An interview with cinematographer turned director Ernest Dickerson | Bleader

Friday, June 22, 2018

An interview with cinematographer turned director Ernest Dickerson

Posted By on 06.22.18 at 06:00 AM

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click to enlarge Dickerson's directorial debut, Juice (1992), screens at the Music Box Theatre on Sunday.
  • Dickerson's directorial debut, Juice (1992), screens at the Music Box Theatre on Sunday.
This weekend, as part of the Cinepocalypse festival of genre films, Ernest Dickerson will appear at the Music Box Theatre to introduce revival screenings of two movies he directed, the horror comedy Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) on Saturday at 5 PM, and the adolescent crime drama Juice (1992) on Sunday at 2:15 PM. Dickerson has enjoyed a long career in both film and television. He began as a cinematographer in the early 1980s and shot over two dozen films, the most famous being Spike Lee’s first six features (among them She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing). In the same year that he shot Lee’s Malcolm X, Dickerson made his directorial debut with Juice; the film has developed a large fan base over the years, earning its place alongside such beloved modern crime movies as Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Mario van Peebles’s New Jack City. After directing several other features, Dickerson made the transition to TV, where he’s been steadily employed ever since. (Some of his high-profile credits include multiple episodes of The Wire, Dexter, and The Walking Dead.) When I spoke with Dickerson last week, he reflected on the differences between directing movies and television, making the transition from cinematography to directing, and the legacy of his more famous films.

Ben Sachs: What have you been up to lately?

Ernest Dickerson: I'm coming down off of doing a show for CBS Streaming called Strange Angels. A lot of personal stuff has been backed up. You know, when you’re shooting a show, your life basically stops until you finish it.

How long is the commitment for shooting a TV show?

It's usually a month for an episode.

Do you ever get hired to direct multiple episodes in a row?

Yeah, that's actually going to be coming up. I'm going to do two episodes for a new show from Blumhouse TV called The Purge. I'm going to do the last two episodes [in the season], the penultimate and then the season finale. And then in December and January, I'm going to do a show in New York called The Godfather of Harlem, and that will be two episodes back-to-back. For the past few years, I've been doing Bosch, but not back-to-back; it's usually episode eight and episode 10, with episode 10 being the season finale. There's an episode in between, which gives me time to prepare for the last one. Some of these shows have been really interesting. It can be like doing a mini-movie.

How does working in television compare to working in movies?

The schedule is different. Also, you can't get over the fact that [as a director] you always feel you're coming in on somebody else's party. Because it's not the world that you invented. When you're doing a movie, you're inventing the world from scratch, you're putting in the main characters. In television, usually those characters are pretty much all picked out, they've been working for a while already. Unless you're doing a pilot [episode]. Doing a pilot is a lot like doing a feature film, in that you usually have a little more time and money to invent the world of the show.

That’s what I miss. I love inventing those worlds. But I can honestly say that most of the shows that I've done, especially shows for cable and streaming, have been pretty exciting. They're dealing with interesting, different subject matter that can't get done anyplace else.

When you're directing an episode of a show where the characters and style have already been established, how do you find ways to assert your own creativity?

The shows that I've done really do want a filmmaker's perspective. I've been able to go in and approach [the show] the way I would a movie. So that’s the way I look at it—I look at them as mini-movies, and I prepare for them like that. I do my own storyboards and everything else. Television has gotten so much more complex. There are so many shows that are demanding feature quality, but they don't really give you the time to do that. So it's a constant dog race.

But the cable and streaming shows have really been good. I think I noticed that when I started doing The Wire. I had my own individual way of approaching problems, and they told me to just do what I felt I had to do, what I felt was the best way. And that's something that's continued in all the shows I've done for cable and streaming. You don't have that kind of flexibility in network shows, though.

I'd love it if you told me about your experience on The Wire. That show changed how I look at TV.

The Wire was such a great project to be associated with. I had stopped watching television years before, and when I did [watch], I was more attracted to the shows that were coming out of England. It seems like The Wire started copying that format, where you're not telling the entire story within an hour or half-hour, but stretching it out over eight to 12 episodes. That gives you a chance to get more involved with the characters. Now it seems like everybody's doing it that way.

That’s why television is now many times more exciting than movies. One of the first things that gets jettisoned in a film is character development, because movies just want to cut to the chase as soon as possible. But in television, you can stretch things out a little bit more. You can examine the characters' lives, take time for the characters to actually become somebody to care about.

click to enlarge Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
  • Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
You're going to be in Chicago to present Juice and Demon Knight, films you made over 20 years ago. How do you feel about them now?

Juice I'm really proud of, even though it’s still kind of hard for me to look at, because it is my first. I'm surprised that Juice has lasted this long. Some of the issues that we talked about in Juice back in 1992—actually '82, which is when we originally wrote the script—are maybe more relevant today, in terms of how easy it is for people to get guns in our cities. We released a 25th anniversary DVD and BluRay of the film last year, and I was surprised by how well it was received. People consider Juice a classic. I don't look at it that way, but hey, I'm glad that people like it.

I’ve always enjoyed Demon Knight. I love horror films, and I had a lot of fun creating a horror mythology. It was a great cast. I was also happy to do the first film where an African-American woman saves the world. That was a good project to be involved with.

I love the scene in Juice where Tupac Shakur's character watches the James Cagney classic White Heat on TV. It summarizes what I like about the film—it feels connected to classic gangster pictures in the way it presents neighborhood life and examines the machismo of the characters.

