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Exclusive: Ernest Dickerson Shopping Adaptation Of Octavia Butler's 'Clay's Ark' (Script Is Done)

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 23, 2013 2:19 PM
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Ernest Dickerson

It's been almost 7 years since Hugo and Nebula award winner, Octavia Butler, died from a stroke at just 58 years old (she died February 24th2006). And just about every discussion we've had on this site about black authors whose novels are begging to be adapted to film, Ms Butler's name is frequently at the top of many of your lists.

It is quite baffling that one of the most celebrated sci-fi authors of our time (and not just black authors - of all sci-fi authors), has yet to see a single one of her novels adapted to film, given how adaptation-happy Hollywood is, especially in recent years.

There certainly have been a number of attempts by producers who are fans of her work, but, in each case that we've been aware of, the lack of financing has always been an impossible hurdle to get over.

I recall an interview in which she stated that her debut novel, Kindred, had been optioned several times, but, unfortunately, the producers in each instance, were unable to raise the necessary funds to go into production. I think Kindred is probably her most accessible, most commercial work. And if that novel can't attract financing, then, none of her more challenging, esoteric titles will.

But, director Ernest Dickerson is hoping his Octavia Butler project won't go the way previous Butler film adapation projects have.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Dickerson yesterday afternoon; it was a lengthy conversation (about an hour), and I'll be posting the full interview in about a week, but I thought I'd tease a little bit of it, with this revelation that I'm sure many of you will be excited by.

Clay's Ark

In our conversation, when I asked him to share details on any feature film projects he's anxious to make, Dickerson replied, stating that, amongst other projects (which I'll share in the full interview later), he's been shopping around an adaptation of Octavia Butler's 1984 novel Clay's Ark.

He said the script is done, and he feels it's a pretty good one; but, of course, attracting funding for it is a challenge - one that he hopes he can overcome sooner than later.

Clay's Ark is part of Butler's Patternmaster series of novels, which also includes Wild Seed, Mind Of My Mind, and Patternmaster - a series that detail a secret history continuing from Ancient Egypt to the far future, involving telepathic mind control, and an extraterrestrial plague.

Clay's Ark specifically is described as follows:

In a violent near-future, Asa Elias Doyle and her companions encounter an alien life form so heinous and destructive, they exile themselves in the desert so as not to contaminate other humans. To resist the compulsion to infect others is mental agony, but to succumb is to relinquish humanity and free will. Desperate, they kidnap a doctor and his two daughters as they cross the wasteland--and endanger the world.

It's just one of a handful of sci-fi and horror projects that Dickerson has ready to go, but just needs to get financial backing, whether in Hollywood or outside of studio gates.

And, as I said to him during our conversation, I hope that the success of The Walking Dead, which he's directed several episodes of - some of the most memorable episodes - will help boost his bankability somewhat. He did say the success of that series has certainly had an impact on his immediate career, as he's taking more meetings, and there's apparently more of an awareness of him as a more than capable director, even though he's been at this for some 30 years, starting out as a DP before transitioning to director (although, as he told me, he always wanted to direct, and it wasn't a case of him choosing to be a DP first, with plans to direct later; but more on that when I post the full interview).

As we've already reported, AMC tapped him to helm the pilot episode of its upcoming new series Low Winter Sun, which he says is quite a dark crime drama, with the option to direct more episodes.

So, let's see were all this leads for Mr Dickerson, and if it, in any way, positively influences the making of Clay's Ark down the road. 

But really, someone give this man the money to get this project off the ground, please. Calling Tyler Perry? Oprah? Bob Johnson? Will Smith? Denzel Washington? A collective effort? Who knows, maybe the money is waiting for him in Nigeria.

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  • Said in Los Angeles | January 30, 2013 12:46 AMReply

    I'd fund it, I love the genre, I love Ms. Butlers work. Send me his reps info...Thank you...

  • Pixel Prose Media | March 14, 2013 12:03 AM

    Said In Los Angeles:

    Please send an email to She is Mr. Dickerson's representative and will be able to speak with you. Assuming that your offer is a serious one.

    Thank You.

  • Micah | January 25, 2013 1:36 AMReply

    It will no doubt be an uphill battle but one worth fighting. Godspeed Ernest. My question is how much a major motion picture adaptation would deviate from the books. Since adaptations can vary so much in spirit and faithfulness, for the good or the detriment of the film, I am very curious. I'm sure we've all since movies we in which we barely recognize the source material except for the name. Like I said sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 24, 2013 10:59 PMReply

    May the odds be ever in his favor.

  • That Dude that portrayed John Allen Muhammad in Blue Caprice | January 24, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Tambay, please connect me with Ernest. I may have a source in South Africa...

  • Pixel Prose Media | March 14, 2013 12:04 AM

    That Dude:

    Please send an email to She is Mr. Dickerson's representative and will be able to speak with you. Assuming that your offer is a serious one.

    Thank You.

  • Mark II | January 24, 2013 2:36 PMReply

    This is great news! I HoPE he gets this film made!

  • mawon | January 23, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    I hate to be the negative Nancy here, but did y'all read her novels? The writing is just-- well-- bad. And the stories are nonsensical. I'm sorry, I'm not jumping up and down for any Butler adaptation. Especially not pointless, cliched Kindred.

  • whomever | January 28, 2013 12:48 PM

    you read all the novels and you think they are bad? why did you continue after the first? her writing is what made me read them all...

  • Donella | January 27, 2013 3:22 PM

    I'm told Kindred's in negotiation for a graphic novel adaptation, which might mean the next step before movie adaptation. I'm with you on the protagonist's willingness to manipulate her ancestor into rape in order to preserve her own existence. I think that's why the protagonist had to lose her arm, karmic payback.

