Among the singular composers to emerge from the world of indie cinema, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans have stood as an especially haunting, and prolific voice. Meshing styles from the realms of classical and alt. music over a partnership that’s been playing for two decades, Bensi and Jurriaans first got notice alongside 2011’s acclaimed “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” impressing with an eerily stripped-down score for a cult member putting her saviors’ relationship, and lives in danger. “Martha” set the measured pace for numerous tone poems to come from the duo for film and television. It’s an mesmerizing approach that can be both rhythmic and spare in such documentaries as “The Wolfpack” and “LA 92,” capture a nightmarish force from beyond the grave in “Fear the Walking Dead” and “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” taking on a dream-like quality for “The OA” and “Chef’s Table,” or hear the menacingly rustic vibe of backwoods criminals meeting big city schemers in “Ozark.”
If there’s a running theme through Bensi and Jurriaans tonally shifting work, then it’s their ability to sympathetically listen inside the conflicted headspace of characters on the outside in scores from “Enemy” to “Frank and Lola,” people facing an uncertain oftentimes dark future as they stand in the crossroads of personal growth and relationships. For composers speaking with an angst that people can only hold for so long, “Boy Erased” is an impactful, haunting build to one youth’s cry to his parents’ that he’s gay – a basic, genetic fact that’s an affront to his ultra Christian parents whose compatriots think they can change the impossible through “conversion therapy.”
“Boy Erased” represents the second, impressive teaming between the composers and Australian Joel Edgerton, the often intense actor of “Warrior” and “The Great Gatsby” who revealed his equal talent as a writer and director with “The Gift.” Having built sleek, cunning suspense for Edgerton’s impactful parable on the effects of bullying, Bensi and Jurriaans now bring their ever-intensifying skills for this true story, adapted by Edgerton from Garrard Conley’s memoir “Boy Erased.” Though keeping his “sinful” longings to himself, Jared’s assault at a Christian college retreat ends up alarming his parents, who send the teen to a cultish therapy program, whose tortuous goal at any cost is Christ-believing heterosexuality, with failure not an option for those crushed by religion-inflicted shame.
As opposed to a rousing symphonic score that would push the obvious emotional buttons, Bensi and Jurriaans match Edgerton’s understated approach behind the camera (as well as his in front of it as a menacingly sympathetic program leader) with hypnotic intensity. Using an angelic like choir, twisting strings, melancholy piano and rustic militarism, the composer bring a sense of mercilessly sympathetic structure to “Boy Erased,” their themes creating a sense of repetition, much like the endless moral inventory and straight manning-up exercises that Jared is forced to endure, Steadily rising with intensity and poignancy, the composers become the voice welling inside of the impeccably mannered boy, whose revelation of his true identity threatens to destroy his life and family because of their biblically mandated intolerance.
As powerful as understated scoring and filmmaking can be, “Boy Erased” once against represents a challenging, impactfully creative voice from Bensi and Jurriaans, who now join with Edgerton to talk about a collaboration that reaps haunting, psychologically attuned rewards that reflect on any number of impressive scores.
Could you tell us about your route to becoming film composers? And how big of an influence was modern classical music, as opposed to movie soundtracks on it?
Danny Bensi ad Saunder Jurriaans: We had never really considered the idea of becoming film composers until about 8 years ago when we scored our friend Alistair Banks Griffin’s first film called “Two Gates Of Sleep”. We’d spent most of our lives writing/performing/recording music but never for films until then. So we could say we sort of fell into film scoring and then pursued it wholeheartedly. We definitely listen to and draw inspiration from modern classical music from Phillip Glass and Steve Reich to Penderecki and Arvo Part. We also love to discover new composers – there was a great podcast called “Meet The Composer” that we were both fans of, but it seems like they stopped making new episodes back in 2017 unfortunately! Film scores were probably less of an obvious influence on our composition – even though we were listening, digesting and loving them during our formative years we never thought we’d be making them, but they definitely snuck into our brains.
How did you first meet? And how do you think your musical approaches were able to mesh so well?
