CANNES, France — Hear the words “Cannes Film Festival,” and your mind might drift to some of the glamorous personalities who have walked these historic seaside streets over the years: Catherine Deneuve. Sophia Loren. Angelina Jolie. Mark Hamill.
Yes, that Mark Hamill, the 58-year-old actor best known for wielding a lightsaber in the “Star Wars” movies and a man who hasn’t had a mainstream film role in more than two decades. This paparazzi-filled, fashion-obsessed, au courant city wouldn’t be the first place you’d expect a Jedi warrior to stand cheek by jowl with Oscar winners and the film world’s most prestigious names. Comic-Con, maybe, but not Cannes.
But there was the actor on Monday afternoon on the terrace restaurant of the city’s swish Majestic Hotel, scarfing down a grilled-vegetable sandwich and touting a new phase of his career: film director and producer. Clad in a black button-down shirt emblazoned with the USC logo, Hamill’s sandy-blond hair looked a little shorter and a little thinner than his once-full Jedi mane. And although he’s not the svelte man he was in his Luke Skywalker days, the passage of time has done little to dull his energy level.
Hamill had come to hold meetings with financiers for a new production company he’d helped create called Berkeley Square Films, which counts among its projects “The Black Pearl,” a comic-book adaptation with which the actor aims to make his directing debut, as well as an addiction drama called “What’s Left of Us.” Joining Hamill were two partners: Eric Johnson, a journeyman screenwriter and Hamill’s first cousin, and Paul Tamasy, a partner at Berkeley Square whose Hollywood claim to fame derives primarily from being the creator of the “Air Bud” franchise.
“It wasn’t like I declaimed one day ‘I’m going to be a director,’” Hamill said. “But I eventually realized I can become very possessive (with my work). It’s like having a child — if I get to act and not direct I might be banned from the set because I’d be a major pain in the ....”
Every year, hordes of Hollywood A-listers swoop into this cosseted harbor region in the south of France. Take a quick peek down its narrow streets and inside its elegantly appointed hotels, and you’ll find not only the kings and queens of the film world — stars like Naomi Watts and Russell Crowe walking down the red carpet or Martin Scorsese and Johnny Depp hanging out after hours at the elegant Hotel Du Cap just outside the city — but kingmakers as well. Studio chiefs like Harvey Weinstein, captains of industry like Paul Allen and various hedge-fund high-rollers, Latin American producers and Middle East emirs hold court on yachts or private terraces with obscenely beautiful views of the French Rivera.
But there’s another Cannes, a kind of parallel universe where a different group — call them the Cannes underclass — converges. It’s a loose collection of wannabes, has-beens and once-agains, the Mark Hamills of the world, all who’ve seen better days and are trying to capitalize on all these powerbrokers (and media) descending on the city. All of them, in other words, using the opportunity to get the film world to see them in new ways.
“They always give these villainous parts to my friend Malcolm McDowell,” Hamill said, as he discussed several development projects on his slate that could start a new chapter for him, including a role as a creepy neighbor in a thriller called “Depravity.” “I love Malcolm, but he gets all these sinister characters. I want to get cast as the bad guy.”
Hamill hasn’t really been cast as any kind of guy since the 1980s. He’s done mostly voice work (talk to him and you can hear why — he has a theatrical, if slightly nasal, vocal presence and has the kind of dominant personality that has him incessantly slipping into voice impersonations: Alvin & the Chipmunks; a vacuum-cleaner salesman; Yogi Bear).
When Hamill has taken on live-action roles, it’s been in minor productions, like “Walking Across Egypt,” a 1999 tearjerker about an elderly woman and a juvenile delinquent that featured old-timers like Gwen Verdon and Harve Presnell on the downside of their careers.
Coincidentally, this week marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Hamill said that he believes his most iconic role has generally helped but in some cases possibly also hindered him. “Being Luke Skywalker is, to me, a great gift, a passport of goodwill all over the world.” But then he added, “I know people tend to see everything through that lens, through this pop-cultural millstone around my neck,” prompting him to seek out new avenues at Cannes.
Nor is the bid for reinvention limited to the veterans. Newer entries to Hollywood are equally aggressive at Cannes in targeting the concentration of Hollywood firepower. You might be standing on a yacht at a party thrown by Bill Perkins, a former Enron trader who made a killing in the energy market and who has gotten into film as a hobby (movie claim to fame: the coolly received Liam Neeson supernatural thriller “After.Life”) and you’ll strike up a conversation with Lucas Grabeel (he played Sharpay’s brother in “High School Musical 3”), who’s there to meet with actors and financiers about a slate of films he’s developing with a writer named Mitchell Klebanoff (“Beverly Hills Ninja”).
“It’s just a place where we can put some projects together,” Grabeel said, as the DJ pumps out a loud Lady Gaga song and hired dancers adorned in glitter and skimpy bikinis gyrate nearby.
Cannes gives hope to everyone, even to the downtrodden, like the panhandlers who hold out their cups at 3 a.m. outside the hotels and bars on the Boulevard de La Croisette, hoping the tuxedoed revelers stumbling their way home from afterparties will dig into their pockets for a few euros.
“There’s a palpable sense of optimism here; everybody has the project that’s going to scorch the earth,” Hamill said. “It’s a really intoxicating atmosphere to be in.”
But the question, of course, is whether you can actually get something going here. Numbers are hard to project, but most meetings here lead to relationships at best, not deals. And while press for familiar faces can be abundant, one wonders about the value of it all. If everybody gets attention, does anybody?
“The big A-list pictures create a vortex in which everybody else can take advantage of the activity,” said Jonathan Dana, a producer and independent-film world veteran who’s been coming to Cannes for more than 25 years. “The difference between potential activity and actual activity is a function of how clever and effective any individual is.”
Or, in some cases, how persistent they are. As Tamasy said of his producing partner: “Mark is a built-in marketing machine. He’ll go out and beat the pavement and push movies in a way most actors don’t.”
At the Majestic, Hamill was maintaining the optimism. “I just want to be involved, you know? It’s no surprise that some of the old-timers in the theater wind up being ushers or working the box office. I always said that if I totally tanked in my career I could see myself having a nice catering business because I like being around film. I’d be whipping up a nice meal. ‘Would you like a cheeseburger, Mr. Scorsese?’”