Red Stewart chats with composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans….
Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans are a composing team who have been working in the film and television industries since the 2010s. They are best known for their work with their band Priestbird, as well as composing for movies The Gift, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Boy Erased.
Flickering Myth had the chance to interview them, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Gentlemen, thank for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I’ve never interviewed a musical duo before, so this really is privilege. Thank you so much.
Danny- Thank you, we’re happy.
Saunder- Yeah, thanks.
One thing I found interesting from reading your filmographies is that, ever since you got your breakthrough with Two Gates of Sleep in 2010, you’ve spent the last 8 years working your heads off. You’ve done close to 100 different projects since then. What drives your work ethic? Is it wanting to expand your repertoire, or take advantage of as many opportunities as possible in this industry?
Danny – I think for the both of us, we didn’t really aspire to become composers, so when we did get our first break with Two Gates of Sleep, we were honored and humbled to give it a shot, while also filled with the doubt of “can we do this?” And then basically we were just so privileged to be able to do any film, and the films, commercials, fashion projects, and things that came up after in the years that followed…I mean we were just so hungry for the experience and to see if we could actually do this. It was sort of a surprise falling into it, and it’s this genuine appreciation for being able to make a living off of music. It’s pretty amazing. So that’s what started us off.
Saunder – And I think we also, after Two Gates of Sleep, we were kind of thrown into the great group that is the indie film scene in New York, so all the projects we were getting offered were great projects also, so we didn’t want to turn down anything [laughs].
No, that makes sense. And considering you often hear stories about people getting into the industry through nepotism and favoritism, it’s always nice to see working-class members make it through their own grit. Now, since you both collaborate on everything, how is the workload broken down on a project? Do you do every composition together, or one person focuses on one part, the other does the other half?
Saunder – It’s always changing on every project. The way it mostly goes is…I don’t know, what do you think Danny? Like, one of us will start a project, and then start passing sessions over to the next guy, and then he’ll continue where we left off. But, if we have multiple projects going on, maybe Danny is really focusing on one and sending me stuff, and I’m working on the other but also checking out that one. And then it flip-flops and Danny is then working on the one that I was working on. It’s hard to come up with a concrete method.
Danny – Yeah, there is no concrete method, it’s just kind of organic, it’s the way it happens. You float into one of the films and sort of see what the other guy has worked up so far, and then it’s like, “do you have any other fresh ideas?” and then we talk; I mean, we talk every day about things that we’re working on or ideas or directions that we believe we should go. And then yeah, you just walk in and out of the sessions and keep chipping at it like a sculpture. And then we keep checking in with each other and the director. So sometimes, once you get into a project, you start to write up these themes and a few cues, and we just automatically gravitate towards a film or a certain part of a movie: you take the reins and go for it, and then show the other guy and get it done. That’s what we’re most interested in doing.
That kind of reminds me what the Coen Brothers used to do back in the day before they officially created their partnership. Now, I just had one quick question before we talk about Boy Erased. I know you both formed the band Priestbird prior to becoming film composers. Is it easier to write a band album or a film score? Cause they can run to the same length.
Saunder – [laughs] that’s a hard question.
Danny – Yeah!
Saunder – I don’t know. The thing with a film score is, and maybe sometimes with albums, is there’s a pretty delineated deadline and also little deadlines along the way. So you have a little bit more fire under your ass to finish it. And then you also have reoccurring themes and stuff so some material gets reused, which you don’t really do in an album, although it could be really interesting to do that. So I don’t know. We’ve written scores for a whole film in three weeks or something, but then, I don’t know.
