On a swelteringly hot day in 1991, a cargo plane descends from the skies and lands, randomly, at a makeshift airport in Meekatharra, WA. The mesmerized townsfolk gather around the mysterious aircraft. The doors open, and out steps Miles Davis, the legendary musician who changed the face of jazz in the 20th century. He plays a set for the gathered crowd and then flies away, never to be seen again. This inspires a lifelong passion for music in John Anderson (Colin Friels), who, twenty years later, embarks on an international pilgrimage to track down his idol.
The film is Dingo, directed by Rolf de Heer, the award-winning Aussie filmmaker whose credits include Bad Boy Bubby, Ten Canoes, The Tracker and Charlie’s Country. It was Davis’ one and only feature film performance, a stunning fact considering it was a local production partially shot in a Western Australian remote community. On the film’s 25th anniversary, and on the eve of the Australian premiere of Miles Ahead — a new film about Davis’ mysterious hiatus in the mid-70s directed by and starring Don Cheadle — at the Perth International Arts Festival, Pelican Magazine spoke to de Heer about the film and WA’s unique relationship with Miles Davis.
Jaymes Durante: Marc Rosenberg’s screenplay for Dingo was in development for a number of years before you became involved, and I understand that you weren’t initially interested in directing it. What was it about this story that appealed to you and what eventually persuaded you to take the project on and direct it?
Rolf de Heer: It’s not that I wasn’t interested, but it simply wasn’t an option. I read the script years before the film was made, and I liked it immensely, but at the time I was an inexperienced, unknown director. I felt it was best for Marc that someone else direct it. Years later, Marc brought the script back to me and asked again, at which point I felt ready.
For Australians living remotely or rurally, or even for us down here in Perth, there’s something about the script for Dingo that’s quite poignant. It is about having some grand designs for life but being at such a cultural or special remove that you can’t fully realize them. Is that something you thought about when you considered the script and made the film?
I never think like that.
You don’t think thematically about your projects?
I don’t think thematically at all about anything I ever do and in fact I actively avoid trying to think like that, because if I start to think like that I start to try and make things happen in that way, and I start to contrive stuff. I liked the script a great deal — it moved me. I thought it was funny and I thought it was poignant, a good word to use, and that’s all it took. And I thought I could make a good film out of it.
I just wanted to talk a little bit about Miles Davis. He’s terrific in the film, and it’s his first and only feature film role. Was it written with him in mind?
Not at all. He was the last cab off the rank. The script existed for many years and there were a number of other people who were considered.
Do you know who in particular?
Look, no. There was a bloke who was in a film called Blue Collar, which is a Paul Schrader film. I don’t remember his name but he was an actor [ed note: Yaphet Kotto]. But I know the one before it became Miles was Sammy Davis Jr. He was, you know, a good trumpeter when he was young, and he’s also a known actor. He read the script and in fact he said yes he was going to do it. He would have paid to do it; he was that desperate to do it. And all sorts of weird stuff was happening. I was on surveys in Western Australia and nothing straight was happening. As it turned out he was dying, and he didn’t want to let anybody know. And so he ended up not being able to do it because he died.
That’s strange, because there are a number of similarities between Miles and Billy Cross, his character — the stroke, the reclusiveness.
It just happened that way. I mean, it wasn’t re-written for Miles. That was all in the script when Miles was not the remotest consideration. And in fact, Miles was offered to us by the same broker in America who had put us into contact with Sammy Davis Jr., and, you know, my first reaction was, “For fuck’s sake, forget it.” You know. He’s gonna be impossible. But of course, its one of those things where I knew that if I said no, the film would probably no happen, and it might very well happen with him.
I imagine there was a budget boost involved when you eventually hired him?
Not a great one, no. The only thing that went up was music. Basically what happened was that we said, “Look, are you sure? He’s a nightmare. He’s meant to be this, he’s meant to be that.” They said, “Okay, we’ll get you to go and see him, and if you don’t think it’s going to work then you can say no.” But I knew already that if I said no it’d fall apart. But anyway, I went through the motions and came to see him and in that first meeting that I had with him, one of the things he said he wanted to do (because he was going to compose the music and act the role) he said he wanted to work with Michel LeGrand, the French composer. And I think that was a wise thing for him to have done. He said he had worked with Michel years before and loved it, and this was a big proper movie. He’d done quick soundtracks for a couple of films but nothing on this scale, so he got Michel involved. Therefore we had to find quite a bit of money for another composer, and music was gonna cost more. Blah blah blah. On the whole, the budget didn’t go up because Miles wasn’t a superstar actor, so he didn’t get paid that much.
Yes, I was going to ask, since Miles hadn’t really acted before, did you have to persuade him at all or was it just through casting agents that he came to be involved?
