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On a muggy morning in September 1944, Pfc. Eugene Sledge and the 1st Marine Division landed on a beach at Peleliu, a Pacific island between New Guinea and the Philippines, where they were attacked by 11,000 Japanese soldiers.
That moment would later be called the bloodiest battle of World War II in the Pacific. Eleven hundred Americans lost their lives and 900 were wounded before the island was taken.
Sixty-three years later, HBO set out to re-create it.
But doing so meant spending the kind of giant dollars usually reserved for Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters.
It cost about $217 million to make “The Pacific,” the most expensive miniseries ever, with another $10 million for a multiplatform marketing campaign — offset by about $20 million in rebates from Australia, where much of the shooting took place.
So where did the money go?
The scene where Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) lands on Peleliu alone cost about $5 million, says co-executive producer Tony To. It involved 300 actors working over four days on a beach at Rocky Point in Australia’s rugged Queensland.
And even this was relatively economical.
“We did it and we did it under budget,” says co-executive producer/writer Bruce McKenna. “It was a miracle of efficiency.”
Efficiency began at the casting stage, when HBO and the producers (led by executive producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Steven Spielberg) decided to forgo big stars.
Each of the leads was paid double or triple SAG scale, which is about $700 a day; regular extras were paid about $70 a day; and special extras (who did stunts or were in dangerous scenes) up to $150 a day, To says.
For the Peleliu landing, shot in fall 2007, the production provided uniforms with netting and helmets that were exact replicas of the original for more than 300 actors. During the entire series, costume designer Penny Rose dressed the cast in 3,000 uniforms made from 215,000 square feet of herringbone twill, specially woven in India on old-fashioned looms to replicate the 1940s weave.
Each day, the actors went into one end of a 300-foot-long tent and came out in full costume, carrying the appropriate armory. For the landing, their work was captured by cameras stationed on a base ship and also on two camera boats, in addition to other cameras along the beach, where director Carl Franklin — just one of the helmers who worked on the 10-part series — orchestrated the action.
Before the cameras even rolled for that crucial scene, the producers knew their daily overhead was $270,000.
This total included paying for 50,000 rounds of specially made blank ammunition; 1,800 large weapons; and 40 simulated hits of 105mm Howitzer rounds and grenades — along with 20 massive explosions created by 10 kilo packs of Gelemex, a kind of dynamite that costs about $2 per pound.
Think getting shot on film is cheap? Think again.
Each Marine struck by shrapnel was wired with one of 24 reusable radio receivers that cost about $1,000 apiece, along with exploding squibs hidden under his uniform to simulate the impact of a bullet. The cost of those squibs: $11.50 apiece. Add this all up and pyrotechnics expert Joss Williams, who worked on the shoot, estimates exploding the squibs alone cost $1,000 for each one.
“We were shooting off pyrotechnics every day for almost a year, which is unprecedented,” he says. “And the fact that we were using actors, rather than stunt people, meant I had to (make) the effects (ultra-safe).”
The youthful actors did almost all their own stunts, without a single serious injury, thanks in part to intense training by former Marine Dale Dye of Warriors Inc. Ironically, the only real physical problem was one incident of food poisoning when cameras weren’t rolling.
When the cameras were rolling, shooting the landing alone ran about $13,500 a take. There were typically four wide shots each day, at a cost of about $70,000 per shot, the producers say.
All this was helped by technological advances made since “Band of Brothers,” the 2001 miniseries that preceded “The Pacific” and was also produced by Playtone’s Hanks and Goetzman, with Spielberg.
“For a lot of the battle stuff, the electronics now are at a point where we can comfortably use radio-controlled body packs,” Williams notes. “We no longer have to trail each actor with cables.”
Still, 93 technicians were needed to monitor the pyrotechnic action and operate the radio transmitters that set off the blasts.
And even with all this, the producers say they couldn’t afford everything they wanted.
“There were compromises,” says Graham Yost, another key writer and co-executive producer, pointing out one scene that was meant to feature a hurricane. “It was too difficult, even with the money we had. So we did a montage of guys slogging through rain and mud.”
Staging sequences like this was just one place where the money went.
Visual effects supervisor John Sullivan and his staff of seven trailed the camera and special effects crews to get the “plates” — or background images — they would need to enrich the scenes during postproduction in Santa Monica, where another 85 people worked with him for more than 30 months.
Using CGI to re-create the big naval vessels may have saved money, he says — but that wasn’t cheap, either. Sullivan estimates that a simple effect, such as adding a muzzle flash to a gun shot, cost about $700. More complicated shots, involving masking moving people or smoke, ran closer to $40,000 per shot.
When a shot of a landing craft in Peleliu proved especially difficult, Sullivan outsourced it to a visual effects provider in China that put in more boats and other elements. “They were more cost-effective, so we were able to get it where we wanted it,” he says. “It was practically the last shot delivered.”
But getting that one three-and-a-half-second shot involving a landing craft still cost almost $30,000.
While many decisions were affected by cost, there was a more important test, Yost says: “Everything was driven by the storytelling. But the scope was huge.”
“The decision to proceed with this, knowing the price tag, was daunting,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombaro. “But everybody is proud of the result.”
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