Hamill — Bodyslamming a Theater Near You

Circa 2011

A director yells “Cut!” as his deaf actor continues to run up the street, the actor unaware the scene is over. This is a common occurrence on the set of of Hamill, a film for which members of the hearing and deaf worlds collaborated to create a project celebrating both.

“We wanted to make sure deaf culture was portrayed properly,” said Eben Kostbar, a writer and producer on the film he describes as “a classic sports underdog story, in which the lead character overcomes many challenges to reach his ultimate goal.”

After wrapping production shortly before last fall’s AFI Festival—where it won a $5,000 award—Hamill has picked up accolades at the Philly Cinefest, as well as at the Cleveland, Miami and Florida Film Festivals. At each screening, the film’s creators seek to keep the buzz revved up, as they close in on a coveted theatrical distribution deal that could give their film maximum exposure. Through it all, the filmmakers remain optimistic about Hamill ability to connect with viewers.

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“The next several months should solidify it,” Kostbar said. “We want to make sure our efforts are done properly, not in a rush. We want to partner with a distribution company and see what this film can do for audiences at large: for deaf people, for hearing people, and for deaf education.”

The project is based on the life of Matt Hamill, a star wrestler for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) who grew up deaf in the 1970s, before deaf education was a well-established known. Raised, in part, by a grandfather who wanted him to be mainstreamed, Hamill hung with a hearing crowd, and learned to read lips. But when he attended college at Purdue University, the unfamiliar environment proved a poor fit for him socially.

It was not until Hamill transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and made his way solidly into the deaf community, that he became more comfortable with himself and with getting involved in student activities. His newfound willingness to participate—as well as a stint as a bouncer—prompted Hamill to try out for the wrestling team, where he emerged as a real contender.

Theodore Conley plays a young Matt Hamill in the biopic Hamill.
Theodore Conley plays a young Matt Hamill in the biopic Hamill.

“He was the first deaf person to actually win an NCAA wrestling championship, three years, back to back,” said Kostbar, who was drawn to the story after watching Hamill on The Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV show.

Though he trumpets the uniqueness of his project, Kostbar knows that deafness is not foreign to the feature film marketplace. Citing multiple influential films about the deaf community that have come before his own, Kostbar points to 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, for which deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, won an Academy Award. But Kostbar says that movie remains controversial in the deaf community because Matlin voiced everything she said, instead of using American Sign Language (ASL). Hamill, Kostbar points out, features a great deal of signing and is also captioned, allowing hearing and deaf audiences to enjoy the film together.

While researching Hamill, Kostbar attended one of the wrestler’s many speaking engagements. During one such event in Fremont, CA, Kostbar and co-writer Joe McKelheer stayed for the whole weekend, where the experience proved eye-opening.

“Before that, I had had very little exposure to deaf people and culture,” Kostbar said. We were at a K-12 school, and most of the faculty was deaf, all of the students were deaf, and we were encouraged to ‘turn off our voices, and try to sign for the weekend.’”

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Their immersion in life without sound not only helped Kostbar and McKelheer better understand the world about which they were writing, it also helped them build trust with Hamill. Though Kostbar admits he’d originally thought, “here’s an opportunity to write and produce a vehicle for myself,” he soon realized his plan to play the role of Hamill didn’t feel quite right.

“As I went further along, and consulted with deaf people, I realized that [playing Matt] was not the way to go,” Kostbar said. “Deaf actors are not really given that many opportunities. I wanted this project to reach people, to inspire people, and so I realized I needed to step away from this role.”

Kostbar ultimately decided to take a lesser part in the film—that of Hamill’s assistant coach at RIT—so he could create an opportunity for a deaf actor to take the lead. Kostbar hired a deaf co-producer and set about coming up with fallback plans for circumstances in which walkie-talkies and yelling “Cut!”—standard operating procedures on a typical shoot—would fail to bring the desired results.

For much of the production, Kostbar avoided entering into a formal contract with Hamill, because he didn’t want the star athlete commited to the project until he was sure Hamill would be comfortable with the results. The men settled, instead, on a handshake agreement. Shortly thereafter, Kostbar and McKelheer set to work revising the script, seeking to capture what Kostbar calls “the heart of the story” while showing passages to Hamill as they felt each was ready to be read.

A rushing tide metaphorically captures Hamill’s feeling of confusion and isolation in Hamill.
A rushing tide metaphorically captures Hamill’s feeling of confusion and isolation in Hamill.

Throughout the creative process, Kostbar and McKelheer traded responsibilities, back and forth: one writing new material, and the other trying to match it in tone and quality. The script went through 75 rewrites before its collaborators were satisfied. Finally, they held their collective breath as Hamill read the finished product. Hamill, his friends, and his family were all pleased.

With the script complete, the team turned its focus to budgeting. They set the cost of making the film at somewhere south of $5 million, which left them with the unenviable task of searching for investments during a recession—a particularly challenging undertaking, as the project boasted no stars.

The film’s subject matter was also of little help: the premise of a deaf wrestler who learns to accept himself didn’t scream summer blockbuster. But the team remained resolute and hopeful, as Hamill’s star continued to rise in the UFC. Though, for three years, several prospective investors failed to back the project, Kostbar and McKelheer finally knocked on the right doors: those of the famed Farrelly Brothers (whose films There’s Something About Mary and Stuck on You have been praised and criticized for their humorous portrayals of disability), and of former football giant Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills. Investments from such high-profile names helped to make the bumpy road of filmmaking a little smoother.

Hamill even invested in the project himself, which came as little surprise to his collaborators. “He wanted to see the film get made,” Kostbar said. “He’s a humble, easygoing person. When he goes to signing events, and commits to be there a certain amount of time, he always stays longer.”

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On set, director Oren Kaplan faced an unusual set of challenges in bringing the film to life. Deaf actor Russell Harvard, who was cast in the role of Hamill, had never before wrestled, and needed to be taught the ins and outs of life in the ring. Multiple highly physical takes, along with the effort required to communicate with a hearing director, sometimes proved exhausting for the young lead.

Today, as they seek a theatrical release, the team behind Hamill has secured deals for video-on-demand, as well as DVD distribution. The filmmakers plan to tour their movie throughout deaf residential schools, (two of which are located in every state of the union) as well as on deaf cruises and at deaf expos. Hamill himself plans to attend many of these events, lending his star power to the marquee.

Though having begun his career as an actor, Kostbar continues to evolve as a writer-producer. Film Harvest, his production partnership with McKelheer, produced 2009’s Godspeed, which was awarded the jury prize at CineVegas Film Festival and is currently available on DVD and iTunes. The company is producing other films, as well, including Free Samples (a dramedy featuring Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network) and The Thompsons, a vampire thriller.

In the process of pulling together Hamill, the filmmakers learned a film is not unlike a wrestler—sometimes it flipped them or pinned them to the mat. But by crafting the right script, getting a great cast, and reining in the actor who’s about to blitz into the next zip code, it ultimately proved possible to put the film in check.

by Pamela K. Johnson


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