For savvy film fans who think they know Mark Hamill’s career backward and forward, watching a clip from the lost film Virtually Heroes can be a little jarring. Here’s one of fandom’s favorite actors, dressed in Jedi-brown monk robes, dispensing 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 crude would-be warrior who needs his advice.
But G.J. Echternkamp’s movie about a Call of Duty/Far Cry-style video game protagonist who hates his life was made years before Luke Skywalker grossed out his would-be student Rey with an equally unpleasant beverage in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Virtually Heroes has been sitting on the shelf for 10 years now. It’ll finally get its long-stalled digital release on Jan. 17.
Echternkamp’s movie opened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, then promptly disappeared. Festival-goers might be tempted to blame the film’s few reviews, which weren’t kind. The flick certainly is an oddity: a shoestring-budget project built around old, reclaimed war-movie footage, packed with snarky referential gamer gags about everything from MMORPG raid culture to Guitar Hero and Minesweeper. But in an interview with Polygon, Echternkamp explains that the film’s invisibility had more to do with notorious B-movie producer Roger Corman.
Echternkamp originally went to work in development for Corman at New Horizons Picture Corp., but pushed for a trial project he could direct himself. “[Corman] kind of gives people projects that are low-stakes, just ‘I’ll toss him this idea, see what he can do with it,’” Echternkamp says. “So there were all these Cirio Santiago-directed Vietnam War movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s that were straight to video. I think it was just a fad at the time. They would shoot them in the Philippines, and do crazy stunts there.”
Echternkamp says the biggest action sequences shot for Santiago’s films would get repurposed over and over — a helicopter explosion or train derailment was expensive, so Santiago kept reusing the same shots. Corman had access to that footage, and suggested scripting something around it. “It was like the kind of stuff I did in film school,” Echternkamp says. “We’d cut up old movies and make new stuff out of them.”
He and screenwriter Matt Yamashita cataloged every action shot in Santiago’s movies and wrote a script around them, playing with the idea of characters in a war game, shooting their way through an increasingly tedious series of jungle battles. Supergirl’s Robert Baker plays Sgt. Books, a weary grunt who just wants to get some alone time with war reporter Jennifer (Katie Savoy), the constantly-in-peril hostage he’s chasing from skirmish to skirmish. (In one of the film’s best running gags, every time Books and Jennifer are alone, they try to snatch a little authentic flirting for themselves, before she either starts spouting overwrought cutscene dialogue, or new enemies pop out of nowhere to kidnap her yet again and set her up as the end goal for the next level.)
Meanwhile, Books’ constant companion, Lt. Nova (Brent Chase), is having all the fun in the game: charging into a gunfight with a baseball bat equipped to see how far he can get, exulting when he scores a rare prestige weapon, and inevitably, teabagging his fallen foes.
Most of their combat sequences are built from that vintage footage: Baker and Chase point their weapons offscreen and fire, and Echternkamp cuts to a Santiago shot of a Viet Cong encampment, weapons cache, or vehicle blowing up. The effect is campy and corny, but the conceit makes it all fit together: Every time Books and Nova die in battle, they have to go back to the beginning of the game, revisiting the same fights — and the same stock footage, to Books’ disgust. At least until Mark Hamill’s mysterious monk shows up to suggest another path through the game.
“So we put this thing together as best I could,” Echternkamp says. “I poured my heart and soul into it, even though the thing about a super-low-budget movie is, everyone’s gonna be like [sighs, shrugs, dismissive tone] ‘It’s okay. Yeah. It’s clever.’ And then New Horizons submitted it to Sundance.”
Echternkamp says distributors made offers on the film during Sundance, but nothing surfaced that satisfied Corman. “I think it was just one of these weird times,” he says. “Ten years ago, streaming was taking over, and I think Roger was not happy with the money that all the different platforms were offering. It just wasn’t that lucrative. He had been working with Syfy for the past 10 years, doing, like, Sharktopus, and those deals pay a lot more up front. And I think he was just waiting for something better to come along.”
“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 once in a while, someone would come back around and make an offer on it, and I would encourage it, but it wasn’t enough money. And then, after 10 years, I managed to convince him. Finally, after 10 years, he was like, ‘Okay, fine.’”
As far as getting Hamill involved in the film, Echternkamp says “even a low-budget Corman production” needs a known star. “It’s one thing to be struggling with your production value in terms of action scenes and car races and explosions and helicopters, but [Corman] always definitely wants there to be somebody that lends some validity to it, where you’d be like, ‘Well, this person isn’t going to be in something that’s totally crap.’”
Hamill’s camp was dubious about the movie’s satirical, in-jokey tone, he says, but they were persuaded by a short film Echternkamp and Yamashita had made together: Captain Fork, an “incredibly dark comedy” about a resentful dad who un-childproofs his house, hoping his 5-year-old will have an accident.
“I was like, ‘Well, [Hamill is] either gonna love this, or think I’m the worst person on Earth. And he called me and was like, ‘That was so well done. It actually had a heart, it toed this amazing line between bleak and sweet.’ And it was just a miracle, because it could have gone either way.”
Echternkamp describes Hamill as “a good sport” about the project, including its quick shoot and low budget. “He was super great. Really sweet, posed for pictures with everyone, talked about Star Wars, and he wasn’t like, ‘Don’t fucking ask me about Luke.’ It was a pretty ragtag thing, so I was very flattered that he thought it was good enough for him.”
The technology of cinema has changed a lot over the last 10 years, particularly in low-budget effects and digital shooting. Virtually Heroes’ After Effects animations, which give its video game characters health bars, pop-up achievements, and other visual gags throughout the story, are showing their age. And the prospect of Books and Nova casually killing their way through an army of Asian NPCs may prompt the same sorts of objections as the games Echternkamp and Yamashita are parodying. But the self-aware gamer-culture humor is still sharply observant and relevant, whether the characters are gleefully pawing through unlikely costume changes in a virtual store or trying to remember the key combo to activate a new NPC.
“It’s so much better than I thought it had any right to be,” Echternkamp says. “I was super proud of it. But I always had this sense, like, ‘Well, this isn’t really for everybody. I feel like this is the kind of thing that a very specific group of people are gonna love, and a lot of people are gonna be like, ‘What the fuck did I just watch?’”
Virtually Heroes debuts on digital platforms Jan. 17.