White Heat is one of my favorite films. In reality, those kids wouldn't be watching it—they'd probably be watching Scarface, but I don’t know if Scarface would have been on television in '92 in the middle of the day. I wanted to make that reference to White Heat because I always liked that scene where [Cagney] finds out about his mother's death. I grew up in the 50s and the 60s, and a lot of the movies that I've seen were on television. Channel 5 in New York used to show a lot of the Warner Bros. films on Sunday afternoons or late at night, and I absorbed a lot of them.

What were some of your favorites?

Movies like A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, a great old film called Prince of Foxes with Tyrone Power. I also love old noir stories—one of my favorites is Kiss Me Deadly by Robert Aldrich.

You entered into filmmaking as a cinematographer. How did your experiences as a cinematographer prepare you for directing?

I was in an interesting situation, in that a lot of the directors I worked with also acted in front of the camera. My first film as a [director of photography] was The Brother From Another Planet, and John Sayles acted in it as one of the bounty hunters. And Spike [Lee], who had no aspirations to act in film school, wound up playing Mars Blackmon [in She’s Gotta Have It] because the actor who was originally supposed to play the role bowed out at the last minute and he couldn't find anybody else to do it. So, whenever a director has to become an actor in one of his films, the cinematographer usually has to step in as a co-director.

I always liked seeing Spike Lee act in his movies. I miss seeing him onscreen.

I don’t think he ever enjoyed it. It was something that was required of him after he made such an impact as Mars Blackmon. I remember him telling me that part of the deal to get his films made was that he had to play a role [in them]. I think he wanted to get out of that as soon as he could.

click to enlarge School Daze
  • School Daze
Tell me more about your collaboration with Lee. I think the films you made together are one of the strongest bodies of work in American movies.

We were in an enviable position. We were trying things out, learning on the job, and getting paid for it. We admired directors who were always pushing the envelope of how to tell stores, and we were doing that. In School Daze, we got to bring back the aesthetic of old Hollywood musicals, which kind of went against the way most musicals were done at the time. Musicals had been done where you always saw the full figure of the person dancing; it wasn’t broken up into individual cuts. So we tried to bring that back in School Daze.

In Do the Right Thing, I tried to stylize the color of the film to get the audience to feel the heat of the hottest day of summer. The great thing about that movie was they gave me a month to prep for it before we started shooting. So I was able to lay down some rules. One of the things I did was limiting the color palette of the costumes and sets. We stayed away from blue, which is a cooler color. Everything was geared towards earth tones and warmer colors that make you feel the heat. Then I had to create realistic sunlight, and HMI lights, which had become more often used in the industry, I stayed away from those. I used the old-fashioned arcs to create the look of sunlight. That meant that my electrical crew had to be trained in the use of them, because they had been discontinued. But, to me, they gave a closer approximation of what sunlight looked like.

In Mo' Better Blues, we were trying to make a romantic film, sometimes using color-coding for different characters. And then in Malcolm X, I also used color coding to show the different stages of Malcolm's life. We even, at one point, thought about shooting it on 70-millimeter. We went to the recent [70-millimeter] restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, and when Spike and I sat there in the theater, we were just blown away by the close-ups. It was like the faces were right there in front of us. We wanted to get that same effect with Malcolm's face. But we couldn't go that way because of costs. And even if I'd done a great job shooting it in 70-millimeter, if the projection wasn't up to snuff, it would have negated all of it. So we abandoned that project.

Each film presented its own problems about how to tell the story and how to get the audience to feel it. I wanted to get the audience to feel what the characters were feeling. We always experimented with that.

When people think about the films you made with Lee, they usually come around to that famous low-angle shot that appears in most of them, which shows characters walking down the street in such a way that they seem to be gliding.

I knew you were going to bring that up!

I’ve just always wanted to know where it came from.

It was an attempt to do a walking-and-talking shot in the way that you experience it when you're walking and talking. You don't see the fact that your body is going up and down. In your own body, it feels smoother. So we tried to get that in Jungle Fever, but we first started on it in Mo' Better Blues. I wanted to get the effect of Spike's character realizing that gangsters were hanging out in front of his apartment, waiting for him. We wanted the camera to move with him as though he was wearing it, but instead of doing that, we had him sit on the dolly and act like he was actually walking. We wanted to stay away from Steadicam, because Steadicam had its own look and which had become too familiar. So we tried that.

In Demon Knight, you got to execute a lot of complex camera movements. They really add to the fun of that movie.

It was a fun show. The movie all takes place in one night out in the desert, and I had 30 days to shoot it. I couldn’t see myself going to the desert for 30 nights; I think it would have been rough on the crew, and we wouldn’t have had a lot of control. So what we wound up doing was finding a decommissioned airplane hangar, and we shot it all in there. Even the flashbacks set in World War I were shot in this airplane hangar. It was great, because it gave us maximum control.

That sounds a bit like the old Hollywood films you grew up on, where everything was shot on sound stages.


I wasn't thinking that far back. I'm a big fan of Italian horror films, and a lot of Mario Bava's films [from the 60s and 70s] were shot on sound stages as well. Bava was a very interesting filmmaker; he’s one of my heroes. He was also a cinematographer who became a director, and he directed some iconic horror films. When I went to Italy with Spike to shoot second unit on Miracle at St. Anna, our Italian third assistant director was Bava's grandson, Roy Bava. I had a chance to meet him, and we've stayed in contact. It was nice making that connection.

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