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Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Below the Line
Every now and then you run across a book that reverberates from start to finish with the stark, unflinchingly brutal honesty that comes from one who has walked barefoot through the burning fires and has the scars to prove it.
J.R. Helton's Below the Line is that kind of book. Helton writes in a relaxed, unpretentious style that draws you in to his life working as a “scenic” (set painter) on a long succession of feature films and television dramas shot in and around the southeast during the late 80’s and early 90’s, beginning with the mini-series “Lonesome Dove.” Refusing to glorify or gloss over the inherently messy process of movie making, Below the Line offers an up-close-and-personal insider’s view of what this work is really like: the inflated egos, the body and soul-crushing hours, the endless stupidity, waste, and petty personality conflicts that plague so many film projects. Although Helton’s narrative spares no one (least of all himself), his pen is particularly lethal at eviscerating the self-important little dictators who often oversee (and take credit for) the hard work done by others. His descriptions of the crude and inexcusably boorish behavior on the part of certain big-time movie stars -- a stark contrast to their on-screen image -- will make you cringe.
I've seen some real jerks on film sets over the years, but nothing quite like this. Maybe I've just been lucky. If you think you know people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Don Johnson, or James Cann simply because of their fine acting performances on screen, Helton will set you straight.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Below the Line might have ended up a slash-and-burn, tell-all screed. That it didn’t remains a testimony to Helton’s allegiance to the truth as he experienced it. He draws appreciative portraits of the good people he met on these films, hard-working technicians doing their best to get the job done under difficult, frustrating circumstances. Anyone who has worked in this business will find something of themselves in these pages – good, bad, and ugly -- while those planning on entering the Industry will get an unvarnished look at the process as it really is.
First released in 1996 (a second edition was published in 2000 with a new cover by R. Crumb), Below the Line is anything but self-serving. Indeed, Helton walks through some very dark territory in this book, unwilling to sugar-coat any aspect of his bruising seven year odyssey into, through, and eventually out of the film business. If he occasionally walks the line between cynicism and bitterness, it's not without good reason. Living what is essentially a hand-to-mouth existence at the whim of Hollywood-sized egos who seem to care more about how they look in the mirror than treating other people with respect -- that's enough to drive anyone away from the light and into the shadows. Fortunately, Helton has a connoisseur's appreciation for the ironic and absurd -- two legs of the three-legged stool that is the movie biz.
In a very real way, this book represents the final slamming of the door on his film career: once you’ve named names and told stories like these in public, the Rubicon has been crossed. There’s no going back -- and this is what sets Helton's book apart from anything else you've read about the Industry.
Above all, Below the Line is a terrific read: pithy, funny, and dead-on target. I first read it shortly after the second edition was published, then (while going through my bookshelf looking for something else) picked it up again last week. Now I'm hooked all over again, thoroughly enjoying the re-read.
This is a hugely entertaining and informative book. Whether you're in the biz, hope to be someday, or are simply curious what it's really like to work behind the lights and cameras, do yourself a favor and check it out.