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

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 15, 2014 4:22 PM
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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.

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  • karen marie mason | January 16, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    Yes I agree Amin. Outstanding.

  • Amin | January 15, 2014 4:29 PMReply

    I love his filmmaking. Outstanding

  • Temi Olutunmbi | March 7, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    Great interview, very interesting responses from an exceptional talent in the film industry. Like others I hope he can achieve more recognition as well as funding for Octavia Butler adaptation.

  • Jason Gilmore | March 6, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    Great interview Tambay! Ernest's work as a DP & director is exceptional and it's great to hear him assess his career & process.

  • Teofilo Colon Jr | March 6, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    Ernest Dickerson's warning about the digital format not lasting very long (relatively speaking) is something I wish more people would consider.

    Teofilo Colon Jr.
    Being Garifuna

  • Joe Doughrity | March 6, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Thank you sooooo much for this great piece Tambay! An amazing, revealing chat with one of my idols. Your work is appreciated and I look forward to more work by Ernest Dickerson in film and TV.

  • Julius | March 6, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Chameleon Street!!!

  • Dankwa Brooks | March 5, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    Another great interview Mr. Obenson! Excellent as matter of fact!

    Mr. Dickerson kicks realities on what if really means to be a known filmmaker and still trying to get films made. He also echoes what I feel that black filmmakers should propagate diverse images through ALL genres. Just make it good!

  • Donella | March 5, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    Dickerson pretty much defined the 90s. Juice is very much overlooked. Anyone who can handle the blaze off Tupac's fire knows what he's doing.

  • urbanauteur | March 5, 2013 12:49 PMReply


  • Arch | March 5, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    I really was looking forward to read this since you teased it last month or so ... thanks.

  • Sergio | March 5, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    Terrific interview!

  • Micah | March 5, 2013 4:11 AMReply

    Did anyone else notice the episodes that Michonne gets the best treatment in the Walking Dead are the episodes he directed? Just saying. This man has an enviable career. I hope that he gets the recognition and platform he deserves. He's definitely a hero of mine.

  • gate | March 4, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    Ernest is the man. Period.

  • lamontpierre | March 4, 2013 10:45 PMReply

    insightful and educational interview. much appreciation for his thoughts on us filmmakers diversifying and widening our approach to telling stories and crafting good cinema that is timeless. very interesting thoughts about digital as well.

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