Flavorwire Interview: ‘Juice’ Director Ernest R. Dickerson on Making a Modern Noir and Directing Tupac Shakur

"That's the thing about filmmaking: you learn by doing. You learn on the job."

When his moment came, Ernest R. Dickerson was ready. As cinematographer for Spike Lee’s first six movies – including She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, and Malcolm X – he had helped usher in a movement of films in the late 1980s and early 1990s by and about people of color, a movement Roger Ebert dubbed, at its height, “The Black New Wave.” She’s Gotta Have It proved the storytellers were there; Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, and Boyz N The Hood proved the audience was too. So Dickerson took advantage of a (sadly brief) moment in which studios and financiers were willing to fund his transition from one of the best cinematographers in the game to a director in his own right.

The result was Juice, a gritty story of crime, friendship, and betrayal in Harlem, which was an immediate theatrical success in January of 1992, and found a long afterlife on video thanks not only to its classic film influences (you can see generous doses of both film noir and the classic Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s) but Dickerson’s electrifying style and keen eye for young talent. Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah, and Donald Faison all make early appearances in the supporting cast; the film’s leads include, in their film debuts, Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur.

Now, Juice is getting the deluxe 25th anniversary treatment from Paramount, with a shiny new Blu-ray and DVD release this week, loaded with extras. For the occasion, I talked to Mr. Dickerson about the making of that beloved film, and its place in the pantheon of New York movies.

Flavorwire: So I love this movie – I remember seeing it in the theater 25 years ago and just being knocked out by it, so I’m glad to see it getting the deluxe treatment. I was really struck, this time, by the fact that on top of all the things we think about it, it’s a great New York movie – and one that captures this moment of transition, between the sort of run-down New York of the ‘80s and the squeaky-clean Disney-fied thing that the city became later in the ‘90s. What, to your mind, are some of the great New York movies, particularly ones that influenced the look and the feel of this film and the other New York films you’ve made?

Ernest Dickerson: Well, we were creating a thriller, so definitely movies like The French Connection were an influence. Another influence was an unknown film from back in the late 1940s called The City Across the River, which was an adaptation of a book called The Amboy Dukes. Also you know, just in trying to come up with the look of the film, since I always considered it a film noir, we were looking at Expressionistic elements — elements from German Expressionist films, because the environment we were shooting in was concrete. Concrete brick alleyways, hallways, apartments. There’s not much green grass in our film! We really wanted to push that urban environment, so even movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the look of Metropolis, had an effect on us. We were just trying to capture the brick city concept, because this is where these kids were living; this is where I grew up, in the projects in Newark, New Jersey, so I just wanted that feeling of living in an environment where a lot of the real estate was more vertical.

What was it like seeing New York in movies as a kid, as a teenager? As someone who knew New York then, did you find those portrayals to be accurate, or were they amplified and hyped up?

It depended upon the movie, depended upon what each individual film wanted to do. You know, The French Connection was New York in the ’70s, the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it had that look – as opposed to something like West Side Story, which is more stylized. That’s all in a brick city also, but with more wide-open spaces. It’s much more stylized for the musical feel, but still in a neighborhood where it’s all brick, and brick and stone, and brick and concrete, where there’s alleyways. I even think some of the environment of West Side Story had an effect on Juice, because that’s a very expressionistic film, when you look at it.

And looking back, do you think Juice captured New York, and Harlem in particular, in that moment, or was it amplified?

I think that we actually did capture that. We shot it all there. Everything that we shot – I mean, there was no studio work in the film at all, it was 100% on location. So it was how we presented the environments that we were in – but the environments were already there. They already had that look; we just emphasized some of the elements that it made them work visually stronger for the film.

This, of course, was your feature directorial debut. Had you always wanted ultimately to direct, or was that a bug that bit you after you had been a cinematographer for a while?

When I was in film school I either wrote and directed my own movies, or I photographed other people’s films, and cinematography being my first love, that was something that took off earlier. So that’s why I embarked on a career as a cinematographer.

The interesting thing about it, though, is that the films that I worked on, a lot of the time the directors also acted in front of the camera. My first film as director of photography was Brother From Another Planet, and when John Sayles acted as one of the bounty hunters, that makes the director of photography the director, while the director-actor is in front of the camera. Then when Spike did She’s Gotta Have It, when his actor fell out at the last minute and he had to take on the role of Mars Blackmon for himself, that meant that when he was in front of the camera, he relied upon me to tell him how he was doing and what was going on. And then Spike just kept working in front of the cameras in subsequent movies, so it gave me a little bit of a rehearsal for directing later.

Also I always enjoyed talking with the actors, you know, over drinks at the end of the day about the choices that made, why they made them and stuff, finding out what made them tick. So I guess all that helps!

When you were in the transitional period, were there things you were learning from the directors you were working with – either in terms of what to do or what not to do?

Well you know, that’s the thing about filmmaking: you learn by doing. You learn on the job. That’s one of the things that Spike and I used to joke about, that we were learning on the job and getting paid for it because we tried so many things. We considered our first film kind of like an extension of our film school education, so it all worked out.

You’ve told the story before about finding Tupac, and his audition for the film, so I won’t ask you to tell it again. I’m curious about what happened next – about how you went about trying to capture the intensity and magic of that audition on a feature film set, with an actor who’d never made a film before. Did you have to work with him, and with the other unknowns in your cast, in a particular way to get those performances, or did he just take to the process right away?

