[The following interview originally appeared in Tales of Avett News.]
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas on March 15, 2017. Michael Bonfiglio, the co-director of May It Last with Judd Apatow, was kind enough to answer some questions for Tales of Avett News about the process of creating the documentary and what he loves about The Avett Brothers.
AvettNews: May It Last won the 24 Beats Per Second audience award at SXSW. I know that the premiere crowd included a fair number of Avett fans, all of whom have been raving about the film. But Avett fans do have a reputation for being a little protective of the band. Did you know that when you started with this project? Were you concerned about the reception that the film would get from long-time fans?
Bonfiglio: When we started making the film, I didn’t realize just how intense the Avett fan-base was. Of course we always hoped we wouldn’t disappoint the fans, but that was never at the forefront of our minds. To be honest, we weren’t overly concerned with pleasing the fans. We really wanted to make something that spoke to people who had never heard of the band. After the screenings at SXSW the feedback from fans was overwhelming which really felt great, but I also spoke to a number of people who said they didn’t know the band before but were going to go buy Avett albums right away, and in some ways that was even more satisfying. That being said, the film does have an Easter egg or two that we only put in there for the true fans to appreciate (although one of those that we shot but didn’t fit into the final edit was a cutaway shot of a road sign for “40 East”).
AvettNews: You’ve had multiple opportunities to see The Avett Brothers in concert while working on May It Last and have described it as an “incredible experience.” What do you think makes Avett shows so special and do you have a favorite concert memory?
Bonfiglio: Avett shows always feel so personal, and each show is different. I think that’s part of the appeal. And they’re the rare band that has such a deep catalogue that they also know, so you may hear anything on any given night. Another one of my favorite bands – Ween – is like that. But there’s also an energy and personality that’s always there, and it’s just amazing to see them leave everything on the field every show. From a filmmaking standpoint, that energy and spontaneity and band interplay definitely makes them a little challenging to shoot! I’ve only actually seen them twice without having to be shooting, so now that the film is done I’m hoping to take in more shows just as a fan, hopefully starting in Port Chester, NY in just a few weeks…
AvettNews: You recorded hundreds of hours of film while working on May It Last. I’m sure some tough decisions had to be made in the cutting room. Is there anything that you particularly regret not being able to include in the final film?
Bonfiglio: One of the most amazing things about making this film was that it was a true, purely independent production, so we didn’t have to listen to anybody about what to put in and what not to put in. Judd was paying for it out of his own pocket, so we were able to make exactly the film we wanted to. There were never battles over what should or shouldn’t be in. That said, there were a lot of fun moments and tons of songs that were great but we just felt didn’t fit the overall picture or threw off the balance or pacing in terms of making the film work as a whole. One memorable scene that we tried to include but ultimately just didn’t fit anywhere in the film was when we captured Seth playing No Hard Feelings for Scott and Bob for the very first time, at the studio in Asheville. When he started playing it, it just stopped me in my tracks. I remember Judd wasn’t there that day and halfway through the song I pulled out my cell phone, recorded about 30 seconds of it, and texted it to him like, “Oh my god you have to hear this!”
AvettNews: What is your favorite song from True Sadness? What’s your favorite Avett Brothers song of all time?
Bonfiglio: Not surprisingly (especially if you’ve seen the movie), my favorite song from True Sadness is No Hard Feelings, hands down. I just think it’s one of the greatest songs of all time by any artist. My favorite Avett Brothers song overall probably changes every week. This week it’s probably a toss-up between Sanguine and Pretty Girl at the Airport.
AvettNews: You have directed and/or produced documentaries about a wide variety of creative people including Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, Oprah’s Master Class, and Iconoclasts. Was your experience making May it Last different from these previous experiences? It seems like you spent a lot more time with The Avett Brothers than you did with any of your previous subjects.
Bonfiglio: Every experience is different, and I did spend more time with the Avetts than with previous subjects. Aside from just the individual people being different from one another, the process on May It Last was unique in that we really weren’t sure what we were doing when we started. And as I said before, we didn’t have a network or a studio or anything behind the film until after it was completed, so it was a very homemade kind of process. We were just relying on faith that there was something special going on and Judd backed up his faith with his checkbook. We were also incredibly fortunate to have the same talented crew (Jonathan Furmanski, Brad Bergbom, and Michael Richard Martin) for pretty much every single shoot, which is a rarity on a project like this that shoots off and on over multiple years. That consistency helped in a number of ways, and it also made the shoots even more fun than usual. We all worked extremely, but it rarely felt like work because it was such a dream experience. When we started, it was also my first time collaborating with Judd, which was a dream come true for me, as I’ve been a fan of his work forever and it turns out that he is actually even cooler than I’d hoped he’d be.
AvettNews: HBO has announced that it acquired rights to show May It Last, but I understand that they won’t begin showing it until 2018. It has already been announced that May It Last will be shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina on April 8 and at the Nashville Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee in late April. Will fans have any other opportunities to see the film before it premieres on HBO?
Bonfiglio: HBO has not yet announced an airdate, but they are planning to air it in early 2018. We could not be more excited that HBO has agreed to take this movie on, but we also understand that people – especially the loyal and passionate fans – want to see it now. So we are trying our best to give folks the chance to see the movie in theatres, and are hoping to have more to say about that very soon. In the meantime, we hope that people will be patient with us as we sort out details of how to get it out there. Distribution is complicated, neither Judd nor I are experts in it, and believe it or not, this is still just a little homemade documentary without a big team behind it. There’s a lot more to distribution than just putting the movie online or printing up DVDs and selling them at the merch table. We are working hard to sort out how to get it to the people in the right way.
AvettNews: What is your biggest takeaway from spending so much time with The Avett Brothers? What do you hope that our biggest takeaway is from May It Last?
Bonfiglio: My biggest takeaway is that making this film has been the most enjoyable and satisfying experience of my career. Every part of making it was like a dream, and I think it is the best work I’ve ever done. And the way the band and their organization embraced us – the honesty and hospitality they showed us – every step of the way makes me feel that these are people who will be in my life in one way or another forever and that I will be better off for that. They are a truly inspiring group of people, both creatively and the way they live their lives and treat one another – with kindness, decency, and respect. And I hope that that is what people who see the film take away from it as well.