Danny – Carrying off of what you just said Saunder, basically with an album, the question is – is it a concept album? If you said to us “guys, we need to write an album of songs that all have to do with heartbreak and we need it in three weeks” that would be a little easier. But when you’re in a band you’re just kind of making it and songs are coming to you, and as you grow up you’re figuring things to write about, whether it’s stuff that happened to you personally or stories you want to tell. And then they have to appeal to the whole band, everybody has to like what are we trying to say. And then the album starts to culminate as you have like 10 songs or 40 songs that you have to choose from. And you’re trying to figure out the direction and what the band is and whether everyone should change the sound and how it’s all going to work and what the big picture is. Whereas with a film, we know what the big picture is as we’re doing it and we have a guide. The film itself is the guide for figuring out what needs to be done and how quickly and how big or how small the sound should be or where there should be music. And I think, personally, it’s easier to do a film.
Saunder – Yeah, probably.
Danny – Creatively, there’re boundaries that we have to stick to. But with an album, at least with how we work, we want to make it eclectic and different and try different music out, different kinds of lyrics, different kinds of singing. And so the world is our oyster and we were just like “we’re going to do whatever we want.” Kind of freeing, but also it’s like “well now, we need to choose some songs and make an album. We have to release something.” And it’s hard to come up with a full point-of-view.
I’m always interested whenever people in the music industry transition over to film and how the different projects compare and contrast, so thank you for your answers. Now, let’s talk about Boy Erased. This is Joel Edgerton’s second feature film as a director and writer. You both of course did his first movie, The Gift, which was well-received. But this is a very different movie that deals with a real-world issue, which is the continued prevalence of conversion therapy and homophobia. If you don’t mind me asking, and you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, I’m wondering what your own religious experiences or lack thereof were like growing up, and if you had any, did you bring any of those experiences when doing the score?
Saunder – Yeah, I didn’t have much. My family was not very religious- my mom sometimes tried to get us to go to church. My family was European and they moved to the States and I was the first born in the States and I believe they sometimes had trouble integrating us into the American way of life. And I remember there were a few times where they would enroll me in a church-like group or something; like Sunday School, but more times per a week. And I remember just hating them and I thought they were always so creepy and the counselors were a little weird and everybody was a little bit too nice [laughs]. But you know, I don’t have any like awful memories or bad experiences with it. So, just some little kind of weird experiences.
Danny – Same with my family and same with me. I didn’t grow up with religion either in my family. My dad is Italian, but he sort of renounced Catholicism in his teens- he just didn’t like it, didn’t like the whole system. And then my mother went to an all-girls Catholic school in New York, and she kind of rebelled away from that as well in her teens. And they were pretty adamant about not pushing that on myself and my two brothers. But on a musical level, I went to an English school when I was in elementary in London, and there were a lot of prayers and morning assemblies and singing hymns and things like that. So I got to sing a million hymns and harmonies and all that stuff, and that music was actually getting into my bones as a boy. And then, when I went on to study music in high school, I went to an English school in Rome, and that had a very strong choir scene there. And we would tour and sing in churches in Europe and be a part of the religious ceremonies. I never really understood what the hell was going on [laughs].
Saunder – [laughs]
Danny – Do I have to stand up, sit down, sing Amen? We had a choir director, but I mean I had no religious…I was just in awe of the worship process and how people would let themselves go and the sheer power of the music to get everybody on the same page. So I got to see the power of music, but I was never like “oh me too.” I was never interested in the religious aspect, I was just interested in music.
Okay, so basically this film was like other projects in that you approached it with a fresh face and your backgrounds didn’t play to the film’s story.
Danny – Well, the religious aspect isn’t that big. In fact, we didn’t really incorporate a lot of religious music into our score. Where it comes from is relating to the film. Boy Erased is about growth and family and loneliness and introspection and adolescence and not knowing what to do. All these kinds of emotions that we all experience. You don’t have to have gone through any religious thing. You can be attending some other kind of camp, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this one. But we still approach it like we’re trying to decipher what the real emotions are and what the storyline is here- what are we all trying to get out of this movie? Are we moved, are we thinking, are we out to try to help change and bring awareness? Is it just a fun movie to go watch and then you don’t talk about it ever, you know what I mean? So it’s about that, approaching it from a humanistic level.
