Face To Face With The Masters
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Cellblock 1138 - 1997-1999 - 2000 - 2002 - 2003+
Interview with Mark Hamill - Director and Star of Comic Book: The Movie
Conducted January 20, 2004 - Part 2
As I continued my conversation with Mark Hamill, we discussed more about him writing, directing, and starring in "Comic Book: The Movie" In the movie, the fictional comic book character Commander Courage is the center of attention. Hamill goes to great pains to create a back story for this non-existent 1940's superhero.
Scott Chitwood: You had such a strong back story on this character in this movie, my wife saw it and thought that it was a real character.
Mark Hamill: That's wonderful, I'm glad to hear that. I did so much back story that we couldn't really include it (all) in the movie, as much as I wanted to. That's one of the reasons a sequel is appealing to me, because I didn't stop with Jefferson Dale and Liberty Lad. I wrote the whole origin story plus the subsidiary characters. In other words, Clark Kent was a reporter, Captain America was an officer, or a soldier, when it hit me that a school teacher would be a good background that hasn't been used. It just sort of wrote itself, and it became sort of a mixture of the superhero world with the teenage sidekick. The subsidiary characters would be the high school students as well as the high school staff. Perry White is the principal and his Lois Lane is the guidance counselor, Joan Danfield, who instead of trying to figure out if Clark Kent is really Superman, or whether Jefferson Dale is really Commander Courage, she is a hyper patriotic character who's rooting out Fifth Columnists and Nazi sympathizers in the world of 1942. That's one of the things I love about comics is how they really give you a feel for whatever era they were created in. Whether it is the fervor for WWII or the Cold War era, the 50's and so forth. So when we came back from San Diego, some of my partners were really doubtful that we needed that whole biographical package. The notes I got was, "Who cares about Jackson Whitney and so forth?" My argument was it would be like doing This Is Spinal Tap with no band. So, again I felt like the comic book nerd trying to sell the civilians on the fact that you needed to know a little bit about this character and the sort of trajectory of his career from being a red-hot character who sells nearly a million books during the WWII years and then going through the really lean years from 1945 to the comics code...
SC: ...to the bad 70's cartoons
MH: Oh, yeah. To Bruce Timm. That's another great thing that I saw. Like it's not really autobiographical, (but) it has allusions to my career throughout. People like Paul Dini who wrote the best Batman scripts, or Bruce Timm who produced it or even Greg Nichochero (sp?) who did the costumes for the superhero characters who I met on John Carpenter's Body Bags. We were shooting all over southern California in these really remote places, and I'd see a KB Toys, or I'd see a Wal-Mart, and at lunch time I'd have the driver take me. I was trying to find an Icewoman (I think he means Invisible Woman) action figure. There's always one per carton that's really tough to get. I would bump into Greg Nichochero, so he was the special effect guy from K&B effects who also collected action figures. We disappeared together so often during lunch time that there were rumors that we were either dopers or secret lovers. It was probably cooler to make them think that we are that rather than we were running off to find Icewoman in the aisles of Toys 'R' Us. But the person who helped me work on the Donald Swan look with the Buster Crab / Robin the Boy Wonder hair was Lonna Sharp (sp?) who did my hair for The Trickster and has remained a friend for all these years. So right on down the line I was getting out my old phone books, and looking down the line saying, "Gee, I wonder if I called this person if they could help us out here?" Same with the cover of the two comic books. I had written the Halloween Simpson's comic book, which itself is a parody of the Mort Weisinger Bizarro Stories. I don't know if I could afford the Bongo comic artist if I hadn't built up the good will for them to say, "Well, normally it is this much, but we'll do it for you for that much." One of the things that I learned from George Lucas, at least in the early going of that series, was to make every penny count and make it show up on the screen.
SC: You also called in favors to Hugh Heffner.
SC: I had no idea he was a comic book fan.
MH: Not only that, but when I did my research I realized he wanted to be a cartoonist himself. But also his interest in the early Mad comics led to him hiring people like Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman who did Little Annie Fannie for his own humor magazine. And he told me if it had been a few years later he would have had the money to stay in business another year and he probably could have gotten over the slump that made him shutter the magazine because he really wanted to be like an early version of National Lampoon or Mad Magazine for more adult readers. Although, I looked at this month's Mad which has an ad for our movie on the inside cover. It's got Michael Jackson with a very nervous looking Alfred E. Neuman. This is pretty darn adult from when I last checked in. The cover's hysterical cause it's Michael Jackson looking over at Alfred E. Neuman and Alfred E. Neuman has that really nervous look, you know, sweat beads on his brow. "What, me worry?" And which, again, kids are so much more sophisticated now. There's so much information whereas maybe in my day that would have been way too much for them to do.
