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'Birdman' composer on drumming out the film's soundtrack

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Birdman
Alison Rosa

Birdman greets theatergoers today, and it does so with a score that sounds not unlike two hours of silverware tumbling down a staircase. (In the best way.)

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and sound designer Martín Hernández opted for a soundtrack composed almost entirely of percussion to amp up film’s tension and give them greater flexibility with pacing. The man they recruited to make those noises was multiple-Grammy winning jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, who worked closely with the pair as he riffed and clanged his way through the movie’s sonic backdrop. He explained to EW how the score came together.

GETTING THE GIG

Sanchez had never worked on a film before getting the call for Birdman , nor could he think of an existing movie that had approached its soundtrack in the manner Iñárritu described to him. “Alejandro basically said, ‘I’m thinking for my next movie, the whole score will be just drums. What are you thinking, are you in?’ I never seen anything that could give me a reference of what that would be like, so that was nerve-wracking.”

Even so, Sanchez was aware of Iñárritu’s musical pedigree—the filmmaker was a DJ in Mexico City back when Sanchez was growing up in that city, and the two later became friends when Iñárritu attended some of Sanchez’s jazz shows—and figured that if Iñárritu had a vision, they’d be able to execute it. “I immediately accepted, of course. I said, ‘Sure, I’m in. We’ll figure out the details later.'”

CRAFTING THE SCORE

“I’m guessing it would be the equivalent of me sending the charts of my music to somebody and them having to imagine what it’s going to sound like. I was kind of clueless in how to approach it,” Sanchez says.

He began by recording a series of demo tracks—”quirky but catchy” rhythmic themes that would be associated with each character, to provide a suite of options for the many different situations that crop up during the movie. “I sent them to Alejandro and he replied saying, ‘Man, this is absolutely the opposite of what I was thinking. You’re a jazz musician. I want you to have a completely jazz approach, to improvise, to not have anything too pre-planned. I just want you to react to the story.”

Since reacting to the story requires seeing the story, Sanchez waited until production was underway and then joined Iñárritu on set in New York. That gave the drummer a better understanding of the film’s dynamics and tone. Then the pair went to a studio in New York, where Iñárritu would walk through scenes, describing the action and giving Sanchez cues: “I told him, ‘Sit in front of me, and when you feel like Riggan is opening the door, raise your hand,” says Sanchez. “When you feel that he’s turning the corner of the hallway, raise it again. When he’s getting to the stage door, do it again.’”

Each time Iñárritu raised his hand, Sanchez would alter the beat he was playing to reflect the subtext of the scene. In some cases they got especially granular, right down to pauses in dialogue. “Alejandro would say, ‘In this scene, Michael Keaton is talking and when he says this word, I want you to stop. Let him say this phrase and when he says this word, start again, but faster.’ That kind of thing. It is what I do; I improvise and react to my surroundings. But it’s always to other musicians. I had never done anything like this.”

RERECORDING

Once shooting was complete, Iñárritu took the improvised tracks and laid them behind a rough cut of the film to see how everything jived. He liked the way the score complemented the action, but not how the drums actually sounded. Having been recorded in a luxe New York studio, the audio was extremely crisp and clear—not at all the vibe Iñárritu and Sanchez wanted for a movie steeped in tension and disfunction, set in the “bowels of an old theater on Broadway.” So Sanchez headed to LA to rerecord the tracks.

To produce the sound they wanted—”drums that are rusty, out of tune, and haven’t been played in years”—Sanchez purposely degraded his kit. “I didn’t tune the drums, used mismatched heads, stuck tape on the heads to make them deader, and put stuff on the cymbals to make them sound like they’re kind of broken. I also stacked two and three cymbals on top of each other, metal on metal. Instead of a sustained sound, you get a dry, trashy one. That worked a lot better.”

In some scenes, most notably when Keaton’s character Riggan is losing his mind, Iñárritu wanted things to go way off the rails. For those, Sanchez dubbed additional drum tracks on top of the base rhythm. “I would lay one track, listen to see what would fit, and then record more tracks to make it completely insane. With Alejandro, it was the more, the better. If I had a frying pan that sounded cool, I think he would have loved it.”

SYNCING WITH THE DRUMMER

Because Birdman likes to screw with everyone involved—characters and viewers alike—there are two instances in the movie in which an actual drummer can be seen performing onscreen. The drummer in the movie isn’t Sanchez—he wasn’t available to appear on the days they were shooting those scenes. (Instead, it’s his friend Nate Smith.)

But since Sanchez was recording audio sequences that led in and out of scenes featuring the drummer, he had to not only learn the exact parts Smith was playing, but also transition in and out of them without interrupting the overall flow of the scene. As he says: “That was a challenge.”

“You see Michael Keaton getting up, opening the door of his dressing room, and walking down the hall. Then you pass Nate for a second. I had to learn every hit that Nate made, and nail it, and then keep playing the other stuff. That was a trip.”

To pull it off with that level of precision took extra work, but both Iñárritu and Sanchez were motivated by a shared contempt for the typical depiction of drums on film: “It happens in 90 percent of movies where there’s a drummer: What he’s playing doesn’t sync up with the sounds being heard, and the director doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. I really appreciate that Alejandro was thinking of that. He didn’t want to sync it up by cutting and splicing in the studio. He wanted it to be perfect.”

THE DOPPLER APPROACH

Iñárritu didn’t just put pressure on Sanchez—he also put his sound design team through their paces. During one scene in the middle of the movie, Keaton and Edward Norton walk down the street on their way to a bar; along the way, they pass Smith drumming on the sidewalk outside the theater. The drum sounds change multiple times during the sequence—first when Keaton leaves the quiet of the theater and exits onto the New York City street, then again as he and Norton approach and move past Smith. Iñárritu wanted the volume level of the sidewalk drummer to rise and fall as Keaton and Norton walked by, but in as authentic a way as possible.

“We actually brought the drums out onto the street near the studio,” Sanchez recalls. “There were a couple of sound guys a block away with mics that had really, really long cables. I started playing, and they walked the whole block, right pass my drums, and kept walking to the next block. Then they came back. That’s how Alejandro approaches his work. Anybody else probably would have just turned the volume up and down.”

OBLIGATORY DRUM SOLO

We’ll end with a video of Sanchez going off.

Birdman‘s soundtrack was released on iTunes Tuesday.