Don Cheadle is set to make his directorial debut with “Miles Ahead,” a biopic about jazz legend Miles Davis, who the actor has apparently been obsessed with from a young age.
Cheadle’s film focuses on Davis’s so-called “silent period,” a five-year span he took off from music before returning to his art, as well as the musician’s rocky relationship with Frances Taylor Davis, his first wife.
After languishing in the development whirlpool for almost a decade, the project is set to begin shooting this week in Cincinnati. Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg and Emayatzy Corinealdi co-star alongside Cheadle as Davis.
Remarkably, Cheadle is making his film without any studio backing–he had a bite from HBO at one point but that fell through, and the actor/director turned to Indiegogo instead to raise $325,000. With a little less than two days to go, the project has so far raised about $265,000.
EW sat down with Cheadle for an interview about the biopic and the process of making a completely independent film–you can read some highlights from their exchange after the jump.
There’s a sense you’ve been working on this for a while. Tell me about your exposure to Miles Davis—was he someone you were exposed to at a young age?
His music was definitely a part of my life very early on, thanks to my parents. And I was fortunate when I was young to have music teachers in school that also introduced us to jazz in general. I was maybe 10, in fifth grade, when I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the sax at a school which had instruments because we couldn’t afford one. So I started playing sax, and was really a fan of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderly. And through Cannonball I found Miles.
What about his story or life resonates most with you? In talking about his ability to find clarity through cacophony, you sound so passionate.
Well, the thing about Miles Davis was that he thought of himself as a social musician who played social music and didn’t want to be boxed in and defined. He could recognize talent that very few could and not only recognized it, but gave the people with whom he played room to develop and grow and stretch out and find their own voices. That’s why he spawned so many leaders.
Everyone who played with Miles’ band became a leader and most of them went on to be leaders of bands and have long recording careers because he gave them the room to create and demanded that they create. He’s the guy, if he heard you rehearsing your solo and then you played that onstage, you were fired. I don’t pay you to rehearse, I don’t pay you to rehearse, I pay you to rehearse live in front of people. Don’t bring your polished solo out, go out and go crazy.
It’s no small thing to embark on a project like this … especially not in this case, where you’re approaching this independently.
This was something that had been a periphery for me. I never thought about portraying him, really. I had done several other quote-unquote biopics and was always struck by the limitations they presented, because they were trying to be historically accurate. Let’s be honest, any biopic is a series of omissions and conflations of events and amalgamations of characters. And you’re trying to have a movie experience under three hours, so in the process you condense people’s lives from cradle to grave, so things tend to feel episodic and event-oriented as opposed to a story about people and relationships and a character.
So I didn’t want to do another biopic. So when I heard the idea, from various people who had played with him, producers, writers, that this could potentially be something, I thought, ‘if the script is great, I would be open to it since he’s always been a fascinating figure to me.’
And then, in 2008, when Miles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his nephew was interviewed and was asked, ‘Would you ever do a movie on his life?” He said yes, and that Don Cheadle is going to play him. And I was like ‘I am?’
You were like, “I haven’t seen a paycheck..”
[Laughs] I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen the script, I haven’t gotten a call. Then producers had been talking to the estate about the project got in touch with me and I sat down with them and they began pitching me the idea. And again, they were standard biopics, fare that was concerned with hitting benchmarks. Miles’ life could be a 10-part miniseries on PBS—it can’t be done in five minutes. I don’t know how you do that about someone who was relevant in music for 50 years and give it any sort of importance. It needs to be more of a movie that he would want to star in. Miles Davis was the star of his own story.
Tell me about the crowdfunding. What made you turn to crowdfunding to cover production costs? Was this something that a studio was just unable or unwilling to take on? You mentioned you originally had a home with HBO.
This is an independently produced film. There is no studio element. We’re still in the process locking down all the financing so it was a component of funds needed to cover a gap , including my own personal money I’ve put into the movie and a consortium of others. It’s to cover what it takes to put together a period movie, that has to have different looks and ways you’re trying to authenticate the time period you’re dealing with. And the music rights—all of that stuff costs money. But it also felt like a good way to open him up back to the public and try to raise that awareness and use the social mediums to make this a social event. To make it social, like the music Miles talked about. It just made sense on multiple levels to do it this way.