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.

I imagine improvising as a reactive, instinctual process. Is it difficult to incorporate Alejandro's notes and stay spontaneous?

It”s not that hard. I”ve been improvising my whole life and I”ve been a sideman for a long time. It”s common that you do your thing and follow a million different directions. It”s a strange combination, but it can be done.

Did you end up going on set?

I went a couple of times to get a vibe of the film. It”s one thing to read the script, it”s another to see what the actors do. I went a couple of days and saw Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, and Ed Norton doing a few scenes. That gave me a much better idea of the color of the movie. Once the movie was pieced together and they placed my demos into the film, I went back to a studio and re-recorded the entire thing from beginning to end. Listening to what they did with my demos, but this time around, doing it live with the movie. I was watching the movie and improvising based on what was there. Sometimes Alejandro was very specific: “When Riggan says this word, stop. When he says this word, start faster.”

Still from “Birdman” /  Sanchez playing on the “Birdman” set

What did you discover the second time around when watching picture that you didn”t crack the first time around?

Picture made a huge difference, but Alejandro”s directions were so on. Whenever I”d be watching one of the scenes we worked on before, where he was just explaining, I would see it and it was just as he had explained. He had never shot a scene, but he saw it in his mind with so much detail. But [picture] helped for the rhythm of the walks, hitting certain elements with the drums with the movements, stopping my playing when they”d do different things.

One thing we worked on was the sound of the actual drums. The first time the drums sounded really clean. Beautiful. The studio was really good and they were [microphoned] really well. They sounded too good for the movie. Because the movie happens in the bowels of this old theater on Broadway, Alejandro wanted something rickety and hasn”t been played for years. Dusty and rusty.

Sanchez recording outdoors in Los Angeles.

What do you do to the physical drum to create that sound?

I muffled them, I detuned them, I put different things on the drumheads, played them with different sticks, put things on the cymbals to make them sound old.

I”m only realizing now that you can tune a drum.

A lot of people don”t realize how touchy tuning can be with drums. You have six or eight tuning lugs on the top head and then the same thing on the bottom head. To find the right tone for the size and material of each drum is made… it”s not easy. Most drummers have their own tuning methods. I like to tune the bottom head a little higher than the top and play around with the lugs on the top to get the tone I want. That makes it sound full, without a lot of body. But if you start playing with the tuning lugs, not make them even on both heads, it sounds awful. That”s what Alejandro wanted.

What kind of sticks makes a drum sound like crap?

Drums are so customizable. Not only the drum set itself, but the heads themselves. I put “vintage heads” on them, which makes them sound old. You can hit them with drum sticks, brushes, mallets, bamboo rods, branches – I tried everything. I knew what we were in desperate need of were other colors. I also stacked up cymbals. Usually you put a cymbal on a stand and hit it. But if you stack them up, it muffles the cymbal and makes it sound like it”s broken. 

Is there a thin line between musicality and noise. Were you in fear of going off the rails?

A few scenes that was the intention, to sound chaotic. One thing we did that worked really well was overdubbing layers of me playing over myself. I would lay down one track and then re-record something completely different on top. It would sound like something no one could play. You have four limps and then all of a sudden you hear 16 limbs playing. Improvising is all about reacting, so when I did that, I was reacting to the first track I did, then I”d lay the second track and the third time I would listen to both. Always reacting, finding holes that I had left in the previous takes, like a counterpoint.

“Birdman” is set in New York, the place you call home. Does the city have a relationship with the drums? 

You could say it”s a percussive city, in a way. It”s about noise and rhythm. You walk down the street and hear a sledgehammer, a siren, people chatting – all kinds of rhythmic patterns. It”s an aggressively percussive city.

Have you seen “Whiplash” yet? Drums are officially en vogue.

I haven”t, but I”m looking forward for it! We drummers never get any intention. They”ll make movies about anything except drummers. To have a movie about a drummer and another movie have the sole score be drums. It”s a good time for us.