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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 15, 2014 at 4:22PM

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.
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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 for.

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.

This article is related to: Ernest Dickerson


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