To a certain extent, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) is based on real fighter pilot Joe Foss, who had 32 confirmed kills during the War, and many more probables. McCawley's speech about the plane feeling like an extension of his body was taken almost verbatim from a conversation Michael Bay had with Foss.
Before shooting began in Pearl Harbor, a Hawaiian priest blessed the crew - a practice recommended by local custom for film crews shooting in Hawaii. The ceremony took place on the first day of principal photography and lasted over four hours, much to the chagrin of director Michael Bay who had been told it would only take about 15 to 20 minutes.
To simulate the USS Oklahoma capsizing, the crew constructed the world's largest-ever gimbal. It took special effects supervisor John Frazier four months to design and a further four months for he and production designer Nigel Phelps to build. It weighed 700,000 pounds, was made of pure steel, could rise 25 degrees into the air and do a 180-degree barrel turn. In the film, as the Oklahoma rolls over, the back 450 feet is CG but the front portion is the real gimbal with over 150 real stuntmen on it.
The battleship USS Texas played a major role in this film. Exterior shots of the Texas were used to depict the USS Tennessee, USS Oklahoma and the USS West Virginia in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Interior scenes were also shot for use as the USS Hornet. The interior of the USS Lexington was also used for the USS Hornet.
Filming was completed in 109 days, one day over schedule. Over the course of the shoot, 3906 set-ups were filmed - around 39 setups a day. Over 300 hours of material was shot, and there were over 3000 crew-members in total.
The shots of the series of six explosions in Battleship Row were filmed by 14 cameras in total and were actually staged on real Navy ships. While on a location scout above Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay looked down and saw a line of ships doing nothing. He learned that these ships were part of the inactive fleet, and so he decided to use them for the explosions. The explosive charges were put on the real ships on plywood for protection, with 700 sticks of dynamite, 2000 feet of cord and 4000 gallons of gasoline being used. The six 600-foot ship explosions took a month and a half to rig (with 500 individual bombs on each boat). During the scene, there were also over 100 extras in the harbor and six real planes had to fly past the ships. In total, the shots took seven months of coordination among every department on the film, the local government of Hawaii, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the US Navy to ensure everything went off without a hitch. In the end, the explosions themselves lasted only seven seconds and comprised only 12 seconds of on-screen time.
Unlike Tora! Tora! Tora!, real Mitsubishi Zero fighters were used. Three original Japanese aircraft were used - one operated by the Planes of Fame Museum (Chino, California), one from the Museum of Flying (Santa Monica, California) and the third from the Confederate Air Force. In "Tora! Tora! Tora!" the aircraft were all replicas constructed from WWII US Army & Navy trainers (T-6s and BT-13s) and some of them were used again in this film.
Planes were flown over the disused Marine Corps Air Station Tustin base in Tustin, CA, to be composited into the film. This caused some residents in the extremely conservative area of Orange County to believe that a war was starting and they were being attacked.
When shooting the scene where Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) manage to get off the ground during the attack and are chased by three Japanese Zeroes, one of the real planes clipped a palm tree and crashed. The pilot was dazed, but apart from a broken finger he was unhurt.
While scouting locations for the film, the producers found that the modern city that most resembled 1942 Tokyo was Gary, Indiana. A team photographed that city from the air and integrated the resulting footage into the film. For that reason, during the depiction of the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, the planes are actually bombing Gary, Indiana.
Jon Voight wore duplicates of the steel leg-braces that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to wear. As a result, Voight suffered from bruising and chafing on his legs for weeks after finishing his work for the film.
Michael Bay's favorite shot in the movie is the camera sweep over the USS Hornet (the aircraft carrier which transports the Doolittle raiders to Japan). He feels that this shot is a perfect example of how to blend CG material and photorealistic material. According to Bay, only the ship and four of the planes are real - everything else is computer generated. When the camera pass was actually filmed, the ship was in port, next to a Holiday Inn.
Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay agreed to give up $4 million in salaries in return for a cut of the profits to get the budget down. The film's stars also took a drop in salaries in return for a cut of the profits for the same reason.
The premiere for the film was held at Pearl Harbor aboard the carrier USS John Stennis; bleachers were set up on the flight deck, and the hangar bay was converted into a 1940s-style nightclub for the after party.
There is a persistent urban myth that a shot of Bruce Willis in full Die Hard gear was composited into the triage scene. The likeness is certainly very striking but it is not Willis - it's a young extra.
During the briefing of the Doolittle Raid, the pilots' names are listed on the black board including "Lawson". Ted Lawson flew the Doolittle Raid and wrote the book "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", made into a film (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) with Van Johnson portraying Lawson.
According to Michael Bay on his DVD commentary, after the film came out and the critics savaged the love story, he was deeply touched when he received hundreds of letters from people who felt the love story rang completely true for the tone of the film, and was an integral part of the atmosphere of the movie. Bay says that most of these letters came from older people, including many Pearl Harbor survivors.
