Exclusive: 'Birdman' composer says Oscar DQ doesn’t make mathematical sense

Posted by · 6:51 pm · December 22nd, 2014

As drummer Antonio Sanchez explained to us earlier this season, he wasn”t just a composer hired to fill the silence on Alejandro González Iñárritu”s “Birdman.” He was like an additional writer, laying down early percussion tracks to inspire Iñárritu, supplying the director with music to play on set, then re-recording his original demos to fit the shot and edited footage. Sanchez”s Golden Globe-nominated original score was the beating heart of “Birdman,” but the Academy doesn”t see it that way.

Earlier today, reports came through that Sanchez and Iñárritu lost their bid with the Academy”s music branch to have “Birdman” compete in the Best Original Score category. After the initial move to disqualify the improvised, drum-centric score on grounds that it didn”t fill enough of the film”s runtime, protest from Team “Birdman” resulted in a consistent decision. Why? 

We jumped on the phone with Sanchez to hear his thoughts and break down the situation. The Academy is known for their dark and mysterious rules, but in this case, it stands out as a move against originality. Here”s what Sanchez had to say…

HitFix: What have you attempted to do to push back against the original disqualification?

Antonio Sanchez: At first it seemed to be a simple error of tabulation from the cue sheets that Fox provided to the Academy. It showed that there seemed to be more classical music than original music. That was the first red flag for them. That”s why it was disqualified originally. Then there was a recount and they found a few mistakes in the accounting for time of original music versus licensed music. One of the rules is if it”s more than 50% licensed music, it”s disqualified. After they reviewed the cue sheets, it turned out I was well ahead of the classical music. We thought we were on really solid ground. 

Then we wrote letters. Alejandro and myself explained in detail what we did, what the process was like. Alejandro said how important the score was for the film, not just because of the final result but because I was involved with it before the film started, so he could rehearse with the actors. Directors will use temp music to get an idea of the music flow and, in this case, I did the temps with the demos. So I was involved basically with the before, during and after of the whole process. That”s why this feels so weird.

What was the final breakdown of original score to licensed music?

I”m over half an hour and the classical music is about 17 minutes. 

What was the final decision? What”s the disconnect between the Academy”s music branch and your explanation?

The effectiveness is “diluted” by the amount of classical music. Yet I haven”t heard anyone who has gone to see “Birdman” and is raving about the classical music. In the letter Alejandro wrote, he explains that the classical is incidental. It”s part of the play and it”s playing in Riggan”s head. Also, any classical music would have done. It could have been anything. The choice didn”t matter. What mattered was what we did with the drums.

Another thing they said was the biggest dramatic moments of the film were underscored by classical music. I disagree, because the most memorable moments are scored by drums.

Right, when he”s racing backstage or out in Times Square, it”s all drums. So the disqualification comes down to a subjective opinion?

We”re still not satisfied with the explanation. If it was really clean cut, I”d understand. And the score has been gaining a lot of steam. To not be able to even participate, to not be on the list, that”s what”s so disappointing. If I”m on the list and I don”t get nominated, so be it. To not be able to participate with this thing we put our hearts into… it”s disappointing.

Were you laying down your drum tracks with an awareness of what classical music would eventually go into the film?

Not at all.

Was there ever a point where you were going to write music for those classical moments?

A lot of the sourced music is what”s being used in the play. It”s not part of the score. That”s what Alejandro”s been saying over and over again. It”s like if a guy got into a car and heard “Born to Be Wild.” It”s not part of the score.

Could it be a problem with its improvisational nature?

It could be. That”s not what they said. That”s not the official version. But drummers, we”ve always had that stigma, that it”s not a musical instrument because it doesn”t have harmony and melody you can play. I obviously beg to differ.

Is there a feeling that it undermines an awards campaign?

I think it undermines the credibility of the score. It”s effective and groundbreaking! It”s daring. And, look, I”m a total outsider. When I got approached by Alejandro and what an amazing thing this became, that was the cake. Everything else with awards, that”s icing. I”m honored and thankful, but I would have felt the same way if it was disqualified for any award.

For a closer look at the making of the “Birdman” score, check out our lengthier interview with Sanchez.

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