SC: Plus, with so much on TV these days, there's almost nothing that's shocking anymore.
MH: It's true. Absolutely true. And I know you know as a parent that you might say, "Oh, good, they're watching Full House. Nothing to worry about." And then there's these terrible bumpers that lead in that say, "Man torches four in subway slaying! News at 11!" And you can't shelter your kids.
SC: I leave it on Spongebob and Cartoon Network and they're happy.
MH: That's the ideal place. That's a real safe haven where you're not going to have reality intrude at all.
With that we returned to talking about Comic Book: The Movie. One of my favorite characters in the film is Ricky, a stoner cameraman played by Jess Harnell. Harnell has played not only Darth Maul's voice in the Star Wars video games, but he was the voice of one of the stormtroopers in TROOPS. In Hamill's movie, he is the cameraman filming Swan's documentary. No matter what is happening on the screen, Harnell always has some comment that totally comes out of left field that makes the scene funnier. I imagine he threw off his fellow actors on more than one occasion. Since there was only a loose outline of a script, all of these great actors were able to improvise a lot. Harnell makes the most of it by doing voice impersonations and cracking jokes about what's happening. He does a fantastic Beatles impression and keeps a running gag about the Hulk going through the whole film. An encounter with Hugh Hefner is also priceless.
SC: One of the people that cracked me up so much in this movie was Jess Harnell as Ricky.
MH: Oh! Hilarious!
SC: I don't know how you kept a straight face around him.
MH: Wasn't easy! In fact, one of the things that's hard about directing and performing at the same time is that even during the scene, you're listening in a different way than you would if you were just an actor. Trying to manage all those incredible talents all in the same frame wasn't easy. The scene where we go on the (Convention) floor and we see Darren Norris in the (Commander Courage) costume was one of my favorites, but it was much, much longer because so many people were involved. Tom (Kenny) makes his comment, "Put the helmet on! Put the helmet on! Put the helmet on!" Jess of course with all of his ad libs and Laurie Alan and Roger Rose, all of them, if I had my way, would have been way too long. I had to keep remembering that and try to be objective. And just because I love it so much doesn't mean it has to be there because we had tried to keep things moving along. Bill Mumy (from Lost In Space) did a great thing for me in that I wanted him to be a larger part. I thought if Tom Kenny can't be my buddy, who's better to play my buddy that my real buddy? And a real comic book guy! But as it turned out with scheduling and so forth he wound up being one of the sit down interviews. I forget what he was doing but he wasn't able to spend the four days at the Con. Or he was there or he already had a panel or something. But, that's one of the things I loved about this project was so, almost like guerilla film making. You have the blueprint but you don't know exactly what you're going to get. As it turned out Bill was able to really relate a lot of stories that really happened to him when he was doing Lost In Space and Batman came on the lot. Just transpose it to the Commander Courage world.
SC: How were you able to film on the floor of the convention without getting mobbed?
MH: Well, most of the people were there to enjoy themselves as Con-goers. There's a couple of scenes where you see there is a mob around me and we included some of that in there, but I was constantly telling people, "Well if you call me 'Mark' I can't use it. Or you call me 'Luke' I can't use it. But if you call me 'Don' or 'Mr. Swan', you could be a movie star!" As you know, fans are so in touch with the fantasy world. I said, "Think of it not as 'Earth 2', but as 'Earth Mark'. Where Star Wars exists, but only as a series of novels that haven't been filmed yet, much like Lord of the Rings way back when." So we could explain why stormtroopers were walking around without it really taking over. Like I say, we did have problems with that, but you could disperse them by explaining what you were doing and they were more than willing to really join in the fun very quickly. I don't know, I guess I might have earned some enmity from people because I said, "Well, let us get all this done and I'll sign later." Usually 'later' never came because we kept filming, filming, filming, filming. When the Con shut down other people would go off to parties and dinners and so forth, but I was upstairs in the editing room looking at the stuff we got the day before, or that day, or figuring out what we were going to do the next day. So directing is fun, but it's way more time consuming than just acting. Acting is, "Oh, good I got next Thursday off!" But, for a director it never ends, and every single question is directed toward you. Some of them you can answer, but even the ones you can't answer, I would never say, "Gee I don't know." I would say, "I'm glad you pointed that out, let me think about that and get back to you."
SC: Do you think you want to direct yourself again?
MH: Well, I mean, originally I was hoping that I could just direct this and not have to be in it, but they really wanted me to be for obvious reasons. I'm pragmatic about that. If it helps the project for me to be in it of course I will, but if it is a situation where they don't want me in it, but want me to direct, that would be very appealing. Then you could just concentrate on the one thing. The answer would be, "yes." I would do this again where I would direct and be in it, but like I say, it is less chaotic if you can just do one or the other.