No, that’s absolutely true. And I definitely think that’s what makes music so powerful is that it isn’t restricted by demographics. But talking about the movie’s themes, you’ve both garnered a reputation for doing dark projects like The Gift, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Fear the Walking Dead, and so forth. Boy Erased does tackle a dark subject, you know brainwashing, but it’s also a story that’s more grounded and sentimental. What was the secret to keeping a balance between those two moods, cause I know from the press release you wanted the music to be restrained?
Saunder – Yeah, there is a dark aspect to the film, but we definitely didn’t try and underscore it too much because we tried to not sway the audience opinion about what was happening. But that was one of the biggest challenges, being able to ride that line between darkness and emotion without kind of going over the edge.
Danny – That was also one of Joel’s main comments since the beginning. He was like “do not portray the love and action as this big bad thing right away. We have to allow the audience to figure it out for themselves. And we’re going to do it by watching Jared and these other people going through what they’re going through and the audience has to make the decision themselves.” Now, the way to do that is you get introduced to the film in the first 5-10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and then things start happening, and the goal of the music in this case is to really help you in those moments as you’re watching the film. Help you think. Think of it as like thinking music- like it’s got an emotional undertone, but it’s also helping you relate it back to yourself and helping you realize “wow, that wasn’t so good, what that counselor just said” and “hmm, that sounds awfully restricting. I don’t even know anything about these counselors, but this doesn’t feel like it’s making a lot of sense.” So we’re not like “dun dun dun” isn’t it terrible?
Danny – It’s not creeping in. The music is pretty simple, but you have to think deeper. It’s not just what’s happening in this room, but what’s the bigger picture here? Wait a minute, these kids are being kept out of college for a year. That’s pretty crazy. You sort of have these thoughts, they’re happening super fast and they’re all in your head, as you’re experiencing the story. But the music has to allow you to do that; has to provide this beautiful bed for you to lie on while you think about the film and let it hit you.
Saunder – And also about being honest to what was going on in the film. There’s aspects of this place, the counselor and the people working there, who honestly believe that they’re doing the right thing. So, in a way, we’re not necessarily saying that they are right in what they’re thinking, but we’re letting the audience make the decision rather than forcing them to feel a certain way about them.
I love hearing about the approach you went with, because I do believe that, even when it comes to situations where it’s natural to feel strongly one way, it’s best to be objective because that’s the only way you can truly get into the mindset of these situations and how the people perpetuating them are going about them. So I’m happy the score follows accordingly.
I just have to ask, and this is a dumb question, but you mentioned the head counselor and we know that he is portrayed by Mr. Edgerton. What’s it like for you as composers to talk to the director about how he wants the music, then proceed to see him in the footage acting like a completely different person, yet you have to write music for his scenes under his wishes? Is it like Schrödinger’s Cat where it’s this dual mindset you have to get used to, compared to projects where the director isn’t performing?
Saunder – [laughs] That’s a good question actually, I like it!
Danny – It’s pretty good, yeah.
Saunder – I’ve never had a problem with it….is Joel the only actor/director we’ve worked with Danny?
Danny – I was just thinking the same thing, I don’t know if we’ve done others.
Saunder – I can’t remember ever feeling that it was making it harder to work with him or easier or changing anything really. Maybe on a subconscious level somehow, I don’t know.
Danny – Yeah, it’s not a big thing. It wasn’t big for me I would say. He’s in the room, but when he comes into our studio, he looks completely different. He has on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and a hat and he’s just like “hello boys!”
Saunder – [laughs]
Danny – You know, he’s not the same person on screen. He’s a totally different person. But if anything, it helps us to understand the movie even faster because he knows exactly what he was going for, what he wanted with all the actors. It’s almost like his troupe of actors, like a theater troupe, so he knew every scene and each of his performances and could explain to us what he was going for, which is sometimes not as obvious as we might think. That’s another thing that we like to mention is that, as we get better at film scores, we’re also better at film analyzing. I never used to watch movies in this way, but now I’m more critical about it because I’ve watched movies come together from their rough stage, from that first edit, to the final product, and it can go through so much and change so much. So I don’t know, I just feel like Joel has a particular knack for really explaining what he was going for, so we were able to understand and know exactly what kind of music to put to a scene. Like for example, in the film…have you seen the film yet Red?
