With its bold, frenetic drum score, few films released in the past twelve months have been blessed with soundtrack work quite as unique and cliché free as Birdman. Bolstered by the talents of jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brilliantly madcap comedy drama was always set to make waves come awards season.
Birdman rightly went on to garner a plethora of gongs, including Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, alongside a Best Actor nod for Michael Keaton’s brilliant portrayal of Riggan Thomson, a washed up Hollywood actor on the brink of a nervous breakdown – arguably the defining performance of Keaton’s career.
However, lamentably lost amongst the fanfare was a nod for Sánchez’s work on the film due to Academy rules against a film’s use of pre-existing classic music, which rendered his work ineligible – rules that excluded Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant work on There Will Be Blood several years ago. Over here, BAFTA rightly acknowledged the score with a nomination for Best Original Music and it remains one of our favourite soundtracks of the year by some margin.
Paul Weedon recently caught up with Sánchez to discuss working on his debut film score, his eagerness to debunk common perceptions about the drum kit as a solo instrument and his views on Whiplash’s problematic portrayal of the lively music scene he’s best known for.
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Birdman marks your first foray in film scoring. Talk me through the process of how you originally came to be involved with the project.
Well, Alejandro called me in January of 2013 and just asked me straight up if I wanted to do the music for his next film, which he said was going to be a dark comedy. And he had thought a drum set would provide the perfect vehicle for the long shot that he was planning. So he sent me the script and I read through it and I started sending him some demos that I thought could maybe fit the character according to the script.
But in a script there’s a lot of subtext that is missing. It’s not the same as a book where they describe everything to you in great detail, so I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it and I didn’t have any references to look in to of how to do something like this, especially for a movie of this calibre. So I sent him some demos and he wrote back to me saying that he didn’t feel this was the way we should be doing this, because I was sending him stuff that was very organised.
Alejandro said “I want something more improvised – jazzier, more spur of the moment, more organic.” And when he said that, I thought that this was going to be easier than I thought because that’s exactly what I do. As a jazz drummer I just react to my surroundings, so reacting to the movie would probably not be that hard.
And was it?
Well, the next step was we got together in a studio in New York. He described in great detail all the scenes that were in the script and as I was playing he would be sitting in front of me and I asked him to raise his hand every time the scene would go to a different part. So if the main character opened a door, he would raise his hand and if Riggan Thompson then turned a corner then he would raise his hand again.
And we must have done sixty or seventy different demos then he rehearsed with those and actually shot with some of those demos on the film. And then they spliced those demos. They put them on the rough cut of the film and then I went back to Los Angeles. They showed me what they did and then I re-did everything, but now looking at the film... So what you hear in the movie is basically the result of those last sessions.
So Alejandro was directing you like he would an actor, effectively?
Oh, yeah. He was very, very hands on, which I liked because I love when I have enough input from a band leader or a composer or an arranger; when I’m interpreting. And in this case the director was perfect to have him there guiding me and, yeah, directing me a little bit. And I think that’s why this ended up being so unique.
Am I right in thinking that you first became aware of Alejandro a long time before he was making films back when he was a DJ in Mexico?
Right. Yeah, when I was a teenager him and Martín Hernández, who does sound design for all of his films, had the hippest radio shows. And a lot of the music that I started really liking was because of what they played. This was before CDs and every time I was at home or in my car, that was what I would be listening to.
And as a matter of fact, that first time I heard the Pat Metheny Group, who I ended up playing with, was through their show. And the first time I met Alejandro was after a Pat Metheny Group show, so it’s full circle in many ways.
Aside from Whiplash there really wasn’t a frame of reference for crafting a score like this. It sounds like you were completely on your own for a jumping off point. Was that liberating in a sense? Or was it intimidating?
It was both… Not having a blueprint of how this is done, I could completely do my own thing. But at the same time, I didn’t know…
I mean, when I heard what the project was going to be like, when I knew that the drums were going to be the main thing, the long camera shots, that it was going to be shot in less than a month – I thought “this is either going to be genius, or this is going to be one of the worst movies ever.” [laughs] I don’t think there was going to be an in between.
