Nonfictionfilm.com Exclusive: Morgan Neville Talks "Unconventional" 'Shangri-La' Docuseries on Rick Rubin: "The Subject Dictates the Storytelling"
Four-part series about acclaimed music producer debuts Friday on Showtime
Probably my favorite music of the last 25 years is the American Recordings series from Johnny Cash, especially American IV: The Man Comes Around. The spare songs seem to rumble from the grave - disturbing in their elemental power.
Rick Rubin produced those recordings. A measure of his extraordinary impact on contemporary music is that he's known for a great deal more than the late Cash recordings. He produced Grammy Album of the Year-winning work for Adele (21) and the Dixie Chicks (Taking the Long Way), as well as career-defining music for the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Shakira, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Justin Timberlake, the Avett Brothers, and many top heavy metal bands. Oh, and he also co-founded Def Jam Records.
Rebuilding the set from Krush Groove was like, how weird is that to do?
Oscar winner Morgan Neville's new Showtime docuseries Shangri-La takes a distinctive approach to capturing Rubin's particular genius. Instead of a straight biographical depiction, it's an effort to give the feel of working with and being in the presence of the Yoda-like producer at Rubin's studio in Malibu, known as Shangri-La.
"A lot of the [challenge] really was figuring out how to tell the most unconventional story," Morgan told Nonfictionfilm.com exclusively at the LA premiere of Shangri-La Tuesday night at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. "Rick, in the beginning, didn't even really want to be in the series, before we started making it. It was like [he said], 'Well, do something about the studio,' and I was like, 'I'm interested in you. The studio's a reflection of you. So if you'll do it then we can make a show about the creative process.' One of the things we agreed about in the beginning was if somebody can come away from the show and know what it feels like to be produced by Rick Rubin, then that's success."
The series, which debuts Friday on Showtime, is directed by Neville and Jeff Malmberg, and executive-produced by, among others, Neville, Malmberg and Rubin.
"I think one of Rick's favorite spaces is where you don't know what's real and what's not and you don't know what's possible and not possible. He loves that arena," Neville notes. "So having a subject that gives you that kind of license to be that creative, to jump off a cliff, like okay, that's how we're going to make it. We're going to jump off a cliff."
Shangri-La, far from trafficking in standard "talking head" and archival sequences, creates a unique tone with surreal imagery and dramatizations. Neville was not content, for instance, to grab a few clips of the 1985 birth of hip hop film Krush Groove, that featured a young Rubin essentially playing himself. He recreated part of the movie.
"Rebuilding the set from Krush Groove was like, how weird is that to do?" Neville tells me. "One of things I was happiest with is the idea of interviewing his [college] roommate [Adam Dubin] in the middle of a reenactment. I've never seen that before. That was really like a fun way of doing something."
"Allow a different consciousness to enter," Rubin intones at one point in the series. It's one of the Zen or Jedi Knight kind of utterances he's prone to make, which might sound like satirical incantations were they not backed up by his unparalleled results. Neville went with it, as he crafted his docuseries.
"One of my big things is that the subject dictates the storytelling. So a film about Fred Rogers (Won't You Be My Neighbor?) is very slow and deep and deliberate; a film about Orson Welles (They'll Love Me When I'm Dead) is very fast and meta and a film about Rick Rubin is a mixture of Eastern philosophy and pro wrestling," he observes. "The more I do this [making documentaries] the more I enjoy those layers of meta, because in a way I think what meta is about is revealing process and when you reveal process you're actually revealing the deeper truth of what storytelling is about, in a way."
Tyler, the Creator, Lil Yachty, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, Chuck D and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig are among the many Rubin admirers and collaborators who appear in the series.
"The filmmaking in general was so bold, so clever, so creative and I think it's so perfectly matched to that enigmatic spirit of Rick," Vinnie Malhotra, executive vice president of nonfiction programming at Showtime, told me. "To have Morgan create something that kind of aesthetically and editorially matches this aura that's very hard to capture about Rick Rubin was really exciting."
There's a sense of holy ground. I don't know if it's the energy collected in the space or if it's just people's belief. It doesn't really matter.
Malhotra cites another reason for backing the series.
"If you ever have an opportunity to get remotely close to Rick Rubin, like seize that moment because it's very rare," he comments. "Morgan Neville and that team and Jeff Malmberg, I think they did an amazing job of gaining his trust and getting deeper and deeper into his world."
Rubin seems to have an intuitive sense of how to get artists to see new possibilities within their own musical ideas.
"As opposed to telling you what you should do, like 'do this, try that,' it's kind of like the whole less is more," singer-songwriter Daniel Caesar comments in episode 1 of the series.
Malhotra says he found himself inspired by what he saw.
"You get to kind of get a glimpse at what makes Rick so magical in that space and why he's been so successful," he observes. "And then for me personally every time I would watch it I'd feel like I'd learn so much about myself or about the creative process and about what we do."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.