Interview: Bruce McKenna discusses the writing of 'The Pacific'
'Band of Brother' vet talks war, the Japanese and Clint Eastwood
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We all know the big names behind HBO's "The Pacific," the Steven Spielbergs and the Tom Hankses.
The man behind most of the writing on the 10-hour miniseries, though, is Bruce C. McKenna, whose name is on seven of the 10 scripts and who served as showrunner and co-executive producer on the project.
McKenna is a veteran of "Band of Brothers," winning a WGA Award for the "Bastogne" script, but he took on new responsibilities on "The Pacific," crafting the overall narrative arc for the project and overseeing a select team of writers.
HitFix caught up with McKenna to talk about finding the specific story within the epic framework, about how they chose to depict the Japanese soldiers and about how you follow up two of the most ambitious miniseries projects in television history.
HitFix: We probably ought to start at the top. After "Band of Brothers," you must have known that somebody would want you to do a follow-up, a companion. So how did you come to focus on these three stories?
Bruce C. McKenna: There's a good story there. Tom [Hanks], Steven [Spielberg] and Gary [Goetzman] had a meeting with me in March of 2003, around 18 months after "Band of Brothers." They said, "Look, we want to do the Pacific, but none of us have any clue how. It's so big. It's so vast. And there's not one company that can take you through the whole war." So I said, "I'll tackle this, just give me a few months." So I went away and I worked with Hugh Ambrose, Stephen Ambrose's son, just trying to get a handle on it. I read 30 books in a month. I had a stack of books about death next to my bedside. And that was just to narrow it down. The only things they said to me, there were two things: Steven said, "I want to go from 1941 to 1945. I want the whole war. And I don't want to blink. I want everything in there. I want it to be as honest and as searing as possible." I went, "Well OK. Great. I've gotta go through the whole war. How do I do that?"
I very quickly realized that the only way to do that was to focus on the First Marine Division. They fought at Guadalcanal and and then many of the men who fought at Guadacanal then fought at Iwo Jima. And members of the First Marine Division also fought at Okinawa. So I said, "OK. I now know I can get through the whole war, I've just got to find the right guys in the First Marine Division." That narrows it down to like 14,000 guys. I then found the book, "With the Old Breed" by Eugene Sledge, which was recommended to me by Chris Anderson, the editor of World War II Magazine. I read it and I said, "Holy s***. This is incredible." It's the best combat memoir, many people think, ever written. And why? There's no artifice in it. It's searingly personal and honest and empathetic at the same time. So I had Sledge. I knew I had Sledge. But he only comes into the war in 1944. Well, I've got three years so cover. So then I found Robert Leckie's book. And then I had Guadalcanal and I had Cape Gloucester. As I started interviewing men who served with these two guys, I had the great epiphany, when I knew we had the miniseries, which was that Eugene Sledge's best friend, Sid Phillips, served in Robert Leckie's company. My idea for the series was always to do it like "Traffic," to weave people in and out, they would touch each tangentially and then go off. Well, now I had Leckie and Sledge, two of our main characters, I could put them in the same place at the same time without any hokey Hollywood business. And I've been accused of that, by the way, that that scene's completely contrived, but it's not.
Then John Basilone was somebody who served in Guadalcanal with Leckie, was in Melbourne with Leckie, so that meant we had at least three episodes where we could weave them together. So that's how we picked the guys. That's the way you do a series like this, because it's much bigger than "Band of Brothers." This canvas is so big. So you have to figure our, "Well what's the series about?" And once you figure that out, then you can find the characters who service that theme and then you can find the battles that those characters were in. And you keep narrowing it and narrowing it and narrowing it so that eventually you know what to do and you can have one hour in Okinawa, when they were there for maybe 120 days.
HitFix: What was the consideration to not necessarily doing the battles, the images, the parts of history that we know? The big battles, as you say, are there. But the spine of the series is Peleliu, which is going to be largely fresh for many viewers...
BM: Most people aren't going to know about it.
HitFix: And you give Peleliu three episodes, nearly...
BM: And that's one of the proudest accomplishments in the series. The reason why we picked Peleliu that way is because it was such a fulcrum for Eugene Sledge's character and it's also where Robert Leckie is wounded, so knowing what happened to them on the island, we had to spend that time there. And it was fortuitous because nobody's heard of it, so we can really show the American viewers and all over the world that this is a battle you've never heard of, but it was just as savage as Iwo Jima. The percentage death rates on Peleliu, compared to home many men were there, were exactly the same as Iwo Jima. So we could have it as a stand-in for Tarawa, a stand-in for Saipan, a stand-in for the 31 days in Iwo Jima, so that people could really understand the horrors of that war, the particular fierceness of the Japanese, while at the same time allowing us to service two of our three main characters at a depth that was fantastic. I'm really pleased with that. That's the heart of the miniseries, those three episodes, clearly.
