now coming out and it represents a war that was of racism and terror. and it would seem as though the only way to complete one of these battles on these small specks of rock in the middle of nowhere was, i'm sorry, to kill them all. does that sound familiar to what we might be going through today? so is there anything new under the sun? it seems as though history keeps repeating itself.

    >> the other thing is, in the pacific , you didn't have the correspondents corps you had in europe and that whole cadre of reporters going out on bombing runs, for example, out of london and covering everything. ernie pile didn't get to the pacific until later and it was there that he was killed. and because they were island hopping , it was a lot harder to keep up with what was going on there as opposed to what was going on -- even the great ernie pile, when he finally moved to the pacific theater and began to write about it, he was involved in a massive amphibious landing and he said you couldn't even tell it was going on. he went out on the rail of his ship thinking he was going to be in a huge flotilla and there wasn't even a ship on the horizon.

    >> so, you're on the cover of "time" magazine.

    >> i got the foldout, i would like to see.

    >> you're a hero -- mike barnicle was talking about this later in the show, when we were talking about, you're a history maker , a history teacher . that's got to feel, given all the things you've been able to do in hollywood, that's got to be the most, i would think, rewarding.

    >> well, when we were promoting " saving private ryan ," steven sealbe steelburg. at the end of the hard work of promoting one's wares, we would get on a plane and fly to the next city. and steven ambrose would sit at the little table on our little plane and he would just tell stories. that was the most evocative, the most heroic, the most personal avenues into what was really the greatest conflict of the greatest generation . and it wasn't about tactics and it wasn't about maps, it was about what human beings did, said, went through. and the amazing thing always was, and these guys came back and picked up their jobs, working in glass factories and selling insurance or driving cabs or being barbers, and that to me was the way to communicate history.

    >> you know, one of the things tom says in this "time" article, mike, when you came back from the pacific , it took you a hell of a lot of time to get home. guys are in a living hell right now in iraq, afghanistan. 18 hours later, they're in des moines .

    >> another set of challenges.

    >> one of the things we were talking about earlier, while you were in the control room directing the show probably, is that we live in a country, in a culture today, great benefits. you know, the visual stuff, google, everything comes instantly. but if you look at high school history books, world war ii is like two pages. vietnam is probably eight paragraphs. when did it occur to you or has it occurred to you that with " saving private ryan ," with " band of brothers ," with "the pacific ," you are actually america's history teacher for many, many people who don't know these stories, who would never have achieved access to these stories. human beings . you know, there's a face on the pacific , now.

    >> well, the thing that went along with all of those project, i'm sorry to say, was a very gross or crass or specific commercial success. those projects made money, because they were dazzling, cinematic pieces of entertainment. where you really get into a territory as we did with john adams , with our good friends at hbo, you take something and say, this is not going to make a dime. nobody cares about three-cornered hats and the articles of confederation or where john adams was representing the ambassador -- first on the ambassador, the court of st. james. and when we can turn that into something that becomes vivid entertainment for the people who watch every sunday night, then i guess we're kind of like in the high country . but i think that's the fun. we get together and figure out, well, let's make this real stuff fascinating and entertaining and enthralling and let's not make anything up. over let's make as little up as possible.

    >> let's talk about how you got from what you love to being able to make money at it so people would be interested so you could teach americans about history. so fascinating about what you said, you sort of an aha moment. how do i bridge this, i want to talk about this, no one's going to go see history. then you were sitting there watching ken burns . and you said, there you had nothing but stills, a voice-over, and music, your son at your feet and you would end up weeping at the end of every single episode.

    >> every single episode.

    >> was that your aha episode, saying, if they can do this with 150-year-old stills, i can make a movie.

    >> i was a pure audience member, i was learning something brand new. i was transported back in the time, and the time was actually talking about today. all it was was black and white photographs, great music, pictures of trees and movies of creeks at sunset. and some damned good performances from the likes of j jas jason robards . war is all hell. if you can hold my attention, there's got to be something to this.

    >> but we all say about ken, he'll never make another show until he goes south. when he did world war ii on film, he went right back down south again. war has three symbols, when the boys went to wa-aa-ar. tom, where do you go from here after "the pacific " and " band of brothers "?

    >> i don't know. this is expensive stuff to do. you can't force it through. there is going to be some story that will come up to the forefront that i'll say, oh, i've never seen it before, even though it's very familiar territory and if we can convince the powers that be to pony up some change, we'll go at it again. but it's a substantial amount of change they've got to pony up. hbo, this is probably the most expensive thing that's ever been on television.

    >> i want to put into a plug for something he's also executive producer of, in new orleans, they've got a new i-max like theater that has been built. we had a hard time explaining it, tom had a hard time explaining to it me. it's four dimensional and it plays out and it begins with a radio coming out of the screen, one of those little cabinet radios with the announcement of pearl harbor and i'll let you take it from there. you must go see pinpoint

    >> it's called "beyond all boundaries." and the theme of it is just what the pure cost of it was. we're talking about more than like 400,000 american lives -- what's the final number?" 60 million.

    >> that number's always a little unclear, 50 million to 60 million lives. but the number that gets me, fought on six of the seven continents, truly a world war . and all the skies and all the seas, and before it was over, 50 million to 60 million people had perished.

    >> i remember going back. i grew up around the san francisco area, the alameda -- all my friends growing up, their dads were in the coral sea . and the older folks would talk about the days of blacking out san francisco . i was like, how do you black out san francisco ? at nighttime you turn off every single light? yeah, we did that for about three years.

    >> let's talk about you moving from being an actor to a director --

    >> i am still an actor, come on! cut me some slack.

    >> but usually, when you have an actor, he's in a couple of movies, what do you want to be next, i want to be a producer --

    >> nobody wants to be a producer.

    >> a director. but you just took to it. was that the first thing you --

    >> i wrote and direct "that thing you do."

    >> that's a great movie.

    >> thank you.

    >> i'm still seeing the sign -- i can't get it out of my mind.

    >> i wrote and directed a movie i'm going to make with julia roberts this spring. it's fun. the nature of how i was educated and the fun of doing this was doing everything on the other si side. i love running shows, worked on shows, running lights . i think i've turned my attention deficit disorder into a lucrative career, like half the staff here, i might add.

    >> jfk, that's the next big project. and it's going to be controversial.

    >> well, it's vincent buglucio's book. and he says, i'm a prosecutor, i'm not a writer. if you're going to do this, it has to be great. and i'm not just talking great, it has to be brilliant great. if we're able to do it, and it's in the process right now, today the united states of america , we will go on television, try to document if as authentic a way as possible the fact that a single man wanted to kill the president of the united states in 1963 and was with able to do so. and by saying that, we will be the most controversial thing on television.

    >> so it's not going to be like an oliver stone movie, where there's actually a billy goat with a rifles after the paid by bulgarians through cuba and killed -- not going to be like that.

    >> well, that was a damned fine movie. i've got to admit it. i enjoyed watching that movie.

    >> tom hanks , stay with us.

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