A version of this story about “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
The latest installment in the HBO Max Music Box series created by Bill Simmons, “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed” finds director Sam Jones (“Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”) following the writing and recording of singer Jason Isbell’s 2020 album “Reunions.” But the film is about far more than one of the gifted musician and writer’s best albums, delving into his self-destructive days with drugs and alcohol and his marriage to fellow singer Amanda Shires, a charged creative and personal partnership that nearly fell apart while Jones’ cameras were rolling.
Sam, why a film about Jason Isbell?
Sam Jones: He was on my interview show (“Off Camera With Sam Jones”), and once I chatted with him, I felt like not only did he have an interesting story, but he was good at telling it. So I flew to Nashville and I asked him a couple hours before he went on stage at the Ryman. He was very receptive and open to the terms and conditions, which were basically, “You just gotta trust me and let me do my thing.”
I imagine, Jason, that you didn’t know what that would entail.
Jason Isbell: Sam asked me if I would be into making a documentary about the making of the “Reunions” album. I figured it would just be a documentary about a bunch of people in the studio making a record. I think Sam probably thought that, too, in the beginning. But it turned out to be more than that. It turned out to be a huge pain in the ass. But also, I think, a pretty good story to tell.
Was it difficult to keep your focus when you had cameras in the studio while all of this other stuff was happening?
Isbell: I’ve been doing it long enough to be OK at ignoring distractions. It probably complicated the communication process, especially for me and Amanda when we were having a hard time. It made it harder to talk about things just because there were cameras and microphones everywhere. But you learn pretty quickly how to unplug the mic. [Laughs] You know, how to reach back and unplug it and plug it back in when you’re done peeing or saying whatever you have to say.
In the editing room, Sam, you had to juggle the footage of Jason making the album, the personal story of him and Amanda and the history sections where you followed his entire life up to that point.
Jones: Yeah. In the past I had made either straight vérité docs or straight biographical, archival docs. With this one, I did want to mix it up and jump around in time. I felt like so much of Jason’s past informed his art and his decision-making and his relationships. And so the challenge was finding these little doors or transitions.
The key was in the songs. Luckily for me, so much of that material on “Reunions” was autobiographical and looked at his childhood a lot. It was a very interesting thing to see him examining his parents’ divorce so nakedly and emotionally, and then have him hit by this whirlwind that his own marriage wasn’t going so well.
Jason, would you have agreed to do it if you had known what would come to pass?
Isbell: I don’t know if I can answer that. Would that mean that I knew the process but not the outcome? I’m happy that it happened. I think the movie is something that deserves to exist. So if I had all the information, I would still say yes. And, you know, everything’s not supposed to be easy. The things that are difficult for me and the things that don’t paint me in the most comfortable light are usually the things that I run toward rather than run away from.