Photography by Heather Kaplan
Great music documentaries go deeper than just the music. If we’re going to follow a band around for a couple hours, there needs to be something meatier than a tired musician playing a song, looking at the camera, and saying, “You know, this came straight from the heart.” Because really, no singer-songwriter will ever be able to fully articulate how that “heart” beats and stops and bleeds and aches. They can only just play it for you, offer some context, and move on. For some, that might be sufficient, but it’s not enough to warrant a great film. For a band like The Avett Brothers, who have long delivered earnest folk ballads that read like great Southern literary works, the music already speaks for itself. That’s why filmmakers Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio took out their shovels for May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers and dug deep into the North Carolina outfit that has won over the world with their best-selling records.
Apatow and Bonfiglio spent over two years with the Grammy-nominated rockers and pored through hours upon hours of home movies and fan footage to reach the core of what this band has always been about: family. At seven members strong, this tight-knit collective has a lot of stories to tell, and Apatow and Bonfiglio frame them all within the recording process behind their last record, 2016’s True Sadness. The two filmmakers captured every waking second of the Avetts as they worked with producer Rick Rubin out in Malibu, California, and it’s through this medium that we learn the band’s origins, their influences, what drives them, what keeps them together, what keeps them up at night, and everything in between. As the film breezes by for 107 minutes, we discover that the music is secondary to everything they have in their life — their wives, their children, their friends, their parents — and that it simply wouldn’t exist without them.
Shortly after its sweeping premiere at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where the band performed inside the Paramount Theater, Consequence of Sound‘s Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman sat down with the North Carolina heroes and two filmmakers for a friendly discussion about filmmaking and family. Read the entire conversation below as the documentary warms your hearts and living rooms via HBO.
Judd, you and Michael Bonfiglio worked together in the past…?
Judd Apatow: We were trying to remember, we think we started this first and then did Doc and Darryl in the middle.
So, you had known each other before?
Apatow: Mike directed an episode of the TV show Iconoclasts, and the episode was about me and Lena Dunham. He followed us — it was like the day after the reviews came out for the first season and we were headed to do the table read for the second season — and it just aired … or was about to air.
Michael Bonfiglio: It was about to air.
Apatow: In like two days. He caught us in a moment where we were just so happy because we felt like, “Oh my god, this is gonna work.” I thought that he did just such a beautiful job directing us and when I saw it I thought, Oh, Michael does very special work. And so when Rick Rubin said to me, “Would you consider doing a documentary about the making of [True Sadness] and [The Avett Brothers],” I instantly called Mike.
In the past, Judd, you’ve helped usher so many comics to the next level. Did you see the similarities between, say, you with Amy Schumer and the Avetts, where you’re capturing them at the moment right before they’re about to become even bigger than they’ve been before?
Apatow: I never think of it in those terms, I just think of it as, “Would I want to see this?” Usually, if something doesn’t exist, I just think, Oh, I wish there was an Avett Brothers documentary, because that would be the first thing I would download. That’s usually the driver, but sometimes that happens because it is a moment before a moment. Our main interest was just in being closer to their work because, you know, for me — as someone who works in comedy a lot of the time — there’s a lot of masks in comedy. It’s sarcasm or irony or goofiness, and I really appreciated their authenticity and that the feelings were really direct. It doesn’t go through this filter that we have to go through in comedy and I found that inspiring. I’m always inspired by people who have the courage to just say what they’re feeling directly — like Warren Zevon or Alan Wainwright or Graham Parker — people who I’ve had their music in the movies.
What I’ve always loved about the Avetts is the sense of family. You get it onstage, you get it with the album, you get it in the lyrics, everywhere. That cozy feeling has always been a big part of your films, too.
Apatow: Well my parents got divorced so I’m also fascinated by any family that stayed together. So I watch the movie and go, “Yeah! That’s what happens when your parents don’t get divorced.” Their parents look like they really like each other and there’s some good guys and they’re nice to each other and their sister … I guess that’s a good thing. So there’s another bit of support for healthy families.
It’s funny that you say that because I actually had that same reaction watching it. I’m also from a family of divorce, and just seeing so much civility and so much camaraderie was interesting, to say the least. It’s just painted in such a nice light.
