Q&A: Tom Hanks Gives Us A Preview Of 'The Pacific'

March 12, 2010


When Tom Hanks made Saving Private Ryan, he put a popular face on a war that seemed like old news to a certain generation. Maybe it helped that he was saving Matt Damon. Now he’s working behind the scenes on war movies, but he’s still the spokesperson for them.

After producing HBO’s Band of Brothers with his Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg, the duo re-teamed to bring HBO The Pacific. If Brothers expanded on the European side of WWII further than a single film could, so too The Pacific tells the story of the Asian battle in 10 parts.

Even as a behind the scenes force, Hanks still seems like the star of the show. He articulates the themes of The Pacific with that everyman star power, well read but still relatable, with humor. The Pacific begins March 14 on HBO, and there’s no one better to give you a preview than executive producer Tom Hanks.

Was it important to you to make this accessible to kids?
No, no, we just end up telling a great story. It's kind of ike that thing that goes into somebody once said to me, “You know what would be great? If someone would write Shakespeare plays for kids. Just keep the Shakespeare plot and then [alter the dialogue] so the kids would understand it.” So I said, “Why don't we put on a really good performance of Shakespeare and the kids will get it.” So all we're doing here is trying to make it as visceral and brand new as possible.

Why are you making another war project?
I think that it's an example, kind of like all of the great aspects of the human condition. Doesn't matter that it's war. I think that it's a great canvas and there's an awful lot of anecdotal and emotional record that you can back and draw on continuously and be enthralled by. As a matter of fact, I ran across somebody, not too long ago, his father was about sixteen years old. He lived in France and this word went out on the radio one day that said, “If you want to fight for your country, get to the English Channel and find a way to come to England.” And he dropped what he was doing, ran, rode a bike, hitchhiked, got in a truck, walked down to the English Channel. Found thousands of people in boats that were French. That were going over to set up a provisional government in England. Now could you do that when you were sixteen years old? Well, he did. And there you get an example.

What were the challenges of telling the story of The Pacific versus the European theater of war that Band of Brothers portrayed?
The main difference is our source material. For Band of Brothers we had Stephen Ambrose's pretty magnificent, rather oral history, almost a piece of scholarship, in his book Band of Brothers. The three stories that we've culled from here, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed is considered perhaps as great a combat memoir as has ever been produced. It is very personal and it is very much written with his voice and with his perspective on life. Robert Leckie's combat memoir, Helmet On My Pillow, is really more like a pro's poem about what it means to be young and alive and involved in a quite hideous adventure. The story of John Basilone is more or less taken from public record. But I would say that the differences between The Pacific and Band of Brothers are as different as really the concept of the two different theaters of war. Europe: maps, territory lines drawn on it, armistices that would be honored. By and large, the European war at World War II was the last war of its kind in which great armies fought and decided when they began and when they did not. In Europe, an enemy soldier could throw up his hands, his war would be over. 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. The challenges that we put forward to ourselves at the beginning of all of this 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.

Was the inclusion of a prologue explaining the history of each segment of The Pacific intended to catch viewers up who aren’t as familiar with this part of the war?
We bowed to the pressures of our studio, HBO. I'm joking, and yet, there is truth to that. By and large, there was a thought that it would be hard to get people excited about a battle over a place like Guadalcanal or Peleliu without some context, some historical context to why our soldiers are fighting at Guadalcanal on Peleliu. There were those of us on the producing team that felt that context was a waste of time and once we got involved in this story, the context would be obvious. Nonetheless, in the give and take of big-time show business, we took the need for context and turned it into one of the fingerprints, sort of like almost opening chapters. It all worked out in part because of, I think, the great arc of each one of our episodes.

Are you saying that HBO can tell Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg what to do?
I'm going to assume that all you cracked members of the fourth estate can appreciate sarcasm when it comes your away. We had a great relationship and yeah, we fought probably over every single one of these moments throughout the course, including the closing titles that describe where everybody went. We knew that once the HBO programming blip was gone at the beginning of this, it was our story to tell with our own pacing, and we wanted to include everything that would turn it into the perfect book with the opening pages that get into the meat of the thing. So I don't have any true complaints. I just have sarcastic ones. So please report my sarcasm in the spirit for which it was presented.

Have you and Spielberg been itching to revisit the war genre of Private Ryan?
One of our secondary meetings on this was on the set of The Terminal, and we made The Terminal how many years ago? It's been like six years in the making. And HBO also said, "We are more successful. We make more money than all the commercial networks combined. We've got $250 million to blow. Do you want to do anything with it?" So we took it and we ran. We ran off to Australia and put some bullets in the gun and made the film.

Why do you feel the European side of WWII has so many more movies based on it than the Pacific?
Quite frankly, it doesn't bend to the more, I want to say, graceful narrative that they can approach the war in Europe with. The war in Europe liberated Paris. They landed at Normandy, and eventually you crossed the Rhine into the fatherland, and Berlin fell. The war in the Pacific does not fall into that brand of territorial narrative. You tell me what's important about Peleliu. Well, we establish what's important about Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, going on, little tiny spots. A hundred miles from where the moment where Saving Private Ryan took place, more or less, is the Eiffel Tower. A hundred miles from Peleliu is an empty spot of ocean in the middle of the Pacific. It doesn't fall into the same cognizant recognizability that the war in Europe does. That's why in this, we have much more individual stories of three Marines. It almost doesn't matter where they were. It almost doesn't matter what battle they fought and what they fought in. It's only very much important to them, not to us as the audience.

As you’ve dealt with this war so many times in so many artistic ways, what did you find was unique about the experience of soldiers in The Pacific?
I would say that I don't look at World War II or any war story and see it as a specific, finite, open and closed story. It is constantly fascinating in regards to examination of any aspect of the human condition. You see the best of humankind in war; you see the worst of humankind in war. You see the perquisites of fate and serendipity at the same time that you see the great genius behind long-term planning and masterminding. You see great moments of faith, and you see great moments of despair. Without a doubt, there is sort of like a Military Channel reason to go off and examine the war in the Pacific the way we do in The Pacific and we do that, and that's part of the fun of taking on this kind of project, but as artists and creative storytellers that we all are, what is much more key is how to take the stories of these young men and put them in a story in which we can recognize ourselves somehow. We haven't done a very great job if you look at this only as a museum piece for the way that people acted and thought back then. We've done a much better job if, when you see it, you'll ask yourself, "I don't know what I would have done in that same circumstance. I recognize that fear in that person's face. I can see how there's correlations between the choices that those 17-year-olds made then and what 17-year-olds are making today in regards to what they do with the rest of their lives." That's the reason I think we tell every story. It just so happens that we have examined this great, great canvas of World War II, this great, great, rich period of our history time and time again, but we do it, I think, because we keep seeing ourselves and the current human condition reflected back in us from those stories.

Even within the Pacific Theater, there was land, air and sea. How do you communicate how truly big this war was in your 10 part story?
Well, I don't think we bothered doing that. We can't. At the end of the day, we put up a title that says Peleliu. We have black sand beaches. We call it Iwo Jima. We have a train, and you're going across somewhere in Australia. That's the best we can do. If we were to try to tell somehow dramatically the story of all of the Pacific Theater, well, we make a documentary that would last 26 days. Then maybe we could come close.

Will you be directing again soon?
Yes, I am. I'll direct a movie hopefully in April if the entertainment complex doesn't shift so drastically.

Are you working with Julia Roberts?
That's the plan. Yeah.

What are you looking forward to working with her again?
She's a blast.

By Fred Topel

Source : StarPulse