Life in the movies Juneau's Lisle Hebert

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2001

For Lisle Hebert, Juneau is a town full of ghosts.

"That's one of the reasons I love it here," said Hebert, who grew up in Juneau and celebrated his 57th birthday this week. "It's full of friendly ghosts, good ghosts, people who influenced me for the better."

Hebert brought some of Juneau's ghosts to life in "Goldtown," a documentary he filmed in 1997 about Juneau's history. He opened the Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater downtown to show the film, bringing a lifetime fascination with movies full circle.

Hebert has worked in virtually every aspect of the film business as a cameraman in the jungles of the Amazon, as a film and sound editor in Hollywood and now as a theater owner and operator in Juneau.

"Growing up in Juneau, with the weather so crappy all the time, I watched a lot of movies. I always loved movies," said Hebert, who pronounces his first name "Lyle."

His parents were good storytellers and lived interesting lives, he said. His father, also named Lisle Hebert, came to Alaska in the 1920s as a traveling hardware salesman and rubbed elbows with early Bush pilots, riverboat captains and dog mushers. He settled in Juneau in the 1930s and opened Lyle's Hardware in the 1950s.

"My dad didn't want people calling the store "Leesel's Hardware," so he changed the spelling," Hebert said.

Hebert graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1963. He moved to the Midwest and earned an English degree, then moved to Seattle and abandoned work on a master's degree in American literature.

"I didn't think I'd like the world of academia," he said, shaking his head. "Bad move. I got into the world of filmmaking and I've been in and out of it ever since."

A group of aspiring filmmakers in Seattle had formed a cooperative and Hebert joined, volunteering on film projects. Bitten by the film bug, he wanted to make his own. He returned to Juneau to earn money to buy the equipment. There was work in Seattle but he preferred the atmosphere in Juneau in the early 1970s.

"You didn't have to cut your hair short," he said. "They weren't so concerned about that here as they were in Seattle."

Not only did he earn enough to buy a camera and gear, he discovered he could make money with it in Juneau. It was an election year and he filmed a few television commercials for politicians. He started Red Eye Movies in a downtown office, and jobs started coming in from Alaska state agencies.

His work took him north to the Arctic and south to Brazil. A colleague hired him as an assistant cameraman for a National Geographic documentary called "Amazon: The Flooded Forest."

"There are these prehistoriclooking fish there that will leap out of the water to get fruit out of the trees," Hebert said.

It was the height of the rainy season and Hebert filmed a family living on the Tapajoz River. They lived on the second floor during the rainy season and just let the first floor of the house flood, keeping their pigs and chickens on floats outside.

Documentary work kept him busy and in the early 1980s he moved to Hollywood.

"I got a good gig there editing a bunch of documentaries that European explorers had filmed all over the world."

He worked with masters of the craft and appreciated their passion for filmmaking. Producers, directors and others in the field were genuinely excited about their work, and many were generous with their expertise. Hebert remembered one incident when he was walking down a hallway and overheard one side of a conversation.

"He sounded like a guy about 18 years old, bubbling over with enthusiasm," he said. "I walked in and he was about 65. But he had a youthful vim."

Elmo Williams, an Oscarnominated film editor, came in once as Hebert was editing a sequence set in a crocodileinfested swamp. Williams suggested dramatic cuts back and forth between basking crocodiles and the explorer walking through the swamp to heighten tension.

In a documentary on Alaska Bush pilots, Hebert had a line in the script about a pilot hauling freight. "Don't say freight," he was advised. "Say diapers and paint, whatever, but be specific. It brings it alive. It adds depth and color."

"That's what was great about working in Hollywood," he said. "They knew how to entertain and how to tell a story."

Hebert found Los Angeles to be a friendly place. The downside, he said, was the culture is very materialistic. He didn't want his kids growing up in such a culture, especially since he wasn't making much money. He returned to Juneau in 1990. He remarried, and he and his wife, Claire Richardson, have a 2yearold daughter, Gabrielle.

He was offered a job as a social worker and found he enjoyed the work. Within a few years, though, he was back in the movie business, working on "Goldtown."

The film hasn't proved to be a financial success and Hebert is looking at other ideas for the little downtown theater. This weekend he's showing a first-run feature film, "Sexy Beast," a Britishmade gangster movie. Hebert hasn't gotten rich in movies, but he has no regrets.

"My dad had a successful business going here, which if I'd gone into I'd probably be a wealthy man now," he said. "He was disappointed a little that I didn't want to be in the store, but I felt I followed more in his footsteps by living an interesting life."


Riley Woodford can be reached at

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