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Birdman's Beating Heart: An Interview with Composer Antonio Sanchez

Birdman, the pitch-black comedy from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu that recently took the festival circuit by storm, opens in theaters today. Among its most distinctive and arresting features is its drum-based score, composed by Grammy-winning jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. A classically trained musician considered by both critics and peers to be among the foremost drummers, bandleaders and composers in contemporary jazz, the Mexico City native had never scored a film before his partnership with Iñárritu. Margaret caught up with him to discuss the project. The soundtrack was released on October 14, on Milan records.

Margaret: Since you’re a first time film composer, how did you get involved with Birdman

ANTONIO SANCHEZ: I met Alejandro [Gonzalez Iñárritu] a few years back—there’s a very famous jazz guitar player that I play with a lot named Pat Metheney—and Alejandro has been a big Pat Metheney fan for a long time. In fact, the first time I ever heard Pat Metheney was in Mexico City when Alejandro used to DJ this radio show back in the day.

Margaret: No way!

ANTONIO SANCHEZ: He had a radio show on WFM 96.9 in Mexico City that played really hip, modern music-- music you would not normally hear on Mexican radio stations. I became a fan really fast.

Years later I was playing with Pat Metheney in L.A., and Alejandro came to the concert. I met him afterward, we really hit it off, and we kept in touch. Last year he called me to say he was going to shoot a film in the next couple months and was thinking that the perfect film score would be just drums, solo drums. And while of course I was interested, I had no idea how it was going to work. Like you said, it was my first time scoring a film, and also just drums? I had no idea how that would sound 

[Dreams of EGOT & Internal Monologues after the jump...]

Did you get to work out the concept beforehand?

Before they started shooting, I did some demos to see if I was more or less on the right track. My approach was to have a little theme, a certain beat, for each one of the characters. When I sent Alejandro the demos, it turned out to be totally the wrong approach, not what he was looking for. He said, 'I’m looking for something really organic, very spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment. You’re a jazz drummer, I want you to improvise.’ 

Because I didn't have an image to improvise to yet, I went to the set for a few days once they started shooting in New York; after that I understood a lot better what the nature of the film was going to be. The next step was going to a studio in New York City with Alejandro to make the demos, but since the movie was being shot and we had nothing really to look at, Alejandro would talk me through the scene.

And you just improvised based on that?

Yes, I improvised. I said, why don’t you sit right there in front of me, and just imagine the scene, and when you see Riggan opening the door of his dressing room, raise your hand. And when he’s walking down the hallway, raise your other hand. When he gets to the stage door, raise your hand again. So Alejandro was imagining all of this and I was guiding myself with that to create the first demos. That was the initial approach.

How much did it evolve from the demo stage to what we hear in the film?

They spliced the demos up and put it over the film once it was in the rough cut stage. They took me to LA and showed me what they had done, and in another studio I recreated some of the same things we had done on the demos with a more fluid and correct approach. One thing I changed was that in New York we were in a really good studio and my drums sounded almost too good. Very clean.

Not the heightened, anxious mood you were going for?

Exactly. When I saw the rough cut of the movie, I realized--It’s all happening in the bowels of this old theater on Broadway, and the sound should be almost rusted, like drums you haven’t played in years. So I tuned the drums in a different way to get the sense of old, unused drums. Once we did that, then they used parts of what we did in LA and some of the demos we recorded in New York.

The music feels so much a part of the landscape. How did you work with the movie’s existing sound and the ambient noise - especially in the scenes out on the street outside the theater?

That scene in particular was very, very interesting. What we did was take the drums out of the studio in LA and put them on the street, and they had me play while a couple of guys with mics on really long cables stood about a block away. While I was playing, they would walk towards me, past me, over to the other block, and back again. So what you hear in the movie is not actually manipulated sound, but actually mics getting really far away from me and then very close, and then passing. So what you hear in the film is coordinated that to give that effect with the image.

Another thing that was very unique for me,is that as a drummer you usually don’t overdub anything after you’re done. Other instruments are more prone to be dubbed: you can have 12-15 different guitar or keyboard parts on a tune. Drums usually have one and that’s it. One of the things we did to make it sound really chaotic and very crazy as the character goes crazier during the film was to overdub drum tracks on top of each other.  We layered stuff which normally as a drummer is humanly impossible—things you’d need fifteen hands to do.

And a drum set is the only instrument used on the score?

Drums and cymbals, that’s it.

We as the audience are placed inside Riggan’s head and made privy to his internal monologue. Was the score designed to be part of the soundtrack of his mind?

That’s definitely something that Alejandro talked about. He wanted the drums to kind of go from being just the score to being part of the scenery to being part of what’s in Riggan’s head.It’s three different ways of approaching the same thing. You’re hearing sounds and you don’t know if it’s because there’s a drummer in the street, or if it’s because there’s craziness going on inside his head, or if it’s just the film score. That was an important piece to take into account whenever we were doing it. Some parts were a little more introspective, and the textures I was trying to get on the drums would be more personal or sensitive, the way you would play behind a singer doing a ballad. So you have these parts that are very gentle, and then some parts that are very thunderous.

Have you seen the completed film?

I have not, unfortunately. I’ve been touring most of this year and tomorrow I leave for a month in Asia. The movie’s going to open here in New York in the time I’m gone, so I’m kind of bummed about that.

I have to ask: since you’ve scored a prestige film and you’re a four-time Grammy winner, have you given any thought to the possibility of earning an EGOT?

Well, I wouldn’t be against it! [Laughs] I mean, it’s not something that I’ve looked for all my life. A Grammy was always something I wanted to have, and an Oscar was never on my radar. But if it happened I wouldn’t be complaining, I’ll tell you that!

Naturally. So as you mentioned, you’re about to embark on a pretty significant world tour commitment. Do you have any other film projects planned? In general, what’s next for you?

This tour I’m doing the whole year is with that guitar player I was talking about, Pat Meheney (A 20-time Grammy winner!), and I actually have my own project. I’m releasing my fourth and fifth solo albums next year and it’s all my original music. I wrote this really long suite that my band will be recording in December. So next year is going to be dedicated to basically to my own project, my band called Migration.

Do you think that you’re going to try to work in film composition again? Or does your style and expertise need to be paired with a really specific kind of project, like this one?

I think that would be more the approach. This worked because this is what I do, but if somebody wanted me to write a huge orchestral score I might not be the right guy for that. But I do have a lot of compositional ability not just with my instrument but with my band and in a smaller setting. So if it’s a possibility for me to do something like that, of course I would be interested.

What I really loved about the project was that I got to explore so many different sides of my instrument. A lot of people might think- Drums? How many things can you do with drums? It can be very monochromatic, and it’s always in the back of the stage, you can’t even see the guy most of the time. The fact that it’s in the forefront in this movie is very exciting. It’s such a different approach, I think that’s why it’s getting some attention.

In terms of the sonic experience, it’s not like any other movie I’ve ever seen.

That’s very good to hear. [Laughs]

I hope that you get a chance to see the movie soon.

I can’t wait!

recent interviews &  last year's collection of chats
more on Birdman

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Reader Comments (2)

First, it was the cinematography that makes it looks like it's just one continuous shot, now you're telling me the whole score is just drums???!!!

The more I hear about this movie, the more I'M DYING to see it! It already was my most anticipated movie of the year on concept and casting alone, but now, it's getting ridiculous! I hate that I live in French Canada right now! I might have to wait until 2015! It's not fair!

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBensunce

Just saw Birdman -- the score was so perfect for this film -- like the flapping of wings.

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

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