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March 2004
Never Die Alone: An Interview with Ernest Dickerson

By Monikka Stallworth

Never Die Alone: An Interview with Ernest Dickerson

Ernest Dickerson's directorial debut was the box office hit drama, Juice, starring Omar Epps and the late Tupac Shakur. It was followed by the action thriller Surviving the Game starring Ice T; the horror film Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight starring Billy Zane and Jada Pinkett; and Bulletproof, starring Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler. In 2001 Dickerson directed New Line Cinema's Bones, a gothic horror story starring multi-platinum recording artist Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier and Micheal T. Weiss. He recently directed Good Fences, a Showtime original picture starring Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. For many years, Dickerson was one of the youngest members of the American Society of Cinematographers and the only prominent African-American cinematographer in Hollywood. We sat down at the W Hotel in Los Angeles to talk about his most recent film, Never Die Alone.

What, if any, was your purpose for making this Never Die Alone?

ED: One of the things that we wanted to do was demystify the whole gangster mystique. And we're hopefully doing that through the character of Paul (David Arquette). When Paul first meets King David (DMX), he thinks King David's a poor guy, he thinks he's cool, that he has nice jewelry and then, he inherits this gold mine of information, these tapes which are the diary that King David was keeping because he was going to write an autobiography of his life. He was that megalomaniac thinking that somebody would want to write a book about him and he was right. I mean, you'd love to write the autobiography of the Devil, right? And the more Paul finds out about King David, the more he finds out that he got everything that he deserved. And he does. Even though King David's trying to seek redemption, his Karma's been damaged a long time ago. He won't get redemption.

The story unfolds in such a unique way, with flashbacks within flashbacks and several intertwined complex story lines. I wondered how true the finished film is to the original script or was it manipulated in post-production?

ED: Flashbacks within the flashbacks are all parts of the screenplay, those were always there, so getting in and out of those scenes was always determined by the audiotapes. Paul finding the tapes and listening to the tapes was always our means of getting into the past. Also, the story was always the flashback of a dead man. We took the conceit form Sunset Blvd, so it was all included.

Each flashback has a distinct look as well...

ED: What Matty and I did was come up with a visual structure for each of those parts, the modern day stuff in the city is gritty grainy, California is slicker, brighter. Sunnier, finer grained and the flashback within the flashback where we find out what he really did to Mike and Mike's mother, we digitally simulated the look of a bleach bypass, which is a photo chemical process. We went for that high contrast, low saturation feel.

As an accomplished cinematographer, do you ever find yourself so swept up in the way that it's shot that you forget about the actors?

ED: No, I don't do that. The only time that ever happened was with a movie that I did for Showtime called Our America where I shot it and directed it. Wearing two hats was schizophrenic - I'm trying to concentrate on a performance and all the sudden the sun goes behind a cloud and I've got to pull the meter out and make adjustments. But no, once we've decided on the visual approach, once my cinematographer and I know what we're doing and we're into it, then I just let him go and do what he has to do. Then, I can concentrate on everything else. That's the trust that I give them.

DMX is not a trained actor, were there any challenges working with him?

ED: No - DMX was really committed to the character. He came correct to the project. He wanted to be surrounded by actors who would inspire him and raise the bar and give him something to aspire to. He wanted to be challenged. He has an actor's instinct because he didn't have the training to go there, but he did all the things an actor would do. He went into sense memory, he used his own experiences to fuel building the character of King David...people that he might have known growing up and in prison. So he did all the things an actor would do, but he was coming from a more raw place because he didn't have the training, he had to just take himself there.

And Reagan Gomez was brilliant - can you talk about casting the role of Juanita?

ED: In trying to find Juanita, we narrowed it down to three ladies and we had to see who could get the best chemistry with DMX because that is what he was going to be responding to - the chemistry. And we had him and all three ladies going out, hanging out, playing pool because he's a big pool player and Reagan was the one that he developed the best rapport with and I hope that Robert Townsend isn't mad at me for what I did to his little girl.

Yeah, her transition from college girl to strung out junkie reveals quite a range. Did she have to perform the junkie scenes in the auditions or were you certain she could handle that?

ED: All of the ladies that came in for the audition had to do the drug scene and it's interesting how the knowledge of how a heroine addict functions is lost to the general public because everybody was coming at it like a crack addict - real bouncy and hyper; whereas a heroine addict is much lower, it takes you down. So, yeah she had to be educated in that. We had to show her some films and talk to her about it. We didn't get a chance to have her meet any real heroine addicts. We didn't have time to scope them out and do that. She was cast probably about a week before we started shooting.

