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Watch: How ‘Birdman’ Composer Antonio Sanchez Drummed the Score

Watch: How 'Birdman' Composer Antonio Sanchez Drummed the Score

Most of the time, Antonio Sanchez plays jazz drums for the Pat Metheny Group. But he credits Alejandro González Iñárritu for helping to foster his love for music –and Metheny–as a radical DJ back in Mexico City. Sanchez became a celebrated jazz drummer, eventually settling in New York, and tracked González Iñárritu’s career as a filmmaker. He tells the story of how they met and collaborated on “Birdman” in the video below.

The score for “Birdman” is as innovative as the movie itself–which is bound to land multiple Oscar nominations. While there is some source music, the score was entirely created –improvised one week before the film started–by Sanchez, first as a temp track. He later recorded a final track playing against the film itself.

“The drums, for me, was a great way to find the rhythm of the film,” González Iñárritu told me at Telluride (full interview here). “Allow the audience to flow with the beat and find the tempo of each scene. In comedy, rhythm is king, and not having the tools of editing to determine time and space, I knew I needed something to help me find the internal rhythm of the film. The sound, I was interested to put in, and it helped me.”

Sanchez used overlapping recordings of drum tracks on top of each other that would be impossible to achieve in real life. The album will be out later this month with his drums and little bits of classical music. “I don’t think ever been a record ever that is just drums and classical music,” says Sanchez. “One would think that drums would be monochromatic to achieve all the emotions you see. As a jazz drummer you learn to play from the softest ballads to the most hectic music. Technically from experience I know how to achieve those textures. I play brushes on the snare really soft for ballads, use mallets with soft tips for a very peaceful sound. But hit it hard and it’s like thunder. I used the regular sticks with metal drum keys when Alejandro wanted weird sounds. I started to twist the drum key and nuts around to get the sound. The snare drum has metal strainers at the bottom, I was scratching them with my hands for a super weird sound.  We were experimenting with all kinds of textures.”

Sanchez had read the script and González Iñárritu told him what he needed in each scene, what emotion  he wanted to create. “I’d go ‘ooh, ooh, ehh, ehh,’ and he’d go, ‘Like this?’ [Mimes playing of drums] He was amazing. He was improvising, and I’d say, ‘Okay,’ or, ‘A little bit like this.’ Basically, I would record that, so I’d use it, even, sometimes on the set. A French company is doing the album. So, yeah, the score is the drums, and the classical music belonged to that thing. Then I wanted to put the drummer at the end, so I could have him.”

The jazz drummer who performs in the film is not Sanchez, because he was not available “I wanted him to become a character in his own film, and have the play become a play of a play,” laughs González Iñárritu, who made Sanchez perfectly match every hit. 

“I don’t know if anyone else except Alejandro could have done this,” says Sanchez. “The fact that he had that job in Mexico for so long exposed him to so much music. With his film background it was his idea how to marry both things, he has a special sensitivity.”

Will the mercurial Academy music branch recognize the first all-drum score? It’s impossible to predict their behavior. “Birdman” opens in theaters on October 17.

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