Ernest Dickerson graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC, and later met filmmaker Spike Lee while both of them were attending New York University’s Film School. Dickerson did excellent work as a cinematographer on many of Spike Lee’s early movies. Juice was Dickerson’s first foray into directing, ironically on a project that had sat on a shelf for a decade with no interest from any studios.
He went on to direct Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) and Bulletproof (1996). Dickerson has also done work on some of the all-time best television shows including Heroes, Weeds, The Wire, Burn Notice, The Vampire Diaries, Dexter, Treme, Revolution, The Walking Dead, Bosch and The Deuce.
With Juice recently re-issued as a 25th-anniversary edition for the very first time on Blu-ray, Dickerson took some time to field a few questions around its re-release. What follows is 15 minutes primarily centered around Juice, with a bit of advance insight into HBO’s much anticipated new series The Deuce.
Can you talk to me about the early 1990s, and where you were at as an aspiring film-maker?
Ernest Dickerson: 1990s? I was working as a director of photography. I shot my first film as a cinematographer in 1984. So by 1990, I had already done a couple of interesting films with Spike Lee. We’d already done She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. And when I got the chance to do Juice, I was just coming off of Jungle Fever which was about 1990. So, you know, I was working. Working as a Director of Photography and trying to do my best job doing that.
Did you have any inclining as to the actors you wanted for Juice? A lot of them were first timers in this movie. I’m curious to know if you had people in mind for the film, and if those people panned out or not?
Dickerson: Well, what happened was this. Even from when we wrote the script, I think this was back in 1981, and we couldn’t get any traction on it. Nobody wanted to buy it. Nobody thought that our story was interesting. So it wound up sitting on the shelf for a long time. And then finally when I was contacted by my co-writer, who was getting a new agent. She wanted to see work that he had done previously, and one of the things that he showed her was Juice. And she right away asked “Why is this just sitting here? Why aren’t you doing anything with this?.” And he told her that we were shot down continuously on it and that we had tried to get it made years before. So she took it and put it out there and the next thing we knew there were several production companies that wanted to buy it.
It sounded like an interesting idea at first because we could see the script and make some money. But I always wanted it for me to be the director of this show. And I always knew that it had to be a raw film. It had to be shot on the streets of Harlem with unknowns. So I started getting notes from the production company that the script was too dark. That they thought that we should make it more of a comedy. That it should be something like a coming of age comedy in the streets of Harlem. And that we should use kids from television – some more well-known kids from television. So, you know, they wanted to totally homogenize it. They wanted to cut the gonads off of our script. My co-writer and I didn’t like that idea. It was turning into something we definitely didn’t want our names on. So we took the script back from that company. We said “thanks but no thanks.” And then I was contacted by a young man named David Heyman who was looking to produce his first film and had come across my script. He called me up and asked me if we could meet and talk – and we did.
He asked me how I saw the film and I said that it’s got to be raw. It’s got to be real. It’s got to be shot on the streets of Harlem. It’s not a studio film. I said that there are no actors that we know of who can play these roles, and we’ve got to go after unknowns – totally unknowns. And he liked what I told him. And so he got funding for the film. The film was funded independently by Island Pictures at first, and ultimately, later on, it was a negative pickup deal with Paramount, which became the releasing company. But it was always going to be an independent film and it was always going to be raw and real. And we were always going to use unknown actors in those roles. So when I hired my casting director, Jaki Brown-Karman, that’s the first thing she did. She went to neighbourhood theater groups and church theater groups, she went to high schools of the performing arts, and she auditioned hundreds of young kids and started narrowing it down.
You know, we saw some incredible talent there. What I had to do was find the four guys that together you would feel first of all that they had been friends since childhood. But also, the four guys had to be so completely together that they comprised a fifth character which was the group mind. So you know, we narrowed it down and I got the guys that I got. Tupac came in totally by accident. He came in with Tretch (Anthony ‘Treach’ Criss) from Naughty By Nature. Tretch came in to audition and did a pretty good job. Tupac was just hanging out. And I was getting desperate because I wasn’t finding the right Bishop. And I said to Tupac “what about you, man? You want to audition?”. He said “Why not?” And he did. And he just knocked it out of the park.
Do you remember who you cast first?
Dickerson: Well, what I did was – I had it down to eight guys. And I would mix and match. Because we really spent weeks on the casting process. I think the first person I was sure of was Khalil Kain as Raheem because he just had that natural leadership quality. And I felt for the guy to be the leader of the crew, that he would be ideal for it. It helped that when he made the film he was actually 26 years old. He was a little bit older anyway, even though he looked 16 or 17. Then I think the next person after that was Omar (Epps). I was pretty sure that Omar was going to be my best Q. But I was having a hard time finding Bishop.
