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Capturing The Lightning:
An Interview with Mark Hamill

A gracious Mark Hamill with the Fanboy Planeteers.
Goodson is the one humming
the Imperial March through his smile.
Here's how it happened.

A year and a half ago, Goodson and I were driving down to the 2002 San Diego ComicCon when my cell phone rang. On the other end was the faint voice of a publicist (love the cell reception on the I-5) asking if I'd be interested in meeting Mark Hamill.

At the time, I was pretty unclear as to why Hamill would be at the convention, but of course I said yes. After all, the kids at Cupertino Junior High had laughed at me when I said I would one day meet Luke Skywalker. And now...I WOULD SHOW THEM! (This is the same motivation for my interviewing Erin Grey at the same convention.)

Mark was there with a crew of his friends and peers from two of his many worlds, voice-over and science fiction fandom, in order to shoot Comic Book: The Movie. They were a brave group both sure and unsure; sure they had talent, but unsure about running around the convention and somehow shaping a narrative. We spent a lot of time on the periphery of that shoot, interviewing actors like Tom Kenny and Chase Masterson who were there in support of Creative Light Entertainment. At one point, I interviewed Hamill in his guise as Donald Swan, marking the beginning of what we'd hoped would be a fun game with fans. This led to further conversations, as with Creative Light we launched Once Upon A Dime, a site I co-edit and co-write with Daniel DeFabio that furthers the mythos of Donald Swan, and not coincidentally has some cool perspectives on comics' days gone by. Our own Mish'al Samman designed the site, and his work, though uncredited, is actually used in the film as the sample of the fanzine Donald Swan has supposedly published over the last thirty years.

I may not actually be friends with Luke Skywalker, but at least I get to be friends with another of Hamill's alter egos. Take that, Jon Schwartz.

Foolishly, though, I never got my 9-year-old nephew the autograph he would now die for. Maybe next summer...

Now one chapter closes, as Comic Book: The Movie sees release today. Yesterday morning (1/26/04), I spoke with Mark, as himself, to get some perspective on the whole experience of directing his first movie, but definitely not his last. He's pretty frank about the things that work and the things that didn't quite live up to his expectations, and if you weren't actually at that convention, there is one plot point we discuss that may be a spoiler. I've set warnings around it.

So here we go...

Derek McCaw: One of the phrases that the guys at Creative Light use most to describe the filming of Comic Book: The Movie is "capturing the lightning." You're on the convention floor, directing your first film, it's improvisational, you've got a couple of crews running around …how much control did you really have over it?

Mark Hamill: It was scary and dangerous all at the same time. I had the main unit, and I would send the satellite crews out. We'd have a production meeting in the morning and I'd say to Camera B, "can you go around and ask people the following question?" That sort of thing.

I learned a lot from it. I would get footage back, but of course I didn't get a chance to see it until after the fact, where the very first thing they'd say was, "would you like to be in the Mark Hamill movie?"

Hamill explaining a scene in his hotel suite
at the 2002 Convention.
So we'd have to do it over again. That wouldn't have been the approach I would have taken, because then you get five minutes of them talking about me and my movies, rather than "do you want to be in a mock documentary and talk about your favorite comic book character, but let's just use the name Commander Courage instead of Captain America." Or whatever.

You're right. Even with a lot of the footage of Donna D'errico, I wasn't there when they were doing it. We had a basic idea of what we wanted her to do in the film, and as it turned out, she's so funny and lovely.

Basically, I told my people, you can't say the wrong thing because everything is right. As long as you don't use profanity, I'm pretty much willing to go where you want to go, rather than me dictating what had to be done.

There were certain lines that I wanted said. There were certain plot points that we had to cover. We gave the whole movie a dangerous air. As you're watching it, you realize it's not completely homogenized, written and re-written and re-written again. It's kind of a hybrid between so-called reality TV and a feature film.

DM: I remember being at the Stan Lee panel that "Donald Swan" and "Derek Sprang" moderated, that you were filming for the movie. You had a big problem with people coming up to the microphone and saying, "Mark, I really enjoyed your movies." One of the things that you say in the DVD extras, and you said at that convention, was that you really thought you could go around incognito as Donald Swan.

MH: That was disproven.

But on the other hand, the fans were good about it. I said, if you call me Mark or Luke, I can't use it. But if you call me Don or Mr. Swan, you might be a movie star. So they got it really quickly. And I was really pleased that even in that situation you were talking about, if we had something that we really, really wanted to use, we could just turn down the sound when they said "Mark." If we wanted to. Ultimately, we didn't use as much of that footage as I'd hoped.

But what I loved about it was it was so real. I wasn't putting words into the fans' mouths. They're behaving just the way they're meant to be. Rather than tell people what fans are like, I was able to show fans. And you come away with, I think, a better understanding.

