Bill Duke on the Making of His Essential ’90s Thriller Deep Cover

The director contemplates the legacy of his ’92 neo-noir about cops and criminals, and what he sees in the protests sweeping the country today. Photo: New Line Cinema

Bill Duke’s 1992 film Deep Cover is a time capsule, but it is also timeless. Adapted from a book by former DEA agent Michael Levine and transformed into a neo-noir undercover-cop thriller by screenwriters Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin, the film tells the story of Police Officer Russell Stevens (Laurence Fishburne), who wants to fight crime to subsume the trauma of the childhood death of his father, a petty junkie and armed robber. Stevens impersonates a drug dealer (under the name John Hull) to bring down a cartel but becomes immersed in the life — to the point where he and a cartel lawyer, David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), hatch a scheme to manufacture and distribute a variant of cocaine that provides the same levels of energy but none of the attendant problems. Complications, as they say, ensue. In advance of this week’s Friday Night Movie Club screening of Deep Cover, hosted on Twitter by Vulture staff writer Angelica Jade Bastién, we spoke to Duke about the making of his ’90s thriller, the importance of a moral compass in his film about cops and criminals, and the hope he sees in the protests sweeping the country today.

How did you come to direct Deep Cover
Well, first of all, Deep Cover was a book. It was written by a drug-enforcement agent, Michael Levine. He was great at his job, but after a while he realized that the drugs were not being made or brought in locally. He had been going after people in the neighborhood. The more he did the job and the more he learned, the more he realized that there was a lot more to it.

Yes. There’s a 1991 profile of him where he says, “There is no drug war. It’s a fraud. No other nation in the world has a drug war. The rest have addiction problems. We have war. Why? Because it’s a toy, a grab bag with a lot of big hands in it.”
Yeah. At some point he said to himself, “Wait a minute, I know they’re selling them in the community, but they’re not manufacturing it. They’re not shipping it. They’re not doing any of that. Who’s doing that?” And so he decided he was going to investigate all that.

Michael Levine is a white man. The movie changes the protagonist to a black man named Russell Stevens, Laurence Fishburne’s character. How does that change the story?
I just felt that Laurence Fishburne would be a perfect person for that role. He read the book and the script and he loved it, so that’s how that all came together. In terms of what he did and did not [do], it doesn’t change much. The relationship between Jeff Goldblum[’s character], the lawyer David Jason, and [Russell] wasn’t necessarily sustained throughout the book. And in terms of the hero’s street presence, that’s something we added to. The relationship between the gallery owner, played by Victoria Dillard, and the cop played by Clarence Williams III, who plays on the hero’s conscience, that all wasn’t in the book.

The script added a lot. But changing the race of the main character changes a lot of other things, as you see when you watch the movie.

Can you set the context for readers who may not know what was going on in the country circa 1991 with regards to drugs and politics?  
The crack epidemic was in full swing. The black community was seen as the “horror station of the universe,” you know? The news and the government made it seem like these evil, sick, crazy black people were doing bad things, killing each other, killing cops and killing other people. In those days, the drug infection in our community was just overwhelming.

But when you really research what was going on, you see that there was — when I say poverty, I mean extreme, extreme, extreme poverty. We’re talking about a welfare system that was dysfunctional, making it hard for men to be part of their own households and then blaming them for that. We’re also talking about the public-school educational system totally broken. We’re talking about the ratio of black men in prison compared to the numbers in the population being way out of whack. I could go on and on and on. I wanted to really explore what was at the core of it and what could be done, in the form of a thriller.

At the time it came out, I was shocked to see a major release that said that the leader of the drug cartel in this movie is golf partners with President George H.W. Bush!
Right! [Laughs] That’s right! You know, just follow the dollars, you know what I’m saying? If you follow the dollars, it simplifies everything. 

