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Interview: A Conversation w/ Don Cheadle About His Miles Davis Film (Story, Style, Structure, Cast, Crew, Music, more)

by Shadow And Act
June 11, 2014 7:14 PM
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Don Cheadle is roughly a week into the Indiegogo campaign for his long-in-development Miles Davis biopic, "Miles Ahead," seeking to raise $325,000 towards the film's overall budget of under $10 million by July 6 to support the principal photography for the feature length film when it goes into production later this summer. Among the pledge prizes are rare Miles Davis posters, limited edition Miles Davis artwork, a coffee table book of Miles' artwork signed by Don Cheadle, as well as set visits and access to screenings.

Thus far, the project's Indiegogo campaign has raised over $130,000 of its $325,000 goal, with 28 days left until it ends. To contribute, click here.

Cheadle is producing the film through his Crescendo Productions banner, along with Bifrost's Daniel Wagner, and Robert Ogden Barnum. Also producing are Darryl Porter and Vince Wilburn on behalf of the Davis estate, Lenore Zerman and Pam Hirsch.  

While promoting the campaign, Cheadle spoke with Shadow And Act about starring, producing, co-writing, and making his feature directorial debut with the film including several new details about the casting and creative choices.

SHADOW AND ACT: Can you talk about the journey you've had over the years trying to get the film made. What kind of response have you gotten as you've met with studios and financiers? Are there any concessions you've been asked to make creatively, or has the hold up largely been due to funding?

DON CHEADLE: It's been all of it. The project first had traction in 2008 when Miles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his nephew told reporters that I was going to be playing him in the movie, which was the first I'd heard of it. People started calling to try and put the movie together because the family had given their blessing for me to be in it. I started working with writers and at that point it became clear that the take on the story that I wanted to do was going to have to be controlled by me. I couldn't really translate it to someone else and have it come off in the way that I wanted and needed it to.

So we had a script very early that we went out with, and a lot of people bid on it and several studios had optioned it. And then the world collapsed - the financial crisis hit and a lot of those mini-majors went out of business. We were kind of left without a home at that point, which turned out to be, for us, a good period of time because we pulled the movie back and restructured it and brought on Steven Baigelman ("Get On Up", "Feeling Minnesota") who I co-wrote the movie with, and created a different story.

At that point we went out again with it, and again had a lot of bites and a lot of places that were trying to put it together. And we just finally settled on making it with the financier that we have now, and are again in earnest targeting a start date and casting it, and now we're four weeks out.

S&A: What are some of the changes that the project went through during that time?

DC: Many, many changes. I think it moved from being something that was a little more of a traditional biopic, which I was never totally enamored of, toward something that I think is a lot more dynamic and interesting and creative and Miles.

S&A: You've called the film unconventional. What can you share about the story or style of it?

DC: It looks at Miles' silent period, him sort of coming out of that silent period and joining up with this Rolling Stone reporter and a young trumpet player to steal back his music. And it runs parallel with the storyline of Frances Taylor Davis, who he was in a relationship with for 10 years and was sort of his muse and the love of his life.

S&A: We've heard that Ewan McGregor will co-star as the reporter, Dave Brill. Is Zoe Saldana still attached to the project?

DC: She's not. She's not in the film.

S&A: Has anyone else been cast that you can tell us about?

DC: Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man", "Boardwalk Empire", "Lincoln") plays a character named Harper. And we're casting a couple of the other parts right now. The ink isn't dry, so I can't speak on it before it actually happens.

S&A: You've directed an episode of "House of Lies," but this will be your feature film directorial debut. Are there any directors you'll be drawing on for inspiration?

DC: I'm trying to steal from everybody. So yeah, there's cats that I'm personally affiliated with - Carl Franklin, Paul Thomas Anderson - and others that I don't know personally but their work I'm a big admirer of, like Martin Scorsese. But I'm hoping to come up with a language that is mine, that's specific to my take on this material.

S&A: Can you share the names of anyone you're working with, or considering, for key creative positions?

DC: Roberto Schaefer ("The Paperboy", "Machine Gun Preacher") is our DP, and Hannah Beachler ("Fruitvale Station") is our Production Designer.

S&A: Can you tell us about what you're going for stylistically, with the look and feel of the film?

DC: Those are a lot of the decisions that are being made right now as we prep it - which medium are we going to use, film versus digital. Those are the discussions that we're having right now. We're shooting the film in Cincinnati, which is advantageous for several different reasons. Given the architecture of the city, it's New York without dealing with the expense and the hurdles that New York presents. So all of that stuff is being cobbled together now, from design to wardrobe to music.

