Theoden Janes

The Avett Brothers’ documentary debuts on HBO this month. Here’s how it got made.

The Avett Brothers perform at the ball to celebrate the inauguration of Gov. Roy Cooper at Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh on Jan. 6, 2017.
The Avett Brothers perform at the ball to celebrate the inauguration of Gov. Roy Cooper at Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh on Jan. 6, 2017. The News & Observer

A little more than half an hour into Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” Scott Avett recalls for the directors his naive arrogance during the band’s formative years in the early 2000s.

“This band actually wouldn’t even have gone on tour if Bob (Crawford, the bassist) hadn’t said, ‘We gotta get out of North Carolina,’ ” Avett says in the award-winning new music documentary, which will debut on HBO at 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29.

 ’Cause we were just hillbillies. We were self-centered hillbillies who thought the world was gonna either come to us, or not, and either way, they were missin’ out.”

It’s actually one of his co-lead singer/co-founding member/younger brother Seth Avett’s favorite moments in the film, because it makes him laugh really, really hard.

“I mean, think about it: ‘Either way, they’re missing out’? So if they come and see us, they’re missing out, too?” Seth Avett says, laughing.

The film is chock full of sublime quotes and insights from the folk-rockers and those in their inner circle (including Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon), along with footage of revealing recording sessions, rousing concerts and surprisingly intimate moments at home. All were captured by the co-directors as they chronicled the making of the Avetts’ most personal album to date: 2016’s “True Sadness,” which was nominated for two Grammys and produced the band’s first No. 1 hit.

Seth Avett, Joe Kwon, Scott Avett and Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers. crackerfarm

And of course, there’s plenty of Carolina flavor – as fans well know, the brothers still live in their hometown of Concord, just down the road from each other and not far from their parents’ house.

In an interview with the Observer done shortly before the documentary’s one-night-only screening in early September, Seth Avett, 37, spoke about the long, emotional, rewarding process of filming “May It Last.”

Q. So how did this project come about?

A. Well, the initial conversation was between Judd (Apatow, producer of blockbuster comedies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) and our producer, Rick Rubin (who’s worked with a who’s-who of music stars, from Metallica to Kanye West). I think Rick brought it up with Judd at some point and said, ‘Hey, would you want to film the making of the next Avett Brothers record?’ And it grew from there. ... We didn’t meet (Apatow or co-director Michael Bonfiglio, who collaborated on last year’s “Doc & Darryl” for ESPN) until basically when the project started. It was like, “Hey, nice to meet you. Now you’re gonna be in the living room while I’m changing my son’s diaper.”

Q. Was it a tough sell for you at first?

A. Yeah, it was a little weird. When they brought it up, I definitely didn’t say, “Yes, absolutely, let’s do it!” I wanted a little time to think it through. Certainly it’s a big question. Like, “How do you feel about a film crew entering your life?” As far as I can tell, from what you see on television, that’s a very negative thing, to add a film crew to your life. ... Not healthy for the subject. It’s very fake, and very odd, and contributes to an exchange with an audience that’s very plastic and very – in my opinion – horrible.

Q. They want something bad to happen.

A. Right. Just like in the world of news, the more sensational things are the things that keep people as customers. But I think that it came at the right time in our lives. If it would have come up a few years before that, I don’t think I would have been able to say yes. The reality is – for Scott and I, anyway – it’s been a long, gradual journey to get to where we could feel comfortable with this going on, comfortable enough that we could be honest in front of the camera. It’s taken a lot of years of getting accustomed to the idea of taking pictures with people, and making music videos, and making YouTube videos, and doing interviews, and opening our life and our artwork up to anyone that wants to look at it. So after considering it quite a bit, my thought was this is an opportunity for us to have a moment documented, with really, really good cameras. (Laughs.) And not just our iPhones. That sounded cool to me. We also knew from the beginning that we would have control. If at the end, we hated it, we could just not sign off on it.

Q. Two moments really stood out for me: One is the way that they captured that writing session for “I Wish I Was” – watching you guys work out the last verse of that song in real time. The other is the part where you and Scott finish an emotionally exhausting recording of “No Hard Feelings” and the filmmakers patiently wait for you to articulate why it made you guys so wrecked – especially Scott. What was it like to watch those moments in the film?

A. I mean, those are – they’re gold, in a way. In that way of, like, true intimacy. The way I know that the (filmmakers) really achieved what they were wanting to achieve is that, when I was watching those moments, I probably felt kind of like you felt. “Oh, so that’s how that dynamic looks from the outside.” ... The “I Wish I Was” bit, that kind of thing between Scott and I has happened so many times. But that may be the only time it’s ever really been captured. And it’s hard to imagine that that would happen again in that way, where there could be an entity in the room that’s documenting, for those sparks to be finishing out, and the moment of excitement when you find the way for a lyric. Those moments, you never know when they’re gonna happen. They’re super-unpredictable. A lot of times they don’t happen in the studio. That was just very, very cool. And then the “No Hard Feelings” thing is cool just because for me, it outlines and really champions the way that Scott can be selfless, and allow himself to be shown in a (very vulnerable) way. I think that takes courage.

Q. Did the cameras feel intrusive right then?

A. If I was aware of them at all, it was in a very abstract way, ’cause Scott was having trouble in that moment. When Scott’s having trouble, my mind is invested in trying to caretake – if I can – and simultaneously to just be out of his way and let him sort whatever he wants to sort. ... So if there’s fireworks going off in the sky or if someone’s filming me, I’m less likely to pay attention to that and more likely to invest in what’s going on with Scott to try to see if there’s something I can do, or if I just need to be quiet.

Q. And ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from “May It Last”?

A. I’d like for more people to hear the music, if they would enjoy it, and then have something else that they can listen to and feel good listening to. But what I’d like for people to see in the film is a similar thing to what I like people to see when they come and see us play: That Scott and I, we are siblings that get along. That there’s a positive way to work with your family, and there’s a positive way for that work to spread and to benefit yourself, to benefit your family members and to benefit the people that are in your circle. I think that’s the underlying current of the film. There is a stereotypical brother-band situation where they can’t stand each other; they can’t get along and it’s dysfunctional. There’s also this stereotypical thing about bands in general, that they’re dysfunctional as hell. Fighting, drug use, whatever. And I think it’s a cool thing to watch a documentary about a band where it’s just kind of regular life struggles. Not that fighting and drug use aren’t regular life struggles – they are – but I feel like there’s a positivity in the film that I would like people to take with them.

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Twitter: @theodenjanes