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Interview: Award-Winning Cinematographer, Writer & Director Ernest Dickerson, Reintroduced

Interview: Award-Winning Cinematographer, Writer & Director Ernest Dickerson, Reintroduced

Editor’s note: As 2014 begins, I’ll be reposting some of our highlight published last year (2013). Those who’ve already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you’d like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here’s a piece I originally published in March 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

The success and signature appeal of Spike Lee’s early films have Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography to thank as much as Spike’s own cinematic flourishes. Dickerson’s eye helped make a Spike Lee joint, a Spike Lee joint.

For the distant observer, theirs seemed like a kind of symbiotic pairing that some of us believed would continue through much of their careers. What some of us didn’t already realize was that directing was in Dickerson’s future all along, supplanting any notions that he was a cinematographer first, and directing was something of a diversion, or a happy accident.

It was neither. He always intended to become a director in his own right. Consider that he’d written the screenplay for Juice, what would become his directorial debut in 1992, some 8 years prior, before he’d begun to cement his reputation as a talented DP, who went on to shoot a number of films that aren’t just black cinema classics, but cinema classics: John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet, Krush Groove, and of course his collaborations with Spike Lee, including the seminal 1989 incendiary drama Do The Right Thing.

It was the same year (1992) that his last director/DP collaboration with Lee (Malcolm X) was released, that Dickerson saw his directorial debut, 8 years in the making (the hip-hop film noir, Juice), also open in theaters – a film that, while not what would qualify as a blockbuster hit, did well enough (relative to budget) and went on to achieve cult appeal.

And it was then that Dickerson’s career as a director was launched.

Following Juice, he’d go on to helm several projects, not necessarily in the same vein as Juice, but a number of them delivering some seemingly deliberate, although not always obvious, social commentary/critique – from Surviving The Game, to Futuresport, to Good Fences, and even horror films like Tales From The Crypt: Demon knight and Bones.

As Dickerson told me during our interview, he’s always been aware of cinema’s power to teach, enlighten, and inspire, all the while still being a source of entertainment – something that was instilled in him while he studied under activist filmmaker (and member of the LA Rebellion movement) Haile Gerima, as an undergrad student at Howard University, before he would go on to NYU’s Tisch School for his MFA, and become part of something of an east coast film movement all of its own.

Almost 30 years, and 14 feature films later, Dickerson resides on the west coast, in Los Angeles, the cinema Mecca of America; although it’s been almost 10 years since he last directed a theatrically-released feature length film – 2004’s Never Die Alone – much to his chagrin. It’s certainly not due to a lack of ideas (he has several), but rather the age-old lack of financing dilemma that challenges many-a-filmmaker’s dream.

Although Dickerson is certainly not deterred.

Directing for TV has provided him with all his employment opportunities over the last decade, helming episodes of countless hit serials like The Wire, CSI: Miami, ER, Dexter, Treme, and, of course, most recently, AMC’s zombie blockbuster, The Walking Dead, as well as the pilot for a new AMC series, Low Winter Sun, bringing Dickerson back to working within his favorite genres: horror, thriller, along with science fiction, and action – all genres that, as he expressed, he’d love to see more black filmmakers explore more often.

But the unassuming Dickerson isn’t exactly one for stump speeches or rallying cries, nor does he crave the spotlight. Ultimately it’s all about the work and family for him. And at 61 years old, with roughly 30 years of industry experience, he’s certainly assured of his abilities, and seems relatively comfortable with his accomplishments, and general station in life.

However, from our conversation, I got the impression that he’s on the verge of a rebirth of sorts, as awareness of and appreciation for his abilities and accomplishments grow (in part due to the success of The Walking Dead, which he directed some of the most memorable episodes of), bringing him even closer to seeing a handful of intriguing completed screenplays realized on film.

It was about a month ago, that I spoke with Ernest Dickerson in a conversation that lasted about an hour, addressing a wide range of topics, from his years as an undergrad under Haile Gerima’s tutelage, to his years working with Spike Lee, his transition to directing, being taken seriously as a director, the age of digital cinema, industry challenges faced, and much more.

