Hillary Atkin

Filmmaker on the ‘Agony and Ecstasy’ of New HBO Project

Jul 7, 2017

A kid from Compton and a Brooklyn boy. Exactly no one could have predicted that these two disparate childhoods in humble circumstances on opposite coasts would breed two of the most innovative men in the music industry — Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Iovine — and that their eventual partnership would prove to be a game-changer, setting off ripples that still emanate through contemporary culture and in recent years, technology.

HBO’s four-part documentary series “The Defiant Ones,” directed and executive produced by Allen Hughes, uses rare and never before seen footage and chronicles each man’s rise to the top of the industry, which happened fairly quickly in both cases.

Iovine was asked to come into New York’s Record Plant recording studio where he worked on an Easter Sunday in the early 1970s to fill in for someone else. The recording artist that day was John Lennon, who took a liking to his budding engineering talents — and he was on his way. Soon, he was recording Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty.

Dr. Dre was a member of the seminal rap group N.W.A., which rose to worldwide prominence in the late 1980s with its explicit, controversial lyrics describing life on the streets of South Central L.A. and the harassment of young black men by police. He then became a hugely successful solo artist before focusing his talents on producing other acts on his own label.

The seeds of what became one of the music business’s most innovative and lucrative partnerships were planted back in 1992, when Iovine’s Interscope Records inked a distribution deal with Dre’s Death Row Records, a merging that indelibly shaped the culture of the 1990s — and onward.

Their $3 billion sale of headphone company Beats Electronics to Apple in 2014 stunned the business world, and officially made Dre the first hip-hop billionaire. “Sneakers? No, speakers,” Dre recalls being told when first broached about becoming part of the company — one of the documentary’s funnier moments.

It would be difficult to argue the fact that these two men have collaborated with some of the greatest artists of our time in building their empires. Many seminal figures are interviewed in the series, including Springsteen, Nicks, Petty, U2’s Bono, David Geffen, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Ice Cube, will.i.am, Nas, Gwen Stefani and Trent Reznor.

For Hughes, making the documentary was a life-changing experience. 1999’s “American Pimp” is the only other doc on his resume, which famously includes the 1993 film that launched his career, “Menace II Society,” directed with his twin brother Albert.

We caught up with Hughes by phone as he was making his way to Dre’s Los Angeles-area studio to preview a new Eminem track. He said both men wanted him to hear it. After that, he was scheduled to do a Q&A following a screening of the first episode of “The Defiant Ones” at LACMA.

Here is an edited version of our conversation:

TVWeek: What was the genesis of the project?

Allen Hughes: We started talking about it in 2011, with Dre, when I was doing a video of “I Need a Doctor” with Eminem. Dre asked me if I thought it’d be interesting enough to be a life story. I said, “Yes, you’ve lived the life of ten men.” But then HBO told me Jimmy was making a documentary about Dre. Oh my god, a lightbulb went off. That was a better idea.

TVWeek: You met both of these men before they met each other. Based upon your long history, what do you see as the primary qualities that make them so successful?

Hughes: They are not envious of each other’s gifts. A great thing that they have in common is they solely operate from what they’re creating. They don’t have a rearview mirror and they’re not nostalgic. They are always moving forward, and constantly making each other laugh.

TVWeek: With both of them saying they don’t like to look back, and that’s what most of this is about, what were your greatest challenges in making the piece?

Hughes: Dre is not good with times or dates. Jimmy is good with dates. You do have to do a forensic search of their history, and sit down with others and piece it together. I would edit and show them things so they could fill in the blanks. For instance, Jimmy didn’t give me anything of his relationship with Stevie Nicks, but when I showed him her interview he said, “I better get involved in this.” Tom [Petty] didn’t know about their relationship, and Jimmy didn’t want Tom to know, in case he thought he’d lost his focus on their record. Jimmy would rather focus on work than personal life, so that was always a challenge.

Meanwhile, Dre wanted to deal with his personal life. He had spent so much time at the mixing board that he didn’t have time to put it into context.

TVWeek: How would you describe your overall experience in working with them on this?

Hughes: It was the most brutal boot camp, like going to Harvard to study psychology, business, the arts — and how to work through pain. I’ve come out of it — it was agony and ecstasy all at once, all the time, a roller coaster. I can’t wait for my new life to start. I learned literally hundreds of life lessons from this. I got schooled on this one. They were just being who they were and I just picked it up.

TVWeek: There are so many insightful interviews with the likes of Ice Cube, Eminem, Bruce and Patti Smith, to name a few. How did they shape your perceptions and did their personalities sometimes overshadow the main subjects?

Hughes: Tupac was the one who overshadowed everything, and it took a while to balance. I learned a lot from sitting down with the artists. I saw how much love there was for Jimmy and Dre. Eminem, Patti Smith, Springsteen — they don’t sit down with anyone. They were in no rush to go anywhere. They are powerful men and women. What I really learned is Jimmy as a music exec is beloved. It’s not fear, it’s love. It’s the same with Dre. They don’t gain and they don’t operate with fear, they operate with love and collaboration and showing love. That fear shit is fleeting.

TVWeek: Unlike most documentarians, you not only knew but had personal relationships with many of the subjects and people you cover, including Eazy-E, N.W.A., Tupac and Marilyn Manson. What was it like going through the old footage of them?

Hughes: It was like a decanting process of a wine. I didn’t know the complexities and challenges. It brought me to my knees a few times, especially with Eazy-E and Tupac. I had no idea I hadn’t really processed their deaths, for emotional reasons.

I idolized Eazy-E and Tupac was a dear friend. We were peers. I think it was such a crazy time that no one had time to process. It was painful for me to come to terms with the loss and also celebrate them. Marilyn Manson is a whole ‘nother story, a very intense friendship. I had never seen those things, all the clichés that go with being a rock star. Some “Less Than Zero” shit.

Looking through the whole thing about gangsta rap, once when I was editing the credits, it was footage of my brother filming me. It was lost N.W.A. footage shot on Super 8, with a high-end camera Eazy bought us. We were budding filmmakers. To go back and look and to find lost footage was amazing. Eazy died and we didn’t know where it was. I’d never seen it and it was mind-blowing. I’m still dizzy from the whole thing.

(“The Defiant Ones” premieres Sunday, July 9, on HBO at 9 p.m. ET/PT and is scheduled to run on consecutive nights through July 12. In a first for HBO, all four episodes will be available for streaming July 9 on HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate portals and HBO On Demand.)

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