The thing about Tupac was that we found out he had trained as an actor at the Baltimore School of the Arts. So he had that experience, he had the actor’s chops, he had the instincts of an actor – and actually all four guys did. They all had instincts of actors, even though the only one that had acted before was Jermaine Hopkins. He had been in the film Lean on Me with um… um… what’s his name that plays God all the time…

Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman! He’d been in a film with Morgan Freeman. So he had acted. And Khalil [Kain, who plays Raheem], his mentor was Giancarlo Esposito. So these guys knew who these characters were, and had an idea of how to bring that out in a performance. Plus, one of the things we were doing in casting was not only finding the right four guys, but the four guys that together could create the fifth person, which was the group. We had to feel these guys had been together for so long, so many years, they’d known each other since they were kids, that together they comprised a fifth person. All four guys bonded immediately when they met, and so that was a big factor, the fact that they could bounce off each other, they could joke with each other, and just talk with each other and riff each other. It was amazing to behold because they really got into the roles, they just jumped into it; they knew who these characters were, and they bounced off each other, and they all were there for each other. So it was an ideal situation.

And you know, there’s an old saying that casting is 90% of directing. So as a director, all I’ve got to do is find the right cast and just sit back and watch the sparks fly.

I think one of the reasons people remain fascinated by Tupac is that there’s such an interesting duality to him – that on one hand, as you mention, he was this trained actor and a really serious performer, and then on the other, he had this very rough, kinda scary energy and persona. His work in “Juice,” in a lot of ways, sort of personifies that duality. Do you think that’s accurate, and you did experience that duality while you were working with him?

Yeah, he definitely got into character and stayed in character a lot, but you know, he was a brilliant young man. One of the things that I always remember, and I find fascinating thinking about it, was that in between set-ups when we were shooting, he would sometimes go off in the corner with his notebook and write. And I like to think that some of the stuff that he was writing was some of the music that we wound up listening to later – that maybe some of his observations, being in Harlem, shooting on location in Harlem, meeting some of the people there… Because Tupac was always open. Open to meeting people, to become friends with folks in the neighborhood, in Harlem – we called it “Harlem-wood,” actually.

But he had a fierce intelligence and a fierce curiosity about people’s lives, who they were, the forces that affected their lives. And I think a lot of that, when he was shooting, that’s what found its way into his music later on.

Speaking of music, the soundtrack to this movie is an all-timer – I had it on tape when the movie came out, now I’ve got it on vinyl, I play it all the time. And it does that amazing thing that a good movie soundtrack can do, where the images color the songs forever; anytime I hear “How I Can Just Kill A Man,” to this day, I still see Q following Bishop through that apartment party. So talk to me a little bit about finding music, in this movie and throughout your career, that pairs up so well with the images you’re creating.

Well, to me the art form that’s closest to film is music. Because you’re dealing with the same thing: film is direct sensory input into the eyes and the ears, and straight to the brain. It doesn’t require any sort of interpretation. It’s not like reading – reading, you have to read it, you’ve got to process it, interpret it, and then it goes to the brain. But with film, it’s eyes and ears and straight to the brain. Music is to the ears and straight to the brain. That’s why I feel that they’re two of the most powerful art forms we have available in the world, and they complement each other beautifully.

So for me, trying to find the music that would reflect the music of my main characters’ lives – but also give me the atmosphere that I wanted and the tension that I wanted in the film – was paramount. And I’d always been a fan of Public Enemy and also the Public Enemy sound, you know. Listening to it, breaking it down, listening to the sound of the background, I just wanted the men who did that sound. And that was Hank and Keith Shocklee, the Shocklee brothers, and that’s why I went and got them.

One of the things that’s sort of amazing about this movie, looking back, is that it was distributed by Paramount – this major studio, getting behind this very low-budget movie. It’s hard to imagine that happening now, and increasingly, stories like this, done modestly, are only either micro-budget indies or on TV. Do you think we’ve passed the point of no return on that, or that a day may come when it’ll cycle back around, and studios will be interested in movies that aren’t solely either franchise plays or awards contenders?

Well you know, studios, they’ve been run by that corporate mentality, so the bottom line is the main thing for them; they’re just trying to make money. That’s why you see so many movies that are just like the movie made last year, and the year before that. I think the future of cinematic art, the future of cinema, lies with the independents and with these new platforms that are coming out, like Netflix and Hulu Films and YouTube Films and Amazon, because it seems like they’re willing to go after riskier material to produce or even to release. They don’t have to worry about making that opening weekend box office, which has kind of been a curse for our industry. It really kept a lot of smaller, more interesting films from being made because you know they just had to make that fat fifty million dollar weekend box office.

So hopefully with the new platforms, we’ll see a resurgence in really interesting and challenging films.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask at least one question about Do the Right Thing – because it’s a movie that is 28 years old now, but I still hear, read, write or say something about it at least once a week. As someone so instrumental to the making of that film, why do you think it’s proven so durable, so consistently resonant in the culture?

I don’t know! I mean, I think it’s for people like you to decide, and tell us why. As filmmakers, we just try to make the best film possible. Maybe it’s because some of the issues that are dealt with are still relevant today. That might be reason why Juice is still impacting people – I just found out from another interview that kids are doing Juice haircuts, going back to the haircuts from back in those days. I did not know that!

But I think Do the Right Thing and Juice are the two films that still resonate because a lot of the problems that they address are still with us today. And there’re no other films that are dealing with these problems.

The 25th anniversary “Juice” Blu-ray and DVD is now available from Paramount Home Video.