A summary of that interview follows on the next page:

TAMBAY OBENSON (TO): Questions that often come up include, why black filmmakers in Hollywood aren’t doing certain kinds of work, or why isn’t Hollywood giving black filmmakers certain kinds of opportunities, and I’m not sure if, for the average person in the audience, there’s a good understanding of how the business itself works. So I want to start out addressing that – in your specific case anyway, since you can’t speak for others. What it’s like for you, Ernest Dickerson, as a filmmaker of color, working within the studio system, in terms of opportunities? Is it all still a struggle, even after 30 years in the business?

ERNEST DICKERSON (ED): Yes, I do have my next couple of projects lined up, yes I do; but honestly television has been paying the bills for the last few years. But I still have some projects that I’m trying to get made that are more on the feature film side. And those are the ones that are harder to get done because it’s all about trying to raise the money to do them. But the perennial struggle of every filmmaker is where to get the cash to do the projects you want to. Now that said, there are a couple of projects – television shows – that I’m going to go back and do again because they’ve asked me back, because I’ve had a good run with them over the last several years. But also there was a TV pilot I did recently that was picked up by AMC, and will go to series, and I reserve the right to do the second episode, so I can help the transition from the pilot look to the series look. And since I did the pilot, I’ll be able to direct several more episodes of the series. So yeah, some things are clear cut, especially the TV stuff. But it’s an ongoing process, and there are others that I’m still trying to find a way to do somehow.

TO: So, the career you have now, is it the kind of career you hoped or thought you would have when you first started in the early-to-mid 80s? Did you have a specific vision for were you wanted to end up, or were you just taking it all one day at a time, one project at a time, as things came?

ED: I started out as a DP, but even before my career as a DP had taken off, Gerard Brown and I had already written the script for Juice. It’s just that, at the time, nobody wanted to see that. So, for me, I was always interested in either cinematography or directing, and I was lucky that the cinematography took off, and later on, about 8 years later, we were able to get Juice made, and that’s what launched my career as a director. So, did I know where I was going to end up? No, I didn’t. I was hoping that I’d be directing more feature films. And I never thought I’d actually end up having more success in TV because, at the start, the kind of TV that was being done back then wasn’t anything that I was crazy about. But TV has grown; it’s gotten much better. It’s become more challenging for audiences. And I’m happy about that, and happy that the TV I’ve done has been good TV, because I’ve been associated with some good shows. So I think I’ve been lucky in that respect. You know, shows like The Wire, Walking Dead and Treme. These are all shows that I’m proud of. But all that said, I’m still trying to get more features made, and it’s just getting harder and harder to do these days.

TO: Ok, I wasn’t sure if maybe you’d mapped it out, because I actually didn’t know that you wanted to be both a DP and a director when you started out. I’ve always thought that you started out as a DP, and then you transitioned to directing. But you’re saying that you always wanted to direct from the start.

ED: Yeah, directing was something I was always interested in; even in film school, I wrote and directed my own stuff, or I photographed other peoples’ projects. Cinematography just happens to be my first love. But when the opportunity to direct came, I jumped at the chance, and have been directing since.

TO: I think I speak for some when I say that we just assumed that it would be Spike and Ernest forever, and [laughter] you guys were kind of a directing/DP dream team you could say, and you two would continue to keep knocking out projects together. But, as you said the opportunity to direct came up, and you took it, and moved on at that point. Although you both did work together again, on some second unit stuff, correct?