Unfortunately no, it has not been released yet in the States. I believe it comes out November 2nd.
Danny – Ah, I was going to reference one of the scenes, but it doesn’t matter.
Overall, I’m glad that it made the score, in some ways, easier. That’s pretty intriguing to hear. And last question, this is something I love to ask every musician I speak to, and that is what are three pieces of music that have had the greatest influence on you as a composer? It can be a band album, film score, anything.
Saunder – That’s so hard to choose. I would say that, not a specific piece, but the score for There Will be Blood. It’s kind of a “duh” answer, but it really was a turning point in the way I listened to film music. You know Johnny Greenwood…I feel like that was one of the very first times that really modern, experimental music was used effectively in a film. So that would be one.
Danny – My favorite film score moment, and there are so many, but one that will never cease to affect me would be, in The Empire Strikes Back, the Han and Leia love scene. It’s one of the most incredible pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and the way it returns on and off throughout Empire Strike Back before becoming the closing melody for that film as the ships all disappear into hyperspace….that melody is just so incredible. And it’s not world famous, but it’s actually, for me, one of the most incredible melodies and so telling of what’s actually happening in Empire Strikes Back. Just an incredible second film in that trilogy, so dark and so strange, and then this piece of music just captures the love between Han and Leia as it’s culminating, and the difficulties that they all face. And I started playing it right away on the cello when I was a boy, and I still play it to this day. It transcends, I think, the marriage of music to picture, because that kind of melody makes me think of space and planets and endlessness and epicness, even as a boy it did. So that would have to be one of my most powerful ones.
Saunder – I can’t think of another one. It’s hard because, personally, the way that I listen to music is changing constantly and drastically. When I was a kid, my main influences were definitely [Led] Zeppelin and early heavy metal. When Danny and I both met, one of things we had in common that really brought us together was our love for Iron Maiden [laughs]. So maybe there’s an Iron Maiden song in there that’s one of our most influential.
Danny – Yeah.
Saunders – Which one Danny?
Danny – You could honestly do a small thesis on what makes Iron Maiden great. The chords that Iron Maiden uses are always very similar to each other, but you could actually equate that chord structure back to some religious music. It seems far-fetched, but there’s a lot of classical music in Iron Maiden, and it’s evoking that Empire Strikes Back thing that I was just talking about; this sense of epicness and otherworldliness and talking about all kinds of things from religion to ideals to world history. That’s what Iron Maiden would do a lot, and they would just use these chords and distort certain rhythms and it would get the whole crowd going. And at our age, I remember it had this sort of transcendent quality to it and this seriousness, they took it so seriously, but it was beautiful music with all these intricate passages and very emotive guitar solos.
Saunders – Yeah, dramatic!
Danny – Yeah, definitely dramatic, but evoking the power of darkness and light. But it wasn’t over the board like dragons and things: it was about real things, like Egyptian culture or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So we both used to listen to that as children-
Saunders – I still listen to it!
Danny – Yes, once in a while, we still listen to it.
I can’t say I grew up with Iron Maiden, but I had a friend in middle school who was and I got introduced that way. I’m very happy it had an almost metaphysical influence on you. And There Will Be Blood and The Empire Strikes Back both have terrific scores as well. As I said earlier, I’m always happy when regular people carve their way into this industry, so thank you so much for everything gentlemen!
Saunders – Awesome, thank you man
Danny – Thanks so much Red!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Bensi and Mr. Jurriaans for sitting down with us. Boy Erased will be released in theaters November 2nd, 2018.
Special thanks to Cas Spencer and Adrianna Perez of White Bear PR for making this interview possible.