‘The Pacific’ – How Bruce C. McKenna Wrote About The War For HBO, Tom Hanks And Steven Spielberg

Ashton Holmes in The Pacific. (Photo: HBO)

Ashton Holmes in The Pacific. (Photo: HBO)

*Please Note: Fancast will have the entire premiere episode of ‘The Pacific’ online beginning Monday, March 15th.

The war in the Pacific, arguably the most horrific sphere of fighting in World War II, lasted nearly five years, but Bruce C. McKenna needed a total of seven years to complete his work as writer and co-executive producer on the stunning new HBO mini-series, ‘The Pacific.’ He began after the much-lauded 2001 miniseries ‘Band of Brothers;’ production on ‘The Pacific’ wrapped in May, 2008; and if you want to get technical, post-production required another 20 months. But who’s counting? The important thing is that the 10-part miniseries, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, begins airing March 14 on HBO, and it promises to be a memorable experience. ‘The Pacific’ weaves together three highly personal, dramatic true stories, those of PFC Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda).

“It is a gem of a production and would be a highlight of any TV season,” wrote Barry Garron in the Hollywood Reporter. “’Pacific,’ in its totality, conveys a sense of the combat experience that is as complete and realistic as any work of film could be. From the harrowing nighttime battles with a deadly but invisible enemy to the sheer misery of the punishing jungle climate to the macho posturing of the young American fighters, ‘Pacific’ omits nothing.”

Watch previews and highlights from ‘The Pacific’

McKenna, who wrote several episodes of HBO’s acclaimed ‘Band of Brothers,’ set an extremely high bar for himself. “I wasn’t interested in just the hagiography of the man, you know, grandpa was a hero and the greatest,” he says. “What appealed to me about this was to take a conflict that’s universally regarded as necessary in American history and be able to show how morally complex it was, and what it did to those guys.” McKenna, a New Jersey native, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan, and former journalist, spoke to Fancast about the project.

Watch a profile of Robert Leckie

What did the war in the Pacific do to those guys? It destroyed them. It destroyed an entire generation.

What’s ‘The Pacific’ about – to you? From the minute I came up with a way to structure the show, after Tom [Hanks] and Steven [Spielberg] asked me to come up with a way of handling it, the project has always been about the moral cost of war. Nobody’s pro war, but this is a war that had to be fought – and won. But what was the cost. I wanted people watching this mini-series to think about that.

Watch a profile of Eugene B. Sledge

When did you start work on ‘The Pacific’, and how? I started in mid March 2003, but there’s actually a better story. I started on this project the night of the Emmy’s when the writers for ‘Band of Brothers’ lost. The series won but we lost. And I remember being quite inebriated and going up to Steven Spielberg’s table and his wife said you were robbed. I said you’re right. And then I said this to Steven: “Are you ever going to do the Pacific?” And he said, “I’ve been thinking about it.” And I said, “Please, if you do, I’d love to write you a couple of episodes.” He said, “I’ll keep that in mind.” Flash forward 18 months, and I get the call from Hank’s company, Steven and Tom and Gary Goetzman want to sit down with you and talk about doing the Pacific. Are you interested? I’m like, hold on a second. On hold, oh my God. You know, this is tremendous.

Watch a profile of Jon Basilone

And then? It was actually not an easy decision to make, because I knew it was going to immerse me for years in a topic that is quite dark and for which I was going to be underpaid. And I did it anyway. Because when you die your bank account balance is not in your obituary, your projects are.

So? So I began in 2003. We had the meeting and we had no idea what to do. How do you structure this? It’s vast. The canvas is huge. We bandied around some ideas and I said look, let me go away and figure this out and I’ll come back in four months and I’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. And I did. And I worked with Hugh Ambrose, Steven Ambrose’s son who was the historical consultant they hired to help me. I read, you know, 50 books on the Pacific War. My wife called it the stack of death that was next to the bed. After I got through it, I figured out the way to do it was to weave characters, like ‘Traffic.’

