Never Die Alone Director - Ernest Dickerson
Ernest Dickerson knows a narrative when he reads one. "We reap what we sow, that's what the bible says…. Same shit, we all know the story...or at least we pretend we do." This is only a piece of Dickerson's King David (played by DMX), a character that is even more devilish than he looks, yet has the voice of a preacher. In Never Die Alone, the stylish kingpin drug dealer returns to his hometown seeking redemption, but finds that a deadly circle of fate awaits his arrival. Based on a novel by Donald Goines, Director Ernest Dickerson brings to life a poetic villain that violently touches the lives of so many, leaving karma to decide his fate.
I had the opportunity to talk with Cinematographer and Director Ernest Dickerson about the film. Beginning as a cinematographer at New York University's Film School with fellow film student and friend, Spike Lee, Dickerson has taken cinema to his level. Making his directorial debut in 1992's Juice with then unknown rapper, Tupac Shakur, and working with various other high profile rappers throughout the past few years, Dickerson has yet to come full circle.
This film has a very film noir feel to it with the dark lighting and fog present in almost every scene. Is this the look or genre you were going for?
Ernest Dickerson: Yeah, I always considered Donald Goines a noir author. Kind of like a modern noir author so it is definitely a feel that I was going for. I can say the film is a modern noir.
You've known Spike Lee since you were in college, correct?
ED: Right, we were both in film school together and we both went to NYU grad school.
Has his work influenced yours because I know you've done some collaborations together?
ED: Well, you know, we wound up learning together. I was his cinematographer for many years. We found ourselves in a great position where we were learning our craft on the job. I started to work with him in film school. I shot two of his student projects and was able to continue on professionally after that. So I guess we kind of influenced each other because we were learning together. We were, you know, in a position where we could learn and get paid for carrying out our craft experiment. We were always trying to mix things visually. Different looks for different stories so that's something I've always tried to continue on in my work as a director.
What is Spike Lee like to work with?
ED: Well, Spike was always cool with me! [laughs] We go way back, you know. You know, he was a director and I was a cinematographer for him. We love film. We love cinema. We were always trying to find new ways of narratives, new ways of visually conveying a story to an audience. We were always trying something different and it was something I've tried to continue in my work. Even up to Never Die Alone, where the whole style of the film was based on (narrative).
This may come as a surprise to some people, but the film is actually based on a Donald Goines novel. How much information did you take from the book and put on film?
ED: We backed off from the graphicness of Goines' writing. I think that Jim Gibson, the screenwriter, did a really great job of adapting Goines' writing. He also took themes that Goines left half developed or undeveloped or even suggested in his book. He took those a whole step further and developed them even further for the screenplay. So, I think a lot of the story development has to go Jim Gibson. When I came on board as the director there were some things that were in the book that I wanted to see in the script so we just kind of collaborated. I think he did a great job, but I worked with him just bringing some things into the screenplay that I read in the novel that I just wanted in there. I forget exactly what those were. But I think one of the things I took from the original novel was that King David left a written diary and I just didn't think that King David was the kind of guy that would write. With his ego, he would probably dictate. I thought it was more visually and orally interesting if it was a series of tapes. So we changed it from a book to audiotapes he had left behind. But I think most of the credit for changing Goines has to go to him (Gibson).
At the end of the movie there are flash cuts of all the people who died or were affected by King David. What kind of meaning were you going for by adding this?
ED: One of the things that I really wanted to develop in the story was that all of these people had a life; all of these people had plans for their lives. And because King David came back that one day he wound up intersecting and interrupting these lives. Often in violent films, you just see people die and you don't really get a sense of a life lost or a life interrupted.
ED: I wanted to show the wreckage. I wanted to show the damage that this man and his actions have caused. I just thought it was an ironic counterpoint to show how one life can touch so many others. And how he did it in very disruptive ways. It was important, I feel, to see the damage. The pain in this film had to be shelved and the consequences of that pain had to really be out there for the audience to see.
How do you think the audience will react when they see it?
