For savvy film buffs who think they know Mark Hamill’s career backwards and forwards by watching a clip from the lost film Quasi heroes can be a little irritating. Here’s one of the fandom’s favorite actors, clad in Jedi-tan monk’s robes, handing out terrible lemonade and questionable wisdom to a confused man who promptly calls him a pussy. It feels like a parody of late-era Star Wars, with Hamill playing the wise Jedi to a raw wannabe warrior in need of his advice.
But GJ Echternkamp’s film, about a Call of Duty/Far Cry-style video game protagonist who hates his life, was screwed on his would-be student Rey with an equally nasty drink years before Luke Skywalker Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Quasi heroes it’s been on the shelf for 10 years now. It will finally get its long-stalled digital release on January 17th.
Echternkamp’s film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and then promptly disappeared. Festival-goers might be tempted to blame the film’s few reviews, which weren’t kind. The flick is certainly an oddity: a minimal-budget project based on old, recovered wartime footage, packed with snarky, referential gamer gags about everything from MMORPG raid culture guitar hero and minesweeper. But in an interview with Polygon, Echternkamp explains that the film’s invisibility had more to do with infamous B-movie producer Roger Corman.
Mark Hamill serves up “good pee” in Virtually Heroes.
Echternkamp originally worked in development for Corman at New Horizons Picture Corp. but was pushing for a test project that he could lead himself. “[Corman] gives low-stakes projects to people, just ‘I’ll throw this idea at him and see what he can do with it,’” says Echternkamp. “So there were all these Cirio Santiago-directed Vietnam War movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s that were direct-to-video. I think it was just a fad back then. They would shoot them in the Philippines and do crazy stunts there.”
Echternkamp says the biggest action sequences shot for Santiago’s films were always repurposed — a helicopter blast or train derailment was expensive, so Santiago used the same footage over and over again. Corman had access to this footage and suggested writing something around it. “It was like in film school,” says Echternkamp. “We cut up old films and made new things out of them.”
He and screenwriter Matt Yamashita cataloged and scripted every action shot in Santiago’s films, toyed with the idea of characters in a war game, and shot their way through an increasingly tedious series of jungle battles. super girl‘s Robert Baker stars as Sgt. Books, a weary grunt who just wants to spend some time with war reporter Jennifer (Katie Savoy), the perpetually endangered hostage he chases from skirmish to skirmish. (In one of the movie’s best running gags, Books and Jennifer try to snag a little authentic flirting for themselves every time they’re alone before she either starts spouting over-the-top cutscenes or new enemies appear out of nowhere to kidnap her again and set her up as the final target for the next level.)
Meanwhile, Books’ constant companion, Lt. Nova (Brent Chase) does all the fun of the game: he charges into a gunfight with a baseball bat to see how far he gets and cheers when he snatches a prestige rare weapon. and inevitably tea bags for his fallen enemies.
Most of their combat sequences are based on this old footage: Baker and Chase point their guns off screen and fire, and Echternkamp cuts to a Santiago shot of a Viet Cong camp, an armory, or an exploding vehicle. The effect is cheesy and cheesy, but the conceit makes it all fit: every time Books and Nova die in battle, they have to go back to the beginning of the game and revisit the same battles – and the same archive footage, to Books’ the Disgust. At least until Mark Hamill’s mysterious monk shows up to suggest another path through the game.
“So we put the thing together as best we could,” says Echternkamp. “I put my heart and soul into it, although what’s so special about a super-low budget film is that everyone will be like that [sighs, shrugs, dismissive tone] ‘It is in order. Yes. It is Smart.’ And then New Horizons submitted it to Sundance.”
Echternkamp says the distributors made offers for the film during Sundance, but nothing surfaced to satisfy Corman. “I think it was just one of those weird times,” he says. “Ten years ago streaming took over and I think Roger wasn’t happy with the money that all the different platforms were offering. It just wasn’t that lucrative. He has worked with Syfy for the last 10 years doing the following: Sharktopus, and these deals pay a lot more up front. And I think he was just waiting for something better to come.”
“And I was helpless — I didn’t fund it, so I couldn’t just say, ‘I want it out there. Take whatever, I want people to see it!’ And then I moved on, we all moved on. Every now and then someone would come by and make an offer and I encouraged them, but it wasn’t enough money. And then, after 10 years, I managed to convince him. Finally, after 10 years, he said, ‘Okay, fine.’”
To get Hamill involved in the film, Echternkamp says that “even a low-budget Corman production” needs a well-known star. “It’s one thing to struggle with your production value in terms of action scenes and car racing and explosions and helicopters, but [Corman] I definitely always want that there’s someone to validate that, where you’d say, ‘Well, that person isn’t going to be in something that’s totally fucked up.'”
Hamill’s camp had doubts about the film’s satirical, facetious tone, he says, but they were won over by a short film Echternkamp and Yamashita made together: Captain Forkan “incredibly dark comedy” about a disgruntled father who unchildproofs his house hoping his 5-year-old will have an accident.
“I thought, ‘Well, [Hamill is] I’ll either love this or think I’m the worst person alive. And he called me and said, ‘That was so well done. It actually had a heart, it walked that amazing line between dark and sweet.” And it was only a miracle, because it could have gone either way.”
Echternkamp describes Hamill as “a good sport” in relation to the project, including its quick turnaround and low budget. “He was super awesome. Really cute, posed for photos with everyone, talked about Star Wars and he didn’t say, ‘Don’t the fuck ask me about Luke.’ It was a pretty thrown together thing, so I was very flattered that he thought it was good enough for him.”
Cinema technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years, especially in low-budget effects and digital shooting. Quasi heroesThe After Effects animations that give health bars, pop-up achievements, and other visual gags to video game characters throughout the story are showing their age. And the prospect of Books and Nova casually slogging through an army of Asian NPCs may evoke the same objections that the games parody Echternkamp and Yamashita. But the confident humor of player culture is still keenly observational and relevant, whether characters are happily shuffling through improbable costume changes in a virtual store or trying to remember the key combination to activate a new NPC.
“It’s so much better than I thought it should be,” says Echternkamp. “I was super proud of it. But I always had this feeling, like, ‘Well, that’s not really for everyone. I have a feeling this is the kind of thing that a very specific group of people will love, and a lot of people will be like, ‘What the hell did I just see?’”
Quasi heroes debuts on digital platforms on January 17th.