Former Hockessin resident and movie producer Mary Posatko is home this week, screening her latest project "Ain't in It For My Health," a film about Levon Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for The Band. She took time this week to discuss the film, Helm's legacy and her role as movie producer.
Mary Posatko grew up like a lot of other kids in Hockessin - chasing fireflies, hiking in White Clay Creek State Park and eating at the ice cream stand on North Star Road or at Pizza By Elizabeth. But, Posatko also liked watching movies and would make films and sketches with her friends. Then, she saw Steve James' "Hoop Dreams" on PBS and an idea began to form that moving-making was something she wanted to tackle.
"This was before the internet, before YouTube and before consumer cameras were any good," said Posatko. "But, I didn't know a soul who worked anywhere near the entertainment industry so I'm not sure making movies entered my mind as an actual possibility, really, until college."
After college, life and fate intervened and Posatko now lives in Los Angeles where she works as a movie producer. She's in town this week, though, screening her latest endeavor, "Ain't In It For My Health," a film about Levon Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for The Band. She took time this week to discuss the film and how she got involved.
Q First, how does a girl from Hockessin wind up living in Los Angeles and making movies?
A I went to college in Providence. I then moved from Providence to Los Angeles in 2000, partly for a job and partly for a guy I met in Wilmington, actually, at the Air Force wedding of one of my childhood friends - who were and are some of my best friends, to this day. I got a job downtown in LA on Skid Row, working with the homeless, and did that for a while. Eventually, I found my way back to media - I worked for the NPR station KCRW out in Santa Monica doing news and music and radio documentary production, and on a couple of documentaries for HBO. Soon, though, I realized I wanted to get some formal training and ended up getting my Masters in film at USC. And, along the way, I married the guy I moved across country for - David - and we have two little boys named Danny and Matt.
Q So, how did you come to make a movie about Levon Helm? Were you a fan?
A I grew up listening to WSTW and WMMR and all of the classic rock stations in Philly - they would actually play entire albums straight through on Friday or Saturday nights, starting at 10pm or something. As a kid, I would prop my eyes open with toothpicks to try and record all of them with my boombox. I still have some of them. Somewhere in there was the first time I'd heard The Band, and like everyone I'd heard and loved the songs "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek."
But, I have to admit, I had to hit Google when the director, Jacob Hatley, came over and asked me if I wanted to produce a music video for Levon Helm. Jacob and I went to film school together, and he grew up with a guy named Stephen Brower, who worked at Vanguard Records - and when Levon finally made a new album - the "Dirt Famer" album, Vanguard put it out and wanted to do an extremely low-budget music video to go along with its single. I was very newly pregnant with my first son, but decided to go for it. We spent about two weeks in Woodstock shooting the music video, which turned into a half-hour video/documentary hybrid called "Only Halfway Home" that you can find on YouTube. I'm really proud of it. We made it for peanuts, and I think it's really good.
Q So, the movie progressed from that?
A Well, as we were shooting the properly-lit and -staged music videos in a biker bar in the Catskills, we decided to keep shooting on the fly between takes, and realized we had something great going on. Then, Levon took us to meet the farmers still farming the land up there, and we ate lunch with them, and we filmed it. Levon decided to spontaneously do a set of music in a motel with the musician Little Sammy Davis, and we filmed it. Levon was also an actor, too - he was in "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Shooter" and "The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada" - and he really loved being in front of a camera.
So, suddenly, we had 50 or 60 hours of footage, and Levon's "Dirt Farmer" record was doing really well, and there was talk he might be nominated for a Grammy. Keep in mind, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer around 2002 or so, and and completely lost his voice due to the radiation. Then, he nearly went bankrupt trying to treat it. So the fact that he was even making music at all - this is also a real comeback story.
One day Levon called Jacob, the director, and asked if we wanted to come along to his doctor's visit to see if the cancer had come back, and we realized we were making a real documentary. And the rest is history.
Q How would you describe the film?
