Antonio Sanchez '97: The Making of the 'Birdman' Score

Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez '97 is the man behind the score for the new film Birdman.

November 5, 2014

Improvisation is practically part of Antonio Sanchez’s DNA. As a member of Pat Metheny's bands and leader of his own group, Migration, the Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer is used to composing on the spot.

But the 1997 alumnus never quite imagined that he’d be applying the principles of improv to a movie score, let alone composing a movie score in the first place.

When Academy Award-nominated director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) tapped him to do the score—a drum score, at that—for his dark comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Sanchez didn’t think twice. Because what else would one say to someone like Iñárritu.

While composing for film was completely uncharted territory for him, Sanchez soon learned that Iñárritu’s vision was actually aligned with his own area of expertise.

After reading the script, Sanchez sent Iñárritu some demos. But it turned out that his approach— creating rhythmic themes for the main characters, including Riggan (played by Michael Keaton)—was the opposite of what the director had in mind. Rather, Iñárritu wanted something “spontaneous, improvised, dirty,” recalled Sanchez from New York, the day before heading to Los Angeles for the 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Awards, where he won the award for best original film score. (This recognition comes on the heels of his Sound Stars Award for best film score at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.)

The process Iñárritu proposed played into Sanchez’s skill at improvisation. The two got together in a studio in New York where Iñárritu described each scene and the kind of energy he wanted. Iñárritu signaled transitions in scenes by raising his hand, and Sanchez responded—using mallets, sticks, his hands—with whatever fit the mood.

“That’s how we did a bunch of different takes,” Sanchez said. Later, Sanchez flew to LA to see how the demos worked with the film, and vice versa.

“The improvisation,” Sanchez said, “was the easiest thing for me. If he told me to do something really calculated, I’m sure I’d be able to pull it off, but what I did was completely follow my instincts, which is what you do in jazz. I always guide myself by the sound and energy of what’s going on. I always do that with other people on stage or by myself. But never to imagery. The biggest challenge was adapting what I do to a moving image, a story line, and dialogue.”

The result is that the score—overlapping recordings of drums—serves as the heartbeat of the movie; the rich, layered drums pulsate in steady rhythms and soft brushes and then build during moments of transition and tension. In the climactic scene, the drums signal something big is going to happen. By then, the viewer anticipates and welcomes this cue. In between drum sequences, Iñárritu added classical pieces, which only serve to heighten the effect of the drums.

Listen to a sample of the score, "Strut Part II." 

The fact that Sanchez was able to move so seamlessly into this role is a credit to his improvisation skills, the foundation of which he attributes to his time at Berklee.

“When I came to Berklee in 1993, I had played jazz and listened to jazz but I was more into rock and fusion, so my instincts and sensibilities to improvise were not there. Berklee helped me so much,” he said. “I came in the door as a guy into impressing other musicians and other people and I left being a musician. One is miles away from the other.”

The easy rapport between Sanchez and Iñárritu also helped. The two struck up a friendship in 2002 when Sanchez played with the Pat Metheny Group in LA, his first big official tour with the guitarist. After the show, Iñárritu introduced himself and the two bonded over their native Mexico. But Sanchez was already familiar with Iñárritu, who hosted a popular radio show in Mexico City. In fact, it was on this show that Sanchez heard Metheny's music.

Fast forward to January 2013. Sanchez was leaving a concert in Miami when his phone rang. It was Iñárritu, asking him to compose a drum score for Birdman

Not only was this project a new kind of venture for Sanchez, but a drum-centric score is a novel concept. “It was a very scary proposition because there was not point of reference. I really couldn’t turn to anything for guidance,” Sanchez said.

But he knew he was in good hands with Iñárritu. “He is such a connoisseur of music. He is so hands-on with music,” Sanchez said. “I admire what he did. The credit is all his. . . The fact that he would have the guts to go with it is what I really admire about him as an artist.”

As the buzz for Birdman continues, Sanchez—who’s busy putting out two records and touring with his own band—is just riding the wave.

Sanchez saw the movie shortly before it opened and the experience was powerful. “Just to hear myself in a movie theater really loud on top of those images was pretty special,” he said.

Although he's not actively seeking other similar projects, he said he would be open to them. “If it happens, I could be ready,” he said. If the Birdman score is any indication, here's hoping another such opportunity knocks for Sanchez.

Watch the Birdman trailer.