DS: We met in the late nineties when Danny was visiting a childhood friend at the Rhode Island School of Design. There he met Saunder who was playing bass in a band at the time. Danny was invited to join in with his cello from time to time and we became friends ever since. We were happy to find out we both listened to metal growing up, and that our parents both admired classical music. We moved to New York in 2001 and started a band called Priestbird. Priestbird began as in instrumental post rock trio that dabbled in all kinds of music from rock/metal to classical/impressionist music. The band was known for its range of styles, musicianship, captivating live performances, and unique sonic landscapes. We were often told after shows that we should definitely try our hand at scoring films. Back in the studio, we were layering string parts, experimenting with instruments and musical genres all the time, and flipping recording techniques on their head in order to try to discover new unique sounds.
Your first “breakthrough” film was “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Do you think your eerily intimate score, and the indie acclaim set the tone of your career to follow?
DS: Yes. Soon after “Martha Marcy May Marlene” we started getting calls from filmmakers who loved the score (and the film). The approach of “less is more” and “not leading the audience” by over-scoring seemed to be what every director who approached us wanted at the time. We were lucky enough to be offered a myriad of projects over the course of time, so we were able to branch out and try different genres of film. The New York indie film world is pretty closely knit, so our names were passed around pretty quickly to filmmakers. On one hand, the “Martha Marcy May Marlene” score gave us a voice in the industry but it’s not like the films that followed were asking for the same kind of score.
Tell us about meeting Joel Edgerton for “The Gift,” and his approach to music.
DS: Luke Doolan was the editor on “The Gift” and a old close friend of Joel’s. He had used some of our music as temp score and Joel wanted to know who we were just from the music alone, so we arranged a meeting in LA and we all got along right away. Joel is a firecracker – cracking jokes, endlessly intelligent, and super down to earth. He has excellent ideas for music and a wonderful vocabulary to describe what he’s looking for.
Joel, how did Danny and Saunder come to your attention?
Joel Edgerton: I had come to know them through a couple of film friends of mine in New York, documentary types and the like. I really liked what they did so I was glad that they responded. We had a great collaboration doing the score for “The Gift.” Cutting in temporary music can also be tricky as a director, because you get very attached to it. Then you end up telling the composer to write something similar to what you were cutting the film with, which can be creatively regretful to the musician. So this time on “Boy Erased,” I tried not to use much of a temp score as to give the Danny and Saunder room to help the movie get its own feeling. For “Boy Erased,” I wanted to get Danny and Saunder in earlier to the process so that could contribute to the story – even when we were in the scriptwriting stage. We all thought it would be good to do this soundtrack ass more of a tonal thing, which would give more feeling to the story.
How did you all work together for “Boy Erased?” And would you say there were tonal, and thematic story similarities between these two projects for Joel?
DS: We worked very much in the same way as we did on “The Gift,” although “Boy Erased” was a longer process as there were many edits to the film. The opening piano pieces for each film have their similarities, but the rest of the scores don’t hold all that much in common – aside from some “eerie bendy strings” here and there that Joel loves. As for story similarities, there aren’t a ton. We actually found it all very refreshing to work with Joel on a such a different kind of film – especially one which is so emotionally charged, socially relevant, and poignant in our time.
Joel, how important was it for you to get across the idea of brainwashing in this repressive environment?
JE: It’s the setting of misinformation where you can be drilled with the wrong ideals and easily lead down a path where others would like to change your sexuality to their liking. It’s their mantra of “we are here to help you” that gives the idea that they actually are helping this people.
How do you think that it translates to the music in terms of what the music should be doing?
JE: Music is an interesting thing for me, especially as I am very visual person. I wanted Bensi and Saunder to psychology put themselves into the score, as much as any actor of behind the scenes department working on it. As Katherine Bigelow told me on “Zero Dark Thirty,” you should hire the best crew and get out of their way! For “Boy Erased” I wanted the music to have a beauty and hopefulness and a times a darkness when it came to the family element I wanted it to the therapy scenes to have a feeling of psychological horror and drama. As for the religious cult elements, that was a negotiation because we didn’t want it to speak too much to the Catholic part to it. But then, film scores can be very subjective, so we were very careful as to make sure that we were all in tune with the final result.
Why did you decide to take a mostly stripped-down approach to “Boy Erased” as opposed to a more symphonic one?
