Levon Helm Documentary Director Jacob Hatley Talks Living in The Band Leader’s Barn
For being such an integral part of rock history, Levon Helm -- the heart and drumbeat of the Band -- never really got enough credit, at least not as far as he was concerned. But now, with the opening of "Ain't in It for My Health," at least Helm will be able to tell his own story, albeit posthumously.
The fly-on-the-wall documentary, shot by director Jacob Hatley, situates the viewer shotgun alongside Helm in 2007, as the famously loquacious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee embarks on a five-week, five-nights-a-week tour for his Grammy-winning comeback album "Dirt Farmer." Soon Helm learns that his failing health won't be able to accommodate such a demanding schedule, even if his wallet needs it to.
Over the course of nearly two years of shooting, Hatley's subtle camera catches all the joy, pain, and nuances of one of rock's most interesting and talented figures. The camera never shies away -- from the doctor's office to the tour bus to the Midnight Ramble live sessions that Helm conducted in his barn in Woodstock, New York, the same barn where Hatley slept most of the time.
Like Helm's story itself, the story of how the film came to be is a tale of determination, inspiration, hardship, and even a little luck. While speaking with us over the phone last week, Hatley told us how he ended up living in Helm's barn, why the film took so long to shoot, and how Billy Bob Thornton helped Hatley get the goods.
You can see the exclusive "Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" trailer below the captivating interview. The film premiers at Cinema Village in New York City on April 19, the one-year anniversary of Helm's death from throat cancer.
Adam Pockross: So you the movie opens in New York?
Jacob Hatley: It opens Friday. They're going to open it Upstate in Woodstock and they’re going to show it at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock and they’re going to show it I think at Levon's Barn. I think that’s a private screening actually. But the real opening, the official opening is the 19th in New York City at Cinema Village.
AP: How did you get to Woodstock in the first place?
JH: Well, I was making a few music videos at the time and just lucked out and got hired to direct this music video for the Dirt Farmer record. I came up there for what was supposed to be a weekend shoot, two days, and I don’t know, Levon and I just happen to hit it off. I just ended up hanging out there. I found an excuse not to go home immediately.
We had a camera, so I would just have it on and our DP would just have it on, and I brought the idea of doing it with him. Like, the last thing we need to do right now is a music video. There are things a lot more interesting that are going on here. So I tried to plant the bug in his ear. And he would just kind of nod his head and I couldn’t get a real indication if he would go for it or not. So I just went back to LA.
And like a month later or something, my phone rang and it was Levon. And he was like, “Hey Jacob, I’m going to the doctor next week, you want to come with me and film it?” And that was it. I mean, like, there was no discussion of let’s make a film, let's make a documentary. It was just, "do you want come to the doctor with me," and from that point on, it was on.
AP: So, did he have any input as to what he wanted to see on film?
JH: The only thing he said initially was when we started filming was, "I don’t want a biography." And you can kind of take that how you will. I took it like this is not some A&E thing where we just revisit the highlights of a man’s career. Which thankfully is exactly what I did not want to do either.
So, I knew that he didn’t want anything like that. And we both wanted to make something that was more about the present and the things are happening. Because man, I mean, if you want to go see the band in Woodstock or whatever, just get on YouTube and watch the clip. Why do you want to put that in a movie? If you want to know about "The Last Waltz," just go rent "The Last Waltz." That just never appealed to me to revisit those things when they’re available and any Band fan knows all about 'em. So we both tried to make a movie that was about what was happening day to day up there in the barn.
AP: But you don’t necessarily have to be a Band fan to grasp what’s going on in the film.
JH: Well, that’s the idea. I mean, that’s the idea.
AP: There’s a fly on the wall aspect that you get a sense of this man’s life and this man’s pain and this man’s joy, that you don’t really need to even know where he’s been or what he’s done to grasp that. How do you go about being that fly on the wall?
JH: Well man, I mean the truth of it is that was just, you know, Levon. Whenever I would try, initially, to plan anything around the shoot, or to stage anything, or choreograph anything, like set a light up, and say, “Hey Levon, let’s sit down right here in front of the window and you can tell me about it and tell me about this,” then it just immediately lost any kind of magic.
So the rule seemed to develop that as long as I didn’t ask him to do anything, then he would never tell me to turn the camera off. And so I was like, man, this is something that’s going to take a really long time to do. Because I don’t know when the conversations are going to end up getting around to the things that I want to be in the film. I may have to be up here for years. Because he just lost interest and it became stilted. And so we were just rolling all the time. I mean, we shot like 400 hours of footage, man.
AP: How long were you there for?
JH: On and off for about two and a half, three years.
AP: And did you stay at a hotel or something?
