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The Pacific – Steven Spielberg on how the war genre has grown over the years

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The Pacific - Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Gary Goetzman, Jon Mazzello and Tom Hanks
Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Gary Goetzman, Jon Mazzello and Tom Hanks © HBO

After all the accolades Band of Brothers received, it’s not surprising that HBO has once again teamed up with producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to spotlight the Pacific Theatre of Operations in World War II. The miniseries follows the odysseys of three men in the 1st Marine Division, nicknamed The Old Breed for its position as the oldest and largest active duty division of the U.S, Marine Corps.

Steven Spielberg changed the face of war movies with the classic Saving Private Ryan, and I asked him about how the genre has grown over the years.

When you were making Saving Private Ryan, did you have a sense that you were establishing a visual template for the depictions that were going to be carried over for 12 years now?

The Pacific - Rami Malek and Joe Mazzello
Rami Malek and Joe Mazzello © HBO

I had a sense in Saving Private Ryan that I was establishing a template based on the experiences communicated to me by the veterans who fought that morning on Dog Green, Omaha Beach, and their experiences, and I was informed by the very few surviving photographs of the great war correspondent, Robert Capa.

I combined those photographs to try to find a 24-frame-per-second equivalent about how I can show that kind of terror and that kind of chaos without making a movie that looked elegant and beautiful and in full living color, very much like the movies had been made in the past.

It wasn’t that I was trying to break the mold of the old war movie approach, visually, but I was simply trying to validate all of this testimony, if you can call it that, that had been communicated to us based on the young men that lived and survived that battle. I didn’t know it was going to establish a look for war movies. But it was certainly what I thought was right for that particular story.

And given how pervasive that look has become in subsequent movies, when you do a project of this scale, do you try to get away and try to give it a different look?

The Pacific - Anne Parisse and Joe Mazzello
Anne Parisse and Joe Mazzello © HBO

Well, we did give The Pacific a different look because there is a very strong desaturated quality about Band of Brothers. And in The Pacific they weren’t fighting in overcast weather, sometimes monsoons would come in and it was terribly rainy and muddy and you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face, but it was a blue-sky war. It was a hot, dry, humid blue-sky war. So there are more vivid colors, I think, in The Pacific, than we ever had in Band of Brothers, because that was the way it was, when you read the books and talk to the survivors of those campaigns.

After Band of Brothers, why did you decide to do The Pacific?

It was inevitable that we would to The Pacific with HBO because there was such an overwhelming response, not only from the general public that got very involved with Band of Brothers, we got so much positive mail but, at the same time, the mail said, ‘It was a veteran of the Solomons,’ ‘ I fought on Tarawa,’ ‘I was at Midway.’

We got so many letters from veterans from the Pacific Theatre of Operations asking us if we could acquit their stories the way we acquitted the stories of the European Theatre of Operations.

Do you see it as a history of that part of the war or another story of soldiers’ experiences?

The Pacific - The marines
The marines © HBO

I think what moved us to tell these stories based on these survivors, these veterans, was in essence to see what happens to the human soul throughout this particular engagement.

These islands were stepping stones to the mainland of Japan. And the warfare that we were trained to fight (wasn’t by) drill instructors Stateside, except what they could glean from recent history; we were trained by the enemy, how to fight the enemy. They trained us how to fight like them. And we fought them in a very different way than we fought the Italians and the Germans and the axis in Europe.

I don’t want to compare one war to the other in terms of savagery, but there’s a level when nature and humanity conspire against the individual, and 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 for the actors and for the writers and for all of us to put on the screen. But we felt we had to try.

I was struck by the enormity of the combat scenes in this. Does it get any easier to do them?

The Pacific - Tom Hanks, Dale Dye and Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks, Dale Dye and Steven Spielberg © HBO

It doesn’t get any easier because these are all new actors to this experience, and these are all new directors to this experience. So you really have to pose that question to them. But I could imagine that this was a very grueling and difficult and scary experience, being where Tom and I have been twice before – once with Band of Brothers and once with Saving Private Ryan.

Do you feel a soldier’s journey is the ultimate hero’s journey?

For one thing, I don’t think that anybody in any war thinks of themselves as a hero, and I think the minute anybody presumes that they are a hero they get their boots taken away from them and buried in the sand. So that’s not going to happen.

In combat situations, and this is coming from a director who has never been in one, but in the re-creation of a combat experience, being mindful of what these veterans have actually gone through, you find that the biggest concern is that you don’t look at the war as a geopolitical endeavor. You look at the war as something that is putting your best friend in jeopardy.

You are responsible for the person in front of you and the person behind you and the person to the left of you and the person to the right of you. And those are the small pods that will inadvertently create a hero, but that is someone else’s observation, not the observation of those kids in foxholes.