Mark Hamill on John Williams and his “gobsmacking” importance to Star Wars

I had the boyishly euphoric chance to interview Mark Hamill over the summer, while writing the program notes for the Star Wars live-to-picture concerts. I used a few quotes in that program, but had a whole trove of gold I wasn’t able to use. With The Last Jedi‘s release imminent, here is Luke Skywalker—the last Jedi?—on his first time hearing John Williams’ Star Wars score… and how important the composer’s music is to the series.

Speaking as honestly as I can, I always thought that John Williams, next to George, is probably the person that’s most singularly responsible for the enormous impact those films had on culture. And the way I first heard that score—I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s much more profound in its impact in me than I’ve ever seen in print… maybe because I didn’t focus on it, I made it with offhanded remark—but I never heard a score for the first time that way before, and I never will be able to again.

We finished the film, and I don’t know how many months later it was, but I had the full experience of filming the original picture. And back in my one-bedroom bachelor pad, right on the beach in Malibu (single, okay?)… and the reason this experience was so memorable is how unexpected it was. I didn’t have access to a car, so [Star Wars producer] Gary Kurtz picks me up in his car to take me over to a dubbing stage. And when I got in the car, it was like a little—I wish I could remember the make and the model, but my point is, it was one of those really small two-seater, or maybe a small back seat, sports kind of car that had a tremendous sound system. And as he drives off, he says to me, very offhandedly: “Oh, I have the tape of the score to Star Wars. Do you want to hear it?” [Laughs] I said “Sure.”

Now, he sticks this thing in… and I don’t know what I was expecting, because I hadn’t given it much thought. I didn’t have any time to give it much thought, you know. And, sure, I knew John Williams—I loved his score to Jaws. I knew how infective that was. And in retro I realized how much of his music I knew as a kid, on TV, with all the Lost in Space and Land of the Giants. I didn’t know any of that then, you see what I’m saying, so I didn’t really know what he was capable of. It didn’t really occur to me. I think I’d heard that he was doing this score, and that’s about as much as I knew. But I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear it in that moment. But when we arrived at our destination, I was absolutely so blissed out, I mean… I never… I can’t say in words how thrilling and moving and how everything it was! I thought, Well, you know, science fiction, maybe they’ll do some kind of cold electronic score? It had sort of a western feel—maybe they’ll do that sort of [laughs] Man with No Name, Sergio Leone, spare guitar… I don’t know what. I certainly didn’t see it in my head as much as a swashbuckler.

But he pushed those buttons that are so evocative of Max Steiner and all your favorites—Bernard Herrmann, you name it. It’s just impossible to overstate his contribution. Because everything he does with his music just renders everything that much more exhilarating, that much more relatable. And providing connective tissue. It’s just mind-boggling. I’m sure they could devote entire studies to his contributions to the culture. But on a personal level, it’s an experience I’ll never forget. Once you are that impacted… I was about to say “gobsmacked,” but that’s way too British [laughs]. Once that happens to you once, it can never happen to you again, because then you expect the magnificent. And he never disappoints. The fact that he’s still going is an absolute miracle, because he’s a national treasure, and we all love him. The end.

I feel foolish, because at some point when I looked at the track listing on the picture, I said, “Wow, there’s a princess theme… too bad he didn’t write a theme for Luke.” And, he didn’t call me a moron, but he was like, “Well, the main title is your theme!” I was like, “Whaaaaaat??” [Laughs] Because it’s really called Star Wars Main Title, but apparently that is Luke’s theme, although it’s not labeled that way. But come on, this is just silliness. You could go to university and study this man.

You can’t overestimate what his contribution is, you see. And it’s such a composite art, the film is. You’re working in the theatre, you’re there to experience the moment as it happens. Whether there’s no music or there is music. But in film, the way it’s cut, the rhythms, the way it’s shaped… all of that is out of your hands if you’re an actor. So you see it in many ways. You have a feeling for what the scene is like, even if you don’t consciously think of music in your head. Although I find that music can inform your understanding and your passion, and I’ll pick themes or even popular songs in my head that help me remain grounded in where I want to be, and what I think of the scene, and what I want to accomplish. Not all the way through, but it’s happened. But to see it finally with his score… In many ways, he gives a sort of epic status that we certainly wouldn’t have, because of his music.

It’s grandeur, it’s magnificent, the crescendo… He really plays you like he plays an instrument, this guy. And it’s thrilling. It’s exhilarating. It’s like going up in a swing. And it can be heartbreaking—the pathos. He’s just a virtuoso, like any great director, of eliciting emotion from the audience. Who wouldn’t want somebody like that to help you? Too bad he didn’t score more of my films.