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‘Juice’ Director Ernest Dickerson Reminisces Over Film Debut, Tupac and Jeffrey Wright’s Audition

Ernest Dickerson headshot*With a slew of film and TV credits under his director’s belt, Ernest Dickerson is safely in the established lane of those making a living in the world of entertainment.

But as someone famously sang, it’s “never as good as the first time” when it comes to filmmaking. In Dickerson’s case that first time was “Juice,” a film that explored the world of four teens in Harlem while introducing filmgoers to then-future superstars Omar Epps, Khalil Kain and Tupac Shakur.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Juice,” which hit theaters on January 17, 1992 and made it’s Blu-ray debut Tuesday (June 6) with a special edition home video release, which also arrived on DVD. Not only did the hip-hop drama acquaint us with Epps, Kain and Shakur, but En Vogue’s Cindy Herron marked her first time on the big screen with it. For making her “Juice” experience one of her most memorable moments, Herron has nothing but love for the man who first caught Hollywood’s eye as a cinematographer on films from Spike Lee.

“I just want to say Eric Dickerson was a really, really great director, really talented. I never saw him upset or angry. He was always very patient, always willing to take time with the actor and direct them. He was a really great role model as a director,” Herron expressed to EURweb. “For a young actor or maybe somebody who hadn’t worked under many directors, he set a high bar, I’m gonna say, for directors and for working with directors. He brought all of his experience to the set.”

Dickerson’s experience continued to grow after “Juice,” as he remains a consistent, award-winning fixture with writing scripts for various projects he hopes to get made. Not to mention chalking up small-screen directorial credits on “The Wire,” “Dexter,” “The Walking Dead” and “Treme” as well as Amazon’s “Bosch,” which found Dickerson helming three episodes, including the season finale, of the popular detective series’ third season.

“He was really a great director, and all the women were in love with him. [Laughs],” Herron continued about working with Dickerson. “He had that thing about him. He was a very pleasant man and he was a really good guy. He just had that thing about him that women were like, ‘Oh, Eric Dickerson. Oh I just love him.’ [Laughs] He just had that effect on people. He was a very likable guy and set a high bar for the director.”

Chatting with EURweb, Dickerson’s kind nature clearly came through as he looked back on “Juice” and a pre-thug life Shakur, forgetting Jeffrey Wright‘s audition for the film and revealing who he would cast if Hollywood hit the “Juice” remake button.

EURweb: It’s been 25 years since “Juice” arrived in theaters. Looking back, did you think it was going to develop into the certified classic it became?

Ernest Dickerson: I had not the slightest idea. I was happy that I was able to make my first film. When we were making it, we didn’t have a distributor. We didn’t have a studio. We figured we’d get one later. I just tried to make the best film I could with the time and money that I had. I had no idea how it would be received 25 years later. God, that’s crazy. 25 years later. Oh my goodness.

EUR: Fortunately for us you went with Tupac Shakur [as Bishop]. Which begs the question: If Tupac wasn’t around, who would’ve been cast as Bishop?

ED: I don’t know. You know, we went through so many different people. Some of the guys that we didn’t pick for leads wound up in the movie in other roles. But that’s something I’ve never really entertained in all these 25 years because Tupac really did become Bishop and he was the ideal person for that role. So I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role.

Jeffrey WrightEUR: For the other lead roles (Q, Steel and Raheem), were there any well-known people who auditioned, but ultimately lost out to the guys that ended up played those characters [Epps, Jermaine Hopkins and  Kain, respectively]?

ED: Yeah, a lot of people I can’t even remember. Although last year I had dinner with Jeffrey Wright and he said that he came in and auditioned.

EUR: Really?

ED: [Laughs] That’s what he told me.

EUR: For what part?

ED: I don’t even remember. I had dinner with him and he said, ‘I came and auditioned for that, man.’

EUR: As a filmmaker, how was it watching Tupac transform into Bishop? Some people say he eventually became that character  in real life via the way he was after the film was released. Do you believe that or do you feel Tupac’s real-life persona was far separate from Bishop?

