Danny Bensi was visiting a friend at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late ’90s when he spotted a fine-looking Martin guitar in his dorm that he knew didn’t belong to his pal from childhood.
“You play?” he asked his roommate, curious as a specialist on the strings himself as a cellist.
“Yeah, a bit,” said Saunder Jurriaans, who subsequently invited Bensi to see his band perform.
It wasn’t before long that the two would be performing together when they moved to New York and joined Gregory Rogove to form the noise rock outfit Priestbird, which distinguished itself with its sonorous blend of elegantly composed orchestration and the messy, experimental cacophony of unconventional instruments such as glockenspiels and double-necked guitars. The melding of musical styles shouldn’t work and yet it does in a deeply penetrating way, making it the ideal accompaniment for the kind of films made by the adventurous collaborators Jurriaans and Bensi have found themselves working with since Priestbird dissolved after their 2011 album “Beachcombers,” a list that includes Ruben Ostlund (“Play”), Denis Villenueve (“Enemy”), Andrew Renzi (“Fishtail”), Lance Edmands (“Bluebird”), Sebastian Silva (“Magic Magic”) and the gang at Borderline Films (“Simon Killer” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”).
More specifically, that sound has made them a perfect fit for “The One I Love” in which the clash of classical and modern musical approaches underlines the battle of wits between a couple (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss) who, in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, take the advice of a therapist and retreat to an idyllic cottage where they attempt to reconcile their present frustrations with their memories of the people they first fell in love with. It’s a wicked little two-hander that is handled as deftly by Jurriaans and Bensi as it is by Duplass and Moss, spiraling out from a swoony score with hints of discord into full-blown auditory chaos that still somehow reflects what was once beautiful about the relationship between its characters.
As “The One I Love” makes its way into theaters, Jurriaans and Bensi took a break from their quite busy schedule to talk about their work on the film, how they first got into film composing and their affection for the unusual.
How did you actually get interested in composing for film?
Saunder Jurriaans: We were performing musicians for a long time and just naturally, we did a lot of very dramatic, epic string arrangements and all that kind of stuff with our band Priestbird. Then Alistair Banks Griffin, a good friend of mine from college directed a movie called “Two Gates of Sleep” four years ago and asked us to do the music. It was our first feature-length film. We had done a few shorts before, but we did it and we had a great time. From there we were like, “Let’s do a little more of this,” then we met the guys of Borderline [“Simon Killer” director Antonio Campos, “Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin, and producer Josh Mond] and we ended up doing “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, which did really well and through word of mouth, we just kept on getting jobs.
This is probably a naive question, but your signature seems to be the clash of classical instrumentation with nontraditional elements and as a duo, does one of you tend to lean more one way than the other?
Saunder Jurriaans: A little bit. Danny is a classically trained cellist and plays violin too and a little bit of piano. I’m a guitar player, and he does more classical training than I, but we both really go into the weirder stuff. Between the two of us, we get around on everything and we have pretty much similar vibes going on.
Danny Bensi: We’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. If one of us is writing something slightly more inspired by a modern classical thing, then I’ll be like, “Does this sound cool?” [Saunder] needs to like it, but we generally share our similar aesthetic, which is why we work so well and so fast together.
How did you get involved with “The One I Love”?
Saunder Jurriaans: We had met one of the producers, Mel Eslyn. I grew up in Seattle and she’s a good friend of one of my oldest friends, so we met her at Sundance just for coffee and we didn’t hear from her for five months, then suddenly she called and she said, “We need a composer badly.” They finished editing and this was the final thing that needed to happen. We talked to Charlie [McDowell, the director] and it worked.
What were your conversations with Charlie like?
Saunder Jurriaans: We hit the right vibe right away with the film. There wasn’t a lot of talk actually in the beginning process. We got it all scored, then we had Charlie came out here to New York and sat in with us for a week. We like to do that with directors – to get them in the room and we fine tune everything.
In the work I’ve seen of yours, you haven’t actually done something as light and playful as this. Was that something exciting for you?
Saunder Jurriaans: Yeah, definitely. It was a really fun project that implements all the darker stuff that we’ve been known to do, but gave us a chance to get a little bit touch on some humor.
When I saw “Enemy,” it was striking how effective the music was in becoming a theme for the main character. Does it help when you only have two characters to focus on, like in “The One I Love”?
Saunder Jurriaans: It’s a lot of fun, especially with this movie and “Enemy” was similar. These are characters that are very concise, but then they’re also playing themselves, which are totally different than their normal selves. There’s an interesting juxtaposition already happening which we definitely play with in the music. We love that kind of thing.
Were there instruments you were specifically drawn to for this score?
Saunder Jurriaans: There’s a lot of percussion. The day we started on the film we built this kind of junk drum set in our studio, which was like a drum set but it had all these weird ethnic instruments.
Danny Bensi: Wood blocks and an old cymbal and a cow bell on it. It was from like the ’40s. Vintagey and weird, clangy and clinky.
Saunder Jurriaans: That was a big element. Then we layered on top of that with a little bit of strings. A clarinet made an appearance a few times and a cymbal. Percussion was one of the real central parts of it that got the quirkiness.
Danny Bensi: All the percussion that we used was nontraditional and had a little bit of a humorous side to it, which we liked, and a little character that gave life to the film somehow without it being a traditional drum set. It felt kind of clangy and Charlie responded right away to it; he loved the sound of it and He understood the humor behind it.
Then as the movie progresses, we bring in more pizzicato strings, but we were trying to do everything quite nontraditionally but full of character so that it would have a stark approach. We like to do that for a lot of scores where the music will really be almost like one of the characters in the movie, so that’s what we made sure happened with this score right away.
Was there a certain beat that you’re able to hang your hat on to build the rest of the sound around?
Danny Bensi: I think so. Probably for the first third of “The One I Love,” there’s a beat that we keep coming back to because there was repetition as [the characters] kept going in and out of the house, figuring out what’s happening, and we’re accompanying that whole thing. The pacing of the editing and as the story unfolds and you were figuring things out you keep going back to that beat to show that it’s a work-in-progress, that they’re figuring out what’s happening.
Saunder Jurriaans: It was also intentional to be pretty chaotic with all the instrumentation because in the movie, you’re running back and forth between this weird, magical house and we wanted to have that be part of the music too.
Is there something in general that attracts you to a project?
Saunder Jurriaans: Creative movies like this that aren’t in a real specific genre. We like the weird — not only — but we definitely get excited when there’s a kind of fantastical aspect. We do a lot of everything. We also do a lot of documentary.
You’ve been incredibly prolific. What have the last two years been like?
Saunder Jurriaans: Yes, they have been crazy. We’ve been steadily working on at least four projects at a time for the past two years. We’ve recently got a little break, which was nice, but it looks like it’s starting up again now though.
Are you able to do anything as a band still or is it really film composing full-time now?
Saunder Jurriaans: Pretty much composing full-time, but we’re writing songs all the time and experimenting with playing as a band again. When we have time, we want to do it because we love performing too.
“The One I Love” will open in limited release on August 22nd. It is also available on VOD.