The Miles Davis Movie: New Screenwriter Working With Don Cheadle

script2 Although the Oscar-nominated screenwriting and producing duo Chris Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele are still listed on IMDB as part of the Untitled Miles Davis Biopic, Erin Davis (Davis’ son) and Vince Wilburn Jr. (Davis’ nephew), in a recent interview with YRB Magazine, reveals that a new writer, Steven Baigelman, is collaborating with Don Cheadle on a new draft of the script.

Said Wilburn Jr.:

We’re in the process of OK’ing the script with a new writer. Don didn’t like the other writer that was attached to the movie, so there’s a new writer named Steven Baigelman that Don’s writing with. Once is the script is OK’d by the family, then we go into production.

To say that I’m delighted to finally stumble across some ‘news’ about the project is an understatement. I still think we’re looking at 2011, but at least Cheadle and Co. are still firmly involved in pushing this cinematic endeavor forward.

(This post also appears on Miles Davis Online)

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Miles Davis biopic will get WGA nomination – one day

script2 Now that the Writers Guild of America has announced their nominees for the 2009 Writers Guild Awards, what better time to spotlight Oscar-nominated screenwriting and producing duo, Chris Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, the two men currently working on the script for the Miles Davis biopic.

Hopefully we’ll see the writing duo pull in countless nominations for their work on the Miles Davis movie, but for now a hearty congrats to this years’ WGA nominees:

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Burn After Reading – Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Milk – Written by Dustin Lance Black
Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Written by Woody Allen
The Visitor – Written by Tom McCarthy
The Wrestler – Written by Robert Siegel

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Screenplay by Eric Roth
The Dark Knight – Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Doubt – Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon – Screenplay by Peter Morgan
Slumdog Millionaire – Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

DOCUMENTARY SCREENPLAY
Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story – Written by Stefan Forbes & Noland Walker
Chicago 10 – Written by Brett Morgen
Fuel – Written by Johnny O’Hara
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – Screenplay by Alex Gibney
Waltz with Bashir – Written by Ari Folman

The Miles Davis Movie: ‘Essence’ interview reveals biopic narrative

marchcover-cheadle-180x240 File this under: late to the party (but no less intriguing). Back in March 2008 Don Cheadle appeared on the cover of Essence. I know this because in doing research I stumbled upon a transcript of the interview.

What’s notable is how much Cheadle expounds on the Miles Davis biopic in literally a few short sentences.

This is interesting because in more recent magazine articles I’ve read with Cheadle he rarely brings up the issue – however, in his defense, the person conducting the interview usually does not engage Cheadle about the Miles Davis project because (most likely) the interview is arranged to promote a current movie. I applaud Jesse Washington for not only bringing up the Miles Davis film, but also leading off with it.

It’s fascinating to read what Cheadle said in March, which for my money is the most detailed commentary I have read yet about the Miles Davis biopic. And we’re talking half a paragraph.

I have written numerous posts about what narrative style the biopic might follow. This brief Q&A just might hold the best, and most important, clue yet as to how the story of Miles Davis is going to be told.

Essence.com: So we hear you’re working on a movie about Miles Davis. What will it be like?

Don Cheadle: The Miles movie I’m trying to do is not some traditional biopic. It’s an interpretation of himself, more than it is attempting to be some sort of cradle-to-grave, historically accurate depiction of who he was. The first line in our movie, with him in the dark, is of him saying ‘Some of this s–t might have happened.’

Inside his answer of about 70 words total, the four words most significant for me are –

“…not some traditional biopic.”

When you compare this idea of producing a non-traditional biopic to what Darryl Porter (Miles Davis Properties LLC) said in a recent Variety article about the Miles Davis movie being developed as a “deconstructed biopic,” well, it’s easy to see the correlation.

Based on what Cheadle is saying it’s obvious the Miles Davis film is not going to be like “Ray,” or as he puts it, “…some sort of cradle-to-grave, historically accurate depiction of who he [Davis] was.”

Between what Cheadle said in March and what Porter said more recently, it looks pretty certain that the Miles Davis project will forgo the cookie-cutter biopic for a more progressive strategy in telling the story of the jazz icon.

Now we start to wonder how non-traditional Cheadle wants to take it. So many questions…

So many questions….

The Miles Davis Movie: Highly-fictionalized, or just the facts?

