A Jazz Approach To Film

Ernest Dickerson On Shooting MO BETTER BLUES

Portions of this interview appeared in the June 1990 issue of Millimeter Magazine

ernest dickerson

From his notable debut as DP of John Sayles' BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, Ernest Dickerson has developed into one of the most acute cinematographers of his generation — and a noted director as well.

He is best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee, having photographed Lee's student film JOE'S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS, and his earliest features (from SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT through MALCOLM X).

The following is an interview from December 1989, shortly after shooting MO' BETTER BLUES.

Morgan: Were there specific parameters you set out to do differently on MO' BETTER BLUES than you had on earlier films?

Dickerson: Well, one of the things we wanted to do [was] to photograph jazz like it hasn't been before. We felt that jazz musicians' lives [have] always left themselves open for very good film stories, and we felt that they hadn't really been dealt with properly. We didn't want to emulate what Clint Eastwood did with BIRD; we felt that it wasn't even true to Charlie Parker and his music. It dealt with (and not very well) some of the worst aspects of Charlie Parker's life, [and] treated him as a fairly miserable individual. According to people that I know who knew him, he was not at all like the way he was treated in the movie.

We didn't want to portray the jazz musician's life as being dark, seedy, degenerate. I don't think any other film so far has dealt with a man's relationship with his music. Hasn't really shown him in the act of creating a work of art and really deals with that and how that would be the central driving force of his life. They've always dealt with jazz musicians unable to take care of themselves, like the one Dexter Gordon played in `ROUND MIDNIGHT; they're always treated as, I don't know, almost childlike people. But actually some of the most complex thinking you'll ever encounter comes from jazz musicians. So we wanted to do that. We wanted to tell a love story, a modern love story: a man's love for his music, and his love for two woman and how they conflict. We didn't want anything else to get in the way of dealing with a man's devotion to his music, [and] the problems that he has being so devoted to his music with his personal life.

We wanted to really get the feeling of jazz, and so Spike and I developed a jazz approach to shooting the film. Usually we go into a film ultra-prepared in terms of storyboards, extensive shot lists. [Here] we had shot lists which gave us a structure, but we used that structure to improvise. We just felt that that would be more in keeping with the music and the feeling, kind of let the music inspire us to do what we did. So we had the formalized plan but we didn't stick to it. A lot of times, things that happened on the set or things that came up at discussions early that day sometimes determined what we really [wound] up doing. It seemed like it worked. I think especially in the club sequences, the camera moves we did to really give the feeling of the movement of the music, I think that pretty much worked. We were able to work out some pretty complex moves along the way.

Was it common to use hand-held to make the camera a participant?

Yeah, Spike and I like to use the camera to really help the audience feel what they should be feeling in the script. We use the camera in such a way that's actually almost telegraphing some of the things that [will] happen later on in the story. There's a lot of tension between the main character Bleek and a couple of the characters in his band, and we wanted to telegraph some of the things that would happen to him further on down the line. We do that by using the hand-held camera without having a totally steady frame; even though there's very little movement, it's very subtle movement in the frame — my operator's very good, he's very good on hand-held but no matter how good you are you cannot hold the camera that steady. The movement adds a nervousness, a tension to the frame. This was something we used to telegraph tension that grows later on. Practically all of the scenes in the dressing room were done hand-held. [And] on Steadicam, [we made] sure that the operator did not totally keep a steady frame.

I understand that you were not as involved in the set design and location process during pre-production as you normally are.

Well, some of the key locations were places that everybody liked, but they were waiting to talk to me to give me a chance to speak my mind. So as soon as I did get back there were choices and there were second choices, third choices of places to look at, and they worked out. We've worked together for quite a long time. We complement each other so I think they knew pretty much what I was going to like. For the most part Wynn was right.

The main set, Beneath the Underdog, Wynn had been faxing all the plans and all his ideas down to me where I was shooting another film, so I knew pretty much what was going on. I had a whole list of requests and by the time I got back Wynn had the model built and we talked a bit. The great thing about Wynn is that he designs with the cameraman in mind. And he knows that I love source lighting, and we'd even have phone conversations and talk about the main interior of the set and I'd ask about the possibility of having as much of the lighting built into it, because we would have to move very quickly, and this would help. And as it turned out he said that was what he had in mind. So we think along the same lines, all the way through. There were a lot of locations that Wynn knew what I would like. Wynn knows what Spike likes, Spike knows what I like, we've worked together for so long that we just know, it's almost like a telepathy. We just know what each other's choices might be, and if we're not sure we can at least narrow it down to five possibles, and know that any one of those five would definitely work.

