From director Allen Hughes, the terrifically fascinating four-part HBO documentary The Defiant Ones is an in-depth exploration of the unlikely partnership between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. The unbreakable bond of trust and friendship these two men share has shaped many of the most exciting and extreme moments in recent pop culture, and through candid interviews with them, as well as a wide variety of music icons (including Snoop Dogg, Bruce Springsteen, Gwen Stefani, Bono, Eminem, Stevie Nicks, Ice Cube, Patti Smith, Lady Gaga, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor and Diddy), and never before seen footage from a multitude of recording and writing sessions, viewers will learn how they made their wildest dreams come true as they built their highly successful empires.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Allen Hughes talked about how this documentary came about and evolved into what we see now, his filmmaking approach to the project, deciding on the right length for the doc and whether we might ever see any of the unused footage, how his appreciation for these two men has grown, getting the untold stories out there, and why the unlikely pairing of these two men has successfully endured. He also talked about the type of projects he’d like to focus on next.
Collider: How did this documentary come about? You’ve talked about how Dr. Dre mentioned doing something like this, in passing, but when did you get serious about doing it?
ALLEN HUGHES: About four years ago. Five or six years ago, we did that “I Need A Doctor” video together with Eminem. That was the first time I’d worked with Dre, even though I’d known him for over 25 years. So, I called the president of HBO one day and said, “What if I told you I could get the most enigmatic hip-hop artist of all time to open up about his life in a documentary?” They said, “Who?” I said, “Dr. Dre.” They said, “Green light!” I’d never heard a green light when I was in the room, in my life. And then, the president said, “We have one issue. We just agreed to make the Interscope documentary with Jimmy Iovine.” I said, “I’ll call you right back.” A lightbulb went off. I thought, “Oh, my god, that’s the story – the two of them.” I called Dre and he was with it right away, but it took some convincing with Jimmy. Jimmy had passed, for a whole year. We had a green light and he wouldn’t do it.
Did he give you a reason for why he wouldn’t do it?
HUGHES: He was like, “There’s just too much stuff. You want to go digging all that stuff up.” I knew which stuff, with Death Row and Time Warner. He just didn’t know if he wanted to get into it. He wasn’t ready, clearly. We had three crisis meetings and I was like, “This guy’s not ready. I’m outta here!”
Did you approach this project any differently than you would any directing project, or do you have the same approach to any film that you do?
HUGHES: In hindsight now, it’s surreal. I had an L.A. premiere and a New York premiere, and I did press, and I wasn’t even done with part four. Nothing was usual on this project. The only thing that was in common with my usual approach to film directing is that I just poured my heart into it. This time, it was more personal than I thought it was. I didn’t know how personal it was. There was no schedule and no script. The approach was just opening my heart and my mind up and trying to collect. I had to figure out how to decant these pop culture massive moments, open up multi-tracks and archival footage, and find iconic moments in music videos and show the moment before that moment. I had to get the raw takes of things. Even in the interviews, I made sure that no one knew the camera was on sometimes, and you see that awkwardness. They thought I cut or that the camera was off, and you saw the real person. I thought that was interesting. I was just trying to find a way to bring cinema to the documentary medium. I love documentaries, but most people feel like documentaries are like eating your vegetables because you’ve gotta learn something.
There are so many different and equally interesting layers to this documentary, from the backstories of these two men, to the desire to making something out of nothing, to the life and passion of an artist, to constantly evolving to stay relevant, to achieving dreams bigger than you could ever imagine. How did you figure out exactly what movie you wanted to make, and why was four parts the right length?
HUGHES: It could have easily been 10 parts. Jimmy and Dre didn’t have final cut or anything, but they were involved because they were giving me their lives. They didn’t want it to be over one part. They thought it comes off as too indulgent, but I told them that it was impossible. Me and my partner, Doug Pray, sat down and beat it out, and we knew it was actually five parts. It was a very difficult process. HBO, me, Jimmy and Dre, for a whole year, didn’t know how many parts it was.
So, do you get to a point where you just have to stop?
HUGHES: Yeah. My executive over at HBO, Nina Rosenstein, who’s a producer, is amazing. I’ve never had someone support me and fight for me within a studio or company like that. She just nursed it. It was supposed to take one year, but at the one year mark, I wasn’t even close to done. She was like, “Okay, Allen, we support you. This is amazing!” She kept going back and getting more money. I’ve never seen anyone operate like that. It was supposed to be a year, and it was well over three years. She was instrumental in putting my mind where I could even create something like this because you’re always creating under pressure and with people bitching and complaining. That was the opposite at HBO. HBO is not even artist friendly. They’re artist charged. They charge you and make you feel like you’re on steroids.
Will we ever get to see any of the footage that we don’t get to see in this? Would you ever put out more of it?
HUGHES: What’s interesting is that, in this day and age, if this thing does well, we can probably expand it. I’ve been really shocked at the reaction. I haven’t gotten this kind of reaction since my first film, and it’s maybe even a more nuanced reaction on this. But it would no time soon, though. This took everything out of me. This was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, ever. It literally felt like it was agony and ecstasy. It was up and down, up and down. So, I don’t want to revisit it anytime soon, that’s for goddamn sure! But, I’m proud of the film.
Even though you knew Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre before you made this documentary, do you feel like you know them differently or have a different appreciation for who they are now?
HUGHES: Oh, 100%, I have a different appreciation. I know aspects of them and dynamics that I had no idea about before. And I’ve known Jimmy for 25 years, as well. It’s also been a huge education for me. All the lessons in the movie, imagine what I was getting firsthand, just watching them, dealing with them and interacting with them, for over three years. It wasn’t a typical documentary, where you shoot your subject and then go away for a year. I lived with Dre for a period of time, on this movie. If I tallied up all the time I spent literally living with Dre, it was probably five months. It was different with Jimmy. It wasn’t as literal as living with him, but I was living with Jimmy, trust me. It was an unusual process ‘cause they’re not dead and they’re not retired. It’s not like you’re making a documentary about some 85-year-old blues man who has no power. These guys have got power and they’re still moving and operating. Nothing with that is going to be simple.
We get to learn a lot of untold stories in this, but we also get a lot of the stories behind the stories that we didn’t necessarily know all of the details of. Was there anything you personally wanted to learn about and get out there, in this film?
HUGHES: I wanted to figure out what happened in the ‘90s. I realized, at one point, there was this group cathartic moment about when hip-hop went left in the ‘90s, starting with the Source Awards, and then the perceived East Coast/West Coast thing, and then Tupac, who I was close to, got killed. That was the first time in the history of music that that happened. Everyone had to have their moment to deal with it, and it wasn’t easy to acknowledge how all of that shit got out of hand. I was eager to figure that out and come to terms with it, and I was complicit in that, as well. We all were.