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‘Miles Ahead’ Production Designer Mixed the Real and Surreal in Biopic

Sometimes, production designers strive for total period accuracy. At other times, the story dictates that they take liberties with certain details in order to serve a larger purpose.

Hannah Beachler used both approaches in “Miles Ahead,” the Miles Davis biopic directed by and starring Don Cheadle, to be released by Sony Pictures Classics on April 1.

The film is set in New York during three specific eras — the ’50s, ’60s and, mostly, the ’70s — which were key times in the musician’s life. Beachler wanted to accurately reproduce the way the city looked in those years: its buildings, its back alleys and its streets, where a frantic car chase takes place.

To re-create a specific look, Beachler looked beyond the requisite archival photos pinned to a wall, and found a greater resource online. “I was digging and digging,” she says. “Finally, on YouTube, I came upon four hours of grainy, silent footage, probably 8mm, shot out of the window of a car driving all around New York in the ’70s.”

To be faithful to those images — and also taking into account tax incentives and production costs — the filmmakers decided to shoot not in Gotham but in Cincinnati, a place where architecture has been less altered by the passage of time. (The ’50s-set “Carol” had recently wrapped there.)

Beachler worked closely with her set decorator, Helen Britten, and a relatively small local construction and paint team. The entire shoot took about 25 days.

While firmly grounded in a realistic-looking past, “Miles Ahead” took a more surreal journey to reflect the drug-induced confusion in Davis’ life.

“What you see in the story is this idea of Miles’ memory. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem to be, because you don’t know if he’s remembering them correctly.”
Hannah Beachler

In concert with the dynamic photography of d.p. Roberto Schaefer and the rapid jumps and dissolves of editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter, Beachler contributed to a more impressionistic portrait of the musician’s world.

“What you see in the story is this idea of Miles’ memory,” Beachler says. “Things aren’t necessarily what they seem to be, because you don’t know if he’s remembering them correctly, so we allowed ourselves the freedom to do certain things that may not feel like they fit … but at the same time we wanted to make sure we stayed in Miles’ world.”

Nothing in “Miles Ahead” was shot on a stage. “Pretty much everything was an augmented location,” Beachler says.

For Davis’ New York house, where much of the film is set, she and the team found an abandoned Cincinnati church, gutted it, widened hallways, added floors, created rooms and turned a raw concrete basement into the musician’s home studio. “The big challenge,” says Beachler, “was to make this large space feel intimate, like someone has been living there forever, instead of like a giant cavern.”

The production designer — whose next project will reunite her with director Ryan Coogler, with whom she worked on “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” — recalls a visit to the “Miles Ahead” set from Vince Wilburn Jr., Davis’ nephew.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘That’s my uncle’s home.’ He teared up at the sight of the giant round coffee table, the beer cans from the big parties, and said, ‘I don’t know how you did it.
It’s his house.’

“Coming from a family member, to know that we got it right means a lot.”

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