But knowing Alejandro and knowing what a creative genius he is, I thought that it was probably going to be amazing. But I really didn’t quite get how amazing it was going to be until I saw it for the first time when it was finished.
Tell me about how you went about creating themes for each of the individual characters.
Well it was more than defining each character. It was mainly about Riggan. That was the one that we were really trying to get this sense of internal turmoil and the other characters… it was more to get the vibe of what the scene was about and to make the transitions sound smooth, because there’s some really aggressive moments with the drums, there are some groovy moments when they’re just walking down the hallways and the drums provide this kind of forward motion while everyone’s walking around.
So it was about just trying to work with each individual to the best of my ability. I was trying to work with what was going on in the moment.
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I was trying to work with what was going on in the moment.
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Did you get to spend much time on set?
Yeah, I did actually. I got to visit the set because I wanted to get a better idea of what this movie was about. This was after I got the script, but like I said, from the script I didn’t get that much information. And then, once I’d been to the set and I’d seen the actors doing their thing, we agreed that on the first demo I did, the drums sounded too pristine. Because everything happens in the bowels of this old Broadway theatre, we thought it was better if the drums sounded kind of old and rusty. As a matter of fact, the first thing you hear in the movie is my voice talking to Alejandro in the studio. Then I start detuning the drums, little by little. And that’s the beginning of the film. So we dirtied up the drums as much as possible.
It’s fascinating to hear a score driven entirely by an instrument that, erroneously, a lot of people perceive as a supporting instrument rather than something that can stand on its own. Is this something you’re keen to dispel through your work?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a horrible misconception that my instrument cannot really provide the necessary emotional element that you would need for something like this. And I think the proof is in the movie. I think it has a very wide range – emotional range, dynamic range, sonic range – and, like I said, we tried everything – hitting the drums with my hands, with brushes, with sticks, with mallets. Changing the drum heads, stacking up cymbals…
One thing that I keep telling people is… a piano is just a piano; you cannot really morph the piano. A drum set is infinitely changeable and exchangeable and interchangeable with the kinds of cymbals you’re going to use, the heads, what you’re going to hit it with, the kinds of drums, the sizes of the drums, what they’re made of, how many layers of wood. It’s just infinite.
And so it’s an instrument that’s very personable and very customisable and so that’s why it’s great when you finally arrive at the place where you get your own sound after a lot of research.
Is it very much a case that you need to know the rules in order to be able to break them when it comes to playing an instrument in that way?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean I’m very well trained academically and I have a lot of stage experience and that’s what has really morphed my style and moulded what I do nowadays. I’ve been very lucky to play with some of my absolute heroes in jazz, which are Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Charlie Haden. I mean I’ve been able to play and tour with these guys and just learn from the best and so what you hear nowadays is the result of all of those years of schooling that these guys gave me.
Did you have any involvement with the use of synths that accompany the drums on the soundtrack?
Well actually, that was after the fact. There were a couple of other people involved in that, so my score was entirely drums and then they added the synths later.
Notoriously, musicians are their own worst critics. Watching Birdman back now, are there any aspects of the score that you’d want to change?
[Laughs] You know, because this was so different from what I usually do; not really. When it’s my own product, when it’s my own albums that I write all the music for and I produce and everything, usually, yes, there are certain things that I wish I could have done differently, but in this case? I don’t know. It must be the combination with the visuals. Every time I see it, I’m just in awe of what they did.
Has this made you want to explore more film projects further down the line?
Yeah, definitely. I would love to do more stuff, but I know that there’s only going to be one Birdman. That’s a fact. But I would love to give it a go, but only if it’s something that would highlight what I can do, which is obviously drumming, but I can also write for other instruments. I’m a classically trained piano player as well.
And, yeah, I’d love to do something like that, but it has to be the right project. I don’t want to just take something because I can take it because I have a very fulfilling life as a jazz musician with my own bands and I play with other bands as well. So it’s not like I’m starving if I don’t do a film score [laughs]. So if the right project comes along, sure. I’d love to try it.
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Birdman is out on Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD now.
Follow Paul on Twitter - @Twotafkap