What sorts of conversations did you have with Laurence Fishburne in terms of performance? What did you all talk about when you talked about Russell Stevens/John Hull?
Well, the foundation of it was: Why is he doing all this? It was [Fishburne] who came up with a lot of what we used as the character’s moral compass: “I want to help, I want to do something.” And of course, another huge part of it was, this character is a black man. After the opening scene with him as a child, the first scene with the character as an adult is him being interviewed by [DEA Agent] Carver. Do you remember that scene?

How can anyone forget that scene? It’s hard to imagine a scene like that in a Hollywood movie today, with that language. 
Remember what he said, though?

What did he say?

You really want me to say it?
[Laughs] Go ahead.

Carver asks all of the potential undercover recruits, “What’s the difference between a black man and a n - - - - -?”
You remember Hull’s response?

“A n - - - - - is somebody who would answer that question.”
That’s exactly right. You see? He defined himself as a human being, and he wanted to help his community by being an undercover cop.

But the price that you pay for everything is a tragic knowledge of how hard that is and what’s actually going on behind the scenes to make that so hard. He had to realize he can’t dissolve the infrastructure that he was working for, that it was as crooked as the people on the street.

And that’s when he started doing cocaine.

Charles Martin Smith’s character, Carver, says on more than one occasion, “I am God.” And Detective Taft, Clarence Williams’s character, is a Christian who sees himself as a protector of black children, which is why he’s so into the drug war. There’s even an exotic dancer dressed like a nun in the background of a conversation in a club. What is going on with all of that?  
Well, with a story like this, the question becomes, without preaching, how do you set the moral compass of a film? You don’t want it to tell people, “This is good” or “This is bad” or they should think this or they should think that. How do you put the moral compass of a film within a context? And how can you use images to make people feel a sense of conflict within themselves, and question their own value system, as they watch the story?

I’m thinking about my own reaction to Deep Cover when I saw it in theaters when it came out. I found myself torn between rooting for him to start his own drug business and arresting the drug dealers he was supposed to be investigating in the first place, many of whom are stone killers.
Right, right. Exactly.

Can you talk about Jeff Goldblum and the interplay between him and Laurence Fishburne in this movie, which is a source of humor and a bit perverse at times?
Jeff Goldblum is one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t give anything less than 100 percent, ever. But that was also for Clarence, for all the actors. They gave 100 percent. If you can make an actor feel comfortable, that they can trust you, that you’ll talk honestly about things with him or her, they’ll give a lot. I define acting when I’m teaching my students as “falling into darkness backward.” There’s got to be somebody there to catch you. That’s what directors are supposed to do. So, from the table reads upfront and preproduction to getting the actors’ input in terms of the character when you’re blocking a scene, you gotta listen to that stuff. It makes the movie better. It makes it something other than an ego trip by the director. It makes it a collaboration.

What’s an example of something that changed from the script to the finished film because of this collaboration?
The first one I think of is the scene where Jeff Goldblum is dealing with a supposed comrade and drug dealer, and he makes the mistake of standing up for himself, and he gets commanded to take part in a hand-slapping game.

He gets slapped on the hands and then across the face. In the script, that scene was not quite as you saw it. It was more of a straight build to the hand-slapping. But as the actors got into it, they felt and saw something in it that was more brutal. When we talked about it, I really felt that what they wanted to do was incredibly right. And that’s how you get Jeff’s rage welling up and him getting slapped across the face. And that’s what sets him down the course his character goes on through the rest of the movie. I don’t think in the original script there was a slap in the face. The character was supposed to be much more submissive. The slap, that came from working out the scene with all the actors. The defiance, the rage, that comes from Jeff. That’s what makes it a scene that people remember.

In terms of the visual style and the editing of the film — particularly those edits that chop out frames on the beat of a song, and that super-slowed-down slow motion in the opening credits, where it’s only one shot but there’s such a long pause between frames that it’s almost like you’re watching a gallery of still photographs — did you draw anything from particular traditions, or from specific films or filmmakers that you admired?
Well, I wanted to really show that scene from the point of view of the people that were smoking and taking the drugs. I mean, how did they see things? I’ve taken drugs, and when you take heavy drugs, the world isn’t the same to you as the average person who sits down talking. Something changes in you. How you perceive yourself and the world around you changes. I wanted to put in some subjective elements: not just objective but subjective elements also.