ED: Yeah, I directed and shot 2nd unit for Miracle At St. Anna, which he’d called me and asked me to do. It was a trip to Italy, so, you know, it’s not something you say “no” to (laughter). But you know, I love storytelling; I love visual storytelling. And even when I’m not actively shooting, I still get actively involved in the visuals on everything that I do. Because that is my strength as a storyteller, which is telling the story visually, and the filmmakers whom I look up to and admire, were visual storytellers. So for me the transition from cinematography to directing, it was
just a chance for me to get more involved in the filmmaking process,
which is something I was always interested in. Even when I was a shooter
I loved having conversations with the actors that I was working with to
discuss what they were doing and why they made some of the choices they
did. And so when I was finally able to work with actors as a director I
jumped at it. Acting is something that I have a great deal of respect

TO: Yeah, I was wondering if you shoot your own stuff, or
if you assign that to somebody else. I’d imagine that, for that person, it
might be kind of intimidating to be shooting for Ernest Dickerson.

ED: (laughter) I shot something that I directed once. It was a volume for Showtime called
Our America. But I don’t think I’d ever do that again because, there I would be in
the middle of a casting session and the equipment room wants some piece
of equipment, and then I’d have to quickly shift gears and start thinking
about technology. Or I’d be in the middle of directing actors but then
the light changes, and then I’d have to pick up a light meter and then
become a director of photography. So while I won an Emmy for the
photography for that Showtime piece that I also directed, it’s not something that I’d do again because it was just
too much work.

TO: You mentioned filmmakers and visual storytellers whose
work inspires you; I’m wondering who those were for you – not today, but rather as a
young up-and-comer when you were getting started in the 80s, and if
the names have changed over time.

ED: Let’s see, coming up, there was Orson Welles. I think he’s a god. Alfred
Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, and I’ve picked
up some others as I’ve gotten older, like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch.
I think these are filmmakers that are really excellent visual stylists,
and people who continue to inspire me. There’s also Ang
Lee. I love Ang Lee’s films. He even went to NYU. He was there when I
was there. I love Quentin Tarantino’s work. I think he’s an excellent writer. There are others; there are people whom I continuously discover as I work.

TO: You seem to be drawn to certain genres like horror,
thriller, crime, action. Is it fair to say that those are your favorite genres
to work in, or are you interested in working in just about any genre?

ED: I like unusual stories, you know. I’m not the kinda guy to do a romantic
comedy. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve embraced more off-the-wall
genres. And I love when you take a few different genres and mix them
all together. Yeah, I’m mostly drawn to thrillers. My first film,
Juice, was a film noir, even though some may not look at it that way. But
that was my approach to it. Even though it was set in the hip hop
world, it was still a film noir in which the protagonists were these
teenage, young black men. I’ve always liked taking a genre and kind of twisting it
around, or turning it on its head.

TO: People know who you are, but they don’t really know who
you are, if that makes sense. You kind of live a relatively low key,
private life, and you just seem to be all about the work and you’re not interested in drawing any attention
to yourself, or getting caught up in some kind of controversy. Is that by
design, or just the way you are generally and the way it is with you?

Well if people ask for my opinion on something I’ll definitely give it
to them. But do I seek the limelight? No. I like to just do the work and
go home you know. I’ve got a family. I’ve got 5 kids. And I’m pretty
much a homebody. I don’t really go to lots of parties much. My lady and I
love to go out and watch a live jazz show, you know, go to the movies, but I guess I’m a
pretty private guy.

TO: Have you benefited from The Walking Dead’s
success? You directed 7 or 8 episodes of it since it started, and those
were some of the most memorable episodes. And it’s become a worldwide
phenomenon now. Do people instantly know you now, especially within the industry? Is that spilling over into your own career?

ED: Yeah, I guess it’s become easier for people to take me more seriously as a director (laughter). Walking Dead did very well for AMC, and then, because of that, I went on to do the pilot for Low Winter Sun also with AMC. And they greenlit that to series. So that’s good. But, I guess it’s helped my career. It’s just hard to say right now. It’s not like I just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I’ve always been constantly working to find more work, and I’ve always been taking meetings, even before Walking Dead. Like I said, it’s been an ongoing thing. But, there are still a couple of personal projects that I’m still trying to get made, as I said before. So, how much has that helped my career right now? But it took 8 years to get Juice made so, that’s the nature of the business and it’s just gotten harder since then.

