Move aside, James Franco. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans had more projects at Sundance than you.
The composing team (Jurriaans is pictured above at left, Bensi at right) worked on an incredible mix of films this year at the festival, from Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert to Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby to Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, which won the Grand Jury Prize, Documentary. Their scores range from subtle to strange to incredibly complex, with evocative instruments like the violin used frequently in Last Days in the Desert to illuminate Jesus’ journey through the landscape.
Paste caught up with Bensi and Jurriaans the afternoon following Last Days’ premiere at the Eccles Theatre. Along with Ewan McGregor’s raw performance as Jesus and García’s honest storytelling, the duo’s powerful compositions opened to a full house.
But how did they get here? With three films in Sundance and films like Enemy, The One I Love and Martha Marcy May Marlene under their belt, Paste had to know where they started. We also chatted their process, both emotionally and technically, and what instruments they’re dying to work with. According to Bensi, it involves a church; for Jurriaans, some epic rock.
Paste: Are you guys classically trained? I’m curious what the first instrument was you picked up.
Jurriaans: We’re totally different in that respect. I was pretty much a self-taught guitarist.
Bensi: He came out of Seattle playing grunge rock, metal and I was raised in Europe. I’m a cellist. I studied classically. I came to the university in Chicago and got a music degree there [Northwestern]. I never thought I’d become a composer.
Paste: Okay. Priestbird. This was your band together!
Jurriaans: Our first name was Tarantula and then we got into a major bummer lawsuit with the guy who had the band The Tarantulas. For three years we kind of tried to keep the name and then eventually we changed the name to Priestbird.
Bensi: It was one of our songs. [Laughs] It was guaranteed…
Jurriaans: …no one was going to have that name!
Bensi: Greg, our drummer, made it up and it was the name of a spirit bird that guides birds when they die into their afterlife. It’s like, Where do birds go when they die, man? Like an angel but a bird. But it was a really dark, beautiful song.
Paste: What kind of music was Priestbird?
Jurriaans: It was like epic prog rock. It’s like Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath.
Bensi: I would have these moments of string trios on stage. I can get really quiet and do this little waltz thing and then suddenly get into some metal and stuff and build this whole thing. It was all this instrumental rock but then we added vocals. It was just a trio.
Paste: That makes sense, you’re exploring rhythms.
Bensi: We got very cinematic for sure, all these textures and stuff. That was one of the first places where we learned how to layer the cello along with guitars and drums and how to use it in its traditional way, like a romantic dark voice of it. On our albums we would layer it so it sounded orchestral. That’s where we started learning cinematic textures.
Paste: What was your introduction into film? Did it feel natural?
Jurriaans: It was really natural, it came really easily. Alistair [Banks] Griffin, who did this movie called Two Gates of Sleep, he asked us to score it. I had been friends with him for a while before. We took right to it. We did it in my living room.
Bensi: One microphone, one laptop.
Paste: What program did you use?
Jurriaans: Pro Tools, and we still use it.
Bensi: But we didn’t even have two screens! I was looking at a little picture of the movie. He knew our band very well, our songs inside out. He knew what we could do with the textures because he wanted something orchestral and epic and was going for a sort of Terrence Malick vibe.
Jurriaans: But it was also sort of avant-garde, weird atonal kind of stuff.
Paste: Then came the Borderline films guys: Sean Durkin, Josh Mond and Antonio Campos. How did you get involved with them?
Jurriaans: They produced Two Gates of Sleep, so through that we met Sean and we did Martha [Marcy May Marlene]. He had no idea what he wanted for music. He was a little afraid of using music and we were afraid of making music! [Laughs] We experimented a lot with that film.
Paste: What did the experimentation look like?
Jurriaans: We composed a lot of music for it that didn’t go in the film. That was kind of where we started to hone our style. We really like infinite layers of stuff and then start to take stuff away. Sometimes we take it all away and there’s just one instrument left.
Bensi: That was like Film School 101, a crash course.
Paste: With Last Days in the Desert, you have Jesus and this open landscape and you’re supposed to score that. Does that begin with a feeling or instrument?
Bensi: I would say a feeling. You throw these words up like “omnipotent” and “vast landscapes” and “religious undertones.” You just see his face and his presence and we’re allowed to touch on cosmic [elements].
Jurriaans: Also the texture of the filming, the desert and the dryness, the wind, that was all in our heads when we started. There were a bunch of different directions we could have come up with. We tried some guitar stuff.
Paste: An acoustic soundtrack to Last Days in the Desert. That would have been crazy, partnering with Sufjan Stevens. I can hear it now.
Paste: So tell me about what the actual process of scoring a film looks like.
Jurriaans: It’s always different. We don’t go at it with a formula at all. With Last Days in the Desert, we get the movie. It’s usually edited to a temp score. We just kind of go at it and do five or six cues and send them off, see how the director responds. Then we have conversations with the director and start to hone in on what he’s liking of what we did and go from there.
Paste: Charlie McDowell came and stayed with you guys for a week [for The One I Love] and you bounced ideas off him. Is that always what you do with your filmmakers?
Jurriaans: Last Days in the Desert and The One I Love were both L.A.-based and we’re in New York so we did a lot of Skypes and then the directors would come out.
Bensi: They come out for the last part. They approve a lot of the cues and then come to our studio to fine-tune things.
Last Days in the Desert is non-narrative in a way. Did you find it more difficult to work with a film without a classic structure?