On his DVD commentary, director Michael Bay makes it very clear that he was not attempting to make a contemporary love story, but a 1940's love story; the type of story that could have been seen in films of the day. Bay claims that one of the reasons the love story plot was so derided by critics and rejected by audiences was simply because they weren't able to look at it from this perspective; that they weren't able to adopt the sense of innocence and carefree attitude necessary to accept it. Ben Affleck also addresses this aspect of the story on his own commentary - especially in relation to the much maligned 'champagne cork scene', pointing out that such a scene would be right at home in a 1940's romance film.
On his DVD commentary, Michael Bay argues that the heavily criticized first part of the film was very much designed to show the innocence and blasé attitude of Americans to the possibility of becoming embroiled in the "European war". He says that the reason this part of the film is so colorful and mirthful is because that's exactly what things were like back then - there was very much a sense of being untouchable, something which he says was emphasized time and again by the survivors to whom he spoke. Bay claims that many survivors say he got the pre-Pearl Harbor atmosphere perfect.
According to Michael Bay, after the film came out he got a letter from Daniel Martínez, the world's foremost expert on Pearl Harbor and the director of the Pearl Harbor museum. In the letter, Bay says that Martinez wrote, "You got the essence of what happened right."
For the scenes of the Japanese planes taking off, an American carrier was used. According to Michael Bay, this greatly offended some of the Pearl Harbor survivors, who felt it dishonored the dead. Bay, however, pointed out to them that they destroyed all of the Japanese carriers later in the war, so an American carrier had to be used. He says that when he pointed this out, they agreed to the use of the American carrier.
The first scene of the film to be shot was the boxing match involving Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.), followed by the introduction of Admiral Kimmel (Colm Feore). In this scene, all the sailors in the background are real sailors in full uniform; they also played the extras in the boxing match scene.
The scene when Danny (Josh Hartnett) returns the handkerchief to Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) was suggested and written by Robert Towne after seeing a rough cut of the film several weeks after principal photography had wrapped.
According to director Michael Bay, he always wanted to make an R-rated movie but that the problem was that young children would not be able to see it, and he felt that they should. As such, when he was ordered by Disney to make a PG-13 movie, he didn't argue.
Michael Bay's least favorite shot in the movie is the cutaway during the Doolittle Raid to the Japanese women turning and seeing the attack in the distance. On the DVD commentary, he admits he has no idea why this shot is in the movie or what he was trying to achieve in shooting it.
In the scenes during the Doolittle Raid where it appears the actors are actually flying the planes, they actually are. No CG was used. Alec Baldwin, Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck were all given basic flight training so they could handle the planes. To get the various shots of the actors in the pilot's seat, the "real" pilot would simply pilot the plane to the desired destination, and then switch seats with the actor, who would take the controls while the camera crew moved alongside to get the shot. The actor and pilot would then switch seats again.
Only five injuries occurred throughout the entirety of the filming: a broken ankle, a sprained ankle, a broken collarbone, a cut head, and a broken finger suffered by a stunt pilot who crashed his plane after the wing clipped a palm tree.
There are four 100% CG shots in the film: the shot of the bomb falling toward the USS Arizona, the two shots of the explosion of the Arizona as it jumps upwards in the water, and the two Japanese Zeroes pitching down towards Battleship Row.
Visual Effects supervisor Eric Brevig had to write an entirely new piece of software to create smoke plumes for the film as the amount of smoke needed was not allowed to be shot for environmental reasons.
During the "Fighting Back" Black & White film montage, a ship with hull number 53 is shown exploding. This true footage is actually of the destruction of the ex HMAS Torrens, a Royal Australian Navy Destroyer Escort sunk as a target by the Collins Class Submarine HMAS Farncomb in 1999.
Two of the nurse consultants for this film were stationed at Pearl Harbor during the actual attack; one in the army and the other in the navy. Sara Entrikin was assigned to the clinic at Hickham and Helen Entrikin at the Naval Clinic at Pearl. They were both invited out for the preview in Hawaii. During the 50 year reunion they were the only surviving twins and were extensively interviewed by CNN, ABC, CBS, etc.
The dogfight scenes with Rafe and Danny was based on real-life test pilot George Welch (who first flew the North American F86 prototype); he was the first to score an enemy kill downing a Mitsubishi Zero.
President Roosevelt's address to Congress is highly revised for the film. Two passages from his original speech remain intact: "Yesterday, December 7th 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan" and "No matter how long it may take us, to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory." The rest is rewritten or added lines.
During a 2012 "Hollywood Reporter" Directors' Roundtable, the group was asked about their weirdest or most interesting note or letter ever from a fan, and Ben Affleck told a story about getting a letter from someone in China that said "they were glad [about] 'what we did to the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.' And I wasn't sure if they understood that it was a historical movie, or why they watched the movie."