TO: Does the fact that you’re a black man influence the choices available to you, or, instead, what you have control over, as in the choices that you make as filmmaker? Are you a filmmaker first, and a black man second? Or a black man first, and a filmmaker second? Or do they just co-exist and you don’t even really think about that?
ED: I think they kind of co-exist. A lot of the time I don’t even think about it, but a lot of the material that I’m trying to do are adaptations of African American or even African-Canadian material. Definitely black material. There are a couple of black science fiction writers whose works I’m trying to bring to the screen. So a lot of the stuff that I’m looking at is definitely black oriented. Some of the stuff that I’m writing is definitely black oriented. Some of it isn’t race-specific. So there’s a range.
TO: Because there’s an ongoing conversation that comes up often about this so-called “burden of representation.” There are some black folks in the business who embrace that and say that they are representative of an under-represented group of people, and are very specific about what they do. And there are those who say they do what they do for themselves and their families, and aren’t representative of an entire race of people.

ED: I’d say that I do represent, but it’s not something that I carry with me every single day. For example, I’m getting ready to head down to Howard University to do a week-long seminar, because I want to give back. Howard is my undergrad Alma mater, and they asked me to come down for a week, and I’m really, really glad to do that. Because I’m hoping that my experience will help other young black filmmakers. So, all that said, I’d like to do all kinds of projects. I’m not going to take a project just because it’s a black project. If the material is something that really moves and touches me, and it’s something I feel that I can really do something with, then yeah I’m definitely going to go for it.

TO: Going back to the 1980s, on the west coast there was the La Rebellion movement already happening, with Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and others. I don’t think I ever heard or read of whether or not you guys were ever aware of each other (the east coast and the west coast), and if there was ever any interest in a meeting of the minds, or even just an awareness that what was going on, on and from both coasts, and if there were any collaborations or even thoughts of collaborations, since the LA Rebellion ran into the mid-to-late 80s or so, and we could maybe even say that you guys on the east were part of your own kind of rebellion.

ED: Well, I knew Haile from Howard. When I was a Howard undergrad, I took a class with Haile, even though I wasn’t a film major, I was interested in film. So, yes, I knew about the movement. By the time I got into film, Haile was already an established professor at Howard university. And a lot of what I first learned about film, I got from Haile. The first cinematography class I took was taught by a gentleman named Roland Mitchell, who was also teaching at Howard. So, I knew of Haile’s work. I saw Bush Mama and Harvest: 3,000 Years, and some of his other earlier films. But I can’t say that we, on the east coast, had a definite movement, because there weren’t that many of us at NYU. We were just trying to figure out how to get our films made, and I don’t think there were enough of us to have a movement [laughter].
TO: I’m thinking of Charles Burnett for example, and Killer Of Sheep. Even though it was made in the late 1970s, it didn’t really get distribution and the kind of release it deserved until later. So I’m wondering if say you and Spike, for example, saw it back in the early 80s at NYU, and were excited or inspired by it, since, at that time, you guys were just kind of getting started.
ED: Yeah, Killer of Sheep is an excellent film. Yeah, we knew of Charles Burnett’s work. But he did that film before we even got into the graduate film program at NYU. The same thing with many of Haile’s early films. My first studies in film were under Haile Gerima. He’s been one of my mentors.

TO: I ask that question partly because, for filmmakers from my generation and younger, there’s been this suggestion I’ve heard repeatedly that we don’t have an awareness of the filmmakers that came before us, an awareness and appreciation for film history, and a respect for those past filmmakers and films…

ED: This is true. I find a lot of many young filmmakers today don’t really know very much film history. Let alone African American film history. But a film that really made me want to make movies was Larry Clark’s Passing Through. It was just such a beautiful film. But knowing people and learning under people like Haile and Roland Mitchell really helped make we want to go into film anyway.  So for me, they were very inspirational. I think I learned what films should be. That it’s not just entertainment, and you’re definitely making a statement. And there are a lot of different ways of doing that. I learned to take the craft of filmmaking very seriously by listening to and watching the films of the more experienced filmmakers, because we do have some responsibility because the image is very powerful.
TO: Are you a film purist, or have you given in and embraced the so-called digital revolution that we’re living through?

