HBO’s The Defiant Ones: An Interview with Allen Hughes

Veteran filmmaker talks Dre, Jimmy Iovine, and the stories within his new docuseries

In 2014, Apple purchased headphone company Beats by Dre for a reported three billion dollars, making Dr. Dre hip-hop’s first (self-anointed, unverified) billionaire. Regardless of exactly how rich this made Dre and his business partner and longtime friend Jimmy Iovine, it was a landmark moment for the music industry that almost didn’t happen. That’s where HBO’s The Defiant Ones begins, telling the story of how Dre and Iovine got to that moment, from humble beginnings to ambitious careers to, eventually, entrepreneurship that’s in many ways unparalleled.

For director, writer, and executive producer Allen Hughes, the film represents the culmination of years of work. Hughes has himself celebrated a long and illustrious career in the arts, including helming the landmark Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, as well as pimp subculture documentary American Pimp. But The Defiant Ones is a project unlike any other that not only involved becoming intimately intertwined with his two primary subjects, but securing a who’s who of music industry interviews to supplement the feature. Among the artists that appear in The Defiant Ones to wax on Dre and Iovine are Bono, Lady Gaga, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Trent Reznor, Puff Daddy, Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, Tom Petty, Kendrick Lamar, and Stevie Nicks.

But more than just a celebrity parade, The Defiant Ones is filled with stories. Some of them may be unflattering, like Dre’s drunken Facebook video that almost cost them the Apple deal or the assault on Dee Barnes that is approached in the film with Dre and Barnes both speaking on the subject. But the film always strives to dig beyond the existing narrative, using Hughes’ relationship with his subjects to get them to open up like never before. “I knew both gentlemen for more than 25 years already and met them before they met each other,” Hughes says by phone from Ojai, California. “It wasn’t a normal documentary circumstance where you shoot your subject and then you go away. I was living with them essentially throughout the three-and-a-half-year process.”

Once you have that relationship with your subject, how hard is it to maintain objectivity as a documentarian?

That’s the biggest challenge: having that objectivity and maintaining it. I won’t put myself next to a journalist with the lines that you can’t cross, but that’s why I brought in my partner, Doug Pray (Executive Producer, Writer, Editor), who is a world-class documentary filmmaker and helped me on American Pimp. He and another gentleman, Lasse Jarvi (Writer, Editor) — those guys are really hardcore and punk rock about this whole doc thing. It made most of that concern go way because they didn’t give a fuck. They weren’t hanging out with Jimmy and Dre. So they were my baseline for honesty and truth and how hard to push. I knew what I wanted, but those guys are masterminds of the craft.

So, I was wise enough before I started to know that I needed Doug Pray to be a sort of Bill Belichick on the sidelines. I can be Tom Brady, but it doesn’t matter how talented I am once I’m out there. There are so many variables in a documentary that aren’t there when you are making features, namely the issue you mentioned. People tend to not be honest about this — whether it’s a doc like Making a Murderer or The Jinx — and try to act like there’s this line that you don’t cross. But you definitely have to cross that line in order to move the medium and receive more honesty. If you stand back there like you’re Charlie Rose asking questions, you’re not gonna get shit.

I feel like this is particularly relevant while delving into the Dee Barnes assault. How do you even approach Dr. Dre that this needs to be addressed? And was it hard to get Barnes involved?

When Dre, Jimmy, and I sat down before we started rolling cameras, there were certain terms that we all agreed to. And Dre was at the forefront saying, “I have to deal with this, and I want to deal with this situation with Dee Barnes.” This is way before the Straight Outta Compton film. So we shot his opening up about it and apology before the story resurfaced when the film came out. It was kind of odd to shoot that apology and then him have to go through it over again. But it is what it is.

I wasn’t sure that Dee would be involved and had never met Dee previously. Dre wanted to deal with it in the film three-and-a-half years ago, and it made me really feel like the film would be something legitimate, that it wouldn’t be a fluff piece. But I thought it was even more important for her to be a part of the film because she was a cultural voice at the time and still is very vital. And they had a lot of fun together back then. She was like a little sister to him back in the day. World Class Wreckin Cru and N.W.A. — she was part of that scene.

So we just had lunch one day, and we hit it off. She told me that she was a fan of my films and said, “I trust you to get this right.” I was raised by an extreme activist, feminist mother, so there was just no way that I wasn’t going to handle this the right way, and in that, she had to be a part of it. She had to say what she wanted to say. An apology is one thing. It’s probably my proudest moment in the three-and-a-half years working on this project, just the fact that I worked with her.

It’s a small part of this giant project, but one that feels like a lot of people are going to respond to.

Yeah, I’m really proud of her and, secondly, of him.

One thing I didn’t see in the film was Iovine’s recent controversy when he was quoted making some questionable comments concerning women’s ability to find music themselves. It seems like there is a contingent of people who might only know Iovine from this story that came out last year. Was there any thought to including that incident in the film?

Jimmy Iovine is the most oxymoronic feminist man I’ve ever met in my life. He couldn’t have been raised by a more powerful woman than his mother. His career starts with Ellie Greenwich taking him in. Ultimately, his biggest break is Patti Smith, and you couldn’t get more empowered than that. And then he produces Stevie Nicks’ first solo album. I can track Jimmy Iovine through Gwen Stefani to Linda Perry to Lady Gaga. You see this through line in his career where he has worked with some of the most powerful fuckin’ women in music, where he’s encouraged them and championed them. But it never really occurred to him. Even in shooting this documentary, where we got to know his ex-wife [Vicki Iovine], who is this super intellectual and independent and strong woman. And his current wife, Liberty Ross, you don’t get stronger than her.