Jermaine Hopkins came in and did Steel. Totally different than the way Steel was described in the script. But he did put his own stamp on it, which I loved. That’s why I gave him that role. When Tupac came in, and a lot of guys came in and did some interesting stuff, but it’s easy to go ballistic when there is nothing behind it. What Tupac did was he knew the pain that is in a person like Bishop. And he tapped into that pain and put it into his characterization. I mean, we found later that he had studied acting at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts. And that he was a trained actor. I lucked out. I got a really great cast.
Check out an official trailer of the movie Juice
What do you remember being the toughest scene to nail down while you were making that film?
Dickerson: Oh. A lot of them. First of all, the weather was against us because it just seemed to rain every day. Which has actually contributed to the look of the film. The toughest? I think they all had their difficulties. I remember the shooting of Raheem was difficult because the special effects weren’t able to get exactly what I wanted. The idea is that he gets shot and doesn’t know what happened. He looks down and then you see the blood spreading. It sounds simple, but special effects wasn’t able to get it. So by that time, the sun was coming up and we were going to lose the dark. I had to get it done so I said we’d just put a squib on him. So you know, little things like that. What made it a little bit easier on us was the fact that we pretty much shot within a five block area. So moving in that neighbourhood, which was Harlem on the west side near Riverside Drive, moving around that area was a little bit easier because we didn’t have to travel too far. Sometimes I found out when it was raining on the spot that we were shooting that it only rained where we were shooting. It wasn’t raining anyplace else in the city. So that made things a little crazy.
When you look at Juice now, what do you see? Do you see a film that still stands up? Or Do you have that creator’s urge to jump in and try to fix everything that you don’t like now 25 years on?
Dickerson: Well, um, honestly, it’s hard for me to look at. Whenever I show the film, as soon as it starts and as soon as I make sure the picture and sound are good, I pretty much walk out. Because that was me as a director 25 years ago. I mean, my hand-eye coordination is better now. But I would to maybe go back in and tinker with the last ten minutes of the movie. If you look at the extras, my original ending is in the extras on the DVD and Blu-ray. My original ending, which I felt was much stronger, I had to change it because the audience objected to the fact that the character of Bishop who was considered the villain decided his ultimate fate. He decided what was going to happen to him instead of someone else doing that.
Or the way that I had to recut it so it looks he just slips out of Q’s hand. But when you look at the Blu-ray, look at the original ending. What happens is that Bishop, in the fight when he is hanging off the edge of the roof, he hears the Police coming – he hears the sirens coming and getting louder and closer and he looks up at Q and says “I’m not going to jail.” And he lets go of Q’s hand and elects to go out that way. So I would do that; Probably the changes I’d make would be putting that scene back in. And take out some of the voiceovers that the studio demanded because they felt that the audience wouldn’t be able to understand what was going on in Q’s mind. You know, the second thoughts about getting that other gun. Things like that. So you know, I think those things that are totally unnecessary. I’d take out the stuff that I think is holding the hands of the audience and trust the audience more.
When I watched Juice again, it really struck me that it’s like a business card for the work that you went on to do in The Wire and Treme and even The Walking Dead, these big ensemble pieces that are set-driven in kind of tight familiar environments. And it’s kind of cool that you are advancing on something that you did so long ago and doing such a great job of it.
Dickerson: Thank you. I’m lucky. I’ve been lucky that the television work that I’ve done, especially on cable – cable shows that really want a film-maker’s perspective. Doing The Wire and doing Treme and doing The Walking Dead with a filmmaker’s perspective and they have been artistically more satisfying.
Are you allowed to talk about The Deuce at all? Aside from it being announced and that you are attached to it in some way, shape or form. And that it’s David Simon again.
Dickerson: Yeah, well I wish that I was attached to it more. I only did one episode. I did the first episode after the pilot, helping to establish the look of the show. It was just great working with David Simon and Nina Noble and that crew again. You know, they are such good writers and they make such compelling characters. And as I said they want a filmmaker’s perspective. It was really interesting going into New York and trying to create 8th Avenue near 42nd Street circa 1971. That was a challenge. But you know, really great cast. Oh man, Maggie Gyllenhaal in that show is awesome. She is such a brave actor. She does such amazing stuff. And she’s got a great character. And James Franco is a really cool guy. Really great to work with him. He has it difficult because he’s playing twin brothers. So dealing with that and being a producer on the show and he actually directed an episode. But it was some old friends from The Wire, many of whom I’ve stayed in contact with over the years. It was good to get back together with them on a film set and try and do something else.
I’m sure you learned a ton making this movie. Is there an example you can talk to that you applied to another film or television show that directly is an instance of a thing you learned making Juice?
Dickerson: Um, I guess casting. There is an old saying that 85% of directing is casting. And that has been proven to be true so many times for me. It’s an exhausting process and it’s a nerve-racking process. But I found out that you just stick in there and get the right people to play those roles and basically all I’ll have to do is be the first audience for the show. Make minor adjustments. If you get an actor where you’ve got to explain everything to them, you’re in bad shape. Because you have someone who doesn’t know how to inhabit the body and soul of that character. You want an actor who knows who that character is. And then you just sit back and watch them go.