A Miles Davis Fever Dream: DP Roberto Schaefer on Miles Ahead
Like many aspiring filmmakers, cinematographer Roberto Schaefer spent his youth fermenting his imagination by creating his own backyard epics. But unlike your typical kid – who concentrates on, depending on the era, recreating Harryhausen or Spielberg or maybe just blowing up G.I. Joes with M-80s on camera – Schaefer crafted abstract, experimental 8mm films.
“I did do a couple of stop-motion things, but I was always more into art than movies growing up,” Schaefer said. “I liked going to the movies, but I wasn’t thinking about making movies like the ones I saw at the theater. I was thinking about film as art for art’s sake.”
Considering that predilection, the appeal to Schaefer of the Miles Davis “biopic” Miles Ahead is obvious. An abstraction of the standard musical biopic – a formulaic subgenre offering little variation on its template from The Glenn Miller Story to Walk the Line – Miles Ahead embeds us within the paranoid subconscious of the legendary trumpet player. The film follows Davis as he struggles to emerge from a self-imposed five-year exile, careening between different time periods and drifting between reality and fantasy as he drags a reporter with dubious ethics (Ewan McGregor) on an adventure complete with shootouts and car chases.
Schaefer spoke to Filmmaker about the making of Miles Ahead – including the film’s original ending – and a career arc that encompasses both James Bond and Christopher Guest.
Filmmaker: A large slice of your feature filmography is divided between two very different directors – Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) and Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show). How are you able to function so well in both the ultra-prepared world of Forster and the off-the-cuff aesthetic of Guest?
Schaefer: With Marc we would sit in the office for weeks during prep and we’d go through the script from the first page through the last page and I would do blueprints of each set or location that plotted out all the shots. So those films were surgically planned. That really started on Monster’s Ball. On our first two films we did (Loungers and Everything Put Together), we just found everything as we went along. Then on Monster’s Ball we were suddenly going from a $75,000 film to a $2.5 million dollar film with four big actors. We had 23 days to shoot that movie and we knew we better be well prepared. So that’s why we started plotting out the whole movie in advance. It worked so we stuck with it and did it on every other film we made together.
Working with Chris comes a lot more from my documentary background. I did a lot of documentaries after I graduated from school and then I lived in Italy for 10 years and I shot a lot of documentaries all around the world. On those movies with Chris everything was lit, but it was lit to not look like it was lit. Chris would basically give me the parameters of a scene, but he wanted to be able to shoot in any direction almost all of the time because the actors had to have the freedom to do whatever came to them. Chris was the biggest example of that. He never repeated any of his dialogue more than once. With the other actors they would generally find a thing that they would do and then they would refine it, but (Chris) changed it up every single time.
Filmmaker: Which end of the spectrum did Miles Ahead land on?
Schaefer: It was pretty well prepared. There are a lot of transitional shots for the time period shifts and we didn’t want to make them purely flashbacks. We wanted to make them modal time shifts like in Miles’ music. (Director and star) Don Cheadle planned every single one of those transitions and we worked those all out (in preproduction). We did photoboards of all the locations as well during prep. I’ve started using this (director’s viewfinder app) Artemis on my iPad. You enter in the camera you’ll be using and the lenses you’ll be using (and the app shows you the field of view for that combination). Then when you take a picture it records all the information for that frame – the lens millimeter, the time of day, the GPS location, the tilt and angle of the camera, and the direction it’s facing.
Filmmaker: The limitation of that app for me is that, while it will give a close approximation of the frame, it doesn’t show you what the potential depth of field might look like for different focal lengths.
Schaefer: Yes, there’s no depth of field at all because it’s using the iPad camera. It’s really just for framing and I already understand the depth of field and the director sometimes understand it too. It’s just a good reference to show to the art department and to show to grip and electric so they know more or less what the frame’s boundaries are. I’ve made the photoboards before with my Canon or my Sony (still) camera with a PL mount adapter and the actual (production) lenses, but that gets crazy. (Production) is not going to want to rent the lenses for all that prep time and you’ve also got to have someone hauling around the lenses for you.
Filmmaker: Break down for me the different cameras you used for the film’s different periods, which span the 1950s to the 1970s.
Schaefer: We shot with the Arri Alexa XT for most of the 1970s, except for the night car chase stuff. I shot a lot of that with the Canon C500 because much of it was shot inside the back seat of a Jaguar, which doesn’t have much of a backseat. In order to get a camera or two back there for over-the-shoulder shots, we had to have something smaller than the Alexa and the Alexa Mini wasn’t out yet. Then for all of the 50s and 60s – basically any time Miles has short hair – we shot in Super 16.
Filmmaker: Carol – another film that recently used Cincinnati as a period double for New York City – also shot Super 16 for the 1950s. That film chose Super 16 to emulate the work of the still photographers of the era. When I think of films from the 1950s, I think more of Cinemascope. What was the intention behind using Super 16?
