Sometimes, when you’re documenting history, you still have to make your own moments.
“When the camera’s rolling and when I yell cut, I made sure my team knew, ‘Don’t ever cut until the subject is off the set,'” Hughes said.
Some of the most satisfying moments in the new HBO docuseries, “The Defiant Ones” — an expansive, four-part history of the last four decades of popular music, premiering Sunday night on HBO — are candid ones. Interview subjects occasionally tinker away on a keyboard or wander around a living room. Stevie Nicks plunks out a tune on a baby grand. Eminem strolls right onto set and starts dishing. As Hughes described in a recent interview with IndieWire, those moments were part of the plan from the beginning.
“There’s always a veneer,” Hughes said. “People are being guarded about their image. From early on, I said, ‘Start the cameras rolling before they even get mic’d up, so they’re not even sitting in their chair.’ It was trying to find the real person between the lines.”
Hughes explains that most of these assorted interviews with legendary music acts — including Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Trent Reznor and Tom Petty — happened before the centerpiece chats with the series’ twin subjects: Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Saving the two big gets for last was specifically by design, based on what Hughes already knew of their personalities.
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“The thing that Jimmy and Dre have in common is that they don’t have a rearview mirror. So they don’t ever look back and reflect back on shit that’s hard for them. So to get them to do it, you’re not going to get it from them. You have to go find out, put it together yourself, and then bring it to them,” Hughes said.
Another way the “The Defiant Ones” fills in Dr. Dre and Iovine’s histories is through a treasure trove of in-studio gems, footage of music history happening that few people knew even existed. For the series’ chapter on the rise of N.W.A., one particular discovery was the fulfillment of a decades-long mythology that Hughes grew up with. The late Steven Yano, long a keeper of West Coast hip hop history at Compton’s Roadium Swap Meet, had never-before-seen footage of rapper Eazy-E recording his first solo album.
“I thought that was the most precious footage, to see Eazy-E in the studio. We heard stories coming up: I remember when I was 16, we heard that Eazy was being punched on every line and no one believed it, because he was so incredible. To see that footage of Dre taking him through line by line is just ridiculous, man. And it’s extraordinary because Eazy is such a rock star,” Hughes said.
Hughes knows that when you’re a documentarian and your main subjects are Dre and Iovine, you become a rock star yourself. But he also knows that a singer without a band is just a guy in front of a mic.
“Let’s start with Doug Pray, my partner on this and fellow executive producer, co-writer and editor. Our creative brother in this endeavor, who also co-wrote and edited, young gentleman by the name of Lasse Jarvi. These guys are off the charts brilliant, as far as their technique,” Hughes said. “It was like a rock band. We had a great drummer. I was the solo on vocals and Doug was on electric guitar. We’re all three music lovers and we’ve all done docs in that medium before, but never has the technique that was applied here been done before.”
G L Askew II/HBO
The product of that central trio is a documentary series that occasionally remixes interviews the same way that Dr. Dre and Iovine have done so many times in the booth themselves. When they talk about times when they would slow a recording down, pan a track from the left ear to the right, or crank up the volume at key moments, Hughes follows their lead by doing the same with the interviews themselves.
Hughes is no stranger to filmmaking, having previously directed films in three different decades with his brother Albert and helming 2015’s “Broken City.” But getting all of these individuals to open up about their experiences was a process that he admits was intimidating.
Despite having a record deal with Iovine’s Interscope, Hughes explained that being in the room with the executive for their first interview was a nerve-wracking experience. After a while, Hughes realized that keeping interviewer and subject on equal footing would lead to less tension on both sides of the camera.
“People interview these people and they have a clipboard with questions and a pen and pencil in their hand and that’s very threatening. And I didn’t know that. It feels like you have weapons. All these questions and the artist is left sitting naked. They don’t have a pen and a pad in their hand or a recorder. I like to talk and have a conversation. So once I started dropping that clipboard, that’s when the magic started happening,” Hughes said.
Getting artists like Diddy, Snoop Dogg, and Patti Smith to talk candidly about their experiences with Dre and Iovine meant having a full and complete understanding of what the public already knew. Hughes likened that preparation process to a fishing trip.
“I’m a fisherman. We go out in the Sea of Cortez and we’re looking for a 50-pound, 75-pound tuna. We’re good, man. Those are the questions. We want to get that 50 or 75 pound tuna and we’re focused on that. And we prepared for that. When we’re on the boat, we hooked into a 375-pound. Are you, for a second, gonna fish for the 75-pound tuna? You have to have the presence of mind and not be so dogmatic. Some people get really rigid, as far as their questions: ‘This has to be answered.’ It’s like, fuck that 75-pound tuna. We got a 350-pound tuna on the line and this bitch is getting to the boat. Once it gets here, somebody get the goddamn bat and hit in the head very quick. Cause I haven’t heard this one before,” Hughes said.
Of all the famous musicians and industry pros that Hughes interviewed, one trend seemed to emerge: Everyone had a Jimmy Iovine impression at the ready.
“will.i.am gets the fucking trophy for the best Jimmy impression. My God, he’s almost like a method actor,” Hughes said.
The fact that everyone had their own individual interpretation only validated one of the series’ best soundbites.
“Bono’s description of him in Part 2: ‘Jimmy’s like a virus — he happens to you, he enters your system uninvited, works all the major organs, works his way up to your brain.’ That quote is Jimmy. A virus that’s good for you. He’s a probiotic,” Hughes said.
“The Defiant Ones” premieres Sunday, July 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO. All four parts will be made available to stream at that time via HBO NOW, HBO Go, and HBO On Demand. It will also air nightly between July 9 – 12.