Don Cheadle produced, co-wrote, directed and stars in “Miles Ahead,” a glimpse into the life and career of famed jazz musician Miles Davis.
The 51-year-old Oscar nominee (“Hotel Rwanda”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman, spent a decade trying to bring his passion project to the screen. He recently spoke at a press conference about portraying one of his musical heroes.
Q: How much did script change in the 10 years you were developing this?
Cheadle: What I learned about Miles or what kept hitting home was just how creative he was and the way he approached his work and his art. He was inexhaustible—except for the period (of seclusion depicted in the movie)—in his search for the next sound. That’s something that, for me, was inspiring personally for my work to always be like Miles was—on the edge of discomfort, always feeling like you’re kind of off-balance and reaching for something. That’s where real growth happens, and that’s something that Miles hammered home for me.
Q: Could you talk about your process of writing the film and selecting this portion of Miles’ life as opposed to making a typical biographical film?
Cheadle: I definitely didn’t do anything “normal” or “conventional,” especially with this man, this figure. The working title of this movie was, “Kill the Trumpet Player, Volume 1,” because we always thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do like five Miles Davis movies?” So if we just focus on this, now we can do an origins movie. We can do the when he came out of another period of his life. We could do another one near his death movie. We could do five different Miles Davis movies, and they would all be different and interesting and valuable, but we focused on this particular period of time because it felt very meta-Miles. One of Miles’ biggest dictums he lived by was, “Play what’s not there.” This felt like a kind of a down note before this up note, and we wanted to look at the down note before the up note and create a narrative that would allow us to externalize an internal process. I didn’t want to just show an artist sitting at a piano or playing a note and writing something down and crumpling it up and throwing it over his shoulder. It’s like, how do you show artistry? How do you really get into that, and what does it look like and feel like?
It’s hard to decipher if it’s not something you inherently understand. If you don’t understand music and how music is constructed in theory in chords and all of that, it just sounds like gobbledygook. So as opposed to trying to speak to the two percent of the population that understands that, we wanted to tell a story that felt like you were walking around inside of Miles Davis’ brain. Walking around inside of his creation. Walking around inside of creativity and what that feels like.
Q: How much in the script can be taken as truth?
Cheadle: You want me to go down the list? (He laughs). It’s all truth. How much of it is facts? A lot of it. But like any movie, that’s not a documentary and it’s not an autobiography. If you want to do the facts/truth thing, which I constantly did, it’s very interesting, taking a book like the Quincy Troupe book, his autobiography, and then taking a book like John Szwed’s book “So What (The Life of Miles Davis),” and reading those side by side, and going “Okay, that’s not the same story,” and then talking to Vincent or Erin his son, or Frances… it kinds turns into “Rashomon.” There are events that happen that we point to and we talk about, like Miles was shot in a drive by – absolutely true. There was this recording that was produced during this period of time that’s never been released that everyone wanted, and he was in a relationship with the studio and they were trying to get the next thing out of him.
There was a trumpet player that was hired at Columbia during this period of time that was there to fill the void that Miles had left. I don’t want to go through and demystify the movie by pointing to everything that happened or didn’t happen. Clearly we’ve taken poetic license in places to support the narrative, to create the momentum and to create a story that feels like momentum. But it’s been very interesting in my own research to tell a story back to somebody who was there, that I read in an article and them say, “That ain’t how that stuff happened.” So it was constantly that.
Q: How do you compare playing a well-known public figure like this to someone like Paul Rusegabena from “Hotel Rwanda,” or other real life people you’ve played?
Cheadle: I guess that’s something that’s more in the eye of the beholder if there is going to be a comparison between someone who’s known and did he pull it off (and) did he get it? And someone who’s not known as much as Paul, where you can get away with, I guess, more things because people don’t know. Still, in both exercises I was attempting to get as close as I could to them and their truths and who they were on the inside.
With Miles it’s a little different because there are things. There’s hair. There’s a voice. There are certain masks that you need to have with you so that people ride with the character and you hope the host body doesn’t reject the organ. But interesting enough, when you mentioned Paul Rusegabena, who I had the opportunity to sit next to during a lot of the filming of “Hotel Rwanda.” We’d finish a scene and I’d look over and go, “So, like that, Paul?” and he’d go, “Ehhh! It’s a movie. That’s fine.”