S&A: What can you tell us about using Miles Davis' music in the film? What particular albums are you looking at, and how will it be used?

DC: It's almost all of Miles Davis' music, from stuff off of the Kind of Blue album, some stuff off of Circle in the Round, Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, the Porgy and Bess album that he did with Gil Evans. There's a lot of his music that we're using, almost exclusively his music. Although the soundtrack, which will be done in post, will feature other musicians from other disciplines as well, because that was Miles too.

S&A: We recently saw an announcement looking for vehicles from the '40s to the '70s for the film, even though the synopsis says it takes place over a few days. Can we expect to see flashbacks and perhaps, a younger actor cast to play a younger Miles Davis?

DC: "Flashback" would be the general term, but they don't feel like that and they're not dealt with like that in the movie. It's not sort of a ripple fade, go back and see why and how he got there. It's more of a parallel journey that's happening that's looking at Miles' 10-year relationship with Frances Taylor Davis, from '56 to '66. So the flashbacks aren't used to paint a cradle-to-grave depiction. We don't meet Miles when he's eight years old and see the first time he picked up a trumpet; we're not doing that. It's centered around his relationship with Frances.

S&A: You're working to raise $325,000 on Indiegogo. Assuming that the campaign is a success, will production forge ahead? Is there anything left to do in terms of fundraising, or any other hurdles?

DC: Other than the logistical hurdles of making the movie, we're going forward. We have high hopes for the campaign and it's doing well. If it's very successful it will give us the ability to do a lot of the things necessary to pull this movie off. We don't want to have to cut corners, skimp on design or things like the music, which costs money obviously, and creating different time periods. All of these things are not cheap and we want to be able to execute them appropriately.

S&A: Will this be a social media-friendly production? Can we look forward to photos being shared, clips, or a production diary of some sort, to keep fans updated?

DC: That's one of the components of our Indiegogo campaign, through the updates and the perks that are offered too - set visits and exclusive material. I'll do some of that on social media. I'm only on Twitter and I'm also pulling 16-hour days, but I'll be doing it when I can. But a lot of that stuff is happening through the Indiegogo campaign, so that's a good place to go check out all that stuff.

S&A: When can we expect to eventually see the finished film?

DC: On that, I have no idea. It all depends on who buys the film and how they put it into their release cycle, which we never know until the thing is done.


Find the "Miles Ahead" campaign HERE.

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  • Jeremiah Ford | August 5, 2014 9:01 AMReply

    I have about sixty pages written for a screenplay on Miles Davis from last summer. I wrote it over about a month, but then ran out of muster (a.k.a writer's block). It was interesting to see that Cheadle and his writing partner chose the part of his life after he locked himself inside his house with a bad cocaine addiction for six years and his subsequent relationship with Francis Taylor Davis. To get to the point though, my writings were previous to that point including his childhood, him at Julliard, and most of his early career. I suppose it's just a rough draft, my writings that is, but as much as I am excited for Cheadle's film, I still would like to see the previous moments of his life created in a biopic.

  • Chris Banks | June 24, 2014 11:18 PMReply

    Don Cheadle is the Man and I can't wait to see what his team come out with!

  • Mary | June 12, 2014 3:29 PMReply

    So they hired Ewan McGregor for a part but they need to ask people 300.000 dollars? An actor can earn, at best, from 1 to 20 millions per film... something is off here.
    My understanding of this kind of campaigns is that they will keep all the money even if the movie is not made.

  • @milesmaker | June 12, 2014 6:33 PM

    When it's an indie like this and you have established relationships with talent who see you as their peer, name Actors work for scale or some other agreed upon rate--which could be an across the board favored nations SAG Schedule F (flat rate $65K for the film) for all name Actors attached.

    As for the Indiegogo campaign, $325K of $10M is less than 5% of this film's total budget. However Don says, 'less than $10M' so we don't know for sure, but he could have said 'less than $5M' or 'less than $1M' (which leads to believe the production budget is between $5-$10M). If this is the case, crowdfunding offsets some of the production cost while raising awareness for the film as an audience development activity.

  • Midiane | June 12, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    bummed Zoe isn't in the project anymore. I wonder if it was just a rumor to begin with and she was never attached to it or if she just is too busy with avatar. I could see her playing Frances Taylor not only in the looks but because she is a dancer other than an actress. I wonder who they will cast now, I'm at loss of names that resemble Frances and can act and dance.

  • jai | June 12, 2014 4:40 PM

    She was attached previously. But the project has been around since 2008 and a lot of things can happen in that amount of time - scheduling conflicts, etc.

  • lovulovu | June 11, 2014 7:47 PMReply

    He needs Lupita as Cicely Tyson before he can't afford her.

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