JH: Well, initially, man, when I told folks that Levon Helm was willing to make a film, people kicked in some money. And so we thought, “Oh, this is great. We’ll go up and film for about six months and we’ll have a good budget. And then we’ll have a film at the end of about eight months.” And in about eight months we didn’t have 20 minutes worth of s***. Because he wouldn’t be available. And I wouldn’t see him. And he just wouldn’t come out. But we had a house that the crew rented that was down the road in Woodstock. Then after about six months, we ran out of money and we didn’t have any tape. So at that point, at about eight months in, I just moved into the barn, I moved into the Levon’s house. And that's where I stayed for the rest of the shooting.
AP: And how did that conversation come about?
JH: Oh, he loved it. That's exactly what he wanted from the beginning. He wanted to know that there was a video camera there always and that it took the pressure off him to have to perform for anything. I mean, Levon loved having people over. He liked having this sense that this is a place where people can come at the end of the day. Whenever he walked out of his bedroom, he liked knowing that things were happening at the barn, that people were making music, and that people were making a movie, and that people were socializing.
So he loved it. And that's why I just put the camera on a tripod next to the bed, out in the studio. And the camera was always loaded, always battery charged, and it would just be there. And so whenever he would walk out, I would just grab it and start shooting. Because I knew, there would be no planning of anything.
AP: How did Levon's not wanting anything planned sensibility initially mesh with your sensibility of being a director?
JH: It's frustrating, man. I mean it was frustrating. The way we made this film is I'd go up and I'd shoot for about three months, and I'd come back down to North Carolina with Tom Vickers, my cousin who edited the movie, and we’d edit for about a month. And then I’d see, s***, we don’t have a movie. We're missing that. We don’t have this. We don’t have these moments. Or there's something about him that's still at a distance.
So knowing that we needed more footage, I’d go back up to Woodstock. For three or four more months, come back and realize we still didn't have a movie that was worth anything. And that was kind of the process. And it was frustrating initially because I've never made a documentary until this. I always considered myself a narrative filmmaker. And part of the thing that I love about being a narrative filmmaker is designing scenes. And it was difficult.
But, this was just the kind of film that you take whatever approach is going to make for your best footage, and you have to be true to that. So it was tough, but I mean, you can imagine how rewarding it is when it does happen and you realize it.
That's why documentaries are kind of the best sometimes because things can happen that you could never script in a million years. Things happen that you could have never thought to write, that no screenwriter would ever put down on the page, and it's always better than what you had imagined it could be.
There's this moment where he finally talks about Richard Manuel's death. And he finally uses the line about not being in it for his health, and he talks about Richard's suicide. And he talks about missing Richard and then he talks about not being in it for his health. When Levon did it that day, when he’s like, “I’m not in it for my health. If I were in it for my health, I’d be singing in the choir. I’d be preaching.” And I’m like, “Yes! This is what I’m looking for.”
AP: Was that the point that you knew you had a movie?
JH: That was one of the last things we shot. So I think when he did that, I knew that we were close. I can't remember if that was the last thing. It was one of the last things we shot.
AP: How did Billy Bob Thornton get involved?
JH: Levon, he had his Rambles up there. And so usually, people made this pilgrimage to come up there and play the barn and open for him. So The Black Crowes and My Morning Jacket and all those guys have been up there. And Billy Bob, he has a band, and Billy Bob's band came up and played a show up there, played a Ramble.
And after every Ramble, Levon goes back in his kitchen, holds court around the table, everybody lights up, and he starts telling stories. I knew that Billy Bob would be great, and I knew that he was playing, so I made sure to be there. Because they're both from Arkansas and I just thought that maybe it would be particularly interesting evening to shoot.
AP: Well, certainly it was. Was there any conversation that you had with Billy Bob? Cause he sure got some juice for you.
JH: He did my job for me! Did he not? No, there was no conversation. I mean, the only thing that he knew was that we were making a film and that the lifeblood of the film were these kind of very conversational fly-on-the-wall moments around Levon’s kitchen table. And that would he please just make sure, after the show, to come down and sit and just talk with Levon for a little bit.
I just wanted to make sure that at some point those two guys sat down on the table and no one bothered them and we could film it. And I got a second camera to come in and shoot so we had both guys covered. So we were shooting two cameras that night for the first time. The whole shoot, the first and only time we had two cameras, and that happened.
AP: The first and only time you had two cameras and that was the critical lifeblood of the film. Wow.
JH: Yeah man, I know. It’s just so much cooler when those kinds of questions and conversations can happen within the scene, like they happened totally organically. It’s not the filmmaker off camera forcing it. But that was when I was about ready to give up, man. I mean, we had been shooting for two years at that point.
Watch the trailer of "Ain't in It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm"...