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Jacob Hatley: Filming Levon Helm

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Jacob Hatley: On Filming Levon Helm

Jacob Hatley

In Randolph County, they know him as Branson. That was his middle name.

At UNC-Chapel Hill – and afterward – he was known as Jacob.

I just knew him as Worth Hatley’s son.

More than two decades ago, when I was the News & Record’s Randolph County writer, I used to talk to Worth when he worked as the assistant superintendent for Randolph County Schools.

He was the tall, slender guy with the comforting drawl and affable personality who knew much about education and how to teach kids.

Fast forward to three years ago. Worth e-mails me. I hadn’t heard from him since I was single and not even thinking about marriage. He tells me about his son’s project, this documentary on Levon Helm

“Do you know who Levon is?’’ Worth asked.

One of the founding members of The Band. A Rock Hall of Fame drummer. A Southerner from Turkey Scratch, Ark. A man with a singing voice that reminds me of drinking warm beer on a late Saturday afternoon with the sun shimmering off the ocean at Folly Beach, S.C..

Yeah, I said, I knew who he was.

And that’s how it started.

And now, after that initial column three years ago, Branson has his movie made.

That is, Jacob.

His movie, Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,’’ will roll into Greensboro Friday for a week-long stand.


I wrote about its premiere this week at the Geeksboro Coffeehouse in my Wednesday column.

Branson – er, Jacob Hatley– talks about the film here.

Why did it take so long?

It was frustrating me, and I just wanted it to have a life. These are dark times for small, independent movies and theater distributions are pretty rare. It’s hard to find a deal that works.

“You can’t imagine, man. There was a period about eight months or a year that I really believed that it wasn’t going to come out. Too many different people needed to sign off on it, and I really thought it would never happen. And that is a hard feeling.

“We had invested three years of our lives and given it our all and moved to New York for a couple of years to make it and given everything else up and thrown all my chips into the movie and everything.

“And the realization that this possible -- you know this child of yours -- may never see the light of day and never have any kind of life. It was harrowing. It was devastating, you know?

“But you had to get over it. We said, ‘Look we made something we are proud of and we made it for ourselves and made something regardless what other people say about it.’ We had an incredible experience, and for us, we made something we were proud of, and that’s enough for us.

“I had moved on. And now, it’s really strange to be talking about it. It’s out there and people are responding to it.’’

So, what’s it feel like that it’s finally out?

“Gosh, you just felt like you’re at peace. A peacefulness, and you’re at a point that whatever happens now -- if they like it or don’t like it or if it makes money or doesn’t make money -- all you can ask for is that you have made a movie and in the theaters, and you’re happy with it.

“I used to get very nervous watching it with a crowd. I’m not anymore I like watching it with people. I like hearing people say they like it or they don’t like it. I just like that it’s out here.’’

I know you have some favorite moments of the film – whether it’s Levon Helm lighting up a joint after his hospital visit or him talking at his kitchen table about most everything. But you listened to his speaking voice in at least 400 hours of film. Describe it for me.

“The first thing, his voice reminded me of home. My family. Some of my extended family members. His voice is from a place that you don’t see much anymore. Today, accents are more diluted as well as his way of speaking. He seems out of time and out of place.

“It’s partly the way he would spin those yarns. It was so pleasurable, so hypnotic. He’d get you into a story that didn’t have a direction or ending. It was just this meandering way of talking. It was comforting. It lulled you, you know?’’

Now, what about singing voice. You heard it – up close, for hours in three years of regular filming. Describe that for me.

“The way he sings it’s painful. It’s so piercing. It’s so distinct. It’s coming out of a place that is not around anymore.’’

Contact Jeri Rowe 
at (336) 373-7374.


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