How Shane Daly captured hip-hop’s legends behind the camera on ‘The Defiant Ones’

People rarely start out on top. Before Jimmy Iovine was basically printing money as CEO of the hit-making Interscope Records, he was a 19-year-old college dropout. Before Dr. Dre made a hit out of claiming the world forgot about him, he was DJ’ing in silk doctor smocks that could pass as pajamas. Likewise, Shane Daly was making music video special effects by shaking spray painted cards before he was in charge of making those music titans looking good as the cinematographer of HBO’s documentary event The Defiant Ones.

HBO’s The Defiant Ones is a five-part, in-depth look into the upbringings that made Iovine and Dre the men they are, and the music history that resulted when their paths crossed. It was Daly’s job to make sure the interviews in The Defiant Ones looked good, even if it meant exhaustively holding a camera still for two-and-a-half hours. He captured Bono talking about U2 breaking Iovine’s spirit during the making of Rattle and Hum, and P. Diddy getting uncharacteristically reticent when he recalled the sorrow Dr. Dre associate, and Death Row Records label head, Suge Knight caused him during their feud in the 1990’s.

Daly spoke with Digital Trends about his favorite moments from The Defiant Ones, Iovine and Dre selling Beats to Apple, and a few tips on do-it-yourself hacks he used in lieu of expensive equipment. He also gave a little insight about what it’s like to hang out with David Lynch.

Digital Trends: For those who might not be aware of what a Director of Photography is, could you explain that role in a film like The Defiant Ones?

“Back in the days it was hard, because you still had to make something look good, but you had no money.”

Shane Daly: There are two main roles of director of photography; I prefer cinematographer. Effectively, what we do is take it from the page to the screen. So, we have our feet in the technical world and the artistic world. From pre-production through to post-production, we work with the director, the other heads of departments, the product designer, [and] the costume designers. We interpret the script and the visual aspect of the story, understand technically how we can deliver that interpretation, and then enable it. We find the best way to tell the story. Is it handheld? Is it steady cam? What camera format? What lenses?

Then, moving through to production, [and] actually shooting it. Ideally, we follow it through to post-production while it’s being edited. When it is finished being edited, we have some input how it looks. So really, [a cinematographer is] the wingman for the director.

The Defiant Ones presented history in a different way than a film like Straight Outta ComptonThe Defiant Ones was centered on archival footage and staged interviews were central to the film. How did you decide on that look and style for The Defiant Ones and how did you decide on the narrative?

I have credit to Allen Hughes, man. I’m a 1970’s baby, and I was alive to see a lot of the artists in the 80s. I remember going to the cinema to see Menace II Society with my crew and there was another crew in the cinema that we didn’t get along with. I remember seeing Menace II Society and having a gang fight in the cinema. Now, 25 years later, I’m on the set with Allen who directed Menace. Hip-Hop is in my heart and my soul. I have Hip Hop tattoos all over me. Allen is one of the world’s best directors. He’s a Hip Hop icon and legend who lived it. He knows these people personally. He knows [Dr.] Dre from way back. He shot Tupac’s music video for Brenda’s Got A Baby. He’s part of the history.

G L Askew II/courtesy of HBO

So, I can’t take too much credit for that. Because of Allen’s history as a motion picture director, I tried to bring a cinematic feel to what I was doing. So, I always tried to light it for drama. I’d look at the room, I’d look at who they were talking to and then try to add a little bit of flavor to that. I met Nas. What I tried to do was make Nas look as good as he could, because he was a hero of mine.

The lighting and camera choices made certain scenes really resonate. During the scene where P. Diddy is discussing his former rival Suge Knight’s negative impact on Hip Hop, he paused and you could almost visibly see him holding himself back from saying something. Were you behind that specific interview and what do you remember from it that we didn’t get to see on camera?

That was one of the first interviews I lit, actually. It was kind of crazy. I’m from London. I grew up with Hip Hop in London and then I moved to the west coast. I’m all about Los Angeles. I live in L.A. When I met Puffy I was a bit like “what the fuck?” [Laughs]. He’s a crazy cat, I’m telling you.

Allen would ask him some stuff, and particularly when it moved to Biggie, Tupac, Suge, and that whole story, he definitely clammed up. He didn’t want to talk about that. My personal feeling is he knew a lot more than he wanted to say and he definitely knew when to stop. The way interviews kind of worked was we had a 4K camera set up, which was like the wide shot. Then, I would be on the second camera with the zoom. Allen was dope enough that he trusted me. Once we started doing interviews, I would be listening to the questions, listening to the answers, and when shit got real and I became aware stuff was about to get a little bit serious, I would naturally feel how to frame the shot. It was a little bit of a ballet. A little bit of a dance.

