Mexican jazz drummer and composer Antonio Sanchez is breaking new ground in the film industry. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critically-acclaimed dark comedy “Birdman,” the Oscar-nominated director called upon Sanchez to perform the entire score for the film on percussion-only instruments. It’s an incredible feat, Sanchez says, because he doesn’t know of anyone that has ever tried to create a soundtrack for a film like this before, nor does he think it’s something anyone would ever try again.
During an interview with me, Sanchez talked about how he became friends with Iñárritu and how they were able to pull off such an ambitious idea. He also explained why a percussion-only score works so perfectly with the organic nature of a film like “Birdman.”
How did you get involved with “Birdman?” I think I read somewhere that you were friends with Alejandro.
Yeah, that’s correct. It’s kind of a long story, but he was one of my favorite deejays when I was growing up in Mexico. His radio station is one of the ones I used to listen to the most. It was called WFM 96.9. He worked with another guy named Martin Hernandez who is basically the sound designer of his movies nowadays. I was big fan of both of them. Fast forward a few years later, and I was playing in a band with Pat Metheny. Alejandro had been a fan of Pat Metheny for a very long time. He came to one of the concerts we did in L.A.
So, you met him at the concert?
Yeah, after the concert, we started talking and I realized he was the guy from the radio station and now he was a director. We hit it off. Every time I would go to L.A., we would hang out. Sometimes when he had a screening in New York, he would invite me. One day out of the blue, he called me and told me, “I’m starting to do production on my new film. It’s going to be a dark comedy and I thought it would be perfect if we just had drums for the soundtrack. What do you think?” I told him I thought it would be awesome. We just started working from there.
I had no idea Alejandro was a disc jockey.
Yeah, Alejandro is very savvy on the music side of things. That’s why the music in his movies is so good. I think that’s why he wanted to break new ground with this concept of having just drums for the whole movie. I discovered a lot of new music thanks to Alejandro and Martin.
So, when Alejandro called you to pitch this idea for the score of “Birdman,” did you automatically start throwing around ideas with each other? Did Alejandro already know what he wants?
He just told me because of the script and the nature of the movie, he thought it would be really cool to have an organic approach to the soundtrack. He thought drums would make it very unique and felt they would fit well with what the movie was about. We started doing some tests in New York. We went to a studio together. He would basically describe scenes to me. He would say, “OK, the character is in a dressing room and he opens the door and starts walking down the hallway and is thinking all these crazy things and then walks onto the stage and all of a sudden a whole audience is there. Go!” Then, I would have to come up with something that would suit the scene he was describing to me.
That is insane.
Yeah, we just started to play around with ideas like that. Then they took those ideas we did in New York and once the film was almost finished, they put some of those ideas to the film. They cut and spliced them and put them where they thought they should be. Once that was done, I went to L.A. and re-recorded most of the stuff with a new approach, taking into consideration what I had done before and how they put it with the images.
So, when you re-recorded everything, did you finally get to see the footage while you were playing?
Yeah, the second time around, the film was basically done. So, I saw the film in the morning and had some time to think about it back at my hotel. I slept on it and the next morning we started recording for two days with the movie and with tracks I had done before. So, we would watch a scene and they would show me what they did with my original tracks and the images. Then I would redo it. Alejandro said the first time around, the demo sounded to clean and crisp. So, we wanted to dirty it up a little bit. So, I did some things to the drums to make them sound more like street drums. Then we started to do the same process again with me playing the drums while the movie played.
You’re a jazz drummer, so I’m sure you have a lot more tools to create different sounds than a traditional percussionist. What was in your bag of tricks for this score?
I used everything I could get my hands on. I had an extended drum kit. I had combinations of symbols. I would stack different kinds of symbols on top of one another to make it sound really trashy. I didn’t want it to sound like an ordinary jazz drum set. I had a fairly big kit to get the most sounds out of it as I could. I thought it worked pretty well. The combination of the extended kit with the different kinds of sticks and brushes and mallets and other things I could hit the drums with, it all created a lot of different textures for us to work with.
Now that you’ve seen the final film with your score included, what does a percussion-only score do for a film like “Birdman” in terms of tone and style?
“Birdman” is a very organic film. Basically it’s one camera that follows all the action. It’s very impressive and very out of the norm. Because of that, I think Alejandro wanted a score that was out of the norm. Also, what the main character goes though in the film, he starts going kind of nuts. He’s got a lot of internal demons. I think Alejandro though the drums would kind of give that sense of confusion without having any instruments really playing any harmonies or melodies. It really gives the film and abstract feeling. It really shows what the character is going through and what the movie is about.
I couldn’t find any other composer or filmmaker who has tried to pull off something like this, but maybe I missed someone. Did you or Alejandro talk about any past films that have done what you did with “Birdman?”
I was told jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette apparently did some movie a long time ago that was basically drums. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but I couldn’t find it myself. I’m not exactly sure what happened to that project. (Editor’s note: According to imdb.com, DeJohnette was never credited as a film composer during his career).
It must feel pretty amazing that you’re breaking some new ground and opening the door for more percussionists to have bigger roles in film scores.
(Laughs) You know, I have no idea if there will ever be any other movie that would attempt to do something like this. Alejandro is a visionary and he has a very specific idea of what he wants and how he wants it. It was great working with him because I could see how his mind works and how his concepts of images and sound go together. It was a great project.
Was “Birdman” a one-time thing for you? Was it like a gig and now it’s time to move on? Or would you like to work on some more films?
I would love to do more of this. It’s so interesting. I would like to do it in a way that would feature my abilities. I wouldn’t want somebody to ask me to write a film score with an orchestra and strings and a brass section. That’s not my thing. What I do is play drums. I’m a composer, but I composer for small ensembles, usually. If any other director thought something like that could suit their film, then I would definitely love to try something like that.