When esteemed actor Joel Edgerton set out to make his second feature, Boy Erased, he understood the world he was portraying—the way it looked, and the way it felt. Starring Lucas Hedges, the film would loosely adapt Garrard Conley’s memoir, drawing on his experiences at Live in Action, a church-supported gay conversion program in Memphis. On screen, Edgerton would depict a therapy center striking a very specific mood. “It’s a very dry, depressing, cold place,” composer Saunder Jurriaans explains—a space cast in pale blue light.
While a certain aesthetic seemed to emerge seamlessly with Boy Erased, its score was another matter. First teaming with Jurriaans and Danny Bensi on his previous film, psychological thriller The Gift, Edgerton brought the pair back for his second outing with no preconceptions, giving them free rein over the film’s sound. “From the material in the script, we were able to start to think about palettes we might use,” Jurriaans says, “and that would maybe entail some kind of a nod to religious music, but not going too far with that.” In concert with his long-time creative partner and fellow multi-instrumentalist, Jurriaans would set off to find “magic, electricity”—to capture simple, melancholy, ethereal beauty. While complementing the photography of Eduard Grau, the music would need to speak to a complicated internal experience of an ambivalent, lonely heart.
Can you explain how you began working together? What was it that drew you together as artists?
Danny Bensi: We met in the late ’90s at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was just visiting his roommate, who was my childhood friend. He was playing in a band, and I went to watch him play, and it was really great. I was living in Boston at the time, so I started guest appearing, playing the cello with that band.
Saunder and I enjoyed each other’s musical approaches. [Laughs] Or whatever you want to say. We moved to New York in 2001, and Saunder and I started a band, writing music together. That band toured and made records for about six or seven years—that was called Priestbird—and then we were always quite film-y. We were doing prog rock—Pink Floyd-y, Zeppelin-y stuff. But also onstage, we would do this sort of avant-garde, neoclassical stuff. We were multi-instrumentalists, so we were experimenting a lot with moods and layers and different textures to do with strings, and electronic samples and stuff.
Then one of our good friends [Alistair Banks Griffin] made his first film [Two Gates of Sleep] in 2009, and he was like, “Hey, do you guys want to score it? I don’t have any money, but you guys should really try it.” We were like, “Well, let’s see what we can do. Let’s get a mic going, and a Pro Tools session and see what’s happening.” We were very innocent about the whole process and just tried to make something cool and interesting. Then it really snowballed from there.
When you worked with Joel Edgerton on The Gift, what was your impression?
Saunder Jurriaans: We just had a great time working with him. Creatively, he really let us spread our wings, and he just really trusted us, musically. So, we were eager to work with him again. When he came to us with Boy Erased, from working with him before, we were on board in that sense. But when we received the script, we were even more excited because it was a real departure from his last film. The idea of doing something a little bit more real and socially conscious and relevant was really attractive to us. But also, the idea of taking a complicated drama and finding a way to score it that would avoid pushing it into too much of a sappier, overemotional situation.
How did you arrive at your overall palette for the score?
Bensi: [During] those opening cues—that opening piano piece, that meandering couple of melodies—you still don’t know what’s happening in the film. That’s basically to stir the pot, and those melodies end up returning at very special moments. But when we first wrote it, it was kind of like a meandering, soulful, introspective piece that we thought about.
We liked that it had an A section and a B section, which is great for material later on, and we found that it worked right away. [Lucas Hedges’ Jared] was just looking out of the window at the cars driving. You figure out where they are in the southern states and all that, so there’s not a lot you can say yet, except two people driving in the early morning to we have no idea where. Then, the music takes that drastic change when he arrives and says goodbye to his mom, and LIA begins—and right there, we jump back to another classical form of music, somewhere between baroque and classical. You have a strict, arpeggiated piano motif, which just repeats. It’s not that expressive, but it’s actually the backbone of that piece—this grueling piano, which stuck. It’s exciting and poignant, but it’s serious, and we should take this place seriously.
