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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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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.

This article is related to: Ernest Dickerson


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