HitFix: Where were you guys in production when you heard that Clint Eastwood was doing one and then a second Iwo Jima movie?
BM: We were developing scripts. I remember being worried about it and then reading the scripts and not being worried about it. It explored something that was different from us. The only thing it bumped up against a little bit was John Basilone being so famous and I think we do a pretty good job. It's good enough and it stands enough alone and we say enough new things about Basilone and that, um, trope, if you will, that it didn't bump. Then when I saw the movies, I had no worries at all. I think we're a much better production. Just to be honest.
HitFix: Could you discuss the way you approached depicting the Japanese?
BM: As accurately as possible, no matter what the political ramifications. It was an eye-opener for me to learn how savage they actually were and their ideology that informed particularly their army. Their navy was a more humanistic outfit than the arm. And I feel sorry for those guys. We interviewed a couple Japanese veterans for the show very early on when we were thinking about trying to incorporate their point of view. It's heartbreaking, the dehumanization of those young men and what they were forced to go through. So I wanted to be as accurate as possible to this implacable, savage, fierce, proud, very brave -- very brave -- enemy that were better trained in many ways than the Americans, but not... There's something about the American experience, the American democratic experience, that made for a lot more flexibility in combat. Stephen Ambrose writes about this in "Citizen Soldiers" and it's true. We wanted to show sort of the lemming-like aspect of the Bonzai charges and I'm not going to shy away from it. This is what happened. And, by the way, there are enough Marine atrocities that we depict in the series. War is pretty bad. Especially that war.
HitFix: And yet it strikes me... Is there a single full line of dialogue from a Japanese character in the entire miniseries?
BM: Probably one or two at most.
HitFix: Which has to have been a very clear choice and exclusion. You didn't want to have an interaction or two...
BM: No, because that would be completely contrived. Lemme tell you, by the end of Guadalcanal, if a Marine sees a Japanese soldier, he's going to kill him. That would have been contrived. That would have been Hollywood hokiness. We have the one seen in Episode One which is quite powerful, with the young Japanese soldier in moral agony that he's about to die and the soldier putting him out of his misery, but that's the closest we come to humanizing the enemy. We made it intentionally. There's a story I was told by a character in the series, and it's not in the series, but he was at Cape Gloucester and he was suffering. His clothes had rotted away. He was starving to death, literally, and he was covered in sores from head to toe. He captured a Japanese soldier and brought him into the G2 intelligence guy and they gave this Japanese soldier hot food, new clothes and new boots. And the man looked at me in the interview and he said, "And that's the last time I ever took a Japanese prisoner." So this guy, who's a sweetheart, he murdered other human beings because they were getting hot food and he wasn't. That's what happened to the Marines in the Pacific. They completely dehumanized the Japanese because they had to in order to win the war. That's how savage it was. It was two scorpions in a bottle. That's what we did. It was an intentional choice to really show this from the American point of view, because to do anything else would have diffused the miniseries. To have that moment of talking to some Japanese guy would have just been Hollywood horses***.
HitFix: Yup. I can't imagine a Hollywood movie not having one of those "The Russians have their children, too" kinda scenes...
BM: Oh yeah. Or that wounded Japanese guy who was from San Francisco and "Hey Mac, gimme a cigarette..." and "What are you doin' here, pal?" That just never never happened.
HitFix: And nobody in the writers' room even proposed such a thing?
BM: No. And there was no writers' room.
HitFix: That was going to be my next question. He were heavily involved on "Band of Brothers," but nothing compared to this. Your name is on eight of the scripts here...
BM: Yeah, I was asked to create the series and oversee the writing staff early on in the series. Then Graham Yost was brought in to do a lot of the writing to get us into production, because I had no production experience, and then when Graham went off to direct an episode, I was given a battlefield promotion and was the showrunner down in Australian, but there were no other writers in Australia. But yeah, it was a very close-knit group of writers and we all got to be very close on the project. My mandate was that I was going to hire people who are better than I am, so I hired Robert Schenkkan, who did a fantastic job, George Pelecanos, Larry Andries. Michelle Ashford was actually brought in by Graham, but I know Michelle and she's a tremendously talented writer. But the key was that everybody had to go through me, in some sense because I'd spent four years researching the war. There's a consistency that was necessary, because we are telling just one story over 10 hours, so we were very cooperative in making sure that we serviced the themes of the series, but eventually it was my responsibility, and Graham's in Australia, to keep an eye on all of the scripts and all of the rewrites and all of the directors, too, to make sure that the vision was never deviated from.
HitFix: How did the production scope on this one differ from "Band of Brothers"?
