How Alejandro G. Iñárritu 'directed' drummer Antonio Sanchez’s 'Birdman' score
Before 43-year-old "Birdman" composer Antonio Sanchez met Alejandro González Iñárritu, director, he was a diehard fan of Alejandro Iñárritu, radio DJ. As a teenager growing up in Mexico City, 96.9 WFM, playing the “hippest music” in town, would accompany the music enthusiast’s drives to school. At night, he’d tune in to Iñárritu’s "Magic Nights" show, which Sanchez describes as “a little more daring" than the average radio programming. That was the first time he heard Pat Metheny’s "Last Train Home," a hazy guitar tune that wails with Latin jazz and funk sounds.
Flash forward to 2002 and Sanchez is a professional jazz drummer playing in the Pat Metheny Group. On one fateful night, before a gig in Los Angeles, Metheny and Sanchez sat down for an interview in their hotel room with Martin Hernandez, another WFM personality and “Birdman’s" future sound designer. And who winds up at the show? "[Iñárritu] is an avid music fan and connoisseur," Sanchez tells me. "It was easy to have common ground between the two of us.”
When it came time to bang out (quite literally, at times) the soundtrack to "Birdman," González Iñárritu recruited Sanchez, who had never composed in the traditional sense. Except that Sanchez composes every time he performs; holding a Masters in Jazz Improvisation from Boston's New England Conservatory, Sanchez can take a drum kit to both ends of the universe and back while riffing off a single sound or concept. González Iñárritu’s late night curation served him well.
Speaking to Sanchez amidst a world tour that whisked him from New York City to South Korea, Japan, China and Australia in a matter of weeks, I asked the drummer about collaborating with González Iñárritu and the director’s band leader-like role in sculpting a percussive sound for "Birdman."
HitFix: Much of your love for music comes from the tunes Iñárritu unearthed on his Mexico City radio station. When finding a sound for "Birdman," what do you gain from working with someone who knows music and shares similar sensibilities?
Antonio Sanchez: I think the advantage to working with a director like that is that he really knows what he wants. Maybe his technical terms aren’t incredibly accurate, but he knows what he wants anyway. The way of explaining that is more conceptual, ethereal. Having said that, he would make his ideas come through so clearly, it was easy for me to interpret the way I thought he’d wanted it to be played.
Did he describe the movie as if it were music? It’s jazzy.
Oh yeah. He sent me the script so I was familiar with the story. And then I told him, "Why don’t I send you some demos of what I think might be cool?" So I started sending him demos. My first instinct was to record a musical for each of the main characters. For Riggan [Michael Keaton], I came up with a humorous beat. I was imagining every time Riggan comes in the film, you hear that in the background. I sent that to Alejandro and he said, "That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m looking for." He wanted something spontaneous, spur of the moment. "You’re a jazz drummer, I want you to improvise."
So when they started shooting in New York, we got together in a studio, Alejandro was there, and he’d say, "Imagine Riggan is in his dressing room, he gets up, opens the door, and starts walking down a long hallway and his mind is all over the place, he’s going crazy. Then he walks on stage." I’ve improvised all my life, but I’ve never improvised to such specific imagery. I told him, “Why don’t you sit in front of me and we’ll think about the scene and when you see Riggan opening the door to the dressing room, raise your hand.” For timing. He’d have his eyes closed sitting in front of me, then he’d raise his hand every time Riggan would do something different. Every time I saw him do that, I’d change the vibe and intensity of what I was playing. We did 60 or 70 different tries of that for the film. Once the movie was pieced together, they put those demos on the movie and, from what I hear, they used demos for timing. The movie fed on the drums and the drums fed on the imagery.
Next: Tampering with drums and playing the impossible.