How worried were you that NDA might receive a backlash from a critical point of view?

ED: You mean for "women as victims"?


ED: Well, going to the book - the women are victims and in our story the women are victims and its not only women. Our movie is full of victims. King David victimized everybody that he came in contact with, so he was an equal opportunity victimizer. And it just so happens that we are privy to the relationships that he had with women that he did victimize.

How do think women will respond to the movie?

ED: Some will probably respond to it very negatively. But that is the reality of a person like King David and unfortunately he victimized some people who were being honest with him. When Juanita tells him that "you're just small time", she was telling him the truth. He just couldn't deal with it. And he did what a small minded person would, he struck back at her by enslaving her to him and when she threatened to go to the police, by killing her, the most horrible way possible. So this is how he treated everybody.

How do you think audiences will respond to the scenes of misogyny?

ED: It was my job to show the misogyny in all of its ugliness because that's what it is. I wasn't going to gloss over it. I wasn't going to clean it up. It's an ugly act created to hurt somebody and I feel that if you're going to show pain in a film, you have to show it - you can't gloss it over, you have to show it for the ugliness that it is. When King David is possibly sodomizing Juanita, we show it in the squalor that it is. We show the dirty dishes in the sink, we even have a green light on their face. We tried to really show it for the ugliness that it is. If anything, so far the audiences have been very shocked by that scene.

This is a highly stylized film, what mood were you trying to evoke, what style were you going after?

ED: Style sometimes comes more out of your limitations then what you have to work with. When I came onboard, I had 18 days to make it with, so in 18 days I gotta have a movie. It actually worked out pretty good though because it allowed me to continue the experimentation that I've been doing recently on some other films, trying to shoot them with available light.The new Kodak Vision film stocks are amazing. They see so deeply into shadows. Some cinematographers consider it a liability because it's such a smooth contrast range. But if it can see that deep into the shadows, why not shoot available light, why not shoot in existing locations with what's there? And that was the plan.

As a Cinematographer yourself, how did you go about selecting your DP, Matthew Libatique (Requiem For A Dream, Gothika, Phone Booth)

ED: I'd known Matty for a while, we were good friends and we were trying to find the right opportunity to work together and he was available. I told him I wanted him to shoot a film like a documentary photographerwho doesn't have time to light anything. Go with what's there, read what's there. Sometimes, lighting a scene was manipulating the blinds, just to get the levels set correctly and he was game for doing it that way. We were going to shoot Super 16 because I wanted to shoot it handheld and I wanted to protect his back because he was going to operate it and 35mm cameras can get pretty heavy when your hand holding them all day. But also, I needed a lighter camera to get into hard to reach places like sitting in the backseat of a car or a passenger seat. So we adopted this style to do that. But we knew we were going to go to a blow up, but we were going to do the blow up digitally. And that's the great thing about the digital intermediate because we could blow it up from Super 16mm and get know image loss. We had the ability to eliminate grain, but grain was part of our structure. I wanted grain. It allowed us to shoot very quickly, very immediately. We wound up going one day over schedule. We shot it in 19 days. It was like jazz. It was like creating a structure and letting the cast and crew improvise within that structure.

So many directors and cinematographers are leery of switching over to digital - where do you stand in this debate?

ED: I still love film, but I know that digital is the future. I mean, we shot on film, we did the color correction digitally, but we still outputted to film. It was an intermediate process. It gave us so much control. It gave us the kind of control that a still photographer only has when he's making a print. You can do the equivalent of dodging and burning in digital. You can find just an area of the frame and just deal with that one area and not affect anything else.

You had option of shooting it digitally - why did you choose film?

ED: Because I wanted the grain. Because I knew we were going to be working at such low levels of light that I just still trusted film to do that.

Is film better in giving you the texture that you want?

ED: For this film it was...but you know, that was for this film. I'm looking forward to shooting something digitally. I think some amazing strides have been made in it. Once Upon A Time in Mexico was a gorgeous film and it was shot just about all digitally. Unfortunately, I think digital is the future and luckily the technology is getting to the point that it will look pretty close to film.

It may be perceived by an audience as low budget, are you hoping that the audience will have an appreciation for the look of NDA, the cinematography?

ED: Well, I don't want them to look at that aspect. I want them to hopefully be absorbed by the story line and the characters and be burned by the story. I don't want them to look at the technique. For me, the technique is just a way of telling the story, but I'm hoping that filmmakers will look at it and realize that they can experiment and do some things differently cinematically and not have to have a large budget.

Thank you.

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