The making of 'The Pacific'

Rami Malek and Joe Mazzello filming a scene for 'The Pacific.'' Rami Malek and Joe Mazzello filming a scene for "The Pacific.'' (David James/HBO)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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It started with letters. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman received a lot of mail after their first World War II-themed miniseries, “Band of Brothers,’’ aired on HBO in 2001. Many missives came from veterans wondering when their stories would be committed to celluloid.

“We got letters from everybody,’’ says Hanks with a chuckle. “ ‘Hey you didn’t show Italy!’ ‘You didn’t show anything about the Aleutians!’ Even when we were doing ‘Band of Brothers,’ we thought that we’d be fools to think that we could do the same thing for the Pacific.’’

But the producing trio found a way. Hanks, chatting at a recent screening of the film at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, says once the producers and HBO realized it was economically feasible to take another long look at the war, “we naturally gravitated toward the Pacific. Steven said specifically, ‘We’ve got to do the Pacific, my dad was in the Pacific.’ ’’

Unlike with “Band,’’ though, they didn’t have a specific source to adapt. A memoir search turned up several books, including Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa’’ and Robert Leckie’s “Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific.’’

The series follows Leckie, Sledge, and several other Marines as they fight their way across tiny tropical islands. In addition to widespread dysentery and oppressive heat, the US forces faced an opponent from a different culture who employed tactics new to them, including suicide bombing. Hanks says corollaries to contemporary conflicts were unavoidable.

“It was the opposite of the logic and the geography of Europe,’’ Hanks notes. “It was this hellacious re-creation of hell on these tiny specks of land that when it was all over, if it was successful, what could you possibly say you gained by doing that? It was a war of racism. We hated them, they were ‘yellow.’ They hated us, we were ‘lazy white devils.’ They had a different concept of what the hereafter was. They had a different concept of what honor was. We had to be able to be true to that.’’

At a meeting with reporters in Pasadena, Calif., Spielberg spoke of the savagery of the war in the Pacific: “There’s a level when nature and humanity conspire against the individual. To see what happens to those individuals throughout the entire course of events, leading up to the dropping of the two atomic bombs, is something that was very, very hard, I think, for the actors and for the writers and for all of us to put on the screen. But we felt we had to try.’’

Hanks says although he and his partners have covered quite a bit of WWII ground, they may not be done telling war stories: “I could sit you down right now and tell you nine stories about people in World War II that would have you on the edge of your seat.’’