A Watching "Ain't in It for My Health" is like sitting next to Levon's drum kit at one of his famous Midnight Rambles, then pulling up a seat at his kitchen table, after everyone's left and he's passed around a joint, and listening to him tell stories of growing up on a farm in Arkansas. You really don't want to miss it.
Q But, it's centered around the making of his last album, right?
A The film captures Levon Helm immediately after the making of his Grammy-nominated comeback album "Dirt Farmer," as he is told he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as the drummer of the seminal rock-n-roll group The Band. Over the course of four years, it captures his struggles with recurring throat cancer and loss of his voice, the challenges of being a musician on the road approaching 70 years old, and his attempts to reconcile his bitterness with his past - specifically, the breakup and publishing quarrels of The Band and the deaths of his friends and bandmates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Along the way, we hear incredible music, and get an intimate glimpse into a man who is 100 percent true to himself, and 100 percent true to the music, trying his best to make a living doing the only thing he can do.
Q So, as the producer, what's your role in general and what's been your role specifically to this film?
A If the director is responsible for the creative direction of the film, the producer makes sure the film happens. The producer is responsible for the project from the very first meeting or conversation, to the screen at World Cafe Live at The Queen. As I mentioned, I was lucky enough to be part of this project from the beginning, figuring out how much it would cost, where we'd live as a crew, who would work on it. It evolved into support for the crew, fiscal responsibility, and keeping an eye towards the big picture - what were we getting and what else did we need to get a finished film? It was getting clearances, releases, negotiating the rights to footage and images. It's a lot of relationship-building and personality management. It's a great job and I loved every moment of it, even when it was challenging.
Q Looking back, what part of your job with the film stands out the most?
A My favorite story about being a producer on this film is that one of the jobs is getting clearances for the music you hear in the film, which cost money - sometimes a lot of money. One of the pivotal songs in the film is "Back to Memphis" by Chuck Berry - and the song is critical because it shows Levon drumming his heart out, and thematically speaks to the struggles of a musician on the road. Well, before this film, Chuck Berry had only given permission for one of his songs to be in any motion picture, ever - and that was "Johnny B. Goode" in "Back to the Future." When we asked his lawyer to forward him our music clearance form, the lawyer suggested Mr. Berry would consider our request if we had access to a few million dollars.
So, we needed this song, but didn't have any money. This is a bad situation for a producer, typically. But, it says everything about Levon that Chuck Berry not only granted us the rights to the song-to his lawyer's utter shock- but also refused to cash our check for the paltry sum we offered him.
Q Now that it's completed, what do you find most compelling about the film? Also, what do you hope audiences get out of it?
A Well, Levon's gone now, which is a tragedy and a real loss for music, and for so many who loved him. We had the incredible honor of trying to capture the essence of a man who is almost of another time - a real, honest Southern man from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. A man who is so essentially true to himself that he couldn't help but make some of the most honest, beautiful music you'll ever hear. I think that this film is as much about Levon and the music he made as it is about a kind of America we're losing - small towns, really hard-working, honest people who only care about doing what they do, exceptionally well, with complete integrity, and with all of their heart and soul.
I do think that's what people seem to love about this film. I heard somebody say to his friend, walking out of this film, 'Wow, he had a lot of baggage.' And his friend replied, 'Well he sure carried it well, didn't he?' Levon lived an incredibly rich and full life, and was true to himself until the end, blowing the roof off every single show, spreading happiness and warmth everywhere he went. It's really inspirational, isn't it?
Q What happened to the barn where you did so much of the filming?
A Well, when Levon died, his final request to his manager Barbara O'Brien was to 'Keep It Goin' - to keep live music alive at his barn. We are so happy to say that the proceeds from the sale of the poster, specially designed for this Delaware premiere by George Murphy of Planet Ten, will go towards the "Keep It Goin'" campaign to keep live music in the barn. And, after you see the film, if you are inspired to take a trip up to Woodstock, there are still Midnight Rambles going on all summer, with special guests such as Phil Lesh, Jackson Browne, and Little Feet. Visit www.levonhelm.com for tickets, and you will not be disappointed with the experience.