It was not even a casting agent. It was through a bloke, a producing partner in America who we had contacts with, who had got us the connection with Sammy David Jr. When that fell apart, this bloke, a guy called Elard Elkins, said “What about Miles Davis?” So, you know, how that came about I don’t know. But I think he used to manage musicians, and maybe he’d even managed Miles at some point. But he was an old bloke. How it came about I don’t know, but it was just suggested to us and we said yes.
What was your first encounter with Miles like?
That’s a long story, and it’s a great story, really, because it was shocking. It was just shocking. It’s epic, because it’s about flying in different continents and about being told to be here, and then being told to be there, and then after this epic journey finally getting to see him, and 45 minutes later after having studiously avoided talking about the script or anything to do with the film apart from Michel LeGrand — he talked about anything but the film — after 45 minutes he said “That’s it, bye.” I said “Wait, Miles, it’s Friday afternoon.” He said, “Okay, okay, we’ll meet you for lunch then on Monday.” I agreed. So I rang him and he said 12 o’clock. So I rang him at 12 o’clock and he said [adopts Miles Davis impression] “Sorry, I’m going to New York.” And I said, “What?!” He said, “Yeah, I’m about to go to the airport.” I said, “Miles, I’ve travelled halfway around the world to see you.” So he said “Guess I’ll see you in New York then”, and hung up the phone. So I had to change all my tickets, and it just went on and on and on, and I never did see him again until he got off the plane in Meekatharra.
That beautiful scene at Meekatharra airport where he steps off this cargo plane and plays a number for the townsfolk of Poony Flat.
Obviously not the plane he got off when I saw him, because he got off a passenger plane. [laughs]
That scene is beautiful — it’s sort of surreal and dreamlike, and it’s got a really tactile, sweaty quality, and you can really feel the temperate climate. How many days did it take to shoot that sequence?
We had three days with the plane, but there were all sorts of catastrophes with it. We had a little terminal building that we’d build, but when the plane first arrived, it gouged up the runway and wouldn’t park where it was meant to park. It was turned around and a kilometer away from the main terminal. So we lost the first day. The second day he did come closer, but he didn’t park in the right spot anyway. So by the time we were on the third day we were behind. They had a freight run that they had to do, so they had to take off at a particular time, and we hadn’t quite finished enough to cobble it together, and he had to take off. But we wouldn’t get off the plane. The pilot was yelling at us, “Get off my fucking plane!” “Yeah, just a minute, just a minute, just a minute.” [laughs]
Yeah, it was. And then we lost some stuff in the lab as well and that made things difficult. For me, the sequence is as good as it could be under the circumstances, but slightly compromised by both the shoot and what had happened in the lab: a spool came off the rails and ruined a number of shots. So we were behind the 8-ball from the beginning.
Did Miles just fly in and fly out for those three days?
No, we shot a couple of other things with him. A couple of musical performances and something to do with a caravan, I think. He was just here for a week, I know that much. Or five days. Three of that was the plane, plus some other bits and pieces.
I don’t want to mischaracterize him at all, but he did have a reputation for being quite difficult and belligerent. The new film Miles Ahead, which I saw yesterday, takes place very much in that earlier phase of his career, where he did go off the rails. So what was he like to work with, both as an actor and as part of the film crew?
He was very cagey for the first couple of days, because you can imagine an Australian film crew. They were respectful, but they’re not gonna fucking lick his boots. Whereas a French film crew would. The French film crew were practically trembling in front of him. It was a big thing for them. He wasn’t sure whether people were taking the piss or not, but in the end he figured that there’s something genuine here, and I got on very well with him. There’s another long, long, long story, but I did get on very, very well with him. Part of the way through the shoot in France, three or four days into that (there was a total of two week with Miles), his manager said, “You don’t know.” I said, “What don’t I know?” She said, “I’ve been with him for eight years, and I’ve never, ever seen him remotely this good, this well-behaved. At the end of the two weeks in France he was, not bereft, but he was truly sorry it had come to an end, and when I went back to America to record more music, and saw the cut of the film, we were talking about doing another film together, because that’s what he wanted to do. And it was not going to be a music film at all, but we were simply talking about doing another film. It was a Louisiana bayou type film, you know? But he died, so that never happened.
Did he and Colin Friels get along?
Yeah, quite well. He admired Colin’s trumpet miming — that he’d got as far as he had — and he was very careful to look at Colin as an actor and to try and learn from him. They got on very well.
Obviously, Davis died in September 1991, shortly before the film came out. Did he get to see it?
