Capturing The Lightning: An Interview With Mark Hamill

Editor’s Note: This was published in 2004 — but pulled over to the Fanboy Planet 3.0 site on May 26, 2017. What follows is the original text.

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.

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?” 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.

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.


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.

DM: Was there anything else that you had to cut that just killed you to do it?

MH: It’s probably better for the flow of the movie, but I loved going to the documentary package about how the (Commander Courage) comic book went through so many permutations. You know, Courage in the Saddle, Courage to Love, Crypt of Courage and all that. I wanted to have clips from the pilot, and instead we just have a still with Bill Mumy playing Liberty Lad.

A lot of it was because of the limitations of the amount of money I had to work with. I staged that radio show down in San Diego. I think you can hear it on the web.

DM: Yes, we have it here on Fanboy Planet.

MH: All the minutiae about the career of Commander Courage and Liberty Lad was interesting to me, because you could sort of get a feel for the overall career. But there were so many people in it, and so many aspects to it that if you expanded that area, then other things had to come out. To be fair to everyone, including my partners, I had to keep the balance. I mean, I had friends that did favors that were completely cut out of the movie. All three of my children were in it, but my children are cut out of it.

Wait, my daughter Chelsea ended up in a deleted scene, because she really wanted to be in it. My older son said, eh, I don’t care. They’re blasé and did it as a favor to me. They have no aspirations to be performers. Nathan works at Bongo Comics, so he’s in their booth. In one angle, you can see him over Matt Groening’s shoulder. He was sort of ambivalent about being in it, so I just used another angle.

To each his own.

DM: With the radio show done live at the Con, you were able to kind of sneak Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen in, at least in the extras. Was there anybody else that you wanted to have in the film, and then couldn’t fit?

MH: I thought Jeff Bennett should be in it. He’s a guy that works all the time in cartoons. Pamela Segall, who’s the voice of Bobby Hill on King of the Hill and plays in a series I do called Time Squad, with Rob Paulsen. I wanted her desperately in the movie, and yet she was pregnant and couldn’t really do it. There’s a whole list of people. I didn’t even give Rob and Maurice enough to do. I was trying to find a place for them to be actors, but there was only so much I could do. Especially when we had to do the bulk of it all in four days.

Everybody pulled together, but at the end of the day, rather than going out to dinner, parties, movies, or whatever people do at night at the con, I was looking over the footage we had already done. And then planning for what we were going to do the next day. It was crazy. It was really exhausting.

Originally, I was saying, maybe I shouldn’t be in it. Maybe I shouldn’t be playing Donald Swan. We can get Jeff Bennett to do that or Rob Paulsen. He’s just a wonderful actor. But I’m pragmatic, too. They said, no, you’ve got to be in it, you’re a fan. It’s your love of comic books that’s driving this whole thing. You really ought to be in it.

I envisioned Leo Matuszik, the character Billy West plays, running through the floor of the con in that costume. He’s the soul we’re bartering for. He’s being pulled by the movie people in one direction, by the comic book people in the other direction. But they (the producers) felt that with my background and being known as a heroic character in George’s franchise, it was just too good to pass up. You want to give the people what they want.

And I wasn’t doing it for the glory. I really thought it would be better for the story if it was Billy. I got outvoted, and I can see their point of view.

But only I could make a sponge-sculpted outfit look paunchy. There are scenes where I come running around the corner where you can swear I have a paunch. Now since the movie I’ve dropped about twenty-five pounds, because I went off and did a play (Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks) and was dancing eight times a week on Broadway and out of town. I went from a 35 waist back to a 32. I look at the footage and think I can’t believe what a Pillsbury Dough-Boy I am. But it seems right for a guy from Wisconsin.

DM: Was there a specific moment during the filming when you thought, “this is working?” Because I’m sure there must have been times when you thought it wasn’t.

MH: Oh, yeah. I don’t think during it. During the con it was always kind of scary. Then I went to the Cocoanut Grove in Florida to rehearse Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks. I really had to put the movie aside until we opened.

Once we opened, then I’d perform the show, come home, shower, have something light to eat and then start watching footage. And I’m telling you, it was scary, because you’d see all of this stuff and think “this is so bad. I don’t know how this is going to work.”

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there would be thirty seconds where I’d be scribbling away going “oh, right! I could use this reaction from here, and match it with this sequence over here.”

It was like slowly building something out of a big pile of Legos that looked like a mess all over your room. It was somewhere in the editing process. I knew the first thing we had to do was assemble a narrative. Put the scenes in that tell the story of what’s going on in a chronological order, then we can do the embellishments after.

That first cut was almost four hours long. We knew it was going to come way down from that, but we also had to figure out what scenes we’d need to make sense of it all after we did the con. Like the boardroom where I go in and meet all the movie people (near the beginning of the film). That was done much later.

I had to get it all done when I still had the beard, because it was coming off for the play. Any of the stuff we had to shoot, we had to get quickly. It takes me forever to grow a beard, plus it was tinted. I wanted it to have a sepia tone, that was reddish-brown like an old faded scrapbook. I got the woman who did my hair on The Flash, Lana Sharp.

That was another wonderful thing. From Mike Richardson at Dark Horse Comics, to Bill Mumy, to Greg Nicotero who I worked with on John Carpenter’s Body Bags, I was able to go back to people that I knew and liked and built up some good will with over the years. Not to do it for free, but give me the best estimate on the low end, to see whether I could afford them.

