‘Defiant Ones’ Director Allen Hughes On The Most Painful, Rewarding Documentary He’s Ever Made

Getty Image / Uproxx

The Defiant Ones, Allen Hughes’ masterful documentary profiling music impresarios Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine of Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records, respectively, hits Blu-ray today after initially airing on HBO in July of this year. Filmed over a three-year period, the four-part series detailed each of the icons’ rise from humble beginnings to household names, including never-before-seen studio session footage of legends like Eazy-E and interviews with both Iovine and Dre, as well as collaborators and businesses partners such as Bono, David Geffen, Eminem, Ice Cube, Gwen Stefani, Jon Landau, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, and Bruce Springsteen.

With The Defiant Ones coming to home media, I spoke with director Allen Hughes — famed for such classic films as Menace II Society and Dead Presidents — about the stories that weren’t told in the nearly five-hour documentary, from having Dr. Dre’s apology to Dee Barnes filmed already when an internet furor broke out after the success of NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, to the reactions from the film’s subjects to seeing the finished product on television, as well as the 1958 film Hughes took inspiration from for his film’s title. Hughes turned out to be forthcoming, magnanimous, and sagacious in addition to being unexpectedly funny in this follow-up to Uproxx’s July interview before the series aired.

While the focus of our conversation remained on The Defiant Ones and its upcoming DVD release, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions about other movies Hughes has worked on with his brother Albert, including which of his projects is his favorite, and what he has planned next. While he isn’t quite sure of what’s to come, he says he’s always seeking out new filmmaking challenges. Hopefully, his future work is just as brilliant as his work on The Defiant Ones, but as he tells me, the work is only as good as the support system, time, and resources available to the auteur.

The Defiant Ones aired July 9th through July 12th. So what was the overall reception amongst the folks featured in the documentary? Have any of them give you feedback?

Oh yeah. I’ve heard from so many people who have… Yeah, that’s an interesting process. But, you know it’s interesting [that] some of them saw it before it came out. I’ve definitely heard from a lot of people. Everyone was blown away. They were blown away by the approach and catching the detail, you know? The fact that most times you’re doing interviews you go, “What happened to my part?” Or “What happened to that line?” They felt like the essence of what they were saying was… everyone was just, I think, blindsided by the approach and appreciated that their personality or spirit came through. That was a surprise… I mean including someone like Dee Barnes. It was just really overjoyed by the approach and the way that was handled. I was moved by that especially.

Speaking of Dee Barnes, as I understand it you had originally filmed the apology sequence about three and a half years before the release, and then the Michel’le did her thing on Lifetime.

No, no. What first happened was the Gawker piece came out by Dee Barnes around Straight Outta Compton.

Oh, yeah. How was that? Can you describe that situation for me? Knowing that you had this in the back pocket, and then all this furor comes out and you’re just trying to deal with it? How does that go?

That was painful to see that Dre had apologized because we had his apology in the can for many years — a couple years at that point, before Dee Barnes [and] the Gawker piece came out, and it was just painful because, you know, you’re doing a documentary. These things take time and you can’t just come out and say, “Hey! We got this apology you know, I’m sorry for your pain.”

So it was painful as a filmmaker. It was painful to see Dre go through that, and ultimately, it paid off in the end because we were able to invite her into the narrative in a meaningful way that maybe we wouldn’t have before. We wouldn’t have had the time. If you didn’t have the time you would have just, you wouldn’t have dealt with it in such a meaningful way. In the end of the day, it really worked for all of us I think, you know?

That’s deep. Was there anything that didn’t work for you guys? Was there anything that you still felt like you wanted to get in? You wish you had five episodes instead of four? Or anything that you felt got left out or left on the cutting room floor or that you were disappointed in?

No, not really. I mean there was always little stories you wish you could’ve had in there, but in particular when you get into the Death Row era, there’s a gazillion stories that you wish you could’ve had in there, and I think Death Row alone could be four or five parts, you know.

