Creative Fraternity: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio on their SXSW Doc, May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers
Two decades of writing, producing, and finally directing some of the most commercially and critically successful films in the world have given Judd Apatow enough cachet to make nearly anything. After his directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), took in more than $175 million in domestic gross revenue, his Apatow Productions produced an ongoing string of gargantuan hits, including Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015). But it is only within the last three years that Apatow has moved into a seemingly unlikely genre: documentary film.
Last year saw his first nonfiction work as co-director with Michael Bonfiglio, Doc & Darryl, premiere in the fourth season of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series. Bonfiglio’s interest in documentary began with a screening of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper “15 miles from my hometown”; years later, he became the directors’ intern before “dropping out of college to work for them full-time.” In Bonfiglio, now an Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker with an extensive documentary background, Apatow found a collaborator who matched him in visual tastefulness, an effortlessly improvisatory mind (essential for any comedy director), and hyper-consciousness of the public audience.
These two masters of humanist cinema have again partnered as the co-directors and co-producers of May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Shot over two-and-a-half years during the recording process of the quartet’s 2016 album True Sadness, the film welcomes newcomers to the band’s soft-hearted folk music, while using Paul Little’s light, lyrical editing to repel simplistic criticisms of its pleasurableness. Financed without a clear distribution model, it is also among the truest independent projects from a major motion picture director in this decade. While Bonfiglio conducts interviews of wounded intimacy with Scott and Seth Avett, Apatow’s ever-increasing vulnerability and personal attachment to the project push what might have been a trite “making-of” documentary into the most expressive of his career.
In their first joint interview for their new film, Apatow and Bonfiglio spoke with Sean L. Malin in a freewheeling conversation about crying to James Taylor and the Avetts’ place in history. May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers has its World Premiere at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX.
Filmmaker: When was the first time that you guys heard the Avett Brothers? And when did you first come in contact with them?
Judd Apatow: The Avett Brothers were just one of those bands that people used to tell me I would like. I don’t think I had heard them at that point. People just kept saying, “You would like the Avett Brothers.” I’m trying to think of when I first saw them, when they “got me.” I remember seeing them perform with Bob Dylan at the Grammys…. Yeah, that was when I knew.
Michael Bonfiglio: The first time that I was aware of hearing them was in the end credits of This is 40, so it was Judd’s fault.
Filmmaker: Their 2009 album I and Love and You blew them up to a higher echelon. There was a change in career. But I wouldn’t call them superstars yet.
Apatow: They have built this very loyal following just by being great, especially with I and Love and You. In an odd way, it feels very similar to Amy Schumer’s ascendance. She was on the road, even before Trainwreck, and she’d say, “I’m not playing 2,000-seaters anymore — now I’m playing 3,000 seaters!” The numbers kept going up and up and up, just from [her comedy] being so strong. I feel like that has been happening with the Avetts for a long time. They say it in May it Last: they have always been rising slowly, but it’s never gone backwards. Then they hooked up with Rick Rubin, and Rick Rubin came to my office one day and played me the album with “Live and Die” on it.
Filmmaker: The Carpenter.
Apatow: I fell in love with that song and decided that would be an appropriate song to end This is 40 with. Then at some point, Rick Rubin called and said, “They are about to start the next record. It might be a fun documentary to follow them while they did that.” That was when I called Michael, who had directed an episode of the TV show Iconoclasts with me and Lena Dunham.
Filmmaker: Mike, having shot Iconoclasts with so many stars, did you expect bombast or a diva attitude from the Avett Brothers before contacting them? Or did you think, “Oh, their music is so soft that they must be soft, kindly people too?”
Bonfiglio: I was not totally sure. I spoke with Scott on the phone before we started filming. He was very down-to-earth and really nice; but you never know until you meet somebody in person. From our very first shoot, they were incredibly nice, warm, welcoming guys. They did not treat us like we were hangers-on or anything. They brought us into the fold, right from the beginning. Then as the filming progressed over more than two years, we built up a particular trust and, I think, they were open to just being themselves on camera.