DS: Our decisions on orchestration and texture are mostly informed by cinematography, editing, and performances in the film. Is the aesthetic of the film expansive and open, or intimate and internal? Boy Erased was definitely the latter. That said, we love trying to be as minimal as possible – using the orchestra and being more symphonic we feel should be saved for climaxes or even unsuspecting moments – especially since nowadays it’s so easy to dial it in using midi samples, and the sound of the big Hollywood orchestra for 2 hours can often be numbing and forgettable. The sound of 8 cellos playing a part is obviously very different than say, 3 players or even 1 soloist. We do a lot of experimentation figuring out what communicates the sentiment needed – and we love to try and surprise the audience with unsuspecting scores. It’s quite common to want to “fill in the gaps” when writing film music – as if the music might feel “more sophisticated” if it has more parts. But we don’t think that’s the case. It’s the single, specific performances that we really find crucial – knowing when it’s the ‘right’ one takes years of sophisticated listening, performing, study, and training.
How important were themes to this score?
DS: As with many of our films we try to be subtle with themes. In “Boy Erased,” there are typical melodic themes, but also textural or instrumental themes. Sometimes it’s just enough to hear an instrument or a particular sound again in order for the audience to be reminded of a certain character/emotion/story line. For example, there is a theme for Jared’s internal struggle played on 2 violins and 1 church organ pedal (a rather strange orchestration!) We hear it when the pastors come to their house to tell the family to send their child to conversion therapy. The same music is heard again in the film when Jared goes for a jog and has his first real meltdown. That piece is played for a third and final, time by a whole orchestra when Jared is at Cameron’s mock funeral and we can see he’s strongly contemplating leaving. These three scenes are related by Jared’s anxiety – but the melody/orchestration is not necessarily a leitmotif where we need to hear it every time we see that character on the screen. It’s just one of many anxiety themes we wrote for him. It’s our job to know when and where it is suitable to have these themes return. And to do that, long discussions and agreements need to be reached with the director – to make sure the team is all on the same page.
How did you want the music to play Jared’s parents?
DS: We discussed the music for Jared’s parents as being warm and searching, with a hint of “something isn’t quite right.” His parents are on a similar personal journey, struggling with their own beliefs in their own way. We get the sense that his parents really do want to help him, really do love him, and really are doing their best to help him.
How did you want your music to reflect the militaristic routine that the program puts these people through?
DS: Coming up with music for LIA (Love In Action) was challenging in that although many of us may not agree with these camps, there are still over 3000 of them – which means a lot of people believe they are perhaps successful at “converting people.” We discussed with Joel that we should portray LIA with an “open mind” of sorts. We agreed that it’s not our place to portray LIA as a terrible place – the audience can formulate that opinion for themselves should they desire. Perhaps a work of art reaches people more deeply if they are left to figure things out on their own. It was extremely important to us also not to mock the camps or any religious doctrines. So we decided to be very subtle: a military snare drum when the attendees are being lined up or bossed around like soldier recruits…or quirky pizzicatos and confusing rhythms for when they draw their genograms, which illustrate their dysfunctional and perhaps abusive families.
Did you want to use voices to capture the idea of not-so heavenly Christianity in the score?
DS: We recorded a small group of boys singing rhythmical vowels and consonants that we could layer into the score. The idea there was to just give a sense of church music to the score, since religion is a strong aspect to this film, but also to add the inevitable human connection that vocal music achieves. The sound of the boy’s voices in particular, also carries a sense of innocence and fragility that we thought reflected Jared in so many ways. In speaking with Joel, we all agreed that there was no reason to go too ‘religious’ with the score – just to gently nod in that direction.
Your use of the piano is especially haunting in conveying loneliness. What made that instrument important here?
DS: There are really two types of piano we hear in the score. The grand piano recordings for this score were played by a professional pianist on a large Steinway piano in Brooklyn. That piano has a harder, more stoic, classical sound that we found worked best for some of the bigger, more expansive pieces and the more rhythmic, driving pieces as well. The other piano recordings are performed by either one of us on our studio uprights – super close-miced and often with their dampers on which gives a soft percussive sound, leaving strange harmonics ringing all over the place. These pieces often feel much more, intimate but also more strange and otherworldly.