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Did you suddenly find those three guys, Leckie, Sledge and Basilone?
The series originally had 5 main characters. We had two naval aviators, who would fly over our guys and I had the battle of Midway. Anyway, I came back, I found Sledge’s book, Leckie’s book and came back and pitched Tom and Steven on the set of ‘Terminal,’ this is what we’re going to do, this is ‘Traffic’. We are going to read these guys, and they just said great. Go write the series. They pitched to HBO, green lit the bible, which means just to write, see if it’s doable.

When did you know you had it? The moment I knew I had a series is when I discovered that Eugene Sledge’s best friend, Sid Phillips served in Robert Leckie’s company. And not only that, but knew him and knew him well enough to know what his character was like. Oh yeah, he’s the book guy, and I just said thank you God. Because that’s not in any of their books, it’s in none – you know, it took intense personal research to discover this. And I knew we had a series when I saw that I could connect these guys in a way that was organic and not hired horse shit. After that, we hired a writing staff, we went to scripts.

That writing staff was pretty incredible, a pretty talented group – Yeah, I hired Robert Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer prize for ‘The Kentucky Cycle’; Larry Andries, from ‘Six Feet Under’; and George Pelecanos, who worked on ‘The Wire.’ I wanted three writers who were better than I am, and I got ‘em.

The episodes don’t include Midway or Pearl Harbor. Any reason why you excluded them? Initially we had them. We had 13 episodes. I have the lost episodes of ‘The Pacific’ in my computer. I’ll probably sell them on eBay. But it was too diffuse; it didn’t make sense at 13; and we wanted the series to be universal, to be timeless. We wanted it to be, oh my God, this is war. When you watch, it’s war, not just the Pacific.

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In your research, did you get to know the primary sources? Absolutely. I spent time with Mrs. Sledge and her two sons. We flew them out and interviewed them for hours on camera. I spoke to John, the oldest son, and asked him what his father was like after the war. Did he have nightmares? How’d he treat you? All the buddies and wives we spoke to were very helpful, especially the wives, because husbands confide in their wives the way they don’t in their children. And Mrs. Leckie is still alive. She was tremendous. I remember saying to her, “Tell me what Bob was really like,” and she said, “He was a pain in the ass. But I loved him.” And that was Bob Leckie. We interviewed a number of these guys.

What about people who knew Basilone?
(Spoiler alert – stop reading here if you don’t want to find out what happened to this character.) I have intereviewed every person that ever fought next to him in close combat, and all the 800 guys that think they saw him die. And all of them are wrong, by the way. Nobody who actually saw him die survived the impact. He wasn’t killed the way people thought. We present it accurately in the series. We were researching right up till the day we shot.

What moved you most in making this series? What’s stayed with you?
Moved is the wrong word. But what’s stuck with me was the degree of savagery exhibited by the Japanese. Few people actually know about this aspect, and we don’t sugarcoat it in the series.

As the series progresses, especially toward the end, it becomes a serious exploration of morality, of sanity, of staying human. Yeah, staying human. Eugene Sledge is the perfect character. He’s the Joker in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ except that movie was political and there’s nothing political about ‘The Pacific.’ Sledge is the every neighborhood’s boy next door, and by the end of the series he’s going to kill an old woman because she’s asking him to. He’s reached the end. It’s the most violent series ever made for television, because it had to be by nature of the subject matter. But I’m proud in that there’s not one gratuitous act of violence in the entire series. Every violent event resonates with a character and informs that character, and you see it wear on them as the hours progress.

Do you have a favorite episode?
The ninth episode. It’s the best one in my opinion. It goes into a deep, dark place in Sledge’s journey.

I read where Tom Hanks said the question asked in ‘The Pacific” is not so much how they did it, but why they did it. What’s your take? I think that’s the wrong question. I think the right question is how do they survive? They went because they were incredibly patriotic. They wanted to protect America. I’m proud of them for going. My appreciation for the military runs very deep. Even for unnecessary wars. It was very hard for me to write this during our present escapades, because I’m adamantly against them. And I had to create a series where I was adamantly supportive of the soldiers. But I think the real question is how do you survive war? How do young men survive it? And of course the answer is, they don’t.

Throughout the 10-episode airing of ‘The Pacific,’ Bruce McKenna will provide a writer’s-eye-preview of a key moment he thinks you should look for. We will run it here prior to each new episode.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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