ED: You know, that’s a good question. I’ve heard the theory that the character Bishop kind of like took him over. And there was a lot of Tupac in Bishop. No doubt about it. Tupac was a very emotional guy, a very emotional guy. And he was very vulnerable. He was a brilliant young man. You could see that his brain was always working. He was always thinking, always thinking, you know.

He had a great sense of himself. He had a great sense of humor about himself, but if something went wrong with his life or if he got crossed, yeah, he could be volatile.

It was one time he started talking to a young lady in the neighborhood where we were shooting and somehow he got in to an altercation with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend had just come back from spending a couple of months lifting weights on Rikers Island. Pac wanted to fight the guy and we had to get him out of there. We had to put him in a car and just get him the hell out of there. So little things like that…he was such a great guy. He was such a fun guy to hang out with and he can make fun of himself.

When we were shooting, there were these young ladies that were hanging around set. They were always going around and watching us work and everything. They were really pretty young ladies, you know. But then we really started to get a good look at them and started noticing an Adam’s apple here, a few of the razor bumps here and realize that, ‘Oh my God. These are really guys who had work done.’ And they were cute. I mean, you know, they were fine.

tupac-shakurOne day we were setting up a scene and I saw Pac. You know, we were shooting on Broadway and I saw Pac down the block talking to one. He did not know. And it started to just kind of slowly work its way through the crew that these were young guys. And Pac did not know. We were up at the top of the hill and I saw Pac down there.

And just the body language. You could see, he was rappin.’ He was giving it his all and the young lady was just looking at him, just shaking her head like, ‘Uh ah. No, no, no. You don’t know what you’re doin’ here.’ [Laughs]

So I told my AD Randy Fletcher, my first assistant director. I said, ‘Man, you better go tell him [Tupac] because we gotta get this shot off. So you better go down and get him.’ So he goes down. He goes down and as they’re walking back, we’re all looking at him walkin’ up the hill and Randy is whispering in his ear. And he just starts crackin’ up. Pac’s like, ‘And that’s why she didn’t want to give me her number!’ because apparently they wanted to give me her number. And the lady would say, ‘No honey, you don’t want my number.’ [Tupac would say] ‘No, come on. don’t be like that. Give me your number.’ She was like, ‘You don’t know what’s going on here. You really do not want my number.’ [Laughs]

But the fact is the joke was on him and he just rolled with it. He just had so much fun and the whole crew was laughing and everything and he was cool. So he could laugh at himself.

The young ladies still came around set and guys were getting their pictures taken with them and everything else. The work had been done on them. I think some of the guys, we found out, had been in a documentary on the gay life called ‘Paris is Burning.’ A thing about gay performers and stuff. They were pretty young men. But just the fact that Pac could laugh at himself. He was the butt of the joke and he just went with it. And he and the other three guys [Kain, Epps and Hopkins], they got along great. They hung out together and they really had a good time together. He was a beautiful cat. He was really a beautiful guy.

Juice stars Khalil Kain, Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins and Tupac Shakur 2bEUR: I’m listening to this and I’m like, ‘When he gets wind that this lady is actually a guy, he may explode.’ But you’re saying that it was the direct opposite.

ED: Yeah. He just broke out in this big laugh and he said, ‘That’s why she wouldn’t give me her number!’ and the whole crew was laughing too. So no, he had fun with it.

EUR: Do you have any interesting tidbits that even the most diehard “Juice” fan may not know about or even something about the stars of the film?

ED: I think the story that I told you is one of the funniest. Sam[uel L. Jackson] was pretty lo-key throughout the shooting. Cindy, she was great. I think Omar definitely had a crush on her because she’s a beautiful lady. She’s really cool. I ran into her year before last at a Whole Foods out here. I hadn’t seen her in such a long time.