  • mawon | January 25, 2013 12:21 AM

    Toni Morrison is my favorite author. Admittedly, I only read Kindred and Fledging from Butler, and I was highly disappointed by both of those books especially since the whole world seems to be conspiring to overrate this lady. Everyone keeps telling me to check out Wildseed, but I think I'm done with her. Her writing is frustrating. Like how in Kindred the protagonist keeps referencing all these books she's read about slavery. It sounded so juvenile. Like a junior high textbook. And she's unbelievably calm throughout the whole ordeal. Don't get me started on her cosigning the lifelong rape. And then the complete absurdity of the whole situation to begin with. She never explains the time travel or the connection to that relative out of all her ancestors.

    And Hunger Games, nah buddy. Each book is lazier than the next, writing wise. Story and structure gets an A+, but writing style? Collins is the epitome of telling instead of showing. For example, "Prim is sweet," "Prim is soo kind," "Prim is loved by everybody." Do we ever get examples of how Prim is sweet? Any memories of the two of them together? Any other description of her aside from synonyms of "nice"? I do love the world she builds. I just think she should've spent longer than a year writing. It reads like a draft. Like she was rushing to get it out there.

  • Charles Judson | January 24, 2013 9:51 PM

    I think her Hugo and Nebula awards and MacArthur Genius Grant would disagree that the writing is bad. As allegory and myth filtered through a sci-fi lens, and as a comment on everything from gender politics and race to questioning what does community mean, she's hands down one of the best sci-fi writers of the 20th century. That doesn't mean she's for everyone. She's the sci-fi version of Toni Morrison. If you didn't dig it, totally understand that.

    And Hunger Games isn't poorly written. It has some loose plotting and some minor issues, but it's a pretty good read with some well thought out world construction. Same with the second book. The third book Mockingjay on the other hand is definitely poorly written. Flat character arcs, dull nothing happens plotting, and an awful ending that's built on a series of deus ex machina shenanigans that make the slog that is the middle 200 pages totally unworth the effort.

  • Michelle Mitchell | January 24, 2013 11:31 AM

    Octavia Butler's writing is bad?! Is that what you said?! You must be smoking crack!

  • mawon | January 23, 2013 11:41 PM

    But truth be told, Hunger Games was written pretty poorly too. And of course Twilight. So maybe Butler does deserve to be adapted. But her stories, man. They're so simplistic.

  • Nadia | January 23, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    While I'm glad to see folks ready to pull out their wallets and purses to fund this, we should realize that this won't be some $100,000 production. We don't know how much the budget is but it's probably in the millions. Probably not Hollywood big budget millions but this is will demand 7 figures at least. Are there enough of us willing to donate to make it up?

  • BluTopaz | January 23, 2013 5:32 PM

    ITA with you. This is not a web series project; isn't that much crowd funding in the world to finance a film like this. Someone like Jada Pinkett might get involved and bring in big $$$.

  • Veronique | January 23, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    This film should be crowd funded.

  • Andrea Robinson | January 23, 2013 7:32 PM

    isn't indeed = is indeed.

  • Andrea Robinson | January 23, 2013 7:31 PM

    And if nothing more, it will help show major studios that there isn't indeed high demand for such a film.

  • Andrea Robinson | January 23, 2013 7:28 PM

    I'm not sure I'd be so quick to dismiss the possibility. With an experienced fundraising team in place, there's the potential for matching any dollars raised with actual investor-backed funds. The idea that a grassroots effort can't help bring a project like this to fruition is self-defeating -- especially when that's likely the ONLY way we'll see a sci-fi movie adapted from a black woman's script and with a black director at the helm. It'd be great to see Black Hollywood and Hollywood-at-large take notice, but by no means should that be the game-stopper.

  • Donella | January 23, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    Octavia Butler is the FIRST SCIENCE FICTION WRITER ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. She is a freaking genius! I can't wait for the whole world to finally know, understand, realize, and acknowledge that. Best wishes to Ernest Dickerson to seeing this project to completion.

  • Donella | January 24, 2013 11:30 AM

    I believe it would validate Ernest Dickerson as a tastemaker, but only for those who didn't know.

  • Troy | January 23, 2013 4:04 PM

    Would that validate you as a tastemaker?

  • Temi Olutunmbi | January 23, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    This is very exciting news, I'm a huge fan of Mr. Dickerson's work. While I've only read one of Butler's book Dawn, I was blown away. I really hope this type of dense and expansive world can be brought to cinematic life. This would be the shit! plain and simple.

  • blah, blah | January 23, 2013 2:29 PMReply

    Screw all those people you named as potential funders. Put that request up on crowdfunding. I know I, and all the quirky black girls, who grew up on Butler, would fund this movie in a matter of days.

  • Erin Leigh | January 23, 2013 4:11 PM

    I would definitely contribute what I could do make this a reality. Her books would make amazing movies (not to mention possible tv series).

    Aaaahhh, I hope this happens - so exciting!

  • jeni | January 23, 2013 3:32 PM

    Crowdfunding would seem to be the way to go. The synopsis makes it sound like it could be a game-changing film.

  • Donella | January 23, 2013 3:03 PM

    I'm with you on the crowdfunding. Not only will the quirky Black girls dig deep for this, but the hardcore sci-fi fans will as well. It's amazing that it's taken so long to get a script to this point, but even more amazing that it's happened. Still, since there is an African-Egyptian connection to the story, I believe both Nigeria and the Middle East would make possible financial sources to explore. Don't leave $ on the table.

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