June 02--ASHEBORO -- Jacob Hatley journeyed from California to Woodstock, N.Y., in 2007, expecting to spend two or three days directing a music video shoot featuring the legendary Levon Helm of The Band fame.
But Hatley, a 1997 graduate of Southwestern Randolph High School, wound up spending the better part of three years shadowing Helm going about his daily routine -- with a crew and by himself -- as a virtual "fly on the wall" at musical performances, doctor's visits, and, most importantly, around the musician's kitchen table.
In the end, Hatley directed 400 hours of footage for what would become a documentary called "Ain't In It For My Health -- A Film About Levon Helm."
The 83-minute movie opened in New York City on April 19 -- the first anniversary of Helm's death from cancer -- and is bound for silver screens across the nation over the next few weeks, including in the Tar Heel state next week. The documentary, which has garnered some good reviews, will be playing at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema in Greensboro June 7-13.
The film premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and a couple of other festivals in 2010. Then copyright issues took the movie out of circulation for a time. After those problems were resolved, a New York film distributor, Kino Lorber, agreed to market the movie.
"For us, everything was riding on how we performed in New York," Hatley said in a recent interview from Hollywood, which he calls home.
As it turns out, he said, the theater sold out Friday night shows and held the movie over for two weeks.
Hatley's father, Worth, a former superintendent of the Randolph County Schools, and mother, Cindy, along with other relatives and friends were in New York for the first show.
"It was such a great feeling to know that the movie had finally come out," the younger Hatley said. "It was on the marquee in New York City -- and there was a line. It was such a rewarding moment."
It was also a sad time. Helm was in frail health but his passing came quickly and unexpectedly, Hatley said. It's hard for him to watch the movie now and see his friend, whom he did not get to tell good-bye.
But Helm saw a final cut of the film and gave it a thumbs up.
"I think you're about 96 percent there," he told Hatley.
Hatley and Helm had hit it off from the start.
"Part of it evolved by just how much I liked him -- how much fun he was to be around," he said. "He knew how to enjoy life, without a doubt."
Hatley said he recognized quickly there was potential for a much larger project.
"I realized this music video that we're doing is not the way we ought to be reintroducing Levon to the world. He's an amazing character. He's an amazing storyteller. And he's got an amazing story to tell."
"... We would film, in-between takes, him joking around. At night, looking back at the footage, we always thought that was the best stuff."
Hatley asked Helm to consider a full-length film. Then when they wrapped up work on the video, he and his crew packed up and went home. Hatley mentioned the idea of a film to others, including the folks at Vanguard, Helm's record company. He thinks he even called Helm and lobbied one more time.
A few weeks had passed when Helm called.
"Jacob," he said, "I'm going to the doctor next week. Would you like to come with me?"
"I knew right then," Hatley said, "that he had bigger things in mind, that he was ready to open up, that he wanted it to be a more personal thing."
Hatley got a ticket, got on a plane and got excited.
Word that Helm, who put a premium on his privacy, was willing to open up for a film, had gotten others excited, too -- people with money, willing to back the project.
Hatley's plan was to rent a place in Woodstock for himself and a crew for a few months and drop by Levon's house to shoot whenever something was "happening." And that's how the project began.
"After about six or eight months," Hatley said, "we didn't have anything."
Or, more specifically, they did not have what they needed. They also did not have any more money.
"Levon is not the kind of guy you can schedule," Hatley said. "He's incredibly comfortable around the camera, but it would only happen if he was completely unforced. We realized the only way to do it is to move in with him. And he loved the idea."
It sounds like a dream opportunity for someone to gain unfettered access to someone like Helm to make a movie. And, Hatley said, when he was in the middle of it, he occasionally was able to step back and consider what a great gig it was.
But mostly, he just worried about the next shot -- what it was going to be and how it might fit into the jigsaw of footage he already had and how all of it could be crafted into a movie.
He'd never made a documentary before. He had a few music videos and a short film entitled "China" on his resume. He credits a cousin, Thomas Vickers, who lives in Chapel Hill, with combing with him through the footage during the years of filming, helping identify parts of the puzzle still needed, and helping to put the pieces together in a final package.
Hatley said he's wanted to be a filmmaker for as long as he can remember.
He had movies to his credit before "China" and the Helm film -- if you count home movies captured on VHS tapes. Neighbors even called the police once, worried about what was going on, when Hatley and his buddies were shooting scenes for a "gangster" movie in his front yard.
They called the biggest "epic" they ever produced "Mayhem" -- the story of a "redneck killer on the loose."
Hatley and his film-obsessed friends would discuss classmates as potential actors in their projects -- even people they didn't know very well, if they fit the bill -- and invite them to participate. Many did. When a film was finished, they'd make a big batch of popcorn and screen it at Hatley's house.
Watching movies was as important as shooting them: The ideal Friday night was stay up 'til dawn, watching one horror movie after another.
Hatley moved on to earn a degree in English, with a minor in creative writing, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you want to be a director, he reasoned, you have to be able to write.
A year later, he was accepted into film school at the University of Southern California and headed west. When he got into a car to began the trip, Stephen Brower, his best friend from Asheboro and a fellow UNC alum, went with him.
The way Hatley tells it, if Brower had not made that trip, Hatley would never have made the Levon Helm film.
"That's the only reason you're talking to me is him," he said. "He produced the Levon documentary. He got a job at Vanguard Records and they signed Levon Helm. He got me an interview to do a music video."
The collaboration continues: Hatley, Brower and Brian Nichols, another Randolph County friend (who starred in that youthful masterpiece "Mayhem"), were scheduled to shoot a car commercial recently, but he and Brower have bigger plans.
The Randolph County neighbors may want to put 911 on speed dial because the crew could be heading home somewhere down the road -- at least for a time.
The Levon Helm film, Hatley said, is bringing exposure "so we can go out and make another movie." And "another movie," if it comes to pass, might harken to the days of old, that is, the days when Hatley and his friends were shooting horror home movies.
The future project, "Carolina Highway Killer," is already scripted and Hatley said the plan is to shoot the movie in his home state. He said it would be nice to have a couple of million dollars to finance the project.
If not, the home movie model -- and a version of the Levon Helm film model -- just may come into play.
"I'll move back and we'll make it for next to nothing using local actors," he said. "We're going to make this hell and high water."
(c)2013 The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.
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