Filmmaker: How was it shooting Rick Rubin?
Bonfiglio: Judd has a relationship with Rick, but I had never met him and I was very intimidated. He was very quiet and also very welcoming. In the Malibu section, we were [at the studio] with him for about two-and-a-half weeks. We were there every single day, and Rick was there every day. He never kicked us out of the room, and it never got uncomfortable. It was kind of a dream experience.
Filmmaker: What led you to choose this band as the subject of a feature documentary?
Bonfiglio: If I remember correctly, Judd, we didn’t know if it was going to be a feature documentary. We did this music video with them, and we were like, “Wait, what is this?” We just talked about, “Well, let’s do another shoot, and then another one!” Judd believed in continuing forward and exploring, which was an amazing thing. Then a couple of years later — we were actually about halfway through — we said, “Okay, now we know what this is.” We knew it was a movie.
Apatow: Rick said, “Do you want to make a documentary about them?” It was simple then because I love their music. There was no sense of this being a commercial project or essential at this moment for any reason. Since I was a kid, if I liked an artist, I always wanted to interview them or get near them so I could learn something or be inspired in some way. That was the reason I wanted to do this. In the movie, Rick Rubin talks about working with them… do you know the quote, Michael?
Bonfiglio: He says, “Within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, I knew that being around them would make life better.” Is that the quote you’re talking about, Judd?
Apatow: Yeah. I think we felt that way, too. There is something emanating off of them, which is exciting to be a part of. No one was paying us to do this. I just kept writing checks, and that went on year after year because it just felt like something wonderful was happening, and that at some point, someone would pay me back (Laughs.) It still hasn’t happened.
Filmmaker: The truest ingenuity in the film, technically, comes from editor Paul Little’s work. What he did to hundreds of hours of footage over the course of four years is just so tonal and musical in itself, and very elaborate work. When did you bring Little on to help construct the narrative of this years-long journey?
Bonfiglio: Paul is an up-and-coming editor who is super-talented, and he cut the music video for us. He is also a musician, so we knew that having an editor who was also a musician was important. There was going to be so much music that we needed an editor who really knew how to work with it. Judd and I worked very closely with him in shaping and structuring the story, but Paul did an absolutely beautiful job; and this is his first feature.
Filmmaker: The Avett Brothers’ music can be morose. I used to think of them as heartbreak music and they made the audience cry at a live show I once attended. Do you see them as cheerier than I do?
Apatow: I consider them sincere. So much of what I do in comedy is about people who have masks on. A lot of The Larry Sanders Show was about how you try to present yourself versus how you are really feeling. A lot of comedy can be mean or snarky or sarcastic, so it was fun to work with people who are completely authentic. They are trying to express themselves in a pure way. They do have extensive humor in some of their songs, but I am touched by how open they are.
Filmmaker: I read that you once cried seeing James Taylor perform on the set of Funny People. Is that true?
Apatow: James Taylor came to set with a lot of the members of his band who had recorded all of those classic songs. We were excited for him to be there, of course, but then he launched into “Fire and Rain” right in front of us. It was a great performance because I think he was a little nervous about making the movie, so he certainly wasn’t mailing it in. It was so heartfelt, and suddenly, a lot of us started crying. We realized that we all have had this relationship with this man as long as we can remember, and it’s very intimate to witness that. To be able to share that with him was surprisingly powerful. It was like meeting a parent you had never met before.
Filmmaker: When I think of your soundtracks and the musicians you return to in your films, from George Harrison to Loudon Wainwright to Wilco, it is interesting that you haven’t made a music documentary up to now. Have you considered making a film about Wainwright or Eels or Ryan Adams?
Apatow: There is nothing that would please me more than to be able to do something with Loudon Wainwright. Actually, I produced his DVD/CD box set. I went out and I got all of his performances cleared from old Mike Douglas Shows and Saturday Night Live. I put in a monumental amount of effort into creating this DVD of all his live television performances. So hopefully there will be something more to do with Loudon and more opportunities in the future. I’m also friends with Sam Jones, who made the movie I Am Trying to Break Your Heart about Wilco, which is one of my favorite music documentaries of all time.