Yes, he did. I can’t remember whether he got to see a final print or whether he got to see — no, I think he did. Yeah, he did see a final print. He sat in the back corner of the theatrette, with his jacket over his head, and gradually and gradually he peeked out from under it, and by the end, half his face was exposed. So he was sort of looking at it by then. He was very, very nervous about his own performance. But, as you say, it’s good. Look, he has some great instincts, he also — his brain was, by then, there were aspects of it that were scrambled. So he found it very hard. There’s a complete mixture of stuff in there from Miles. Some scenes where he just got it, absolutely got it, the whole time. Every take, long stretches of dialogue in one shot. Other scenes are completely cobbled together from what appeared to be drivel coming out of his mouth, and everything in between. So he was enigmatic to work with, to say the least. But, you know, we got through it, and we got through it well enough.
The film itself is quite enigmatic. It’s a strange and rare story that you tell, especially in the context of Australian cinema. And it’s very much told in two parts, so it is appropriate, in a way, that his performance turned out that way.
Do you remember the film fondly?
I like the film, but no I don’t. It was a difficult film to make, and, you know, [sighs] it was just difficult. There were good things about it, too, but in the end it was one of those films where you think, well — it was a film that made me think differently of myself as a filmmaker.
The outcome of it was extraordinary. Once it was finished, what happened was extraordinary. Basically, nothing happened. But why that was, and the nature of human greed — look. There was an offer on the table for US$2million for the film, but we thought that we could get more, because of Warner Bros. and because of Miles. This went on for months, and I end up in America trying to keep the film alive where everybody else had abandoned it, in a way, because they’d run out of time. So I was forced to stay there. Look, in the end, it just got older and older and older. People were still waiting for Warner Bros. Again, Jaymes, it’s a long and unbelievable story to tell, but in the end we ended up with a tiny distribution company that didn’t pay any advance and I think the total return to the Film Finance Corporation was $36,000. Just imagine, the $2million had been knocked back, and we get to that result? The small distribution company was going to come out with it in America, and they planned to start with a concert in Central Park, with a live satellite cross to Japan — because they loved Miles in Japan of Miles — playing ‘Dingo’. That was going to be the launch of the film in the USA. They spent, already, a quarter of a million dollars putting this together, and then Miles died. The film just collapsed, and the release didn’t happen, because the concert couldn’t happen. They asked Michel if he could play a benefit concert or something, and he said, no, he’s not gonna tread on a dead man’s grave. So that was dead.
Then they thought, okay, there’s nothing surer than this film going to Hollywood. There was complete certainty that Dingo would get nominated at the Oscars for the music. Just a nomination. More than that, who knows? Because the Academy loves Michel. He had, at that time, 17 nominations, and he’d won 3. And, of course, Miles is this icon that recently died. And also, it was a great music track, for a film that sort of worked. In the end, you worry about the paperwork. They had the whole pre-release, pre-Oscars screenings that they had to have, and put money into that, because that costs. You have to screen for a week or two in New York and also in Los Angeles. So they did that. I remember ringing them the day before the turn of the year, and I said “Is all the paperwork in order?” They said, “Yes, everything’s in order. Everything’s fine.” Then the list of films that are eligible comes out, and Dingo’s not on it. They’d fucked up the paperwork. The Academy ended up apologizing, because they’d had a small role in it. They didn’t cause it, but they’d made a contribution to it. Anyway, the paperwork had been fucked up and that didn’t happen.
So now, the poor little distribution company has spent money twice already, and both times it’s dead money. Then they think, we’ll go for a limited release in Seattle and Portland, which at that times was a closed market, and you would platform from there. They ordered fifty trailers! “Fuck, fifty trailers?!” I though, “Jesus Christ, this is incredible.” The only trouble was, there wasn’t a trailer. The French had made a trailer, and we had a copy of that. We had no money, but we had to deliver a trailer. They had no money either. So we made atrailer. In the end, the fifty trailers arrived eight days before the opening in Seattle and Portland. Which is terrible already, but at least they were there eight days before the premiere. However, the trailers were anamorphic — 2:35 aspect ratio with the squeeze on it — and all the films that it’d been booked with were spherical. So they couldn’t play the trailers and they had to junk them.
One thing after another.
Yeah. In the end, it made no money. Marc and I ended up making no money out of it at all. And it was a French co-production, and three weeks before the shoot started, the French said, “Sorry, we’re $300,000 short, you’ll have to put that in.” Marc and I put that money in, and so we made no money. It was a difficult year, the film was creditable, but it sank completely, and I thought: you can make a good film and it goes nowhere, you can make a good film and it can go somewhere; you can make a bad film and it can go somewhere, and you can make a bad film that goes nowhere. It’s completely out of your hands. It’s almost random. So, I thought, I’m gonna stop doing this, making films that are hard to make, and I’m gonna start making films that I care about, for myself. Small films. I’m going to enjoy the process. Dingo changed the way I approach filmmaking radically, and happily so.
It seems to be working out for you, I must say.
A privileged career since then, absolutely.
Miles Ahead screens until March 20 as part of the 2016 PIAF film season. Show times and tickets available here.
Interview by Jaymes Durante