Miles Davis: The Monterey Jazz Festival, 1969
© Paul Slaughter
www.slaughterphoto.com

A few days ago I spotted this photo gallery/feature on Yahoo! about the 10 Most Biographically Inaccurate Movies. Obviously it got me thinking about the Miles Davis biopic and what, if any, liberties should the screenwriters take in crafting the story of Miles Davis for a motion picture.

The feature, in no way a think piece you’d find in a film journal, focuses on movies like “Ray,” “The Hurricane” and “Amadeus” to make its point about bending the truth (here and there, ever so slightly) for the sake of entertainment, or a product with enough Hollywood appeal to attract a wide audience.

Are there parts of the life and career of Miles Davis a screenwriter would want to overlook, or perhaps shy away from? I’ve talked about how it’s impossible for the movie to cover everything, especially the twists and turns of his musical styles, but are there aspects of his personal life the writers might think to use caution in adapting for the screen?

With this question in mind I point to an article from 2001 I’ve noted before: Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, wrote a piece for the NY Times entitled Miles Davis: The Chameleon of Cool; A Jazz Genius In the Guise Of a Hustler.

It’s a fascinating read and nicely illustrates the darkness and light (Kelley’s words) that characterize who Miles Davis is, what Miles Davis represents and how we choose to discuss one of the most influential and provocative artists ever.

Writes Kelley in one of the more telling passages of his article, “he is hailed as a musical genius and praised for the beauty and sensitivity of his playing while simultaneously criticized for his brutal treatment of women, his rude and exploitative behavior, his ”anger” toward whites or his ”selling out” to the forces of pop music. His most avid defenders have done their share of handwringing, explaining his idiosyncrasies as a feature of genius.”

As stated, it’s a teriffic article, and I highly recommend.

But back to the biopic. In my opinion the film doesn’t work on any level without the ‘darkness’ to balance the light; how much of the irascible Miles Davis the movie should hold is debatable, but as much as words like ‘cool’ and ‘romantic’ are used to describe Davis’ style and artistry, there is a dark underbelly to the story that is not pretty, for lack of a better word, at all.

And yet, it’s that struggle between the demon and angel inside Miles Davis that makes his life story so damn compelling. It’s a personal narrative tailor-made for books and movies. Hey, maybe one day someone will write an opera. Why not?

Just as “Ray” (as you know my go-to film example for biopics) blended the darker aspects of Ray Charles’ life, the Yahoo! feature happily points out that “…The movie ends with Ray kicking the habit and living happily ever after with his wife Della. While he did give up heroin, he continued to consume prodigious amounts of gin and marijuana until just before his death. And Ray and Della were divorced in 1976. Plus, he was never banned from playing in Georgia as the film claims.”

Guess what? I didn’t know that. And it doesn’t change how I feel about Ray Charles or the movie. I just assume most biopics are going to tweak the story — this is Hollywood, remember. There are plenty of books that fill in all the blanks and overlook nothing when it comes to a biography, but in the movies it’s a different ballgame. As long as it’s not some egregious omission, or laughable retelling of history I think we all can overlook some creative tweaking — in the name of entertainment, of course.

A biopic is a tough endeavor to begin with: you’ve got to please those that know little (or nothing) about the subject and those who know almost everything. Balance is vital, it’s the only way to achieve historical accuracy and entertainment value.

Something like Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” is definitely an adventurous take on the legend of Bob Dylan, whereas “Ray” (again) plays it pretty straight in an entertaining, A-to-Z style biopic.

I can only assume the Miles Davis film is going to follow the “Ray” method of storytelling, but I could be wrong. Even then, how much of the story is focused on the music versus the personal life? A split between the two is fine by me, but aha!, what makes a better movie to market to audiences? Fans of Miles Davis (and jazz lovers) aside, is the music the selling point? Or is it the legend?

My guess is someone even vaguely familiar with Miles Davis might see the movie based on a thrilling movie trailer that focuses on a remarkable – and cool – life (music! women! travel! fame! redemption! fortune!), as opposed to, say, because he’s the guy who recorded Seven Steps to Heaven. Exposure to jazz music, generally-speaking, is fleeting at best, so for marketing purposes you rev up the Hollywood machine with the time-tested devices that have been attracting people to the movies forever to help this biopic succeed at the box-office.

It ain’t easy, as it were….

Still, I am confident this Miles Davis biopic will be successful; I think the subject matter is prime, cinematic real estate for the creatively-inclined. There’s a reason someone or another has been trying to make this movie for years.