How was the Dizzy Club covered?

The lighting in the Dizzy Club is a little softer; we had neon there, but the general analysis was kept on the cool side. And the fact that it was bigger, a more expansive space just gave it a totally different feel.

Were there certain difficulties associated with designing the lighting of a larger space like Beneath the Underdog than a smaller space?

No, not really. Usually my lighting plans would light certain areas, generally for the rest of the club, the audience. Making sure that I have enough separations, edge lights, back lights and stuff. Also we had a lot of pin spots at the club, which we directed at the tables. The pin spots would illuminate a table. A lot of times we had a definable shaft so that the table in front of us was pretty much separated or silhouetted or semi-silhouetted against the table behind it. So it worked out pretty good. We had a lot of neon and smoke there.

But we did look at photographs of jazz musicians of the '40, photographs of 53rd Street, which was the "Jazz Alley." There's a timelessness about jazz, that era. Look-wise I've always felt that some of the photography that's really captured the energy of jazz was the photography of Dennis Stock. He did mostly black-and-white in the '50s and '60s, beautiful stuff of jazz musicians, and these were a major influence on me in determining the club look.

[It was] fairly high contrast photography. God, I'd had a book by Stock for the past twelve or fifteen years and when we finally decided to do this I went in there and dug up the book like I was waiting for that to happen. Basically what Stock captured is club lighting; he did it in the way it really looks. A lot of mood is in his photographs.

What film stock were you shooting with?

Most of the time in the clubs I used 5295; sometimes in really low-light situations, not in the clubs but we had a lot of night exteriors, 5296; and for outside, day interiors, oh, 5297. And I used the new Eastman stock 5245 for day exteriors. The best stuff was the '45 and the '96.

Were scenes or camera moves plotted out in advance or storyboarded?

We had a structure, we had an idea of what we wanted to shoot, but we didn't stick to it rigidly. We wanted to leave ourselves open for inspiration. A lot of times it's basically bouncing ideas off each other. Sometimes Spike has definite ideas in mind for how he wants to do something; sometimes he's trying to find an idea and I help him find that. Sometimes the ideas are mine, and sometimes I'll have an idea and he'll come up with something better, sometimes he has an idea and I come up with something better. We just really bounce ideas off each other. You know, usually our discussions start early, as soon as he gets the idea for the script, just kind of feeling things out: 'If we had a story like this what would happen, how would we do it, in a way we haven't seen before?' We look at other films, and think, 'They didn't really work it out here, maybe it could be done better,' that kind of thing. So we do pretty much work out camera moves together; sometimes the moves evolved with the music that the shot will show. Get the musicians there, get the Louma crane in place and start playing.

Our Louma moves grew organically. Sometimes we'd have an idea we want to do this, we want to do that, and then from there we go other places. There were a couple of sequences where we did stick to the storyboards fairly closely, basically because the editing was crucial in those scenes, the way they would be edited together, [such as] the big final confrontation where Spike's character is being beaten up by two hoods in the alleyway while Bleek is playing, and what we wanted to do was provide for cutting between that action in the alleyway outside and the action on stage. Spike left me a lot of freedom there; he basically let me design the sequence, let me shot list it, work it out in terms of camera moves, then we gave it to the storyboard artist, who we met with and had several discussions with, and he visualized it in terms of the storyboards. But it was the mood we got from that that I definitely planned. But then as we were using the entire song, we programmed those moves into certain key areas in the song.

In terms of camera movement was there a significant challenge here, such as accommodating lights?

The Louma crane, because I guess I love a challenge. I'm never going to tell a director, 'You can't do this.' So I found both of us were designing moves that we were going to see everything. Very seldom, I think probably only one or two times, I told Spike you can't do something.

Did you think something couldn't be done but didn't tell him?

No, I'd always — I might have been tempted! But it's my responsibility to give a director whatever he wants. I don't want to take the easy way out; later on I'd think, 'Damn, I should have done it differently.' And so I'd rather work out the impossible moves and then find a way of lighting it the way it should be lit. Or my lighting plans, I see this, I want to light it like this, how can I get the same effect without putting a light right there? So that got to be a little hairy at times. I think we got some beautiful stuff because of it. It's my job to give him what he wants, it's my job to help him realize his vision. The only time I'm going to tell him 'you can't do something' is when I feel it's going to compromise the image if I did so. I think there were only one or two instances where a certain camera move or, say, out of one take we got ten different moves on the Louma, maybe one of them goes to the only place I could find to put lights. If you see everything and the Louma's going everywhere, where do you put the lights? So that was a problem. The only times I told him that was when I had the shot lit for 359 degrees and that one degree was what I needed for lighting, and he'd want to use that one degree! That was the only time I had to say no to Spike.