ED: Uhh… Well, it is the future. I can’t deny that. I wish we could do both. I’d like to be able to shoot film and digital but… the great thing about digital is that it has made film more accessible to more people. And I think it’s really been a boon for the independent market. But the main problem with digital is that it’s not archival. 
TO: What do you mean by that exactly?

ED: It doesn’t last. Right now, digital will fade. It won’t last as long as film. The only way to prevent any kind of digital material from fading away is to keep migrating it, to keep moving it to another medium. So the initial cost you save upfront, you’re likely going to have to pay that cost later on, when you have to keep migrating it from one form to another. It’s not archival. I think that’s the main challenge in the digital world right now, is trying to make digital material last. There’s digital material that we shot during 9/11 that’s already gone. I read that some of the original digital files for Toy Story 2 are gone. Most digital material that’s shot today, probably won’t be here 20 years from now. Unless maybe if it’s put on film.

TO: Interesting. I’m not sure if that’s something that’s widely-known. I think folks are just caught up in the “revolution” and aren’t thinking that far ahead, since the process has become so much more accessible to everyone, and anyone with a camera thinks they’re a filmmaker nowadays so…

ED: Film lasts longer than digital. That’s one of the problems that we’re confronting at the ASC (American Society Of Cinematographers_. We have meetings on this stuff all the time. I guess it’s something that a lot of people don’t know about. But digital does not last. Everyone with a camera thinks that they can shoot a film, but what happens in 20 years when it fades away. I think the best way to preserve digital is to transfer it to film. 
TO: So then why is there this big push to digital, if there’s this big elephant in the room that’s not being addressed?

ED: It’s obviously not something that’s talked about a lot. But at the ASC meetings, we talk about it all the time. That’s one of the things that the digital manufacturers have to really confront – how to make digital material last longer. Because it’s not archival.

TO: We’re starting to run out of time, so I’m going to try and breeze through the next several questions. Do you have a favorite camera, digital or film, that you prefer to shoot with?
ED: Lately, in digital, I’ve been shooting the Alexa – the Arri Alexa, I love it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful camera. 
TO: Can you speak to the union situation when it comes to black crews and the hurdles they face?

ED: Well, it’s gotten a lot better. There are a lot more black people in the DGA. Black grips and black electricians. On Walking Dead, there are several black key staff, lots of black PAs, there’s a black assistant director on Dexter. I think it’s just finding the work. It’s a freelance business, and the problem is always finding work. And, it’s your job to make sure that the producers know about you. You’ve got to be seen, show up for interviews, for jobs. But there’s a lot more black folks on crews than there ever were.
TO: Challenges you face in directing feature films vs directing TV?
ED: Well, in a TV show you’ve got to try to get a story into an hour or half an hour. The TV shows today are more serial in form, so they’re not trying to tell an entire story in an hour, which I think is great. It allows for more character development in TV. With feature films, you’re trying to get all that in early on. In TV you have to be more concise in telling a story because you have a shorter amount of time. 
TO: And speaking of challenges, what about your most challenging project, or projects, to date.
ED: Well, they’re all challenging in their own way. But most recently, I’d say that The Walking Dead is a challenging show to shoot. Because it’s very complex and we actually consider them like mini-movies. They’re like hour-long movies. And they always seem to give me the hardest episodes to do, so. The ones that I do are very involved, with physical effects, visual effects, makeup effects, trying to stage action. I try to stage great action sequences, but action takes time, so it’s always about trying to get the best results within a limited amount of time. Also the pilot I just did – Low Winter Sun – that was challenging, partly because we shot it in Detroit, which has its own character, and which is, in a way, its own character in the project. It’s a really dark police story involving murder, deception, betrayal, all that fun stuff that makes for great dark drama. Shooting a pilot is like shooting a movie because you’re making it up, you’re creating the look of it, the feel or it, the mood of the series, you know. But most shows are going to be challenging, I think. The most challenging shows are usually the most fulfilling I think. Those are the ones that, after you did them, and you feel like you did a good job, you can sit back and take a nice deep breath and feel good about it.