SC: Did you corner Bruce Campbell at the Comic Con? He looked like he had a whole lot of fun doing that interview.
MH: He's wonderful, that man. My kids had shown me a lot of DVD extras on Evil Dead and so forth, so I knew he had a great sense of humor and had this great kind of whacked out personality where he always throws you curve balls much like Kevin Smith.
At that, I had to quote a great line from Kevin Smith in the movie. When Hamill's Don Swan character asks him if he bags and boars his comics, Smith responds that he just rips them now when he's done reading them. Swan reacts to this with some degree of horror.
SC: Do you bag and board or do you rip?
MH: Poor Donald looks like someone drove a stake through his heart when he hears that news. Just the fact that Bruce is able to do it for us was wonderful. He wasn't someone that I was able to get onto myself. It was somebody at Creative Light. I guess he is doing a project with Creative Light somewhere down the road. The thing with Donna D'Errico (from Baywatch), she's really delightful in the movie and has a wonderful personality and great comedic instincts, but again it was someone at Creative Light that had the notion to put her in it and I really lucked out. My wife just reminded me that one of the reasons she did it was because her son wanted to meet me. I'm not complaining. Get it where you can.
SC: She looked like she had a lot of fun in it.
MH: Yeah! The thing is I think she really enjoyed playing with us because everybody gets typed and put into certain categories, and it's always fun to break out of those and surprise people. I had no idea what expect. "Is she a diva? Does she need nine hair dressers, three makeup men and a personal bodyguard and all that?" But she was really a lot of fun and really got into the spirit of it, and did a great job. I know we were looking at these questionnaires that people would fill out when we showed them rough cuts. Even people who had no idea and had no background with Baywatch responded to her saying, "Who is this girl? She's really adorable and really a lot of fun." I was looking at the people who circled, we said, "What is your interest in comic books from 0 to 10?" I really went to the people who circled 0 first just to see where we were because I thought, not that we have comic book lovers in our pocket just because of the subject matter, we had to give them something that they could respond to and hopefully we have. I think at the last minute the Con people were really nervous. At first we were going to be able to go to the costume competition, and they rescinded that. Then we were going to be able to go to panels, and they rescinded that. It got to the point that they were saying, "Can you not talk to anyone? Can we have final cut?" It was really disastrous because it was just a couple weeks before we were going to go down there. I thought, "Oh, my gosh, this whole thing could just crash on the rocks before we even go down." But it turned out that they were mostly concerned with what kind of tone I would strike. In other words, "You're not going to make it snarky like Trekkies, are you?" I've never seen Trekkies but I know enough about to know that it was not something that I was not interested in. If they were afraid I was going to film an overweight teenager with acne in a spandex outfit and point a finger and go, "Look at him! Isn't he gross?" That doesn't interest me. It's too easy. There's no wit involved and it's been done a million times. I have an affection for these people and understand them.
SC: Your movie ends up being a great advertisement for the convention, too.
MH: I think so because even though we weren't able to, I kept thinking we were going to go to after-hour parties, we're going to go to the VIP rooms. There's only so much we could do physically. I though that maybe if we need pick-ups maybe we could go to the Shrine Auditorium and just do inserts and so forth. As it turned out we didn't have the luxury to do that. It gives an overall feel of what's going on. I had pitched it originally like Woodstock where we would just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and the story would emerge. It was only the fact that we needed some sort of safety net, in case we didn't get fly-on-the-wall behavior, which is so hard now in the days of reality television. Everyone is used to having cameras pointed at them. Everyone has one in their in their own household. They have a blender, a refrigerator, and a VCR recorder. Unless you do completely hidden camera, I wasn't able to get like dealers dickering with buyers and that sort of thing.
SC: But your audience is already familiar with that sort of thing.
MH: Oh, I guess, even though it fascinates me, I have to realize that as someone who is a real fan, I'm not in the mainstream as far as what they are interested in which is why it was great to have all the other producers and so forth because I'm not someone who wants to be a dictator. I really want other people's opinions. It is meaningful to me.
With that, our conversation continued. Check back soon for Part 3 where we discuss Star Wars cameos in the film, Batman, Stan Lee, and the Clone Wars cartoons!
Click here for: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4
Comingsoon.net rates this movie 8 out of 10. Click here for full review.
Click here to view a video clip of Kevin Smith and Mark talking about the original Commander Courage.
The DVD released on January 27th. You can order it from Amazon.com today!