Does this improvisational style of determining camera moves increase the number of takes?

Not really. It depends upon what you're shooting. When you're doing actors who aren't musicians faking to playback, when the camera is going to be gliding across the instruments while they're acting, then yeah we would do a lot of takes, we want to be sure. Those actors worked very, very hard to get those fingerings correct. And their fingerings were on I'd say about 99, 98 percent of the time. The only thing they didn't have, they didn't have the wind control. They couldn't produce. They had the fingering down. Every now and then there might be a slip.

It's not only camera choreography that you have to worry about; there's also an actor really trying to make it look like he's playing the instrument. Those things we had a large number of takes on. The dramatic stuff, the dramatic performances, those were [where] the actors were in their natural element.

How would you describe the way your working relationships with Spike, Wynn and the others have developed over the past few films?

We've all grown closer, we've developed, I use the word "telepathy," or shorthand. I think we've gotten to the point where all we have to do is say a few things to each other and then from there get the ball rolling. I think it worked out really good this time because we had a variety of locations; on DO THE RIGHT THING we were all on one location, and we had that overriding thing with heat and the sun. On this it was a variety of things, a whole lot of different situations: Night, day, clear nights, rainy nights, interiors, exteriors, upscale places and downscale places, seedy clubs, upscale clubs, love scenes, two women each had her own different screen persona. There was a lot of different elements to deal with on this one.

There was a line that a character said in DO THE RIGHT THING that was cut, it was a funny thing we always said to one another; One guy says to another guy, 'I think we got the same brain.' It's almost like that. We've worked together long enough and we're all students of film. So we all have an educated background in film to be able to draw on sources and references and be able to speak to each other.

What other cinematographers have been inspirations for you?

My favorite cameramen are always people like Robby Muller, Vittorio Storraro, Gordon Willis — I guess the same guys that most everybody else admires. I'm just influenced by different things at different times. But I always get inspiration from still photography. I used to be a still photographer, and consequently I've been building up a pretty good library of books on photography. I've always been drawn to color, to people like Jay Maisel, Joel Meyerwitz, people like that.

What always affects me is the colors that you see in life. I try to use colors expressively in my films. The cinematographers who have influenced me have been guys who have used color heavily. Jack Cardiff, a British Technicolor cinematographer, his use of color was awesome, even in later films that were minor, like GHOST STORY: a minor entry, [but] the color in it is gorgeous. BLACK NARCISSUS, one of the most beautiful color films ever made. People like him who use color expressively to achieve moods and help the audience feel what they should be feeling. That's my approach to color. I feel that's what you should do. I've always liked people who do that. And a lot of times I see color in life, that you can use that way.

The gaffer always jokes with me, because he says I mix color temperatures with reckless abandon. It's not with reckless abandon. I don't see life as a neutral color balance. I don't see the world that way. If you're in one space and you look outside, there's always a different color balance in two different spaces. If you're outside and you're looking in, the inside of the house is going to be warmer, because the tungsten light in there is more yellow. So when you show two different spaces, why not show that? I just feel it shows the variety of color that exists in the world.

Do you get into trouble with your color processing lab?

No, because they know that. I always tell them what I'm doing. Every day I give them a gray scale at the beginning, I give them a neutral light, a white light gray scale, because they know what I'm doing from then on — if it's a little off it's on purpose. You always have to tell the lab something like that so they know what's going on, and I've had such a good relationship with the guys at Du Art, they pretty much know what I'm doing.

They've developed telepathy as well?

Well, yeah, I guess! We've done quite a few films together and they've gotten used to how I see things.


Dickerson has served as DP on JUNGLE FEVER, MALCOLM X, the series "Law and Order" and "Our America" (for which he won an Emmy Award). He has also directed JUICE, BULLETPROOF, TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, and episodes of E.R., WEEDS, CSI: MIAMI, HEROES, THE WIRE and DEXTER.

For Related Articles on MO' BETTER BLUES by David Morgan:

  • Interview With Costume Designer Ruth Carter (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Editor Sam Pollard (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Production Designer Wynn Thomas (for Millimeter, 1990)

    copyright 1989, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
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