Women in Music 2016

Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Setting the Tone for Kristen Wiig, Richard Gere and Jesus

Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans of "Last Days in the Desert" pose for a portrait during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2015 in Park City, Utah. 

Film composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans are starting to put their colleagues to shame when it comes to their prolific output. Four films they scored have premiered at Sundance, and they just wrapped the Richard Gere film Franny, with two more to score when they return home to New York.

Sundance 2015: Full Coverage

"One of our strong points is knowing when not to score, and being okay with taking a whole cue out," says Bensi, a cellist whose youth was spent in Denmark, London, Frankfurt and Rome before he moved to the U.S. to attend Northwestern University. "You have to check your ego every day. Come up with a piece of music, fall in love with it, mix it with the dialogue and be prepared to cut the cord if the director says they're not feeling it."

Since scoring Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011, work has streamed in at a steady pace for the pair. Last year they had 11 projects, most notable The One I Love; in 2013, their scores were featured in 15 films, among them Enemy and Magic Magic.

The two shared their experiences of working on the films premiering at Sundance over lunch in Park City.

Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
For the well-received film about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness,  Bensi and Jurriaans spent two months working with cellos, violins, gongs, gamelan and meditation bowls.

"We always try to get as much information as we can before we start, and Rodrigo started by saying 'Let me tell you what I don't want," Bensi says of the director. "I don't want a Hollywood orchestra and I don't want religious music or choirs. Then he [said] I like violins and I like Vivaldi, and he referenced other obscure Renaissance composers like Paganini. We talked about minimalism and small ensembles and he said 'Yes! Yes!'"

Jurriaans said they opted for close-miked strings to produce textures to allow the sound design to breathe, avoiding any long, droning tones. "Each cue is its own piece of music," he noted.

Nasty Baby
Director: Sebastian Silva
Kristen Wiig plays a woman helping a gay couple have a child in a film that has received positive and mixed reviews. Bensi and Jurriaans' approach was heavy on  percussion, hard rock guitar stuff and weird, slow atmospheric sounds.

"There's only music in the last 30 minutes," says Jurriaans, a guitarist. "We're there to support the movie as it becomes darker at the end."

Silva, Bensi says, worked in a manner similar to Garcia. "He says 'I don't want to tell you what to do. Do what you do. Blow me out of the water and make me go crazy.' There's no laboring over scenes or asking what's that sound?"

The Wolfpack
Director: Crystal Moselle

The documentary about six siblings who were never allowed outside their Manhattan apartment presented a unique situation for the composers: Every member of the production team was a woman. "That was fascinating, watching them deal with each other," says Bensi. "But the director and editor [Enat Sidi] knew exactly what they wanted, even if they didn't necessarily know how to get there. It was a nice collaboration, very specific."

The direction was heavy modern prog-rock -- the sound of bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They used distortion and feedback from guitars and pianos, "nothing commercial or lyrical," says Jurriaans. "Documentaries are a different world of making music, because you're sitting underneath the dialogue. You're creating rivers that flow through the narrative."

The film also marks the first time they have collaborated with another composer, pianist Aska Matsumiya.

Rabbit
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

The second collaboration between the composers and de Clement-Tonnerre, Rabbit is a 16-minute film about a female prisoner and the rabbit she has been given as part of a pet partnership program.

Fortunately, de Clement-Tonnerre fell in love with the first idea they presented her.

"She had a very strong editor who is also a musician and together they came up with suggestions," says Bensi.

The film only has one significant cue.

"It's important that we don't push people over the top," says Bensi. "Let the film and the music speak together"