Much of “Boy Erased” is watching Jared try to find his own voice. How did you want to capture his frustration and boiling anger?
DS: One of our favorite aspects of the film right away was Lucas Hedges performance. Often his perpetually furrowed brow was all we needed for inspiration! He is down-to-earth and relatable, approaching difficult situations with maturity and intelligence, but he is also so fragile and troubled. There’s so much bubbling constantly in his mind, and it’s all portrayed flawless by Hedges, so we didn’t feel the need to “help” film in that sense. We chose to create these meditative, cyclical pieces to compliment his incessant thinking and processing. There are many syncopated rhythms and different musical characters diving in and out, giving the impression of gears turning.
There’s always the threat of what awaits Jared should he truly reveal himself. How did you want to capture that impending dread of potentially being thrown out of his house and sundering the relationship with his parents?
DS: It wasn’t too difficult to do this especially since everybody’s acting performances are so strong and engaging. However, there are many aspects to the music that create dread. Regurgitating melodic ideas over and over with slight infractions exhibits a kind of “stuck in the mud” feeling… Also, some of the more Beethoven-esque piano pieces have more slowly churning dark chord structures. There is also a heavy ‘weight’ to the performances from the musicians which dramatizes the heaviness on Jared’s shoulders.
Do you think you have a particular talent for playing characters who don’t fit in with society’s morays, or outrightly rebel against them?
DS: Haha! Yes, we’d say we lean towards the more conflicted protagonists! We especially love to score films with multi-faceted characters. It really opens the playing field for us creatively. “Boy Erased” is full of them.
Did what’s happening in this country add to the dread, anger and tragedy that you instilled in the score as well?
DS: Yes we can safely say that what’s happening in this country made us really think quite carefully about the musical choices we made. It also inspired us greatly to do our absolute best – as we imagined people from all walks of life coming to see the film – with us trying to reach them. We must add that we had an innate underlying sense of honor and gratitude for being a part of this relevant film.
Joel, how important was it for the music not to say, “This is evil,” or make an obvious emotional statement?
JE: Though it was important not to go too far with that, there were times I felt that the music needed a bit of emotional judgment to it. As for the therapy moments I was glad to have those quiet moments for the danger and the confusion. So there were are parts where I didn’t want to go too far, but I didn’t want an obvious laden score either.
Did you want to make a moral judgment with the score?
DS: Absolutely not. There are over 3000 of these programs still in existence, which means a significant number of people in this country believe these programs work. Change is something that comes when you reach out to people and meet them on their own ground – not when you coerce them into believing something. We believe our job as composers on this film was to encourage audience members to have their own thoughts and not to tell them how to feel. Hopefully a film like this that avoids condemnation or finger pointing, but rather tells an honest story that will encourage dialogue rather than make people pull further back into their own echo chambers.
It’s amazing that these straight “conversions” are still going on in this country. How do you hope the effectiveness of “Boy Erased” and its score might help change minds?
JE: I think that the music shows that this “therapy” can be a bad thing. Yet we all wanted to make this as accessible as possible to document a truth while letting the viewers decide for themselves. So I didn’t want the film or music to be too “avant-garde” for lack of a better word, or to come across as an “indie” movie. To accomplish that, I trusted my instincts and my composers. I love that Bensi and Saunder didn’t write an obvious score, I also loved that it has this swinging string element to it – a pendulum-like aspect of a mind that’s swinging between those ideas and the changes he’s responding to.
Bensi and Saunder, you did an impressive job with such supernatural projects as “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.” Could you tell us about handling genre material, and what was it like taking on “Fear of the Walking Dead?”
DS: We had a blast working on “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”. The Director André Øvredal gave us some direction but generally told us to “just do your thing!” We wanted to try some experiments with referencing orchestrations like Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring” or referencing (Andre’s idea) the religious undertones in the music when the ark is opened in “Raider’s Of The Lost Ark.” “Fear Of The Waking Dead” was a fun challenge in that it definitely isn’t just a horror genre film but more a human drama with some horror moments. We’re very happy with the way the score turned out – it was a long haul to do 16 episodes but worth it!
“Ozark” has just been renewed for a third season on Netflix. What was your approach for combining rural music with the idea of big city avarice being visited upon the boonies?