Apatow: Well and their dad loves them so much, just watching them record … it’s something that Michael was able to be a fly on the wall for. I feel like people we able to be as un-self conscious as you can be in that situation and he was just able to capture moments like that where you see a father’s love for his kid, his pride, who they are, and what they create.
You had to really wait for a lot of these moments to happen, though. Seth, there’s that great scene where you find out that your wife’s pregnant, and Michael kind of had to tease the news out of you. [Laughter from both parties.] What was that dance like from the beginning?
Apatow: Well, these guys were just so welcoming and warm, and you guys just pulled us right in immediately. So, it felt comfortable at first and then I think we — my crew and myself — tried to give you guys the space you needed and not be too intrusive and kind of know when to say, “Alright, let’s stop filming for a bit.” I feel like you guys probably wouldn’t have ever kicked us out, but I never like to get to the point where somebody wants to kick you out. That’s always the best part of a doc: “You gotta go!” [Laughs.] Yeah, so that moment I just kind of inferred. We were all together at Rick’s studio every day for two and a half weeks. You could kinda tell. So, it was a rare thing I would ask you something like that, that personal on camera. It’s not something I would normally like to do, but it felt okay because I felt like we had built up a trust.
Seth Avett: Mike has a soft touch. That’s why he’s so good at being there and feeling like him and the crew are not there enough to where you can be honest, so when he would interject lightly and step in there and say “What about this? What about that?”, there was an air of importance to it because he never did it. So a topic that important to me, like my wife being pregnant, I don’t know if I would be so willing to speak on it if Mike was saying every other minute, “We’ll talk about this, talk about that.” He rarely did, so when he did ask it was like, “Well, that must be important. It must make sense to share that.” I think that aided the story.
Based on this film alone, it’s obvious that family, unity, and privacy is really important to you all. Early on, when filming started, how was it getting used to that from the get-go?
Scott Avett: I think I say in the film about dreaming of someone watching since we were kids and assuming stardom early on. I think our dad instilled this crazy amount of confidence and assumption of fame, like everyone was knowing you and everyone was caring. If I can speak for myself, I sort of lived that out. I say that in the film.
So, the realization of that wasn’t difficult to transition to at all. And to add to what Seth said, in a great way to Mike’s benefit, his magic, his credit, his feeling. He has feeling. He’s an actual sensitive person that senses what’s around him and cares about it. Not just when we were talking about the film, but we would get into conversations about spirituality or politics — basically out of the film and just talking shop.
You can just tell he’s the good guy, you know? Now, you trust them in the beginning. I’m sure that really slick filmmaker could be that, and then it was just time to exploit whatever they wanted to. The final piece was improving it. He would treat it with such respect and care, so it was sort of like, “That’s the finish line.” He did it.
Knowing that there was going to be filming taking place for this album, was it a worry going into recording that you were going to be on film? Did you ever worry that it was going to effect the music somehow?
Scott Avett: We probably thought about it, but you don’t see the hours of quiet time where they were just in the room and getting hours of us just taking our time.
Apatow: The director’s cut! [Laughs.] That’s also the interesting thing about making a movie about the creative process. The truth is, I could watch them sitting there, thinking it through, building it word by word. If there was an 11-hour version of this, it wouldn’t be long enough for me. I’m always like, “The Tom Petty documentary was four hours! I would like six.” Trying to figure out what that balance is to get across the magic of those moments and pick which ones to show, and I think there’s some great ones in the movie, where you see them have ideas on camera. It’s an amazing thing to witness.
With seven members, you have the daunting task of juggling so many stories and so many emotions. How did you keep track of everything over the years and what was the editing process like? Did you edit while you were filming?
Bonfiglio: Well, after our first shoot, we cut a music video for “Morning Song”, which on that first shoot, Judd very wisely said, “Well, let’s make sure that we can come back with something that we can complete,” because we didn’t really know what we were doing when we started. That video was cut by Paul Little, who ended up cutting the film, and every time we’d have another shoot, we’d talk to Paul. It was in his head for about three years, and then actually, it was about six months we actually spent editing it. I had taken notes every day as we were filming, all day, and Paul just did a beautiful, beautiful job. He’s also a musician and he would cut music.
Seth Avett: You would take notes when something would happen that you thought was, like, noteworthy and…
Bonfiglio: Yeah, I just kept a little notebook. If something happened at a certain time of day, we could match it back to timecode.