HBO has promoted The Defiant Ones as a documentary event but I’ve heard rumors there could be more installments of it with different subjects. Do you know anything about that?

No. Speaking honestly, I haven’t heard about that right now. When I was first involved in it, it was smaller than it turned out to be. I think it was going to be one hour-and-a-half documentary specifically about Dre and Jimmy starting Beats and selling Beats to Apple. [Editor’s note: Representatives for the movie claim this is a misstatement.] During the process, it just grew and grew into a more expansive documentary about the strength and will of artists. So, the backbone of it is Dre and Jimmy. But, they touched so many lives. Jimmy worked with so many people, and obviously Dre is a living legend. So, I think you can easily do a second season, open it up, and talk more generally about artists that struggled and competed. You could do The Defiant Ones in cinema. I’d love to see another season. As a fan, I would watch it.

You have been working in film for more than 20 years, so you know what it was like before the convenience of certain technologies like 4K cameras. What were some of the do-it-yourself tactics and hacks you used when you were just starting out and didn’t have all of the fancy equipment? 

Oh yeah. When I first started out we didn’t have any money to do anything. So, a music video would have a $500 budget and you’d have to come up something to make it look good. Now, it’s sort of easier. Back in the days it was hard, because you still had to make something look good, but you had no money. So we’d do tricks like if you had a big piece of card then you spray silver so it looks like a mirror. Then you film the band in the mirror board and you wobble the board, it looks like you sent hundreds of thousands of dollars on special effect and the whole image looks like a heat shimmer. But, it’s as simple as a [production assistant] standing there wobbling a bit of silver card and recording into it.

The Defiant Ones cinematographer
Shane Daly
Shane Daly

Stuff like that is how I started before I was ever allowed to have a film camera. Then that whole transition of going from film to digital was a bit pithy to start with. Now we’re living the dream. People starting out now won’t struggle the same way I struggled. The quality is already there. But, I think people need to slow down a little bit and stay in their lane. Everybody who suddenly wants to be a director thinks they’ll be sent to Hollywood. I’m 45 now. I’ve been in the camera department for 29 years. I now can say I am a good cameraman. It takes time to learn your shit. It’s the same with Hip Hop. If you got a new contender that comes out and says he’s the king, he’s the man, some of the old school kings are going to come out and slap you down. They’re going to let you know it takes time.

Do you have any other interviews from The Defiant Ones that stuck out to you for things we didn’t see on the TV?

I had two moments, really. One was meeting Nas. Nas has got some heavy, heavy charisma. He comes into the room and you know what he’s about. You know where he comes from. You know his history. He’s just a humble man. I ended up exhausted at the end of the interview, because the interview had last two hours, maybe two-and-a-half hours, and I was in focus the whole time. I’m also half Irish, my dad’s from Dublin, so when we were interviewing Bono I had this really cool moment with Bono. We got to talking a little bit and it turns out my dad is from the same village in Dublin where U2 grew up. They probably went to school at the same time.

You are not only working with Hip Hop legends, but also film legends. You are also the cinematographer for A Fall From Grace, the upcoming film from David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer Lynch. It’s been in the works for a few years.

“You could do The Defiant Ones in cinema. I’d love to see another season.”

I’m hoping it gets green lit pretty soon. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. I’m very proud to be working with them. It’s a dream come true. I’ve been a fan of the Lynch’s ever since I was involved in cinema, or knew about cinema. Now, pinch me, this white boy from London is suddenly in Hollywood and I’m working with them, they’re friends of mine, and we’re going to barbecues together. Peter Deming, who is David’s cinematographer, he shot one of [The Defiant Ones] interviews, because he knows Allen as well.

Hold up, I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan, so I have to ask. What is David Lynch like at a barbecue?

[Laughs] David’s a lot more private. You don’t see him at barbecues and those sort of parties. I mean, you can go on YouTube and see Lynch cooking quinoa. It’s not an act. What David is, is exactly who he is. He doesn’t put it on for the cameras. He dresses in the suits all the time. He talks like that all the time. He always has a cigarette in his hand. It’s kind of incredible. To me, he’s a living legend. He’s a modern American master of cinema. In my mind, he’s equal to Kubrick. He’s equal to Ridley Scott. He’s equal to James Cameron. He’s that level of cinema.

[Editor’s Note: Some quotes were altered at the request of The Defiant Ones producers.]