DS: For “Ozark,” we started conceptualizing the sound even before they started shooting season 1. From Jason Bateman’s expertly communicated ideas of the tone of the show, we started coming up with sound and texture ideas. We made recordings of “junk” percussion (metal pipes, plastic containers, etc.) around the streets of New York – we used this dry, often distorted relentless percussion as the backbone of the score – maybe referencing old boats, noisy jet skis, campers, abandoned cars and trailer parks. We then layered it with more organic sounding instruments often played in strange ways – lots of slapping and smacking our poor instruments, and then we added further layers of super distorted analog synths and other manipulated pads. We save the rare – more organic, orchestral-ish moments for grandiose establishing shots of the landscape – or moments when a main character is seemingly “out of options” and emotionally distraught. But the essence of the Ozark score is relentless anxiety and DARKNESS!
Another notable Netflix show to feature your work is “Chef’s Table.” Did you both have a love of fine dining before taking on the project? And do you think your style is especially apt for so many luscious shots of slo-mo cooking?
DS: Well we certainly love good food and jump at any occasion for a food adventure! The Corrado Assenza episode in season 4 takes place in Sicily. It was such joy to work on the music that we tried to give an Italian flare to wherever possible. Danny is half Italian and has spent much time in Italy and also in Sicily – so this episode was especially close to his heart. The Albert Adria episode was right up our alley – another tortured, amazing soul! We had a great time with these episodes – a lot of work as they are pretty much wall-to-wall score, but satisfying because the music really plays front and center.
Documentaries have really showcased your work from “LA 92” to “The Wolfpack” and “Amanda Knox.” Do you think they allow even more musical experimentation?
It’s hard to say whether documentaries allow for “more” musical experimentation. With all the dialogue and explaining that needs to happen in most documentaries, there is sometimes little room for music to flourish. But we’ve been really lucky to have opportunities to score some fantastic documentaries where we did have some creative wiggle room. “LA 92” was particularly exciting in that the music was really the narrator – guiding the audience through the story. The directors TJ & Dan were so excited and open to something unique, bold and big! This was another project that we felt spoke so much about our current state of affairs, and also left a lot of room for important dialogue and deep introspection.
What can we expect for your work on the second season of “American Gods,” and did the fantastical template that Brian Reitzell set up for the first episodes provide a road map of sorts?
DS: Brian Reitzell most certainly set a beautiful playing field for us – we loved the first season and thought it was groundbreaking. He has helped set the stage for that creative freedom and we are taking full advantage of it! We’re really having blast with Season 2. There are really no limits in this crazy show, so we’re doing some wild stuff.
Your work really is like few scores out there, especially in the indie world. How do you maintain that sense of originality? And what do you think makes a collaboration like yours work after so many projects?
DS: Well we often freely admit to people when they ask us “how we do it” that actually, most of the time – we really don’t know what we’re doing! Obviously we now have a lot of experience and the technical aspects of scoring films are pretty second nature. However, we really make an effort with every film or show to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and get back to NOT knowing what we’re doing, because that’s where we excel! Picking up new instruments, working with new groups and individual musicians, using new gear… Because we really don’t have any formal training as “film scorers” we never really do anything the way it’s traditionally done. There were times we felt uncomfortable with that, and felt that we’d never make it past a certain point, but now we have really started to embrace it and we just keep adding all our weird techniques to our weird toolbox!
As far as our collaboration – we are fully conscious of how lucky we were to have found each other. We know these kinds of collaborations commonly go sour after a certain amount of time – usually due to ego issues. We both have easy egos, meaning they exist, but we don’t let them get in the way of our collaboration (both with each other AND with filmmakers). You can’t make a good score, or film for that matter if you are unable to work with other creative people – or too proud to make big changes and experiment based on others’ ideas.
Do you hope your score for “Boy Erased” helps people see the light about the effects of “conversion” therapy?
DS: Yes! We hope our score helps the film to reach as many audiences as possible so that they can become aware of conversion therapy and how it continues to be so prevalent in the US today.
Listen to more Bensi and Saunder soundtracks HERE
Watch “Ozark” and “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.
Visit Bensi and Saunder’s Website HERE
Thanks to Alexander Portillo for his interview transcription