Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew’s site: www.andrewjbloomenthal.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ABloomenthal
In making Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, director, co-writer and star Don Cheadle created a film that’s much like Davis himself: colorful, chaotic and straight-up badass. Co-written by Get On Up scribe Steven Baigelman, Miles introduces us to the virtuoso in the late 1970’s as a frazzled shut-in, hidden from public view. Davis’ addiction to coke, booze and prescriptive pain pills for a deteriorating hip has rendered him slightly mad and stifled his musical voice in the process. Not surprisingly, efforts by Columbia Records suits to coax a comeback album aren’t going so well. When Davis refuses to surrender a session tape, a label exec sneaks into his home studio to procure it. Enter music reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who wins Davis’ trust and shadows him in his pursuit to recover the stolen item.
With a timeline that serpentines between past and present, memories that haunt Davis, including his failed marriage to his muse Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), show a man incapable of pulling proverbial punches. The same may be said for Cheadle, whose ambitious direction is deliciously abstract. The moment Davis pushes away an elevator wall and literally steps into a jam session from years past, we expect the unexpected, like a zigzagging jazz piece. And while this is precisely what Cheadle had in mind, you don’t need to be a jazz aficionado to dig this film.
In separate interviews, Cheadle and Baigelman spoke to Script about their collaboration in bringing Davis’s life to the screen in Miles Ahead.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Script: Can you discuss the long road it took to get this film made?
Don Cheadle: This project initially started about ten years ago, when it had a home at HBO, which at the time had a partnership with Picturehouse, their theatrical arm. Then the financial markets collapsed and a lot of mini-majors folded up their tents, so we were back to square one. We started interviewing people to replace the writers we were no longer working with, and the Davis family introduced me to Steven Baigelman, and we hit it off because we had similar ideas about how to approach the story.
Steven Baigelman: From the first lunch Don and I had, we knew we were onto something. It’s like when two musicians get together and start hitting some notes and you start thinking, “I can play with this guy. We can make moves.” We talked about how we were like two kids putting on a show in the garage, to see if the neighborhood kids would come to watch.
Script: What was your co-writing process like?
Cheadle: In 2007, Steven started working on a draft and I was hammering on him to get it done by Christmas, and he said, “I’m Jewish—why are you talking to me about Christmas?” I said, “Just think if it as a day.” I needed to impose a deadline because for me it had already been two years, and we had to get something out. After Steven gave me a really great first draft, we chopped it up and started working together at my house or his house. We always said we were in “The Lab,” because we were acting scenes out and pushing each other, paring the script down and tightening it up, until we finally got an irrational investor to say “yes” three years ago, and we were finally able to start pre production.
Script: Discuss the unusual narrative of this film.
Cheadle: We wanted to do something that felt more like a musical composition on film, rather than attempt to check off all the boxes and hit all of the “important” parts of Miles Davis’ life, which felt like a didactic exercise, like we were trying to cram for a Miles Davis quiz. At the point in his life when the movie begins, he had changed his music three or four times and he was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century, so instead of doing a cradle-to-grave movie that would have given short shrift to every era Miles Davis’ was important in, we decided to focus in on this part of his life when he wasn’t playing. It felt very “Miles Davis,” to play what’s not there and investigate questions like, “Where did your voice go? Can you get it back? What will you say?” These questions spoke to the frailty of the process where you hit a block and are trying to get back on track. So we saw this as a point of departure to tell a music-centric story that felt like a jazz piece, with no hard lines around it, in the way that memory and reverie works.
Baigelman: We wanted to do something gangsta, and make a movie that Miles Davis himself would want to star in, as opposed to a traditional life story.
Cheadle: And we had these discussions, like “How can we not talk about when Miles Davis met Charlie Parker? And are we really going to leave out his relationship with Clark Terry?” These pieces of information were fascinating when we read about them, but to structure them into the narrative would be doing things we’d seen before, so we decided to do just a concentrated dive into one period of time and create a visceral energy, as opposed to something literal.
Script: Did you precisely determine on the page, how long to live in flashback versus the present, or was this fine-tuned during editing?
Cheadle: It was definitely fine-tuned during editing, because we had a great editor, John Axelrad, and his co-editor, Kayla Emter, who understood what we were doing and made it even better and more pointed. But I’d say almost all of those transitions between the timelines were things Steven and I put into the script. We looked at movies like Toto the Hero, 8½ and Run Lola Run — movies that shift back and forth, but always feel like they’re tumbling forward. And when I lit up on that first transition of Miles pushing the elevator wall away, where he walks right into the past, I told this idea to Steven and he was like, “That’s sick! Let’s do it!”
Script: Don, were you bossy during the editing process, or did you let your editors work independently, and just check in periodically to give them notes?
Cheadle: When I saw the first cut, I felt raw and exposed and I was a total wreck, and said, “I can’t look at this.” I had no objectivity, so there was no point in me being here. All I could see is everything I wasn’t able to do, and I could only see my worst shortcomings come to life for everyone to see. So I stepped out for a couple weeks and let John and Kayla cut, then I came back and sat through it — biting my nails down. After that, I was in the editing room all day, every day, and throughout the whole post process, I really came to love it and understand that what everyone says is true: editing is your third opportunity to write your movie.
Script: Don, do you personally have a musical background, or did you employ experts to make sure you accurately nailed music theory and jargon?
Cheadle: Both. I’ve been playing musical instruments my whole life, starting when I was in fifth grade, playing alto saxophone. I knew Miles Davis’ music very well, and had been listening to it since I was eleven or twelve, so when it came time to do this film, I had literally hundreds of songs I wanted to explore and let sit next to this narrative in a way that felt like they weren’t taking a back seat, but were propelling the movie forward.
Script: Did Miles Davis really withhold a session tape from the Columbia record executives, and was he really the pain in the butt that he was portrayed to be?
Baigelman: I think he would resist the notion that he was ever a pain in the butt. I mean, he was not an easy person, to say the least, but he was really a prolific artist, and was a building block to the entire Columbia company. So when he took his time off, they were pushing and pushing for him to come back. He was like, “Guys, I’ve given you so much, so why don’t you just back off and let me do my thing.” That would be his perspective, and I’m sure he felt that the pains in the asses were the people hounding him. And the reason filming his silent period was so rich for us was because Miles Davis really was the Howard Hughes of music. He became a recluse and there were rumors he was dead. So yes, there really was a session tape that no one had heard that he was keeping under wraps, and his record company really was hounding him and threatening to cut off his money. These are all facts, but there were a lot of missing pieces, and through reading his autobiography, talking to his family and using and our own imagination, we were able to string those events together with an improvisational vision, which was the intention in making the movie feel like a Miles Davis composition.
Script: Despite showing all of Davis’ demons, including his abusive behavior towards his wife Frances, he was still charismatic. How did you know how low to take him, while still keeping viewers on board his journey?
Cheadle: I think it’s just about being human. I was always thinking about the counterpoints to his impenetrable layer of settled coolness, where he’s always the most confident person in the room, where everyone else is unsure around him. And then I read about him saying that he used to think about whether to tap his whole foot, or just his foot inside his shoe. Which was cooler? That’s not the thought of somebody who has everything all figured out and knows what’s what. [Jazz drummer] Tony Williams said Miles sometimes used to throw up before performances, because he was so agitated about doing something that makes you vulnerable. We wanted to capture the extremities of that vulnerability, as much as tell a story about one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
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