BM: I remember being on the set of "Band of Brothers" and being pretty damned impressed. It was sort of this Potemkin village where we could rotate it 90 degrees and it could be Holland or Belgium. They dug a canal that was 500 yards long for Episode Five. And I remember being pretty damned impressed as a new Hollywood writer. Getting to the set of "The Pacific," the "Band of Brothers" set would have been over in the corner of "The Pacific" set. We rented a 3000 acre gravel pit area outside of Melbourne and the sets were huge. I think they're some of the largest sets ever constructed for any production in the history of Hollywood. They're vast. We had an entire airport and Okinawa. And that's not even talking about up north where we filmed in the actual jungle and there were no sets. We were just in the jungle and we built our foxholes. We planted a lot of coconut trees up north.
As a writer, envisioning this in my head and getting this down on paper and going through the process of rewriting it and reliving these battles and then to walk on set and see what Tony Pratt, our production designer, had created for Peleliu, I wept. I literally wept. It's a writers' dream to see your vision, to see the 1200 guys. It was incredible. It was just the apotheosis of a career.
HitFix: How much was computer imagery eventually involved?
BM: How much do you think?
HitFix: The answer is always going to be, "Boy, a lot." But a lot of it sure looked real.
BM: As little as we could get away with. That's the answer. And yet it was vast. The budget for special effects was enormous. I don't know how many special effects shots, but a hell of a lot more than in "Band." A lot of that is because you're on the ocean. But... you want to mesh them together in a way so that the foreground is always real and the background... I bet you didn't notice that the background in Peleliu, it's CGI. But everything in the foreground, that's all real. The amount of explosions? I think we used like a million rounds of ammunition, just vast amounts.
HitFix: Since this was them bringing to life your vision, did you ever hit up against a wall of something you wanted and they couldn't do?
BM: Yeah, but before they started shooting. We originally wanted to have the Naval aviators in the series. I wrote the Battle of Midway. It's the secret episode of "The Pacific" that's on my computer. I interviewed everybody who's still alive who was there, but the budget on it was so high that it was prohibitive. The water stuff was just, you know, "Waterworld Goes to War." It was just way too expensive.
HitFix: With all of that research, how many additional World War II movies would you say that you basically have sitting in your drawer, ready to write whenever you want to?
BM: It's ridiculous. My kids lived through both miniseries. They've lived through 10 years now of the second World War and they're just like, "Dad, can't you do something else, please?" My kids know who the Nazis are, they know all about Hitler, I had to teach them not to say "Japs." So yeah, there's a vast reservoir and body of knowledge and I could spend the next 10 careers just telling stories from the second World War. I could go from Naval aviators to nurses, it was so vast. It's the largest event in human history, with every panoply of human behavior that could possibly be imagined.
HitFix: Would you want to?
BM: Not for a long time. Not for a long time. People keep saying, "What's next for you?" And I keep saying, "A nice romantic comedy."
HitFix: But once you've done something as important as "Band of Brothers," as vast as "The Pacific," how do you sit down to write anything less?
BM: Look, I've been extraordinarily privileged to work on both of these projects. I was a World War II buff before I was ever a Hollywood writer. These were emotionally compulsive to me, so that's a bit of a problem. I've now done these two series, one that I was a writer on and one that I helped create and and went through all of the production on, so you're right. What do I do next? It's hard to find good stories in Hollywood, particularly in the feature business. I've got a pilot for FX that's very dear to me. There's a lot left to be said about the human condition that doesn't involve war. I'm hoping that I can go there.
HitFix: Do you think, though, that if this works out as well for HBO as they're obviously hoping, that they're going to go looking for that next war? Are we off to Korea next? Do we skip ahead and do Vietnam?
BM: I don't know. We'll see how well "The Pacific" does. I think it will do well. For me personally, the one war story that I would write is the story of the Chosin Reservoir. The Korean War is the forgotten war. Forget the Pacific, nobody knows anything about Korea. It's a Marine story and it's quite moving. Whether HBO does it or not, I hope they do. They did "Generation Kill" and I think something on Korea would be a great idea.
HitFix: Does that feel like another miniseries to you? Can you even think in a two-hour format anymore or are you stuck thinking in 10-hour blocks?
BM: Believe me, I think in whatever format they're willing to pay me to write. The Chosin Reservoir would be a better movie than a miniseries, because it was a very contained event. Now Korea? That's a miniseries.
HitFix: So in a quick sentence: The difference between "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific" is...
BM: "The Pacific" is "Band of Brothers Goes to Hell." "Band of Brothers," it's not that it's lighter, but it's a more surface look at what the men went through during the War. "The Pacific" is much more gut-wrenching, because the conflict was much more gut-wrenching. "Band of Brothers Goes to Hell."
"The Pacific" premieres on HBO on Sunday, March 14.