‘Manila John,’ US soldier in WWII, inspires series

March 31, 2010

LOS ANGELES—“I’m Tom Cruise,” cracked Tom Hanks, who was in his usual joking mood, at the beginning of this interview.

Looking at Steven Spielberg, who sat beside him, Tom said: “This is Paul Greengrass. We’d be happy to take your questions.” (Paul directed the “Bourne” movies.)

Tom and Steven are executive producers, along with Gary Goetzman, of “The Pacific,” an HBO miniseries which premieres in the Philippines this Saturday, April 3, at 9 p.m. The 10-part epic is based on the true stories of World War II soldiers in the Pacific, including Sgt. John Basilone (portrayed by Jon Seda), who served in prewar Philippines where he moonlit as a boxer. Time magazine wrote that he was called “Manila John” because of his “endless store of Philippine yarns.” Basilone reportedly loved the Philippines dearly.

However, “The Pacific” focuses on the journeys of Basilone, two other US Marines, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and their comrades as they fight in Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Tom and Steven, who worked together in previous World War II projects (the acclaimed “Band of Brothers,” also an HBO miniseries which won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, and the film “Saving Private Ryan”) have the rapport and easy camaraderie formed from these collaborations.

Both wearing jeans, the duo often shared the same opinion so after one answered a question, the other simply concurred. Showing obvious respect for each other’s work and talent, they listened intently to each other’s answers. Of course, that was when Tom was not being his jokester self; Steven was always the first to laugh at Tom’s puns.

On what made them do yet another World War II-themed project, Tom replied: “We’re constantly fascinated by the stories that are there. With ‘The Pacific,’ we had an opportunity to examine an entirely different aspect of that period, a completely different set of characters.”

Asked if he felt tempted to direct one of the episodes, Steven replied: “Tom and I didn’t get out in front of the story of these characters, so the directors we chose—who are all marvelous directors and were the generals of each of the episodes—executed these stories so powerfully that I never once felt that maybe I should have directed one of the episodes…”

Tom explained how they went about assembling the large cast. He said, “We had Meg Liberman who is a formidable casting presence. She knows everybody. It was a very long process and a very tough one because those who auditioned are all great actors … Those guys come into a room with Steven sitting there with a video camera and that’s about as great a test of whether they can do the job or not …”

Greatest giftAsked what they consider as the highlights of their storied careers so far, Steven answered first: “The highlight of my career was when Max, Theo, Jessica, Sasha, Mikaela, Destry and Sawyer were born. Those are pretty much the highlights of my career. Everything has been about that. I’m very grateful that I have a career and that I’ve been able to make the kind of movies I wanted to make. I’m very grateful of ‘Jaws’ because after that film’s success—I was only 26 years old at that time—everybody said, ‘Hey, you’ve got final cut. You can make any movie you want to make.’ ‘Jaws’ gave me the greatest gift of my entire career—the gift to be able to make my own mistakes, my own decisions. So that, and the kids…”

For his part, Tom said: “I got to get in the car today, come in, and talk about this project that we did that I loved. It’s like a full-time job for me. That’s a highlight. We are now preparing a movie in our production offices on the lot of Paramount. It was about 30 years ago that I drove to the Paramount for the very first time. I never stop thinking about that—holy cow, I still get to do this every day.”

Parking spaceSteven chimed in: “I agree. I still actually get a kick out of driving to major studio lots, waving at the guard, having a parking space. That has never worn off because I believe that glory is fleeting and that it could leave you as fast as it could grab you. I’ve never taken this business or success for granted…”

“Do you remember your original parking space?” Tom asked Steven.

“I do,” Steven replied.

Jaded these guys are not.

Tom added: “I could drive on a lot and say, ‘Oh, the first time I came here, I parked right there.’ I still do that.”

Steven recalled: “The first time I parked when I got my contract at Universal, somebody had gone and put my name on a little white plaque. I couldn’t believe that I had my name on a parking space so on my first day at work, I took the plaque home with me and kept it at home.”

Tom quipped: “After that, it’s just free sandwiches, man. That’s the most fun.”

Middle groundJon Seda, lead actor in “The Pacific”—he debuted onscreen as a fighter in “Gladiator” and played Jennifer Lopez’s boyfriend in “Selena”—said of his character, John Basilone, who joined the US Army in 1934, served three years in the Philippines, returned to his hometown in Raritan, New Jersey, and then enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1940: “There are so many stories of John being this superhuman kind of guy like Rambo … carrying machine guns and running through the jungle barefoot … He loved to be a Marine … I had to find a middle ground. If I went too much to the left, I’d be making him too unbelievable. If I went too much to the right, he might come across as a little too weak. So I had to try to find a common ground.”

By Ruben V. Nepales

Source : Philippine Daily Inquirer