Schaefer: We actually wanted to shoot the entire movie in Super 16 because Don loved the look and the feel and the grain. But they did a budget and they decided that because there was no lab in Cincinnati, the shipping back and forth was going to cost too much in addition to the film and developing cost. So they decided it wasn’t feasible to do the whole movie in Super 16, though I’m still not 100 percent in agreement with that as far as costs go. So I proposed that we shoot just the 1950s stuff in Super 16 and then we would add some grain to the Alexa footage so it wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb — because they’re not supposed to be flashbacks, they’re supposed to be mental and emotional shifts in Miles’ brain.
Unless you want something super crisp, Super 16 is such a great way to shoot. But it depends on the (film). I shot a film called Geostorm that’s in post and we shot Red Dragon 6K because it’s science fiction set in the future and the director (Dean Devlin) really wanted it to feel crisp and sharp and modern.
Filmmaker: When you’re shooting Alexa, what factors do you consider when choosing between capturing in ArriRaw or ProRes?
Schaefer: It depends on what I’m shooting, but with Miles Ahead I knew that I had a lot of African-American faces and a lot of dark environments and I didn’t want to put myself in a hole by not using Raw. I did tests for another movie earlier that year of ProRes vs. Raw and I looked at how far I could push the shadows in both and you definitely can’t go as far with ProRes as you can in Raw. I didn’t want to have to say to Don in the color sessions, “I just can’t get any more detail in the faces because it’s not there.” And it really wasn’t that much more expensive to shoot Raw.
Filmmaker: Do you have to change your lighting approach for the Alexa versus Super 16?
Schaefer: I really didn’t do much differently. On the Alexa for the night scenes I probably just gave a little bit more fill than I would’ve with the Super 16 because of the latitude on the bottom end. It’s funny the way that digital works – the middle gray shifts when you change your ISO setting. That’s another thing with Raw. You can change your relative ISO setting in post. If you shoot ProRes, you’re stuck with what you have. So when you try to brighten things up or lift the shadows you’re actually adding gain to it. The weird thing with digital that goes counter to film is that if the camera is rated at 800 ISO for the middle gray and you’re shooting a night scene and you say, “Oh, I’ll just push the ISO to 1600” the problem with that is it shifts the middle gray to the bottom (of your curve) so you have much less latitude in your shadows and you get way more latitude in your highlights – which is the exact opposite of what you need when you’re shooting night scenes.
Filmmaker: You mentioned cramming that Canon C500 into the back seat of the Jaguar. That scene is pretty indicative of what makes Miles Ahead unique – a Blaxploitation-esque car chase and shootout that exists perhaps only the head of the film’s protagonist.
Schaefer: That’s why when I read it I said to Don, “To me the whole thing is a Miles Davis fever dream.” The way Don described Miles’ music to me and Miles’ modal shifts, I said, “That’s perfect. That’s what these transitions you’ve designed are about. They’re in Miles’ mind and he’s shifting gears. It’s not a flashback. It’s a mental shift.” So you’ve got this interview going on with Dave (McGregor) and then it slams into this car chase out of nowhere.
I think one of the reasons Don put that in was that Miles sort of saw himself as a gangster at times. And at that time he was in his house like a hermit and he had the kind of paranoia that sitting at home all day and doing drugs is going to give you. A lot of that goes on in Miles’ mind. One of the elements that was supposed to happen at the end of the film – but it didn’t work out properly – was that when Miles, Junior (Keith Stanfield, playing a talented but troubled young musician), and Dave get back to Miles’ house with the tape (of Miles’ latest sessions), Junior was supposed to disappear and then Dave was supposed to disappear and Miles would just be there by himself. Then from there he was going to walk up on stage and be in that concert (that ends the film). Junior was also supposed to represent Miles as a younger musician. Junior’s wife, who you see for one brief scene, is named Irene and that’s actually Miles’ first wife’s name. It’s not expressed but it’s intended and if you know Miles’ life well enough you might catch it. Junior is Miles as a younger man and he is what brings Miles back into playing music.
Filmmaker: There’s almost a heist film component to sections of Miles Ahead as Miles tries to reacquire his newest recordings, which have been stolen by a music studio lackey. All the elements really come together in a scene set at a boxing match. As chaos erupts in the arena, the 1950s version of Miles appears performing with his band in the boxing ring as 1970s Miles attempts to snatch back his tapes at gunpoint in the stands.
Schaefer: Don came up with that conceptually, the idea of having the musicians in the ring in this impossible reality. I think that boxing ring scene is the culmination of the idea that the movie is Miles mixing up all of his life together. Don’s heart and soul are really in the movie and I admire the effort he put into the 10 years it took to put the movie together. He’s brilliant and he’s a great collaborator. All directors work different ways. Some of them tell you exactly what they want you to do and there are others who say, “Riff with me and lets make this an ensemble.” I loved the fact that Don allowed me to bring my side of the vision.
It was one of those films where we didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of time, but everything just kind of worked right and felt right. There were definitely nights at the beginning of thinking, “What the fuck are we doing? Is this going to work? Are we crazy,” but I felt that we were making something special. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes it wasn’t that much fun, but it was a labor of love and I’m really proud of the film.