Feature: The Pacific
By Tim Kroenert
They call it the Sausage Factory. A low, sprawling storeroom strung with rows of army fatigues. Many are bloodstained; some earmarked as ‘dead’ costumes (as in, for dressing ‘dead’ soldiers). Quite a few have holes, where a prosthetic bone might protrude.
A stroll around the costume department of the HBO, DreamWorks and Playtone produced miniseries The Pacific is enough to know that it is going to be an epic, gruesome affair.
The 10-part series – estimated to have a production budget of between $US150 million and $US200 million – offers an unflinching look at the US Marine Corps’ campaign against the Japanese on islands in the Pacific during World War II.
It makes a bleak companion to HBO’s groundbreaking 2001 series Band of Brothers and once again marks the return of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers.
“This is the other side of the conversation,” The Pacific historical consultant Paul Ambrose tells INSIDEFILM. “Band was true, but this is also true.”
The series centres on three Marines: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) and Sid Philips (Ashton Holmes) and also showcases a wide variety of local talent such as Isabel Lucas, Bill Hunter and Gary Sweet.
It is based on the memoirs of the real Leckie (Helmet for My Pillow) and Sledge (With the Old Breed), books that Ambrose describes as “required reading” for study of the Pacific war. Philips, who was written about in both books, provides a connecting thread for the intertwining stories.
“[Writer/producer] Bruce McKenna conceived this way of connecting the stories to cover the whole scope of the war chronology,” says Ambrose. “It’s a representative sample of the US action during the campaign.”
It’s February 2008, and we’re standing on a massive set in rural Victoria — actually a working quarry near the sharp granite ridges of the You Yangs at Lara, which today is doubling as a war-scarred valley on the island of Pelileu. This is the setting of what Ambrose describes as one of the most “brutal and bloody” military battles in history.
Realism is the order of the day. Some 600 real weapons and 500 rubber ones were used for the series. The uniforms were meticulously recreated to Marine specs (right down to the undies).
There’s even a real-life Marine, a powerful, white-moustached gent named Captain Dale Dye, looming about the set to lend his advice on the minutiae of warfare.
As we watch, a grubby Gary Sweet commando-crawls, in costume, towards the lip of the valley.
He’s rehearsing the action before the cameras start rolling. As he snakes to the edge, he peers over his shoulder to the venerable Captain Dye, who frowns, assessing the actor’s technique. After a moment Dye nods. Sweet smiles, glad of the approval.
Sweet is clearly well practiced. Most of the actors were put through boot camp prior to production, in order to “learn how to be a Marine”.
Sweet – who plays Gunnery Sergeant Elmo Haney, a veteran of the First World War – relished this intense preparation.
“I always like to research as much as I can,” he says.
“[Australian television director] George Ogilvie taught me this when I was doing Bodyline: you should try to research as much as you can, take in as much information as you can, you think you won’t remember it but something triggers it, some situation you find yourself in, and some of the stuff you don’t think you’re going to recall comes out. It’s quite a strange osmosis.”
Nonetheless, “this has been the most intense preparation for what is undoubtedly the most majestic production I’ve ever worked on”.
Dylan Young, a Black Lung Theatre Company actor who makes his screen debut in The Pacific as ‘bazooka man’ Jay De L'eau, agrees boot camp was a tough initiation.
“It was nine days of intensive weapons training and physical training,” says the then 24-year-old, who hails from Stawell in country Victoria. “By the end of it I was pretty delirious.”
“But it was fascinating, in terms of putting yourself in the headspace of a project like this. I have no sense of what it would be like to sit up in the middle of the night in a foxhole with a gun. How exhausted those guys must have been in combat. Boot camp helped us try to get a sense of it. I guess you’ll never fully understand, but you can get a glimpse.”
US actor Rami Malek, who plays Merriell 'Snafu' Shelton – described by Malek as a poor Louisiana boy, who during the war contrasts with Eugene Sledge’s upper class, well-educated character – is sure The Pacific will make a dramatic impact.
“It says some very terrible things about war,” Malek says. “The brutality, the savagery, the ability to do such terrible things to human beings … but at the same time there is a certain empathy and duty that are involved, and compassion.
“There’ll be moments in this drama where you get both of those juxtaposed: a moment of severe brutality followed by utter compassion. And I think that’s the position it puts young men in: war.”
The Pacific has been mooted as the biggest mini-series ever, and the biggest production ever shot in Victoria (80 per cent of filming took place in Victoria – the series received Production Investment Attraction Fund and Regional Victorian Location Assistance Fund grants from Film Victoria – while further filming took place in Queensland).
The producers spent a hefty $134 million in Australia during the series almost year-long shoot, according to Screen Australia.
“All things Australian have enabled us to hit a home run,” says McKenna. “Everything from the topography to the weather to the crew to the infrastructure to the film community to the people of Melbourne, it’s been fantastic.”
During production there were two units plus a VFX unit often running simultaneously and, says McKenna, “it is quite something to see them in action at the same time”.
“On Friday we had both units, Iwo Jima [another location of Pacific warfare] going at the same time as Pelileu, so you could hear the distant gunfire. It’s unbelievable.”
The Pacific is not wall-to-wall warfare. One episode sees the soldiers enjoying some R ‘n’ R time in Melbourne.
Isabel Lucas, the Australian star of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, appears as Gwen, a young woman who enjoys a short-lived romance with Philips.
“It’s the bittersweet theme of love and loss,” Lucas tells INSIDEFILM in the lead-up to the premiere of The Pacific.
“It follows the characters falling in love while Sid Philips was stationed in Victoria, and then his inevitable departure and heading back to war.”
Lucas was particularly thrilled to be shooting — for the first time — in her hometown of Melbourne. She recalls the day that the city centre in front of the iconic Flinders Street Station was closed down for ten hours of filming.
“The whole street was cut off,” she says. “It was set dressed to appear as it was in the 1940s. The trams were from the 1940s, there were horses and carts and little market stalls by the side of the road and old cigarette stands and posters and signs that were of the time. The set designers did an amazing job.”
Incidentally, the US premiere of The Pacific in March (preceding the series’ Australian premiere on the Seven Network in April) coincides with the broadcast of another project which is equally close to Lucas’ heart: an MTV documentary charting the recent Summit on the Summit, a physically demanding and unique charity event in which she took part.
Speaking from the Brisbane set of her latest film, Gail Edwards’ A Heartbeat Away, Lucas tells INSIDEFILM she arrived back in Australia “via LA from Africa” – Tanzania, to be precise, where she and a bunch of celebrity pals scaled Mt Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of the global clean water crisis.
“The water crisis is not just an African problem or a third world problem,” says Lucas. “It’s a global issue. There are things you can do to make changes.
The climb was very informative as well as being an amazing adventure.”
Clearly Lucas has somewhat of an activist streak — or as she puts it, “more of an altruist streak, but I’m active about it”. Sure enough, even her motivation for taking part in a big-budget miniseries about the brutality of war was largely humanistic.
“It’s an incredible story and a huge and vital part of our history,” she says.
“Inevitably in some way Australians are all linked to some family member or friend who went through the experience of war. It made it more tangible having that connection with the history.”
The Pacific premieres on Channel Seven at 8.30pm on Wednesday, April 14. This article originally appeared in the March issue of INSIDEFILM magazine. Subscribe here.