I think if he [Tupac] had a fault, I think sometimes he let some of the wrong people get too close. There was one time when he made friends with this cat, with this guy in the neighborhood. And then one day, I heard that Tupac’s jewelry had been stolen out of his trailer. The producers really wanted to do good by it and pay him back for it, but he said, ‘No, I know who did it. I’m gonna get it back.’

And so he started having this guy hanging out with him. This guy was huge. He was like big and wide, kind of like a bodyguard hanging with him.

One day, I think we were setting up the scene of Raheem’s funeral at his mother’s house and I saw the producers over in a corner. They were talking. I just knew something was up. So I walk up over there and said, ‘What’s going on guys?’ They said, ‘Ernest don’t worry about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing and don’t worry about it.’

I said, ‘No, look. Whatever it is, it’s gonna affect today. So come on. Come on, tell me.’ They said, ‘Well, you know that Tupac had his jewelry stolen. I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ They said, ‘You know he said he thinks he knew who did it.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘He has this big muscle-bound guy that’s been hanging out with him for the past few days.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’

They said, ‘Well, about an hour ago, Tupac and this guy were stomping the guy that he thought had stolen the jewelry. Stomping him out on the street. And people were hanging out the window, [saying] ‘Leave that boy alone. Leave that boy alone.’ The only way he got away was a car was coming up the street. And the guy broke away and jumped on the back of the car as it sped away.

And I’m like, ‘Oook. Alright. I hope this poor guy doesn’t try to come back and get some revenge.’ But nothing ever happened. Nothing ever came of it…sometimes he [Tupac] trusted the wrong people. And I think that became pretty evident later on in his career, some of the folks that might’ve contributed to his murder, you know, his shooting, and some of the deals that he made with some people.

I think if anything, he was a wonderful, beautiful cat, really smart and just a wonderful guy. And he was a lot of fun.

EUR: There’s been talk over the years about some type of sequel or remake to “Juice.” If you could cast “Juice” today, who would you cast for which character and why?

ED: I think I’d probably do what we did back then. I’d go for unknowns. There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of untried talent, a lot of talent waiting to be discovered.

That was one of the great things about working on “The Wire.” It’s that a lot of those kids that they found for season 4, you know, the whole thing about the kids. All the way through, it was always gratifying to find new people. Like Snoop. Snoop, the young sister [Felicia Pearson]. She came out of nowhere and it was just really interesting to see her grow, to see her not know her way around a film set and then several months later when a new actor comes on, she’s showing them what to do. That’s how much she grew.

Juice scene Omar Epps and Tupac ShakurSeeing people grow like that and seeing people, new young talent. Finding them and seeing a new face and bringing a whole new quality that you didn’t expect, that you get a glimpse of in an audition and a feeling that you get from them, just from meeting with them. You get a feeling, something that excites you about that person. Just like it was when we met Tupac and Omar. It was just something about these guys that just…there’s something there. You can just feel it, that palpable something that that actor has. And when they deliver and you turn the world on to somebody new, that’s a good feeling. That’s a really good feeling.

Ernest DickersonEUR: Is there anything else or memories you would like to share or say about “Juice”?

ED: I’m really happy that it’s lasted this long. I never thought about it for a long time, but then my daughter started telling me years ago that. She said, ‘You know dad, ‘Juice’ is a classic.’ I was like, ‘What? What ‘Juice’? She said, ‘No, your movie ‘Juice’ is a classic.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’
She was telling me how she and her friends would have ‘Juice’ parties, where they would get together and play the movie and say the dialogue. I was flabbergasted. I never saw that. I never thought of it. You move on and that was then. And the fact that she told me that and then I started finding out more and more about it, that people were really responding to it that way.

It’s been good. I just want to thank people for supporting the film. I’m happy that 25 years later that they’re still enjoying it because as a filmmaker you hope that your film has that kind of longevity, but you’re not guaranteed that it will.

The Juice 25th anniversary edition was released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 6 and the Digital HD version is set for a June 13 release.

Check out the classic trailer for “Juice”:

Watch the alternate ending:


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