ED: When it was in the theater a lot of people didn't know what to expect. They were thinking it was going to be a lot like DMX's other films. But I understand a lot of other people were like really surprised, pleasantly surprised that it dealt with such a rough subject matter. People seemed to like the film even if they went in not expecting to like it they came out liking it. I found out that there are more Donald Goines fans out there than the studio ever previously thought there were. A lot of people really responded to the fact that this was a Goines adaptation. Ever since he started publishing he's never been out of print in the United States. In Europe he's considered a major American writer; (he has) the same level of respect as somebody like Chester Hines is given. A lot of black authors that we ignored in this country had to be discovered overseas; a lot like our musicians. And Goines is one of them.
After watching the movie I went back and listened to pieces of the commentary between you and DMX. You mentioned that in one of the scenes, DMX was so nervous that he had to drug himself up before doing it and even had to be carried in because he had so much of whatever in him. Did he use sleeping pills or something else?
ED: I had the impression that he was on some sort of sleeping pills. I know that when we were setting the shot up his stand-in was lying in the coffin and his stand-in was freaking out. He was really freaking out from lying in the coffin. When DMX came in, by the time we shot that scene it was probably around 4 o'clock in the morning so it was very late after a long night. He had probably been sleeping anyway. It was just that his guys, his aids had to practically carry him in. They had to really guide him in and put him in the coffin. And when he was in there he was completely out.
ED: He was completely out of it. He completely lost consciousness. I don't know if that's something he did to psychologically allow himself to lay in the coffin or if it was something he did to create a dead body more convincingly. [laughs] I think you'd have to! He never really told me that he ever did take anything, but he was definitely out of it.
Yeah, just out of curiosity.
ED: It's got to be tough for an actor to lie in a coffin and I'm sure that some actors would need some sort of help to enable them to do that.
I think that DMX gave a very intense performance throughout the film and made it feel real. But just recently his private life has had some drama of it's own with his recent arrest at JFK airport. How would you describe DMX and his behaviors?
ED: He was a lot of fun, very personal. He had fun working on our set because we worked very fast. I think it enabled him to stay in character; he didn't have a lot of waiting between set-ups. He came on-set joking, very friendly, and very approachable. He's a funny guy and a great deal of fun to work with. I had a lot of fun working with him and I think the crew did, too. You know, on Valentine's Day while we were shooting he came on-set with roses for all the ladies on the crew.
He's quite the ladies' man!
ED: A bit of a romantic, definitely.
In another interview I read recently, you were asked if you would ever work with another rapper again and you said yes. Would you still consider it now?
ED: I think if that person comes correct to the project. I've been fortunate enough that the rappers that I have worked with have all taken their work very seriously. I first worked with Tupac on my first film, but that was before he was really known. Then Ice-T came very correct. And Snoop Dogg in Bones took his role very seriously and DMX took his role very seriously. I think, to me, if the person comes to the project really wanting to act or really wanting to create a character and is willing to put in the time and work to do that.
Now out of the rappers you just mentioned, is there a specific one you would die to work with again?
ED: I had fun with all of them. Ice-T, Snoop was a lot of fun to work with and DMX if the project is right.
Since the movie opens with a monologue about karma and living life as it's been given to you, I have to ask - if you could, would you ever go back and do your career all over again?
ED: Yeah there are some things I'd like to do differently. Definitely. Some projects I'd like to just forget they ever existed, you know? I would, I think anybody would.
Are there any specifics you would never do again?
ED: There's a movie I did a couple years ago called Bulletproof. I'd like to just erase that whole experience. You know, I'm proud of a lot of the films I've done, but there's some situations that happened that in retrospect maybe I could have handled them a little differently if I had been a little smarter about it. But that's all second-guessing.
Is there any other path you would have gone down that's not filmmaking?
ED: I can't see myself doing anything else. The only other thing I discovered I would rather do if I couldn't be a filmmaker would be a professional scuba diver.
ED: That's the only other thing I found that I would love to do for the rest of my life. But I love film. I probably would have been scuba diving and dreaming about making movies.
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