He’s attracted to these very powerful women. But Jimmy Iovine is inexplicable. You never know what is going to come out of his mouth or what he didn’t know sounded that way. But at his core, he’s always married up when it comes to women. Even when he’s young, he’s dealing with someone in Patti Smith who is light years ahead of him in terms of sophistication and strength and power. Same with Stevie, same with Gaga. With Gaga, he said, “She came in talking about Andy Warhol and New York art and confused me so much that I just signed her.” He’s not afraid of that. So it was a little sad to see that. Even though we all make mistakes, it was sad to see how it affected women. My mother told me about it as I’m making a documentary about him. So, it was just sad because that’s so not who he is. He’s Jimmy. He’s quirky, he’s dynamic, he’s interesting, and he’s a savant, as well. He’s an artist and people don’t talk about that. Things come out of his mouth sometimes, and you can’t believe that he said it. And that’s what happened there. I’m not one to stick up for Jimmy, but if you look at his track record, that one hurt me.

Jimmy and Dre are a huge part of the film, but there are also all these supplemental interviews. It felt like if the person was alive, you landed them for interviews. Talk about the pressure to secure all of these people. Were any tougher than others, or were any absolutely crucial to secure?

I didn’t know what I was in for. Luckily, these people love Jimmy and Dre, so it was pretty simple to get them to sit down when we were able to get them. And then there are people on the other side of the fence who are no longer friends or maybe business adversaries, where that took more work to convince them. But the most difficult one was Patti Smith, because she doesn’t do interviews. She wasn’t going to do it, even though she loves Jimmy. And then one day at the 11th hour of the process, she just sent an email where she was like, “I gotta sit down for Jimmy, if it wasn’t for him…” and she went on and on. So she came out to California, and she did it. She was almost the one that got away. But it wasn’t Jimmy massaging her. I think it was just her hearing about it, and it was starting to bubble up with rumors about the project and people were digging it, and she realized that this was for Jimmy, and she wanted to be there for him. And it really payed off in “Part 1.” It was a big deal.

One of the surprising ones is when you have Puff on, whose history with Dre isn’t necessarily a positive one. And to have him talk so candidly about those times seemed like a pretty unique thing, even when he’s saying he can’t say certain things on tape because of the legal ramifications.

And they’re all friends now. Puff lives four doors down from Jimmy. He’s always at Jimmy’s house. It was tough because there is obviously a lot of sensitivity to what happened then, on both sides. And you could feel that. This film represents a huge cathartic moment for all the parties that were involved in that crazy time in music.

When anyone watches this thing, it’s the revelations that really stand out. One part is where Jimmy is reflecting on his relationship with Tom Petty souring because of Jimmy’s relationship with Stevie Nicks. I’m not enough of a historian to know which of this stuff was new, but for me, it felt really fresh and revelatory, like it was something that had been weighing on him that he needed to get out.

It was new, by the way. Him speaking about it in the film was the first time he’d really dealt with it.

Is that an important thing when making this kind of film, knowing that you need this aspect of new information and revelations, and how do you get those to come out?

You’ve absolutely got to be in the mind space. When you look at a person, like Jimmy or me or you, if you’re lucky, we’ve got three great stories in us that we can tell at a dinner party. I call them our hit records. If we’re lucky, we have three hit records in us. And it was my job not only to identify what those hit records were with any of the artists I sat down with, but also to find new records that no one had heard yet.

So Jimmy, though he had many of them, he wasn’t aware that Stevie Nicks was a massive one. When we got to talking about it, I’m like, “Let’s talk about Stevie. You had a relationship with her, and you’re making her album at the same time,” and Jimmy’s like, “Nah, she’s just a cool chick, you know? We did the album, and we broke up soon after.” And I’m like, “That’s it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s it.” He wouldn’t give me any more. So I said, “You know what, I’m going to go interview Stevie, because she had already agreed to do it.” And she got into it. So when I showed Jimmy her rough cut, he went ahead and filled in the story.

There are the stories that our fathers and mothers and grandparents tell at the dinner table, and then there’s the ones where they’re not aware of how dynamic certain things were. That was what I was after. Not the obvious stories, but the stories behind the stories.

Now that you’ve spent three-and-a-half years deep diving into the music world, how do you feel about that world versus the film world that you spend so much of your time in?

I’d have to go off the record if I told you what I really want to tell you here. [Laughs.]

I’m just glad that I’m in the film world. It’s two different mentalities. Unfortunately for us all, as Trent [Reznor] stated so well in “Part 4,” the mystique is gone. We don’t have Prince anymore, these heroes that loomed large and you had to read into what they were doing. They were superheroes as Trent said, and Trent was that for me when I was growing up. It’s not really answering the question, but part of the bittersweetness of doing the film was knowing that it will never be the same, where we wait for the album to come out and we listen to the whole record and there were several of them happening every year. Now, you’re lucky if you get a Kendrick Lamar coming along or a Taylor Swift will come along.

Or JAY-Z this last week.

JAY-Z last week, but even there, that’s a grown-man album. So, we grown men and women can listen to it, but these millennials are like, “What the fuck is he talking about?” It’s kinda cool that a guy like Jay can make an album like that, and there is a market like that in hip-hop. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t be 47 and making a hip-hop album.

I do know one thing, to answer the question. The music business is quick, and the attention span is so short. The film business, you have to be real patient and nurture things. That’s what was amazing about Jimmy and Dre on this project, because they do get it and knew it was going to take time to get this right. Normally, there would be more immediacy there because things turn over so quickly in the record business. But taking time to get it right — that’s a film thing.

The Defiant Ones premieres on HBO this Sunday, July 9th at 9 p.m. EST.


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