TO: Will you ever work with Spike again?

ED: It’s possible, if he asks me. If he has something that intrigues me. I’d definitely consider it, if he asks me.

TO: As for upcoming projects, there’s something on your IMDBPro page titled Oneverse. Can you tell us anything about that? Is that something that’s still coming, or is it in limbo?

ED: It never really happened. It was a love story that took place in a parallel universe but it just fell apart. You see, the problem is, how do we get to tell original stories. I try not to get into doing the sequel thing, or remakes of TV shows, or remakes of other movies that worked the first time. Getting original material made is very hard nowadays.

TO: You hinted at projects you’re sitting on that you’ve been wanting to make, but can’t get them off the ground because of financing. Can you share anything about what those projects are, or are they all a secret until you get the funds you need?

ED: Yeah, there’s a project that I’m trying to get made that I’m attached to. It’s an adaptation of an Octavia Butler novel called Clay’s Ark. We have a really good script of it, but, at the moment we’re trying to get funding for it, which is always the struggle. Also I’ve written a screenplay which is an adaptation of an African Canadian author, Minister Faust, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that too.

TO: Can you repeat his name again, because I’m not familiar?

ED: Minister Faust… he’s from Edmonton, Canada. He’s a really really good writer. He’s an excellent writer actually, and he’s written a couple of really good science fiction novels. And one of them we’re trying to figure out how to get made. And also, my fiancee and I have written a horror film that we’re trying to figure out how to get that made as well. So, like I said, it’s an ongoing process. It’s not like we don’t have the projects ready to do. It always comes down to money. But, we’re plugging away, and, we figure one of them is definitely going happen. It’s just a matter of which one.

TO: You have directors like Soderbergh and Tarantino talking about retiring in 10 years or so; do you see yourself retiring at all, or will you work until you can’t work anymore?

ED: No I pretty much figure that I’m probably going to die on set. I don’t want to retire. I want to keep working for as long as possible. Retire and do what? I just can’t see it. No, I figure I’ll probably die in the director’s chair. One day I’ll say cut, and suddenly just fall out of my chair and die or something.

TO: With the few seconds we have left, any last words?

ED: Well, I just would like to see black cinema take more chances and become more diversified in terms of subject matter. I’ve always felt that our cinema should be as rich as our literature. And that’s why I embrace science fiction because there’s so very little black science fiction on film. I want to see black filmmakers take more outside the box chances, which I’m glad that I’ve seen some of our younger black filmmakers doing. I want to see us tackle genres other than romantic comedies, or straight comedies. Look to our literature for source material if you need some. There’s plenty there to reach for.

TO: Do you know why that’s not happening more? Is it a case of… I think it was Ice Cube who said that, in Hollywood, the path of least resistance if you’re black, is comedy.

ED: You know, that might be it. I really don’t have an answer for that. I just believe that as filmmakers (no matter what color you are) you should be constantly toying with new material, you should always be in search of new material, new ways to tell stories. I’m always looking for different stories, reading novels, even scanning magazines and newspaper for off the beaten path stories that would make a good movie. I spend a lot of time looking for stuff. I just don’t want young black filmmakers thinking that the best way to start a career is to make an easy movie, that maybe doesn’t take chances, or embrace new ways of telling stories. I’d like to see filmmakers take more chances and more risks, especially when you’re just starting out. There was a film years ago made by a young brother, titled Chameleon Street, but we never heard from him again. Those are the kinds of movies I’d love to see a lot more of.

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