That’s a long frame of time, too.
Apatow: The whole time we would go, “Is there a story here?” It’s just a bunch of nice guys writing good songs and picking them. [Laughs.] For a while, we weren’t sure if we wanted to do a history of the band or just show them recording the record like an old Godard movie where it’s just [The Rolling Stones] recording “Sympathy for The Devil”. Then we slowly realized, “Oh, I think I can cut back and forth from the album to how they got here” because they document their lives and careers and they have an incredible video from the beginning. Once we started looking at it, we were like, “Oh, they were in a heavy metal band? We have to show this!”
[Laughs.] Yeah, never in a million years did I anticipate seeing the Avetts talking about At The Drive-In, who coincidentally played a show right after the movie’s premiere believe it or not. Were all those home movies strictly from the band?
Apatow: Well, we found these guys have an incredibly dedicated fan base, so we would go on YouTube and find the person that posted it, and it turned out that they didn’t own it, but their cousin’s ex-girlfiend had actually shot it. So, we’d find that person and get them to give us the footage. Then Mike Beyer, we’d use a little bit of his footage. He’s been filming these guys for 10, 11 years. And Dane [Honeycutt] shot a bunch of stuff … he handed us, what, 20 CDs of footage one day.
Scott Avett: Now, watching this film top to bottom, it seems like it is this story, you know? But for the longest time I remember all of us being like, “What is the ending? Is there an ending?”
It could have gone so many ways.
Scott Avett: Now it seems like it makes so much sense, and it’s a credit to y’all and your vision and your sort of fluid vision, and your faith to just keep rolling even though you didn’t have an end in sight.
Apatow: I was talking to Rick Rubin about the Carpenter record, and I said “So, how are you going to promote this?” And he basically said something like, “If it’s great, we’ll figure it out.” Like all of his energy was in the quality of the work, and I think one of the reasons this came out well was because Mike and I did it just for the love of doing it. A lot of times when I make a movie there’s just so much pressure, the movie is so expensive and we’re terrified for years if people will go or not go.
This was really a passion project, nobody owned it, and I was really just writing checks for it, having some sense that something special would happen from this mystical, Rick Rubin intuition that you should just do this. After a few years, I think Mike and I realized that that is what the movie is about, people who are trying to be authentic and their work and what it takes emotionally to offer that to people.
So, it all builds to a very simple but poetic idea, which is that you live your lives, you create art and music about it, but it does take its toll. It is scary, and you’re in a very vulnerable place when you put that out there.
Well there’s this great moment that really hit me — I have a brother also, so any narrative with brothers always hits me — but there’s that scene right after you two finished recording “No Hard Feelings”. The two of you go outside and have that really interesting discussion about how you’ve lived through tragedy and struggle and have been congratulated for it and had that weird feeling. I thought that was such an interesting paradox because you’re in the documentary talking about this. Was that kind of like a key moment in the film?
Apatow: I related to it as I do stand-up comedy. At the end of the night, I go to sleep just ashamed that I even talked.
Scott Avett: That’s it right there. You really regret and wonder what you’re supposed to be.
Seth Avett: Yeah, that was the moment I was really nervous would be in the film. When it was, I was like, “Okay, there’s me in that moment of shame, in that doubt.” But that might be an indicator, from what I understand, from people who have done it longer than I have, that it’s worth doing. Living life is what changes life, and that’s what happened. The proper aspiration is that you just say, “Thank you,” and realize that if you affected somebody and they’re happy about it, or if it sold a lot of records, thank you, that’s wonderful.
Apatow: But that’s not how it feels. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Am I an idiot for feeling it, much less sharing it?” I so related to that and I don’t think it’s a moment, in any way, to be embarrassed about. I actually thought, honestly, just as a person who loves movies, that it was one of the great music documentaries moments about what it takes to take risks with your emotions. Someone said to me, “The best gift you can give anybody is your story.” That changed my creative career because I never thought about it that way. I was just trying to be funny. But it’s terrifying to do it — even when it works, there’s something embarrassing about it that you do have to shift back into gratitude.
Seth Avett: Because you feel like you just exploited something and got paid for it. And then it’s like, “Good for you, great, alright.”
Well, thank you so much. Seriously, this is a phenomenal film.
May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers is currently streaming on HBO GO.