Then the other instruments come trickling in here and there, like, “Yes, lots of ideas of happening. Lots of different opinions and emotions in this place. Take it seriously that we’re going to take you on a ride.” That was actually as we zoom in on Jared’s face, as Joel’s character is like, “Welcome to LIA.” We talked a lot about that with Joel because he was like, “I actually want the audience to feel like Jared really wants to be there, like he’s actually excited to be there. He actually does at this point, mainly, want to change and receive some kind of help.” We were like, “Whoa, that’s a tall order.” He’s in this place that we all know is not necessarily that helpful. We don’t really know—and then how do we make that exciting and show it? That was a tough line to walk along, but we got it in the end.
Jurriaans: I think the piano is something that Joel automatically gravitated to because on The Gift, we also used a lot of piano. Joel loved piano, so we used that. But with the rest of the instrumentation, there’s a lot of pizzicato strings and these interlocking rhythmic parts that really represent for us this struggle going on in Jared’s head. Then also, there’s a boys choir that comes in—it’s very subtle. We’re nodding to the idea of religious choir music, and also bringing in the idea of innocence and humanity. Then, a lot of this very plaintive high violin stuff, very frail and naked and fragile, I think. I feel like that’s the breadth of the palette.
Did any specific sonic influences factor into the score?
Bensi: Not really. There’s a bit of Arvo Pärt in there maybe, but it’s not like we temped it in there. We just know that his particular style of writing, the color works so well in modern day, to bow to that epic, religious, omnipotent vibe. He does it really simply, without orchestras. Those piano pieces and violin pieces that he makes are so great. It’s the type of chords that he uses, and how he does it. He didn’t make them himself; they’re traditional chords, but the way he does it is just really great. It’s always very subtle, I think, but powerful.
But he’s been in our palette for years now, because we love his writing. It’s that kind of minimalist writing. We have a couple of cues where Jared is going for a jog and he’s really inside his head, trying to sort things in his muddled head out. At this point in the movie, he’s trying to be on his own, and just think and be free, so all we have is two violins in their high register, dialoguing with each other, and a very low organ pedal from a church, just hitting them. That’s all there is; there’s nothing in between. It’s just two violins, as if they’re two thoughts in his head. Then, this sinister bass line is holding in this suspension as he’s trying to figure something out. These violins are really passionate in what they’re saying, but with this religious feel to them—a sense of awe that he’s dealing with very big and very important, introspective issues. And it just worked so well there. You don’t have to always go so big.
What was the process of recording the music? Do you tend to play on your own scores, or conduct them yourselves?
Bensi: We play most of the instruments ourselves; we do a lot of the strings ourselves. We layer them in, and then play the piano parts, and get it all together. Even the solo violin parts in places, we do ourselves. But then this time, once the cues were in good shape and Joel had signed off on them, we went in and recorded a chamber string ensemble to play on top of our strings, to see if we could get a different sound out of them, and try some experiments as well. So we did that, and we also recorded a piano player, just to see if there was a different interpretation to our piano playing. We do that—we experiment a lot.
Then obviously, there’s the boys’ voices. We tried all these experiments with them, having them do rhythmical, weird, avant-garde stuff to see if we could use that as a texture. We were always experimenting and recording different things. But generally, we record everything ourselves—and we also conduct our string players as well.
Jurriaans: A lot of composers will compose the music and then go to the orchestra, and then rerecord the entire score on orchestra. What’s maybe unique about what we do is that our score starts from day one being a final recording. Some of them get used, some of them don’t, and then every step in the process contains a certain amount of improvisation. Even when we go into the studio and record with these string sections, we would do them in parts and break up all the parts separately, so that we could manipulate it after the fact. But we always leave time in our recording sessions to improvise with the group and come up with new textures, or ideas, or harmonies, or whatever comes to mind as we’re doing it. We’re very hands-on when we go into the studio.
What were the biggest challenges for you both on this project?
Jurriaans: The challenge of a film like this, for me, is finding that balance of uniqueness and challenging the audience with something unexpected, while also remaining true to the story and to the emotions playing in the film, not going overboard by leading the audience in certain directions.
Bensi: It’s funny: As a composer for films, you want to make a splash. But you also want to do exactly what’s right for the film. So [it’s like], where do we live in between those two places? It’s our job to dial in how avant-garde, or how beautiful we can go.