Meet The Composers Who Have Created The Dynamic Sound of Sundance

By  · Published on January 28th, 2016

Sundance is in full swing as filmmakers, actors, and press have descended upon Park City to bring us films we will surely be talking about for months to come. Getting a film into Sundance is a prestigious honor, and not an easy one to come by. Thousands of films are submitted to the festival each year, but only a few hundred get accepted.

So what does it take to get a film into Sundance?

Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans seem to have the answer as they composed the music for four films shown at the festival last year and their compositions are featured on four more films this year! Talent, timing, and a bit of luck are certainly factors, but Bensi and Jurriaans note that it is really the relationships they have developed which have allowed them the chance to work on festival favorites like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The One I Love.

“We’ve created great relationships, especially within the New York film community. A lot of the films we have at the festival this year are either with people we’ve worked with over the past five years or through those people. It’s really a word of mouth kind of thing,” Bensi and Jurriaans explain.

This year the duo composed the music for Christine, Complete Unknown, Frank and Lola, and The Fits ‐ four very different films. Bensi and Jurriaans are no strangers to stretching their musical chops having created unsettling scores for horror films like The Gift, the mind trip of Enemy, the off-kilter feel of The One I Love, or the stark, lonely feeling of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Bensi and Jurriaans explain it all goes back to the filmmakers they have worked with and the trust they have developed, noting, “We’re constantly being challenged to write for new genres and write new types of music and I think that also gives the filmmakers confidence that we can kind of do anything. They’re not afraid to hire us knowing that it’s going to be a totally different pallet than that last film.” Bensi and Jurriaans’ ability to quickly adapt to these different genres is clearly a part of the reason they have found themselves attached to so many Sundance films the past few years.

The two admit that while getting into Sundance is always exciting, it is not the goal when they set out to work on a film. The real challenge over the past few years for them has come from being more selective, saying, “I think we’ve also learned to accept better films. We’re starting to recognize what a really good film is ‐ as opposed to taking anything that comes our way. And we know the good actors and the producers are starting to know us and they talk amongst themselves ‐ again, it’s all word of mouth. They’ll be like, ‘Oh Saunder and Danny could do that film, no problem.’”

Having a solid repertoire of work is also helpful. Saunder notes, “Directors are able to trust us now that we have a nice history of films that we’ve done. Understanding that trust is involved when a director or producer hire us to jump on board for one of the last parts of creating a film ‐ adding the music, getting it right, the whole process of handing their film to us to do whatever we want with it. The one thing they have to know is that they can trust that we can deliver.”

Developing that trust is a big reason the two are able to try out different genres and experiment with different instrumentation from film to film. Which is something that came into play with one of the films they have at the festival this year, explaining, “The score for Christine is a harp, clarinet, and flute. It’s like Ravel meets Debussy ‐ it’s completely different and unique in character and we’re so proud of that and found it so intriguing to create. It was challenging, but also so rewarding. Getting to bring a harp player into the studio and have her teach us about the harp and how it works and realizing it could handle so much of the orchestration. We would just add a few melodies here and there to make sure the music is full and vibrant. It’s gorgeous.”

Having the space to collaborate and create is what keeps Bensi and Jurriaans’ music sounding different and fresh film to film. As the Sundance line up proves year after year, the “indie sound” is not just dramatic character pieces, but also horror, comedy, sci-fi, period pieces, and romance. The one thing that continues to define independent filmmaking is the smaller budgets. As Jurriaans says, “With smaller films, you don’t get an establishing shot that’s flying over a mountain or through a forest and over the sea where you could have thirty seconds of a big, gorgeous orchestra. In these indie films a lot of times an establishing shot is the house they’re in. Sometimes you get a montage of some sort and that allows the music to open up and breathe.”

But these limitations also allow for creativity. Bigger budget films expect the sweeping orchestra over these grand opening shots, but when you do not have that, it also means you have the opportunity to try something new. When it comes to the four films Bensi and Jurriaans have at the festival this year, they explain, “It’s all smaller textures ‐ really interesting, strange, sort of avant-garde, but beautiful music and melodies. Just being able to challenge ourselves to stay within those parameters and make sure these pieces can also stand alone.”

With festival films and the indie movie world ‐ sometimes less really is more. One of things Bensi and Jurriaans are most proud of is how many of their scores are made up of very few instruments. They have learned, “You don’t really need an eighty-person orchestra. You just do it with eight or ten people and figure things out. If you know how to write and orchestrate properly, you can come up with really immense and beautiful sounds with the right performance.” The two admitted this knowledge also comes from experience, having worked on smaller budgeted films, learning what works and what doesn’t, and using these opportunities to try new things and discover that a single instrument (like the harp featured in Christine) can convey the same feeling as a full orchestra, but at the half the cost.

When all the work is done and you are at the festival with your film, both composers admitted the most exciting part is seeing your work with an audience. Jurrianns admits, “We watch the film all the way through at the end of the composing process, but it’s never as exciting as watching it with an audience for the first time.” Bensi adds that watching your work with an audience, “Feels like you’re performing it! It’s a little nerve wracking.”

The two joked that their favorite part of Sundance is going snowboarding, but more than anything the festival is an opportunity to deepen their relationships with the filmmakers and collaborators who got them there. Bensi notes, “The most important thing from a festival point of view for us is spending time with the people we worked with to make the film, and solidifying those relationships. We end up being really good friends with most of the people we work with so it’s a nice kind of reward for all this work.”

Jurriaans adds, “We put in the work, then watch it at the premiere with the film team, then party, and celebrate it. Kind of put the working relationship to one side because we’re all people, and friends, and you end up developing a friendship group as opposed to just people that work together. You have to foster that other side ‐ the human side. It’s super important.”

Sundance is a unique festival experience because it is just as much about the relationships and friendships you develop there as the work you go to celebrate. The key to returning to the festival year after year is making sure you deepen your relationships with the filmmakers who got you there to set yourself up for future opportunities. Or it may just be as simple as Bensi and Jurriaans’ final thought, “We just make damn good music!”

Follow our coverage of Sundance 2016 here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene [Blu-ray]

Price: $6.48