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To the Front Once More

After 'Saving Private Ryan,' Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks had more to say, so they're producing an HBO miniseries.

August 20, 2000|DAVID GRITTEN

HATFIELD, England — "Here we are again," says Tom Hanks, beaming broadly, "back in the place that has everything."

Hanks has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as he says this. Hatfield is an unlovely, medium-sized town 20 miles north of London with a faintly depressed air and few distinguishing characteristics. But what it does have is a disused aerodrome, a stretch of land that constitutes a dream back lot: On its 1,100 acres there's room to create several distinctly different sets.

It was at Hatfield that the French village under siege in the final third of the Oscar-strewn "Saving Private Ryan" was created. Hanks, of course, starred in that film, and Steven Spielberg directed it. And now, as Hanks says, they're back--as executive producers of a project loosely linked to "Saving Private Ryan," yet even bigger in scope.

This is "Band of Brothers," a 10-part miniseries for HBO based on Stephen Ambrose's nonfiction bestseller about World War II that is expected to begin airing in June.

Starting in 1942, the story concerns the soldiers of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division. It begins with their rigorous training in Georgia, follows them as they parachute into France behind enemy lines early on D-day morning, and climaxes with their daring capture of Hitler's fortified mountain chalet, the Eagle's Nest retreat at Berchtesgaden, Bavaria.

"Band of Brothers" is an enormous project, with a budget of around $100 million, a nine-month shooting schedule, a speaking cast of 500 and no less than 10,000 extras. (The caterers serve between 600 and 800 meals on any given day.) Yet most of the action will take place here on the old aerodrome at Hatfield; its geography has been drastically rearranged to create man-made rivers, forests and dikes (for scenes depicting Holland) as well as villages and towns in Belgium and France, and the training camp in Georgia.

For "Saving Private Ryan," only a small portion of the Hatfield site was employed. Hanks and Spielberg have peopled their Easy Company with a cast of virtual unknowns; David Schwimmer from "Friends," who plays a tough disciplinarian at the training camp in Georgia, is the only high-profile actor in the series. Controversially, the lead role, war hero and platoon leader Richard Winters, is played by a little-known English actor, Damien Lewis (see accompanying story, left).

Different directors have been assigned an episode each, and Hanks himself is directing the fifth, called "Crossroads." In it, Winters leads a platoon of 30 men against an entire company of German SS troops. Arriving at a crossroads on the lower Rhine in Holland, he encounters the Germans traversing a dike and single-handedly shoots many of them, repeatedly reloading his rifle, before his platoon catches up with him to lend support.

"We kill Germans today, mainly," a young female assistant director says cheerfully. Indeed, the entire morning's shooting is punctuated by rapid gunfire. But Hanks looks supremely relaxed; in a brown shirt, baseball cap and bluejeans, he strides around the grassland, issuing instructions between takes. He whirls a pair of earplugs around one finger, donning them when the gunfire begins, and sounds a hand-held horn to signify "cut!"

Between scenes, he explains that while "Saving Private Ryan" had been satisfying, he felt there were more stories to tell about these World War II heroes.

"I stumbled on 'Band of Brothers' while I was doing research for 'Saving Private Ryan,' and I thought here was a story with a specific through line that still needed a vast amount of time to tell it," he recalls. Spielberg, meanwhile, was also looking to revisit "Saving Private Ryan" territory. He had optioned another Ambrose book, the massive "Citizen Soldiers," but Hanks persuaded him that "Band of Brothers" was a story with a more manageable scale.

"I think 'Saving Private Ryan' ended up landing in the social consciousness for many reasons," muses Hanks. "Maybe it was the millennium. And there was a realization that so many participants [in D-day] are now leaving us quickly. The place the film held in the zeitgeist was this massive amount of reflection that the movie itself couldn't encompass. It paved the way to go off and explore other themes. And another expensive feature can't do it the way a long-form TV series can."

So he and Spielberg teamed up and started shopping "Band of Brothers" around. "The interest was off the scale," Hanks recalls. "Everyone wanted to talk and have meetings about it."

HBO won out partly because Hanks had enjoyed his experience with the cable channel as executive producer of "From the Earth to the Moon."

"HBO [executives] were also flexible. We could shoot an episode that lasts 66 minutes, or 48 minutes if we want. There are no commercial breaks; you can say and do what you want; and if you come in second in the ratings, they don't care."

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