Some of my favorite films are really old-school. I’m a big fan of Federico Fellini, for example. Also Steven Spielberg, George Lucas. Gordon Parks. I could go on and on and on. But one of the greatest things about those filmmakers is that they’re able to work with a DP and communicate in images whenever possible. I like silent films because that’s the peak of that kind of filmmaking. They didn’t have any speaking in them, except for a few title cards, and that forced the filmmakers to tell the story with the camera. That’s what I wanted to do with this movie.

[Warning: Spoilers about Deep Cover’s ending below.]

When you think back on this movie or when someone says the title Deep Cover to you, what is the first scene that you think of?
When Jeff Goldblum shoots Clarence Williams III and he dies, and Laurence Fishburne hugs Clarence’s body and he looks at Jeff and Jeff says, “Let’s go, let’s take this money” and Laurence Fishburne says, “You shouldn’t have done that.” [Laughs] And Jeff says, “What are you talking about? Let’s go!” “You shouldn’t have done that, David.” I love that scene! I love it! And Fish went deep. He was sobbing, you know what I mean?

Amazing that you chose that scene, because that’s the one I think of, but it’s a different part of it. I think of Fishburne getting slapped by Goldblum — interesting that it’s a slap, given what we just talked about — and then Fishburne says, “You-have-the-right-to-remain-silent.” Like he’s a computer that’s been turned off and then suddenly somebody plugged it back in again.  
And you know what I love too, is right after that, Jeff Goldblum’s reaction when he discovers that Fishburne’s secretly an undercover cop. He says, “Screw that! Let’s take the money and go!”

It’s almost like that final line from Some Like It Hot when Jack Lemmon in drag says, “I’m a man!” and the guy who wants to marry him says, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Love it!

Is it okay if we talk about some other highlights of your career?

There’s the climactic scene in Car Wash when your character comes in with a gun and tries to rob the character played by Ivan Dixon. Like some other scenes in the film, it’s so intense that I find it strange when people refer to Car Wash as a comedy. 
Ivan Dixon’s a genius, as a director and an actor and a writer. I loved him. He passed much too soon. And I gotta say, in that scene, I wasn’t really acting, because I was an angry young black man at that time. I had gone through what my character had gone through. It was a privilege to be able express those emotions through that character — it was a privilege — without overdoing it or anything and being able to speak for so many young black men who have no voice.

I mean, if you’re tall and dark and black, you’re seen as angry and hostile and dangerous. No one talks about your humanity. I had the opportunity to speak to that young man’s humanity.

The way that he collapses at the end and he expresses such exhaustion and despair made me feel like he was talking about what was happening right this very moment.
Yes. I hear you exactly, brother. Listen, man, how much has changed? Know what I’m saying? How much has really, really, really, really changed?

If you say, “Not much,” it seems like you’re giving in to pessimism.
I’d say you’re giving in to the truth! [Laughs] These protests are about something. It’s big. People are sick and tired of being sick and tired! They’re just saying, “No more. It’s enough. Stop. No more, no more, no more.”

Since we’re getting into this — and why shouldn’t we? — what do you think of the criticism that the protests lack a focus or a message?
Why would they have a focus right now? There’s a lot of different things to be mad about. A lot. People are emotionally disgusted with the direction in which our society is moving. Not just black people. Look at the number of races that are out there protesting. Different ages, different colors. Look at it, man. People are trying to make this a “black angry mob” thing. It’s much, much more than that.

The most important thing to remember is that it is an emotional response. But in the long term, an emotional response without strategy leads to frustration. And so the big question’s going to be, “Is there a strategy to take these emotions and turn them into something that will effect lasting change?” I don’t see that strategy yet, but I think that there’s something fascinating going on. In the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when black folks protested, it was in their own neighborhoods. But now it’s in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica — have you seen this? These kids are fearless! They don’t care if you live in a rich neighborhood.