I don’t think the screenwriters will have to create any fictional characters to enhance the story, or stretch the truth in some way, but there’s plenty of real-life conflict and drama to sort through in telling the Mils Davis story. Here is a project that must blend fact with the greater significance of what Miles Davis represents.

In the end, I’ll take a well-rounded depiction that’s entertaining, intriguing and visually exciting. I’d say that’s a nice night at the movies.

(photo: Miles Davis, The Monterey Jazz Festival, 1969 — Paul Slaughter)

The Miles Davis Movie: Filming the Birdland attack

1959 was quite a year for Miles Davis. In March he recorded “Kind of Blue” on Columbia Records.

On August 25, while taking a break outside the legendary Birdland nightclub in New York City, Davis was beaten by the police and arrested.

And to think he had just performed for an Armed Forces Radio broadcast that night. (I just listened to that recording for the first time a few weeks ago – excellent!)

I close my eyes and can visualize this sequence playing out on the big screen. How could this episode not be in the Miles Davis biopic?

Think of the drama! Think of the dialogue, straight from the Prince of Darkness himself…

(The following is an extract from Miles – The Autobiography)

“I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August.

“This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherf***er because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.

“He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”

Let’s jump ahead in the action….

“A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on. Then I remember Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face… and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet was there too.

“It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherf***er, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make…

I’ll just declare right now that I demand this scene be included in the film.

I won’t go into the significance of the assault as it relates to race matters of the era and its affect on Davis, how it contrasts with his experiences in Europe and other deeper sociological issues that I’d doubtless mess up anyway in trying to explain – but I will say that this incident should be in the movie.

The Miles Davis Movie: Hoping for a script leak – to me!

Lots and lots of chatter across the ‘Net this week about Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards” – his latest movie project about a raucous crew of American soldiers who travel into Germany in 1944 to kill a lot of Nazis.

You get the idea.

It should not be surprising there’s been a lot of QT news and analysis the last few days.

First the long-awaited/much discussed script was delivered to four, Hollywood studios.

Then there was the news Brad Pitt was in talks to star.

And then… the script was leaked.

Cue: mass (media) hysteria.

NY Mag (Vulture) got their hands on a copy of the script and followed with a detailed review.

Defamer was fed up with the hype and penned an open letter to Quentin.

Hey, I’m excited about the movie, too, which doesn’t even have financing yet, or really anything besides a script, but clearly the 165 pages long script has everybody jacked up and looking forward to next year’s release.

All of which leads me to Chris Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele -– the writers working on the script for the Miles Davis biopic.

I’m not sure if the script is even finished, but if it is/or when it is I’d like a copy. I’m happy to start the online madness for the forthcoming film about the jazz legend.

So guys, when you’re ready… I’m ready to read.

The Miles Davis Movie: What scene would you especially like to see in the movie?

Let’s not spend the next 100 hours dissecting every important and negligible detail in the life of Miles Davis. However, there are numerous moments of public record that serve as significant milestones during the life and times of the great jazz man.

No doubt many of those moments will make their way into the film version of Miles Davis’ life. Some will end up on the cutting room floor (and possibly onto the DVD), while others won’t even be considered for the big screen.

Unlike a book where the author can spend page after page constructing a beautiful narrative with faultless detail, this is about the movies — and the mantra is show, don’t tell.

So there’s only so much depth you can attempt from one scene to the next; we cannot have the audience checking their cell phones and not paying attention.

Would I like to see a 4-hour movie? Yes, please. But I also want people to see the movie, and getting anyone to the theatre for $11, or $12 bucks a ticket these days is tough enough – so you go with the blueprint and try to make it a special experience.

So, scenes: In no particular order…..

Miles Davis kicks drugs

Meeting Bird

The incident outside the Birdland nightclub in New York City, Davis is beaten up by the police and arrested

The Kind of Blue sessions

July 1955, Davis plays with Thelonius Monk on “‘Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival

Anything with Betty Mabry

I’m sure I will think of 10 more an hour from now, but at least that gets the conversation started.

Miles Davis lived such a fascinating life it’s difficult to assemble all the finest and most poignant parts to fit into the structure of a film; of course those who knew him intimately will have a much wider book of memories than those of us who know him only through books, magazines, TV shows, the ‘net and most importantly – his music.

Yet even from afar there is so much to know about the life and music of Miles Davis. The biopic should no doubt help frame, even in a 2-hour running time, a best of, if you will, of Miles’ life.

And who knows, we might be surprised at what ultimately gets into the film and might even learn a new thing or two about the jazz legend along the way.