How ‘Birdman’ Composer Improvised the Year’s Most Audacious Film Score

Antonio Sanchez turned an hour of drum solos into the backbone of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s daring film

The most audacious thing about Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman” is unquestionably the director’s decision to shoot the entire film as if it were one continuous, unbroken shot. But the movie’s music is a close second, because the entire film score (apart from passages of Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky that surface at regular intervals) is percussion – a careening, ramshackle-sounding drum score that underpins most of the scenes and gives the film the feeling that the whole glorious mess may come crashing down at any second.

“I didn’t want to have a classic score, and it came to me that the drums would be my metronome to measure the beat and the internal rhythm of the film,” Inarritu told TheWrap. “I thought it would give an urgency and help the audience to navigate through the movie, you know what I mean?”

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Antonio Sanchez, the drummer in jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s band, knew what Inarritu meant.  Sanchez and Inarritu had been friends for years – and, in fact, the drummer had first heard Metheny when he was a teenager in Mexico City, listening to a radio station on which Inarritu was one of the main deejays.  Sanchez had never before written a film score, but he told TheWrap that he jumped at the idea when Inarritu called him.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m working on my next film,'” said Sanchez. “‘It’s a dark comedy, and I think it would be great if the whole score was just drums. Are you in?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but give me more details.'”

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Inarritu sent a script, and Sanchez began working on passages that he said were “very pattern-oriented, where each character had a different rhythmic theme.” Inarritu told him he was on the wrong track, and should go for something more spontaneous, organic and improvisational.

So the two men got together in a studio in New York City, and went through the film scene-by-scene. Inarritu, said Sanchez, would sketch out a scene: For instance, Michael Keaton‘s character is in his dressing room, angry; he gets up, goes to the door, walks through the hallways of the Broadway theater where he’s working, and ends up on the stage in front of an audience.

“I said to Alejandro, ‘Why don’t you sit in front of me, and think of the scene as I’m playing?'” said Sanchez. “‘When you see him leave the dressing room, raise your hand. When he enters the stage, raise your hand … Every time he raised his hand, I would change texture.

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“It was an amazingly fun challenge. Being a jazz drummer, I am used to improvising, but I usually don’t do it with imagery.”

“It was amazing,” remembered Inarritu. “We recorded something like 70 pieces based on the emotions that I needed, and when I was assembling the film I started playing with them.”

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But the result was still missing something – because, both men agreed, it sounded too clean and too professional. “I thought it worked really well,” said Sanchez, “but the only thing I didn’t like is that the way we recorded the drums in New York was very pristine, very clean. The drums sounded beautiful – and because of the nature of the film, Alejandro kind of wanted the drums to sound messed-up and old and out of tune. Dirtier, greasier, more organic.”

In a Los Angeles studio, Sanchez watched the scenes and redid everything in what Inarritu gleefully recalled as “shittier sound.”

The result was a novel score that somehow fits perfectly with the daring way “Birdman” was shot — and also, in a way, makes the film an unlikely companion piece to Damien Chazelle‘s “Whiplash,” another jazz-inflected film in which drumming is a dominant musical motif.

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And the result is also Sanchez’s first film score – and, most likely, the only one he’ll ever write entirely with percussion.

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“My mother has been a film critic for many years and worked in the national film archives in Mexico, so film scores are something I pay a lot of attention to,” he said. “As a composer, I think a lot of the music I’ve written could fit into films – but I never imagined I would do something like this.

“I think this is a one-off, but maybe something else will come up. I just don’t know if any other director who is not so hands-on with music would be able to pull it off.”