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Director Series: Ernest Dickerson

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By Mark London Williams
Director Ernest Dickerson, ASC has always known how to stretch a budget, from his early work as cinematographer on both the student films and feature films of Spike Lee, to his tenure with indie film mavens like John Sayles, and on to his own directing work, such as the $3 million Juice, costarring the late Tupac Shakur. Dickerson has also worked on features for HBO, TNT and Showtime, and recently re-emerged in the local cineplex with Never Die Alone.
Based on the novel by cult crime fave Donald Goines who met an end similar to the fate of most of his literary characters, Never Die Alone is a last-will-and-testament, played out on the streets following the death of minor crime lord King David, played by rapper DMX.
Working again with a compressed schedule and a not very princely budget, Dickerson has fashioned a moody, resonant tale of both the streets and those who romanticize them. As befits his photographer roots, Dickerson met his recent production challenges by pondering the role that light—specifically available light—would play in his production choices.
He began a recent talk with Below the Line by discussing how he set out to work with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC and how they planned to turn the film’s production limitations into stylistic plusses.

Dickerson: I’ve always been interested in seeing what could be done with available light. So, the first thought I had was, okay, how about trying to shoot a lot of night scenes with available light, with mixed color temperatures from different lighting sources? That was my first impression when I was told we had 18 days to shoot it in.
BTL: So you’re saving all the set-up time on the practical side.
Dickerson: I wanted to be spending time shooting, as opposed to lighting. I wanted my cinematographer to photograph the film, not light it. What I mean by that is, in my experience as a still photographer, when you’re shooting in available light situations, you find ways of letting the background help, letting existing light sources help you. You can come up with something very graphic that way. So I wanted to not have to depend upon lighting the image with our lights, and work with the production designer to incorporate practicals whenever possible. I threw out the idea of balancing the light sources and the subject, and I wanted to go for a rougher, cruder, more graphic style. I felt that would be the way we could really get it done in 18 days.
BTL: How early in the process did your collaboration with Matthew Libatique come?
Dickerson: When I had to find a cinematographer, Matty was the first person I thought about. We had been friends for a couple years, and had been trying to find something to do together, but he was always running off with Darren Aronofsky. It was tough nailing him down. Luckily, he was available, and luckily he was up for the challenge. I figured he would be.
BTL: By using available light as a choice for this film, did it make it harder to make Los Angeles stand in for New York? Did it limit your ability to mask Los Angeles at all?
Dickerson: Actually, in the script it’s New York, but being from the New York area, I just didn’t think we could make it New York. I actually took all references to New York out. Right now it’s an unidentified North American city—it could be Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland. When I showed the film to people, they actually thought we did go to New York! We shot all this stuff in downtown Los Angeles—it was all night-time stuff anyway. In our location scouting we first looked for places that had street lamps that used sodium vapors, and also places that had shops that had fluorescents in them. One of the things we ultimately had to do in order to meet the 18-day schedule was to eliminate as many company moves as possible. So it wound up narrowing down the areas that we found into one area of several blocks where we could just put the equipment in a van or a flatbed and move a block. And I’d already made the decision to shoot the film hand-held for the nervous energy that it gives, and also the ease of just picking up the camera and just going with it, not having to lay dolly tracks down. Style sometimes comes out of your limitations as much as what you can do. But the crew was game. Christiaan Wagener, my production designer was game. In a lot of ways, it’s more fun to work this way because you don’t have money to solve the problems. You have to think your way through a problem and come up with interesting design solutions.
BTL: What are some of the more interesting ones that the money issue forced?
Dickerson: The Blue Room Bar—we had to find a place downtown. We looked at several different places. Christiaan found a bar that was getting ready to undergo renovations. What we worked out with this bar is that our production design would renovate it for them, and they would cut us a break, let us shoot in there whenever we wanted to. That really helped us out a great deal.
BTL: Clint Eastwood talked about that recently in Below the Line—locations that were brought up to code as a sort of practical set, this sort of bartering that goes on.
Dickerson: It’s an interesting way of working. For our purposes, it really helped us out a lot. The whole confrontation where King David gets stabbed takes place in an alleyway. We found this great location, it was perfect, but there was no alleyway across the street from it. And I needed to have the stabbing and attack take place, but not out in the open. So I came up with the idea of scaffolding. There was a restaurant across the street that was ready to undergo construction—I think it was shut down at the time, so the windows were already boarded up. So for us to take over that side of the street and put up scaffolding worked out pretty well.
BTL: Did you edit concurrently; were you cutting while you shot?
Dickerson: My editor, Steven Lovejoy—we’ve worked together for so long, that while I’m shooting, he’s doing an assembly. And I always work with storyboards—I do my own. Maybe that’s the benefit of having had an education in architecture.
BTL: Your blueprint.
Dickerson: It gives me a chance to get the film in my head but also work out shot juxtapositions. I storyboard very loosely.
BTL: Where in the process are storyboards? Do you like to have them roughed out before you have your first meeting with the department heads?
Dickerson: Usually it’s ongoing. Usually by that time I have a pretty good idea of what I want the film to look like. And when the department heads come on—the first two people I work with are the cinematographer and the production designer. I always have references to look at. I’ve usually worked it out in my head, the direction I want to go. I’ll usually come to them with other movies, or books of photography, or books of graphic design, or even paintings, that have the direction I want to go in.
BTL: What were some of the visual aids, cues, that you brought in?
Dickerson: Photographically, I first showed Matty a book by Miguel Rio Branco, a South American still photographer—he did a lot of stuff in Brazil, and his use of color is very saturated. For me, it’s a search for the images, for clarifying in my head what I want. It was also still photography by the cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His use of color is pretty extraordinary. I’ve always tried to use color expressionistically, and not realistically.
BTL: How do you bring in the rest of the crew?
Dickerson: One of the things I always try to do, with all my crews, is to make sure there are no walls between departments. I want my production designer and my cinematographer to be talking. I want my production designer and my costume designer [Marie France] to be talking. I want the costume designer and the cinematographer to be talking. I want everybody talking to each other. I don’t believe in putting up walls. I think the best thing I can do is be a hub and pull everybody in. We can’t be working separately and get a good result. So whenever the conversation with my production designer got into color, I would always make sure the costume designer was there. And vice versa. And I always made sure they ran it past Matty. I didn’t want everything running off, especially since we were going for a more saturated palette in the film anyway. So it’s a constant dialogue with all the departments.

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