You know, there was a question that a friend of mine asked many years ago, and I never forgot this. He said, “What do you call a critical mass of people who feel they have nothing to lose?”

Are you asking me?
Yeah, I want to get your response to it. What word would you use?

Earlier in my life, I would have said “mob.”
What would you say now?

“Rebellion,” probably.
Yeah. I would say “revolution.” The message? What’s the message? There’s no message yet. It’s a series of questions and statements. “What are you going to do with me? I have nothing. What are you going to take away from me? My life is so miserable, I don’t care. Do your worst. I’ll die.”

Is there any hope? 
Did you see the numbers of people on the street in different cities? The size of this thing?

Yes. And it keeps getting bigger.
There is no police department that can control all these people! There’s no army that can control all those people! Do you understand? Okay, so you have a thousand policemen and 500 army folks in a given city, right? Well, suppose there’s 5,000 or 10,000 people marching! What are you gonna do, shoot everybody? That ain’t gonna happen. And then there’s another thing the people going after these protestors tend to forget. You know what that is?

Tell me.
You can find it in the story of Marie Antoinette. She was so out of touch with reality that she said, “What’s all that noise outside the palace gates?” And her people said, “Well, those are the peasants, and they’re hungry, and they’re angry that they have no bread.” Marie’s like, “Okay, how about cake? Let them eat cake!” That confirmed how insensitive she was to the issues the peasants were mad about. So they broke into the palace doors and took all her stuff, and then they came for her, and she was up there in her little room with her guards protecting her. The peasants start rushing towards her, and the guards raised their swords and their guns. And then they say, “Wait a minute, that’s Uncle Charlie and Aunt Etta and Cousin John coming in my direction. I have a choice of shooting Cousin John or letting the queen get her head chopped off.”

Guess what happened next?

Going back to your past: What influence did black filmmakers like Ivan Dixon and Michael Schultz, the director of Car Wash, have on you?
Well, they didn’t help me get jobs directing. I didn’t go to the American Film Institute until a number of years [after Car Wash]. But being on-set with the two of them and watching how they both worked together was instructive. It was like being in school. Michael’s a genius. Michael knows how to tell a story, but he’s also a very efficient and effective director. In other words, he doesn’t just come on the set and go, “Well, maybe I’d like to shoot this … Or maybe this … ” No, no, no. A week before, Michael has the shots all planned out, and everybody in terms of the crew and cast knows where they’re going to be.

He’s one of the great unsung directors in American cinema, I think.
Somebody should be lucky enough to taught by Michael Schultz every day, because what he’s done for film is amazing.

We should talk about your famous scene in The Limey, because people will be mad if I don’t.
Oh, that scene! [Laughs] Steven Soderbergh, as you know, is a genius. I worked with him again two years ago on a film called High Flying Bird that’s on Netflix now. Each time, you learn from him as you work with him. On The Limey, you know, he hires actors that he trusts and turns them loose. Working with Terence [Stamp] — as you know, he’s brilliant — was wonderful. And that scene …

[Duke trails off and laughs for ten seconds straight.]

I love that you can’t talk about a scene from a movie made 21 years ago, because you can’t stop laughing!
I can’t help it! I can’t help it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. That is just funny stuff. Ask me about something else!

What is the most important thing that you learned about yourself while making Deep Cover
Never be satisfied. Excellence is not something that you accomplish easily. No matter what nice things anybody says about my work, I always see something I could have done better. All of us were relentless in trying to make every part of that thing as good as it could be. We really worked on it. When I went to watch Deep Cover with audiences after we’d finished editing, people cheered and loved the film. I’d sit in the back row of the theater and watch my movie. It felt good.

What could you have done better on Deep Cover?
I don’t know. And that’s why it’s my favorite of everything I’ve made.

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Bill Duke on the Making of His Essential Thriller Deep Cover