By Iain Blair
The multi-faceted Don Cheadle has starred in some 80 movies, both big (Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Ocean’s and Iron Man franchises) and small (Hotel Rwanda), and produced various TV shows and films.
Now he can add director to his resume, thanks to his passion project and labor of love, Miles Ahead, a wild — and wildly entertaining — free form biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis. Cheadle not only co-wrote, produced and directed the film, he also stars as the raspy-voiced pioneering musician whose improvisational approach and ambitious forays into rock-jazz fusion helped define modern jazz.
Set in the late ‘70s over the course of a five-year period, Miles Ahead paints a no-holds portrait of the mercurial Davis battling drug addiction and ghosts from the past as he embarks on an adventure with a music reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) to recover a stolen tape of his latest compositions.
I recently met with Cheadle to talk about making the film, which was shot on a combination of film and digital formats.
You certainly jumped in the deep end for your first film as director — a period piece, about jazz, starring a black trumpeter. Financing must have been so easy (smiles).
So easy! No problem! We were very fortunate at the beginning… In 2006, we set it up at HBO — it was also going to get a theatrical release — but then the recession hit in 2008 and it was a disaster. That deal fell apart, the writers went away and we were back to square one with me playing Miles. That was it. But then I met (co-writer) Steve Baigelman, who co-wrote the James Brown biopic Get On Up, who understood what I wanted to do, and we got the script in shape. It was still years of stopping and starting, and deals falling apart, before it finally happened.
What did you envision for the film when you set out on this journey?
I wanted to make a film that really captures Miles’ raw energy and forward movement. I didn’t want to make the conventional biopic that tries to cover a whole life. The period we chose was this time when he was going through various personal and creative crises, and basically disappeared from view. That seemed like a great place to start and explore this very complicated man. I never met him, but I saw him perform and talked to everyone who worked with him. He was constantly looking for the next thing to say through his art, and that’s what drove him.
How did you prepare to direct your first feature?
I had directed TV and commercials, and I told myself this would just be a bigger stage. No need to freak out. And I’ve never been the dude who goes back to the trailer. I always liked to hang out on sets, watch people work, talk to DPs about lighting and the sound mixer and so on. I was trying to learn as much as I could. I talked to all my director friends, like Warren Beatty and Carl Franklin, and they basically said the same thing: “It’s the same, just bigger.” And I’d ask, “Really?” And they would say, “No. It’s much more than that. It’s like dealing with an army. Shooting is so stressful and you never sleep — and on top of that, you’re playing the lead and are in nearly every scene. Good luck with that!”
George Clooney, who has also directed himself, had great advice: “Do your pushups.” Meaning, you trust your script, you’ve got a good team around you — but you have to stay healthy to get through it all. It was tough. We actually shot most of it in Cincinnati, where Todd Haynes had just shot Carol, so they were very welcoming.
Was post a steep learning curve?
I have been around post a bit and in the editing room, but when it’s your own project and all the decisions are now yours, it’s very daunting. When I saw the first rough assembly I was so shocked that I left. I told the editor, “I’m out. I can’t even watch this. All I can see is everything I wasn’t able to accomplish, all of the mistakes, my performance is terrible — I don’t ever want to see this again!” He said, “That’s a very normal reaction, it’s okay.” It was a couple of weeks before I could come back and get into the process again.
Do you like the post process?
By the end, once I got over myself and into it all, I loved it. I had to focus on what was there, not the missing stuff, and then the magic of post happened — where it’s your third chance to write your movie. It was really rewarding, especially when you can magically create a moment in post that wasn’t there on the day.
Where did you post?
We did post in two sections. We did it at Tribeca West, for two months, and also some back east at Warner Bros. Sound in New York on West 55th. That’s where we did our sound mix. We also shot the last concert scene in New York and finished it up there. We did have a few visual effects, like when Miles is shot in the hip, and VFX to just sweeten stuff and paint out lights, but nothing major. Lit Post in Burbank did the VFX.
John Axelrad (Crazy Heart, The Immigrant) edited the film with Kayla Emter. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
Kayla was his assistant, and as I was so focused on playing Miles I told them, “Take the reins, and don’t wait for me to dictate how to cut scenes.” It was like when Herbie Hancock first played with Miles — he was terrified and said to Miles, “I don’t know what to play.” And Miles just said, “Piano, motherf***er.” (Laughs hard) That’s exactly how I felt with them. I didn’t need them to explain it all, just show it to me. Kayla really took that on and she cut a couple of great sequences that were all hers. So when John told us he wanted to make her his co-editor and that she deserved it, I agreed immediately.
They didn’t come to the set. They got the dailies in LA and then New York, and cut as we shot. We didn’t waste any footage. Our first assembly was 104 minutes, and the final movie is 100! We only cut one scene in the whole thing.
Obviously, music and sound were crucial. Can you talk about the importance of it in the film, and working with sound designer/editor Skip Lievsay?
It was an interesting mix, especially the music, because we wanted to use source and Miles wherever we could, and not try to do “sounds-like.” So I’d play to playback of Miles and all his solos, but when we had to bridge or figure out ways to make the magic happen, we did different things. There’s a scene where Miles is upstairs and the band is playing in the basement, and I walk downstairs and you hear the music break apart. I tell them to start another song in another tempo, and the shot goes over and around all the musicians as I start playing. They had to play over all that to picture and match every breath and bit of phrasing. That was very tricky to do, but it’s seamless.
Where did you mix the sound?
At Warners in New York, and Skip did a brilliant job.
How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
Hugely important, and I did it with the DP at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura (who uses DaVinci Resolve). I wanted a look that echoed his music — brash, tender, moody, happy, the whole thing. It all turned out the way I pictured it in my head. [Says Nakamura, “Roberto and I based the look in the grade on the 16mm portions of the film by adding some grain to the digital images, just a subtle amount. And then we also wanted to give some scenes a bit of a ‘vintage’ feel. A lot of that comes from the costumes and hair styles and the older lenses he used but we also infused those images with a look inspired by photographs in magazines from the ’50s and ’60s that had more contrast than the pictures we’re used to seeing today.”]
Do you want to direct again?
After I go into a coffin for a while and recover. But it’s so hard directing and starring. Next time I don’t need to be in it. It’s too much.
More of my Showtime series House of Lies, then a big rest before I commit to anything.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.