If I hadn’t written for The Simpsons comic, I don’t know whether I would have gotten Bill Morrison to draw the Golden Age version, or Nathan Kane to do the revamped Codename: Courage book.

All those things add up. And then being able to have Bruce Timm and Paul Dini from Batman. Even the actors who played Darth Vader, Boba Fett and Chewbacca without their masks. I haven’t seen any of those actors in years. To see three of them all in one day was a thrill. I said they had to do something, just do a quick cameo. And we just made that up on the spot.

DM: It is rumored that you’ve spoken to a couple of publishers about doing Commander Courage comics.

MH: I would love to do that. I asked whether or not we could do it at Bongo Comics, and they said they really don’t do unknown characters. Which is kind of a Catch-22, because I said that when the movie comes out, it’ll be known. I thought maybe we could do an 80-page giant. The first 40 pages would be the Golden Age version, and then you flip it upside down and it’s the stark version. I love that idea, and I’d still love to do it. But there aren’t any definite plans to do it.

DM: If you were to do a sequel, what would it be?

MH: I think it would be the story of pre-production on the movie. It would still be about how you translated a printed character onto the big screen. It would probably go more in the direction of Robert Altman’s The Player. I’d probably have writers coming in and pitching ideas. I’d probably have interviews with potential directors, people trying to get me to do an MTV video of the character. Just more in the direction of it being made and how it’s being made. The third one would probably be the actual movie.

DM: So you envision a trilogy? Because trilogies are hot.

MH: (laughing) Yeah, trilogies are hot. It just seems that the reason they work that way is because there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They almost follow the structure of a three-act narrative.

I’m really open to ideas, and I’d love for the fans to contribute. They’re such a big part of this movie, that I’d love to get a dialogue going, to find out what they’d like to see. I don’t see how we could go back to the convention. That’s been done.

I think it would be more of Donald trying to hold on to the integrity of the character, showing the movie people footage from the lost pilot and more of the cartoon. Try and show him imparting the enthusiasm he has for the character in hopes of it becoming closer to what he wants.

I don’t think Don Swan is so intractable that he would find changing Liberty Lad to Liberty Lass an insurmountable problem. He’d just want to make sure that there’s no sexual tension between them, because that’s not what it’s about in his mind.

The fans usually have the best ideas. We’ve talked about it a little bit, but nothing definite at this point.

DM: You first approached Creative Light about doing The Black Pearl. At the time, they felt it was something a bit beyond their means. Are you still interested in adapting that for film? Are you interested in directing again at all?

MH: Absolutely. I wrote The Black Pearl to be a movie that’s enhanced by its low budget, rather than hurt by it. If we could give it a real gritty reality, if somebody tried in real life to do something that seems so effortless on the printed page, what a disastrous decision that is. It’s almost like Fargo, except instead of hiring a guy to kidnap his wife, he decides to put on a costume and things go drastically wrong.

I think it could be a really taut thriller, and I wanted to film it with hand-held cameras for a real cinema verite style. But it’s been fifteen years now. I hope that this (CB:TM) will give me some momentum to go in that direction. I’m really interested in continuing on, writing more and directing more if I can.

DM: What do you have on tap next?

MH: The very next thing I have is a show called The Wrong Coast, coming on AMC in March. It’s a satire of what I call Hooray for Hollywood shows, like Access: Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. It’s all animated, and I play Jameson Bakewright, the host. He has a sidekick, Debbie Sue. We show clips and trailers and onset interviews and so forth. It’s a satire that I think is very funny. I don’t have the exact date, but I know it’s sometime in March.

DM: Every time you get some high profile in the news, people comment on how you’ve “turned your back on Star Wars.” When Comic Book: The Movie sponsored Howard Stern last week, the crew there went off on that topic. Now I know that’s not true about you, and people will probably still misinterpret your stance, but would you mind making your definitive statement on that for the thousandth time and probably not the last?

MH: Not at all. I’ve sort of laid off over-associating myself with the franchise only because it’s such a healthy series on its own. I really have nothing to do with the prequels. I’m just a fan like everybody else. I just talked to George last week. He was in the editing bay, editing the movie. He’s all done filming. I said, oooh, Episode Three! How is it?

George being so low-key said, eh, same old stuff, which made me laugh. Because they’re not the same old stuff. They’re very ambitious, epic, in a way that ours weren’t. George called ours the most expensive low-budget movies ever made. And now he’s able to have this grandeur and opulence that was unavailable to us in the days before CGI.

People forget that before those movies came out that I was a tireless advocate for them. It was only when they became a gigantic phenomenon that I thought, wow, it’s running itself. It really doesn’t need me.

I guess it’s partially my desire to figure out if there’s life after Star Wars. It’s frustrating in a way, because I sort of do want to get involved. But you have to remember that we had a beginning, a middle and an end.

Even though I thought it was going to be a bunch of strangers rifling through my toybox – hey! That’s my lightsaber! That’s my C-3PO unit! – so much time had gone by that I was able to let it go. I don’t know how the feeling got out that I’ve turned my back. I mostly want to respect and honor the memory of those movies, but not make a career out of exploiting them.

That’s why I wanted to do Comic Book: The Movie, to appeal to the same fan base, but give the fans something new.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. You can buy his book "I Was Flesh Gordon" on the Amazon link at the right. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.