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Antonio Sanchez talks about scoring Best Picture winner Birdman

The percussionist unpacks 2014's most talked-about film soundtrack, the drum solos that gave Birdman its signature frenetic feel

Photograph: Justin Bettman
Antonio Sanchez

If you loved Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, you probably left the theater also loving Antonio Sanchez. The Mexico-born, NYC-based drummer, an accomplished jazzer best known for his work with guitar legend Pat Metheny, contributed the improvised solos you hear throughout, pieces that are integral to the film’s frantic pacing. On April 4, Sanchez performs his groundbreaking score live in NYC for the first time, alongside a screening of the Best Picture winner. We spoke with the drummer about the challenges of this unique percussive undertaking and the sting he felt when the Academy disqualified it from the Oscars race.

Can you talk about the process of performing a score that was originally improvised?
It's actually not that hard, because I'm not trying to play note for note what I played on the movie. What I played on the movie was basically improvised, so what I'm trying to do is just follow the vibe and the energy and the main idea of what I played originally and then play variations and improvise around that. The cool thing is that if you go to see another movie that was scored by an orchestra or something like that, most likely you'll hear exactly the same thing on every show. But if you come to one of these performances, you're going to see a completely different thing every single time.

What was the hardest part of preparing for the performance?
The hardest thing was the beginning and ending credits. When I started looking at the movie seriously in order for me to replicate as best I could what was going on, I completely forgot about the beginning and ending titles. When I saw them, I was like, Oh. My. God. This is going to be very hard to do. [Laughs] Because, you know, each little letter goes with a drum hit. So that one was the one that took me the longest to do. I just rehearsed like a maniac for that thing while looking at the time code.

Am I mistaken, or are the drums the very first thing you hear in the movie?
Actually, the first sound is my voice in Spanish. We were just in the studio, and I guess the tape was rolling. I was playing around with the tuning of my toms and asking Alejandro what he preferred. I had no idea they were going to leave my voice. Those are the kinds of things I love about Alejandro, just the fact that it occurred to him—"Oh, leave the voice in Spanish for a second." It's something that only if you have that kind of creativity you come up with and make it work.

And you two have a shared background, right?
He was an eclectic-music DJ [in Mexico City]. The first time I heard the Pat Metheny Group was on his Nightly Show, and that's how I met Alejandro, when I was actually playing with the Pat Metheny Group years later. It was a completely weird full-circle experience.

So how will the performance actually work? Are you looking at time codes when you perform?
We've only done one show, and I'm guessing [the New York show is] going to be very similar to the one we did in L.A. My drums are set up in between the audience and the screen—lower so that I'm not actually in the way of the screen. I'm visible at all times with a very, very soft light, so that I don't call too much attention. Usually what I try to do is, in the parts when I'm not playing for a while, I'll step off from the drums and go somewhere else. I realized that I felt really self-conscious just sitting there in front of the whole theater not doing anything, so I stepped off the drums and sat somewhere else, and I was looking at the film and enjoying myself just like the rest of the audience.

I've gotten the sense that when you started this project you didn't know exactly how the score would operate.
Yeah, basically. I had the script; I read it. But I didnt know what parts [Alejandro] wanted drums or what was the approach that he had in mind. So I started sending him demos that were very planned out, and my first instinct was to send him themes that I thought could work with each one of the main characters. And then when he heard those, he didn't really like them. He said, I want something that is a little more—or a lot more—improvised, spur-of-the-moment. And when he said that, I actually relaxed and thought, Oh, this is going to be easy, because that's my specialty. I can improvise very easily, and what I do best is react to my surroundings. When I'm onstage, I react to other musicians, and this time around, I just had to react to the ideas, to the images, to dialogue, to movement.

I read in another interview about this idea that we aren't supposed to be sure whether the drums are only in the head of Riggan [Thomson, Michael Keaton's character]. Your score seems like the soundtrack to this character's brain.
Completely. I think Alejandro had that idea from the beginning. He didn't want you to know if it was just the score that you were hearing or if it was something inside [Riggan's] head or if it was actually a drummer in the theater or on the street.

Yeah, and he plays with that visually—showing the marching band in Times Square or showing the drummer backstage. I know that you weren't able to appear in that latter role. Was that a disappointment for you?
Yeah, I mean, I would have loved to, but I was on tour, unfortunately.

You didn't see the film for a while after it came out. How long was it?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a couple of months, at least. Because it started opening at different film festivals, and then, when it opened nationally, I was on tour in Asia. I was absolutely blown away; I had no idea what an amazing experience it was going to turn out to be. Just hearing my drums in a movie theater that loud with the surround sound and those images was really staggering.

This was in New York?
Yeah, I went to one of those 2 o'clock shows where nobody goes ever. The theater was somewhere in Chelsea. But yeah, I wanted to make sure [it] was basically me and my fiancée in the theater, so that we wouldn't have anybody making noise next to us or eating popcorn.

Whenever I've talked with anyone about the movie, the score has always come up right away. It was such a key part of the success of Birdman, which made it all the more frustrating that it wasn't nominated for an Oscar.
Well, no, I should say: It wasn't that it wasn't nominated; it was eliminated. [Editor's note: Since Sanchez’s work shared screen time with a conventional orchestral score, the Academy deemed it ineligible for contention.] I always say there's a big difference. If it wouldn't have gotten nominated, that's fine, because people vote, and if they don't think it should be nominated, fine—I can't say anything against that. But the fact that it was eliminated from contention so that nobody could vote for it—that's what was so messed-up about this whole thing.

Did you have contact with any Academy people who wanted to vote for it but couldn't?
Yes, and a lot of them said they were very upset, because [the elimination] robbed them of the chance to vote for something different.

Since you've performed the score once before, is there a moment in the film that you’re particularly looking forward to playing along with?
One scene that’s a lot of fun is when Riggan is destroying his dressing room and I’m playing all the hits with the things he’s slamming into the walls. It’s a blast. I go just as nuts as he does.

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