But I started learning a lot about, this captured the spirit of something. You don’t have to be, every story doesn’t warrant being all long-winded, you know.

Did you get to talk to everybody that you wanted to talk to? Was there anybody that you felt were close to Jimmy or close to Dre who might have a good story and you just didn’t have the time? You just didn’t have the schedule, or it just didn’t work out?

Not that I could think of, I mean, not that I could think of. There wasn’t a fish that got away. I never felt that way. I felt that there were times where I wish… I mean, obviously, like Jimmy starring with John Lennon. That would’ve been cool to have something from Lennon. Even archival, you know.

Eazy-E, who was a dear friend of mine… There were times I wish he could speak. I remember my brother and certain people bringing up another guy who was really friendly with Marilyn Manson. Do I think he should have been interviewed? It’s interesting because Marilyn Manson was such a powerful presence in the movie, that was the one time I was like, ‘Ah. I don’t know if we need to hear from him, because we’re seeing him. We’re experiencing him.’

So given that you are able to do this Blu-ray release, is it gonna be a bigger thing? Is there gonna be a bigger picture that you can add on for, or is it just gonna be straight from what you guys had already cut? Given that fact that you have the ability to maybe do special features or add-on, or do some commentary.

We purposely released it on Blu-ray, the picture. The full part promotion picture because the thing I realized, especially in this go-round, is that people who have seen it twice, three times, five times, they see … I knew this when I was making it. You see a different movie every time because it’s so dense, the narrative. The technique that we employed is so original in many ways that it leaves your head spinning. You can’t process all these stories in one sitting. It’s very difficult. So I purposely set out to go, ‘All right, let’s release the original motion picture in four parts, on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, so people can really absorb this thing.’

Yeah. There are a lot of things that you can cover in a commentary because maybe a journalist like myself wouldn’t really think to ask a question, or there’s maybe an angle that you see that maybe nobody else sees because you’re so close to it.

I studied it too. What people are seeing and what they’re processing. It’s very interesting with this thing. So, down the line, it takes a lot of effort to get those… we had, like, thirty additional scenes. We have so many additional scenes, but that’s gonna take some time, if ever. Because I’m pretty precious about things like that. I don’t really believe in the whole director’s commentary thing anymore because it used to mean something twenty-five years ago. I’d rather do an interview like this than do commentary, you know?

Were there any parts that were difficult for you because they were so personal?

The whole thing was very painful. There were obviously exciting and creative moments throughout, but the fact that I knew both guys intimately and I was trying to push them further to open up, that was a challenging process. I think the most painful stuff came from the Tupac and Eazy-E stuff, guys I knew really well, and probably never processing their deaths and having to deal with their lives in the documentary.

Also, the approach in general, just the technique of it, just trying to push that medium, the narrative of it, technically, artistically, that was really painful to try to not make it a typical run-of-the-mill documentary. So you’re in there every day trying to push the medium, and I probably was, probably the most painful filmmaking experience of my life, yeah.

That’s tough, man. I was gonna ask you about that archival footage though. How did that come about, because there was… because we’re so far removed from that time period, that it almost feels like all of that information is already out there, but then you come up with sequences with Eazy-E in the studio with Dr. Dre, punching in his vocals. How do you come across that sort of stuff? How do you determine what to incorporate?

The narrative dictates what you need. There are times when you go, ‘Man, it would be great to see Eazy doing this right now,’ and there are times you don’t want to see it. As you’re editing it, you see that. The one, the biggest factor that weighed into what was to go into the film, was time. The more time we had, the more archival would reveal itself.

We had our researcher, our research team that was out looking for stuff, but in particular, you mention that Eazy-E stuff, and early NWA stuff. No one knew that existed before three years ago. That was sitting in someone’s garage, that was very close to the guys. Steve Yano, who used to run the Roadium Swap Meet, used to sell Dre’s mixed tapes, down at the Roadium Swap Meet.