Jurriaans: The One I Love is the most classic structure that we’ve done. We’ve done a lot of really weird films.
Paste: What’s the weirdest film you’ve done?
Jurriaans: Enemy was pretty weird.
Bensi: So much music. We had so many textures for that. Distortion guitars, feedback guitars that we slowed down and manipulated. On top of that, we put layers of brass or, like, percussion or strings. We had all these compartments and each one was epic and great on their own. Working with that, that was crazy. The sessions were huge, like, Bring in the distortion guitars! Now the double basses! We got really epic at certain moments there, which we love.
Paste: Is that the inner monologue of the protagonist?
Jurrains: Definitely with Enemy, that was his inner monologue. With Last Days in the Desert, it was more the sound of the desert.
Bensi: The sound of the story unfolding as if the desert knew what was going on all along.
Jurriaans: The movie is so stark and we wanted to juxtapose that a little bit with a lot of emotion.
Bensi: The direction there was great. Rodrigo was like, “No Hollywood strings, no choirs, no religious stuff.” We don’t get very big with our orchestra. It’s very small, it’s about eight strings or so, which is very powerful if you do it right. For most of the score, we don’t use double bass. The cello is the lowest instrument, there’s the violin and a couple violas and the cello, and that’s it, really. We had these things at the beginning: He loves the violin. What can we do to please him with what our sense of the movie is so far? We noticed what he was responding to. You have to be really in tune with a director and know what they like. He really knew. He was awesome.
Paste: What if you get sent the footage and you feel a certain way. You communicate that to the director and that’s not what they feel. What do you do?
Jurriaans: [Laughs] Then we’re f**ked!
Bensi: That’s the best part of our job! It’s like, But isn’t she supposed to feel? or It seems like she’s really… and then the director will be like, No, it may seem like that but no. We’re going to edit it so that this, this, this. Then we’re like, Oh, because it really feels like we’re in her head right now, and we’ll have discussions like that. We get really involved in the movie and understanding, Oh, let’s not comment on that. Let’s stay away so the audience can figure it out themselves.
Jurriaans: It also goes the other way sometimes. We’ll present something to the director that he or she hasn’t seen before. That’s really exciting, too. That’s a huge part of the collaborative aspect of it, what we really enjoy.
Paste: When you work on a drama holed up in your studio listening to this dramatic music for three months or so, does that affect you guys on a personal level?
Bensi: It’s so funny because that’s what they asked Ewan [McGregor at the Q&A] last night on stage, “Does playing Jesus Christ affect you?” Yeah, I would say so. It’s really important to do that. You sit down to do cue number 16 and maybe you took two days off to work on something else and then you come back to it and you’re like, Okay, what are my themes, where are we at with the score, what were the sentiments? You listen to some different cues. You bring it back and you’ve got to stay in that world. You’re sort of in that world for a month or two.
Jurriaans: Also, just watching the film over and over again affects you.
Paste: It sounds tedious.
Jurriaans: It can be.
Bensi: If the movie is bad… but if it’s good like Last Days in the Desert or Enemy, and Jake Gyllenhaal [is on the screen] and you see his face all day, [and] he’s so good! You’re just honored.
Paste: You guys did The Wolfpack. There’s so much footage when working on a documentary. Is the director changing things up on you all the time? If so, why do you like working on docs?
Jurriaans: It’s not a bad thing that they change it up. It’s kind of interesting because we can affect how they edit the film. I don’t think we like working on docs or features more than one or the other—it all depends on what it is. The Wolfpack was a really interesting doc. They’re a whole other world.
Bensi: A lot of the ideas are the same, who is talking and what’s going on. What are we prepping for here, or are we just going along with what the guy’s saying? Oh, he’s talking about his dad and it’s really sad and eerie. We were always not commenting on the obvious of what was happening. We were just making these weird tones and sounds to create this very strange world, a crazy New York backdrop and the weirdness of their family without commenting, “This is a bad thing.”
Jurriaans: You don’t want to sway the audience.
Paste: Then there’s the opposite, where you work on a horror film and the score is trying to manipulate the audience. Do you guys work on films like that?
Jurriaans: I think what we’ve become known for is not commenting. We’ve become very good at riding the edge between getting too emotional and not being emotional at all.
Bensi: Not leading the audience. Directors just get a huge kick when we say that. They get so excited. “We don’t like to lead the audience with the music,” and they’re like, “That’s what I’m talking about, man!”
Jurriaans: A lot of Hollywood’s bigger movies that are scored all the way through, you just lose the music because it just becomes a subliminal thing that just affects how you feel about the movie but you’re not paying attention to it.
Bensi: Sometimes that’s what they want. Sometimes it’s good.
Paste: What’s an instrument or, if you do soundscapes, something you’re dying to work into some of your music?
Bensi: Well, Hans Zimmer just bloody well did it with Interstellar. We wanted to do some serious church organ. [Laughs] My heart sunk a bit because there’s a church right across from our studio that we go into to listen to Bach, on Broadway and 10th Street. Bring some microphones in there and go to town.
Jurriaans: That’s kind of part of our process, too. [With] most of our films, we try to do something new every time.
Bensi: You’d like to get a bunch of percussionists!
Jurriaans: Yeah, a big percussion group. I would love to do a heavy-metal score.
Bensi: That would be amazing! Just surprise everybody.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.