It's insightful in a way I didn't expect.

DM: After watching the movie a couple of times now, it definitely feels like two and a half movies. You've got your mockumentary or documentary, if you want to call it that, of the convention itself. You've got wicked Hollywood satire. And a showcase for your very talented voice-over actor friends.

MH: Not only that, but we have the documentary of Jackson Whitney, and the career of Commander Courage. He's much like an actor, from his heyday of selling a million books a month to now he's pushing sugar smack treats on Saturday morning cartoon shows.

DM: Okay, so now we're up to at least three and a half movies. How difficult was it for you to find the balance?

MH: It was funny, because I had three other producers: Roger Rose, Jess Harnell and Billy West who were all in the movie. Everybody was pulling in different directions. Well, mostly the same direction, but there were nuances.

For instance, when we came back from the con, they were unsure that they really wanted to do the documentary package about the career of Commander Courage. But I said, no, no, it's really important.

I screened a rough cut where there were big black spaces that said "visuals to come" under the narration. Where I had all the mock comic book covers and what not. It would be like doing This Is Spinal Tap with no band. You have to show the object of Don Swan's obsessive-compulsive behavior, and I really wanted to get into the Kefauver Committee and the Comics Code, and give an ersatz version of the real story of comics in this country.

We were also covering ourselves. We didn't want it to be just one thing. If the subject matter is diverse enough, hopefully it never drags or gets boring, because there's always something else going on.

Daran Norris in the
Commander Courage costume.
At one point we wanted to get into the costume competition. That's one of the reasons I had those costumes made. We wouldn't have been in competition, but I wanted the fans to react like it was a character they'd know as well as Captain America.

But at the last minute, the con thought that maybe we'd take a snarky, Trekkies tone. I've never seen Trekkies, but I said I'm not interested in making fun of the fans. I'm a fan myself. If anything, this is a love letter to fans. But they couldn't be sure. They knew me, but they didn't know me.

They were following us around to make sure that we weren't putting people on and making them feel uncomfortable. But I had no desire to do that. To me, taking a photograph of somebody who is overweight in a costume he shouldn't be wearing and saying, "look at how stupid he looks," that's not witty. That's not funny.

Sometimes you just cannot believe what people get up to. There's no one kind of fan; there's so many different kinds. And they're so specific. I went to a costume competition a few years ago, and they had this tableau scene from a series of fantasy novels that I'd never heard of before. It was so complex. There must have been twenty-five people on stage.

The work and the craftsmanship that these people put into it…some of the costumes down there are better than the ones in the movies. They had a Daredevil down there that I thought was better than in the Ben Affleck movie. The way he got the mask to fit his face, they do it just like the Hollywood pros. They take molds of themselves and plaster and create everything, sculpt it in foam.

And then you find out the guy's like a dentist or something. He does it all in his spare time, which is even more impressive. They don't have the entire workshops that they have in the movie studios. It's a labor of love, and you can tell that.

There's a sweet shot of an African-American guy in a Superman costume with really prominent teeth. If I had isolated him and just showed him by himself, I'd have run the risk of doing exactly what I said I wasn't going to do. But by editing him into a whole montage of Supermen, including that guy who looked just like Christopher Reeve…

DM: Yeah, he was in my hotel…it was scary.

MH: Wasn't he amazing? He did the pose and everything. By putting it in context, I made him just one of many fans of the Man of Steel. I just thought it was a sweet shot rather than a mean one.


Donald Swan hatching a plan...
DM: I saw a rough cut of one sequence, the chase, when Donald runs up to the big Timely Studios panel…

MH: The terrible disappointment. Because of the fear of lawyers that we were using copyrighted characters. What I was trying to get in that run through, was that Donald in costume would run through and other characters in costumes notice another superhero, clearly on some kind of mission.

They immediately fall in behind, because that's what you do when you're a superhero. And then I love the idea of running, running, running and then abiding by safety rules when they reach the escalator.

DM: I saw that in rough, and it was hilarious, and then when we first watched it, it was still funny, but I could only turn to Goodson and say, "believe me, it was so much funnier.

MH: It was so much funnier, and it was a great disappointment to me. But that's because we live in such a litigious society. It wasn't even the lawyers from those comic characters coming to me and saying, "you can't do this." It was our lawyers wanting to avoid it.

The laugh came when they hit the escalator, right? We weren't able to use the side-shot, which is how I envisioned it, and then cut to the shot looking down, to accentuate the run to standing still. All because of those restrictions.


DM: The DVD has some deleted scenes, and I held out hope that that extended scene would be there.

MH: I'm wondering if there was a way. But maybe because DVD extras have become almost as important as the movie itself… People have become so timid now; they live to not be sued. I think that's a shame. I had the idea and I thought I executed it fairly well, but because of other restrictions, we had to re-edit that.


Derek McCaw

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