I remember that.

So, Steve Yano had that footage and it was incredible footage, but they just started shooting Straight Outta Compton, and they didn’t even know about… I found out about this footage and it was amazing.

So the more time you have, we came to HBO, we were like a year and a half into the process, and had the big CO ask me what he can do for me, and I said, ‘I need time and resource. I need more time and I need resources.’ When I had more time, the archival was just getting insane, as far as the things we were discovering. It’s like investigative journalism, the more time you have to do a story, the richer it’s gonna be.

Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Over the course of creating this, did it take you in any unexpected directions as you were building the narrative? Because there are times when it feels like the project or the product gets away from you, and it just starts telling its own story. What do you do at that time? Do you try to get it back on track and just tell the story you want to tell, or do you just let it expand and grow in its own way?

You always have to let it expand and grow in its own way, because the minute you try to wrestle it back to what you want it to be, that’s the minute, the moment you’re gonna be fucked, because it doesn’t work. Everything about this, the basic story beats we had written out before we started. So the narrative of their background and their childhoods, and this, that, and the other, and how they came up in the modern day, was written out.

The things you don’t expect, like the way the opening of the movie, the prologue with the Apple deal going bad, because of the Tyrese Crip Walk and all that shit, you know? That thing happened right when we were shooting. There are a few things that happened like that along the way, even in just an interview when someone said something unexpected. So you’ve gotta be open to unexpected things happening, because they make your narrative much richer than what you had in your head. That happened all the time on this thing.

Once the Blu-ray is out and all is said and done, do you have any plans for anything that you’re gonna be doing going forward? Do you know what your next story is? Do you know what your next project is?

I’ve just now, after this thing, one of the first times in a long time, probably the first time I’m completely satisfied with the results. So I’m taking inventory and going, ‘How does that happen? Why does that happen?’ And I think, ‘It was the right project. You were in bed with the right people, good people, and the company got it, the company really got it.’ HBO, they supported my vision. So what I look at it right now, is that anything I do from now on, what’s the idea? Are the people good? Do the people understand how to support the vision? Is the company on board and that’s what I’m on a rock with. I’ve got a few ideas right now, and a couple of them are HBO, so already know that that’s cool.

I’m in a rush to feel creative again, but I’m not in any rush to be… I don’t wanna make the mistakes I made in my twenties and thirties. I don’t want to do that now. After putting my all into this and this thing really landing and working out, and people being so moved by it, you think, ‘I just want to replicate that feeling,’ you can’t replicate that project though. People have been approaching me, some big names, wanting their own version of Defiant Ones, and I’m like, ‘That’s impossible. That’s not gonna happen again.’

There’s this half-hour talk show on HBO, I’m working on with a special personality. Now, I’ve never done anything like that before, shooting this concert of this big name rock guy, there’s a biopic. All these are things I’ve never done before, and mediums I’ve never worked before, such as the Defiant Ones. I’m more interested in that, than anything. What mediums haven’t I worked in before, where I feel I can bring something to it, and there’s a strong pull in the narrative and the personality and that’s where I’m with. So right now, that stuff’s gonna take shape, but I’m in no rush to fuck up.

So is Defiant Ones is your favorite project, how does it rank in the listing of your projects? Are we putting Defiant Ones at number one, and then Menace II Society at number two?

I only put Menace at number one, because I’m still here because of that film. 25 years, I’m still eating off of that film, and so is my brother, so I put that number one, not because of my satisfaction with the project, ’cause that, it would slide down to two. Defiant Ones is definitely number one, it would be number one if it wasn’t for Menace. I don’t look at it, and I don’t say to myself, ‘Damn, I wish I coulda, I wish I coulda, I wish I coulda.’ I left it all out there on the field. It really worked out. People can really feel it and you can hear the voice. It is very strong, the voice, and what it’s saying.

The Defiant Ones is available today on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes.