Don Cheadle interview: Miles Ahead, directing and more

Don Cheadle, before Captain America: Civil War, is bringing the story of Miles Davis to the screen. He's been telling us about it.

Don Cheadle makes his feature directorial debut with Miles Ahead this Friday, a biopic of Miles Davies. We got the chance to sit down with him, and talk about the project.

Here’s how it went…

I know you described it as Miles Davis as a gangster, how many sort of different stories did you experiment with before you happened upon that take?


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This was it. You know we, we figured it out and we wrote it in this way. The family was on board with what we pitched and were just kind of like being from Missouri and were like, “show me” and we came up with this narrative and they said, “okay, great.”

It’s been your baby all the way through which I presume is a different experience for you as an actor, having that much influence and control?

Yeah, you know, I’ve been behind the camera on several projects as a producer and I’ve directed commercials that I’ve written and I direct on the show but having it all kind of come together under one roof so to speak was – yeah – a much bigger job in total than all of those.

I know you’ve said that you felt you couldn’t see anyone else bring it on to the screen. Was that again almost instantly once you had the story – once you had the idea it became?

Well when they called – when after Vince [Vincent Wilburn Jr, Miles Davis’ nephew] declared that I was going to do it – and then we met and they pitched me their ideas and I pitched them mine and they said, “oh we like yours but who’s going to do that? Who’s going to execute that?” And I thought, “Well…yeah…I guess that’s going to have to be me to do that part of it.” But it still wasn’t – I wasn’t thinking it was going to me that I was going to have to direct it as well and it’s something I was trying to hire directors for a long time but everyone to a person was saying, “this is your vision – this is…you’ve got to execute that” so that’s ultimately what we did.

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I suppose that’s the difficulty – I mean you’re effectively the auteur producer that then scares everyone else from taking the job on. I think you’ve been hanging around Marvel too long…!

Yeah well no – I wasn’t – I really wanted to give it away. I thought it was something that was going to be too big of a job but when people would read the script and they could see there was just a singular take on it that was very different maybe than they would approach it and they were like, “you kind of – I think the thing to do is for you to shoulder it and take it on.”

How does that work then, I mean as an actor ordinarily you’re working with a director to create that character; when you’re directing yourself, how does it work creating a character without the other person’s voice?

Umm… I don’t know that it’s that dissimilar you’re still trying to do what you’re trying to do which is service the script in our case and in any case you have the script and if you’ve all agreed that that’s the bible and that’s what you’re trying to do then the map is there, then when you get it out with real human beings and you’ve got to actually work it out things naturally change given who you’ve cast, given your location, given the situation, given what you actually gleam from going through the process so it wasn’t that dissimilar to anything that was done before, I just had to be the one to decide it all.

On the subject of the script – you’re working with the estate, and you’re working with something that clearly is important to you – but at the same time, surely you’ve got to make compromises for the sake of it being a theatrical – cinematic story?

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Absolutely, yes – that for sure and I wanted to make sure that we created something that wasn’t just for the three percent of people that knew Miles Davis intimately. I wanted everyone to be able to come in and have an experience where they hopefully would walk out of the theatre wanting to know more and wanting to hear that music and find their own entry point to Miles Davis.

I’m surprised there are people who exist who don’t want to just hear Miles Davis’ music –


That phone call moment actually is really interesting for me – the idea of him getting angry at the radio for playing the wrong song.

Yes, and that absolutely happened. 100% you know. Phil Schaap whose voice and who we had to come in and do his part was telling us, “Yeah, Miles would call in and correct the spelling and tell me which one to play next” and you know he was sitting there listening – for somebody who you say who doesn’t look back – he was listening to his own tune.

With so many stories like that how do you pick the ones that work for the script though because presumably there must have been ideas – things that actually happened – that had to get edited out of the script.

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Yeah – yeah – they had to fit the narrative – they had to all fold into and be a part of what it was that we were trying to tell which was a story about an artist who was suffering from writers block and trying to figure out how to, if to, when to, why to get back to creating in the way that he had for decades prior to that.

The film has a nonlinear narrative, did that come about in the edit, or was it on the page?

Yeah it was. When you have to shoot in 30 days and under 10 million dollars there is a discipline that is required and had we not had all that stuff nailed down we would never have been able to achieve it, you know, we couldn’t go to the set and be kind of loosey-goosey and just figure it out when we got there. All of that had to be constructed very carefully and adhered to mostly so that we could, you know, make our schedule every day.

There’s a very distinct style to the edit as well which – there’s that first scene and then suddenly the trumpet blast/gun shot –

There you go.

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– scares – grabs you. Was that already planned as well?

That’s in the script. Absolutely. That’s in the script. Those transitions, of you know, Frances twirling to Miles and she falls and [the film cuts to] Dave finishes her fall – all of that stuff was scripted and that kind of what we were really careful about and tried to be very precise about – when we cut back and forth between those timelines because we were, you know, building something that for us was modal, you know it was a composition and it wasn’t arbitrary, it had to happen at moments that were about what Miles was losing, what Miles was gaining, is just about to be in his clutch and then is gone. All of those things, you know Francis and the B-story was the tape incarnate in the A-story and that was what dictated how we moved back and forth between those timelines – it was all very specific – although when you have a good editor, like we did: John Axelrad and Kayla Emter – they can make that even better but those ideas were in the script, absolutely.

I think I now understand why no one else was willing to direct it.

“Like what?! You’re going to have to do that!” Yeah.

Don Cheadle, thank you very much.

Miles Ahead is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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