Bonfiglio: A great movie.
Apatow: I have always been a fan of music documentaries. But I did not really understand how they were made or how much time they would take. I eased into the idea of being involved with them only because I met Mike. What I noticed doing Iconoclasts with Lena and Mike was how intuitive he was as a director, asking us questions while subtly steering us into places where interesting things would happen. I had never seen anybody handle a situation that well. I notice that everywhere in this documentary: it is very instinctual, and we have found a way to collaborate which has allowed me to be creative and engaged, but also not to shut down the rest of my world. I feel like documentary is something I will always pursue now that I understand it. In fact, I’m currently working with Mike on a new documentary about Garry Shandling for HBO.
Filmmaker: Mike, did you do all the interviews for May it Last?
Filmmaker: Without spoiling anything, you gain some highly emotional access. I imagine that it exhausts you to some extent. You must be a bit of an open wound with the Avetts.
Bonfiglio: That took a lot of time. These guys were such dream subjects as people because we all genuinely liked each other, and we still do like each other. But I just don’t like being aggressive with cameras because I don’t like being asked to go away. I try not to be intrusive. We were very lucky in that, over the course of these two-plus years of filming, we had the same camera crew. You look at the credits of the movie, and they are very short because not that many people worked on it. It was always familiar faces. It wasn’t “here is today’s cameraperson”; it was more like, “Oh hey, there’s Jonathan [Furmanski].” That helped to allow [the Avetts] to feel comfortable talking about things that were personal, and that in turn gave us a kind of intuition to be able to guess certain things.
Apatow: Mike did such a good job spending time with them and having them get comfortable with him that he caught some very beautiful, real moments. There is a moment where they perform “No Hard Feelings” in the studio, and it’s a perfect take. Then afterwards, Scott [Avett] tries to express what it feels like to give them that, and how no one seems to understand what it takes to write and perform a song like that. Everyone just wants to say, “Great job!”, but no one knows how much it took out of them. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone express what it is to be an artist the way he does in that moment, and it only happened because they were comfortable with Mike.
Filmmaker: Do either of you wonder, if the retro folk music movement that is currently so popular on the radio with The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons starts to pass, what will happen to the Avett Brothers? Are they riding a high tide of something bigger?
Apatow: Well, I don’t think this is the type of music that is passing. These haven’t been the best days for rock and roll, but I don’t sit around going, “Where’s Led Zeppelin? Who’s going to be the next Neil Young?” This type of music really is timeless, and it might fall more in favor or likely less in favor, but the Grateful Dead has stayed popular since the mid-’60s. I don’t see the Avett Brothers hitting a phase where people don’t want to listen to this. It is an American kind of music.
Bonfiglio: I also do not see them chasing commercialism in any way. They are going to make the music that they feel like making and that they are moved to make, and they will have an audience there. Going to see them live…you’ve seen them live before, right, Sean?
Filmmaker: Several times, yes.
Bonfiglio: Incredible experience. They are just amazing live. The audience who knows their live show will only continue to grow and build. They are going to do their thing and hope that people are there to hear them. I think people will be.
Apatow: We are such fans of these people, both as artists and as human beings, but we never knew if there was any story here. Ostensibly, we were just shooting the making of an album, but we were hoping the story of their creative lives and what they are going through now would reveal itself.
Bonfiglio: We set out to make “the making of an album,” but what I hope makes this film a little different is that it is kind of not about the making of an album. If you listen to the album, you would think that a major story point should be how they went sort of electronic and remix-y for half of True Sadness. But half the sessions we included in the movie aren’t even on the record. I’m hoping that people don’t hear about the movie before seeing it and think, “This is one of those making-of-an-album movies” because it really isn’t. Judd and I were so much more interested in who they are in their personal lives.
Apatow: I think what resulted is a beautiful film about the love between brothers and creativity. As a fan of these types of documentaries, I feel like this is one that I would love.
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers is an ApatowProduction in association with RadicalMedia