Similarly, Dewey Hughes, when I did “Talk to Me,” and Earl Manigault, when I did “Rebound,” playing these real-life figures and sitting next to the people that were really there, it keeps ringing true over and over and over again, and not in a way that’s a pejorative, but in a way that is just logical, we’re trying to encapsulate the someone’s breadth and scope of their life, or reduce these impactful moments of their life that are between the time you drove from your house and got here, in the span of a film. It’s not possible. You have to pick and choose. You have to align characters. You have to make composites. You omit things. You make things happen in a place where it didn’t happen to form a narrative, a structure that makes sense.
We started to open our movie by saying in Miles’ voice, “Some of this shit might have happened…” But David O. Russell did that with “American Hustle,” so we went, “Oh man, we were going to do that!” So we had Miles, in his own voice as a character, say, “You ain’t a Walter Cronkite. I’m gonna tell my story.” And the way he told his story is that he put his horn to his lips. That’s the story. So, if you see that happen and you’re still focused on the facts of it, we just didn’t put our attention on that. We put our attention on the creation.
Q: Part of the film deals with the disintegration of Davis’ marriage to Frances Taylor (a ballerina who gave up her career to focus on her husband). Can you talk about that?
Cheadle: The Frances part of the storyline was all about lost and possession, while the rest of it was all about voice and expression. Not just the creative aspect of the muse, but everything that Miles had wrapped up in his expression. So we looked at movies like “Toto the Hero,” “Run Lola Run,” and “All That Jazz”—films that moved back and forth between times when there were no hard lines between timelines, and it always felt like there was a forward momentum. We wanted all of the cuts and all of the interplays between the timelines to have momentum and have it all tumbling forward and create this sort of torpor that Miles spits himself out at the end. Frances is that tape incarnate, and that’s how we chose our times where we cut back and forth. When Miles almost had “it,” and loses “it.” It’s when he almost has Frances, and then loses her. It’s modal in its construction. Like a piece of music is modal. It was here. It’s now and then. It doesn’t matter —the specific date. That was the dice that we rolled on this storytelling.
Q: Can you talk about the writing process on this film?
Cheadle: We didn’t want to just show an artist sitting at a piano or playing a note or writing something down, (mimics crumpling up paper) and throwing it over his shoulder. How do you show artistry? How do you really get into that, and what does it look like and feel like? We thought it’s hard to decipher if it’s not something you inherently understand. If you don’t understand music and how music is contracted in theory and chords, then it just sounds like gobbledygook. As opposed to trying to speak to the two percent of the population that understands that, we wanted to tell a story that felt like you were walking around inside of Miles Davis’ brain. We had our character of Miles Davis saying it at the very beginning of the movie. When he’s being asked about how he gets back to it, and he says, “When you’re quiet, you have these thoughts. Sometimes it’s like war, like you’re fighting against yourself, and then you sit there and something happens and it clicks and you figure out what to say, and that’s it.” The movie plays out exactly that way. Steven, my co-writing partner on this, discussed it in that way. We sat with each other and fought and challenged and called b.s. on each other. We acted out scenes. We called it just “being in the lab.” The lab would be in my guesthouse behind my home, or in his living room. We just spent a lot of time with each other over the last 5-1/2 years doing this exercise.
Q: You actually learned to play the trumpet for this role. Do you have a name for your horn?
Cheadle: Who names their horn? Jim. (He laughs.) No, I don’t have a name for my horn. It’s a Monette. And it’s beautiful. Wynton (Marsalis) actually, because I loved his trumpet, I want a B-flat, I want a trumpet like yours. He said the guy that makes them, David Monette, takes sometimes nine months to make a trumpet. And I didn’t have that much time. So I asked, “How about now?” And he said, “Let me call the dude and see what he can do for you and Wynton bought for me the shop trumpet so this is the demo trumpet that I have that everybody has played on. Arturo Sandoval has played on it. Wynton’s played on it. All these great trumpet players have played on it. It’s the demo; it’s the shop trumpet. So Wynton purchased it (for me). He paid for my trumpet.