When composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans scored Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, “The Gift,” they created a weird sense of unease with rising violins called “bendy strings” for the psychological thriller. And they went minimal, yet no less experimental, for Edgerton’s second feature, “Boy Erased,” the poignant drama about resisting gay conversion therapy, based on Garrard Conley’s influential memoir.
Edgerton wanted to keep the Arkansas family drama relatable to a wide audience, said Jurriaans, “and not alienate anyone. There are so many aspects going on with Jared [Lucas Hedges], so we tried to follow his journey, the confusion and alienation, not as themes but as facets.”
The idea was for the soundtrack to stay neutral as much as possible, but when musically underscoring the Love in Action (LIA) conversion therapy program, the composers went almost militaristic with percussive sounds like gears turning.
“This was a chance for us to take a drama and push the boundaries,” added Bensi. “It’s introspective and lonely, with a bit of pity and sadness in there. I remember saying early on that we wanted to capture the universality of how deep religion goes in society.”
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The entire composing process for the bi-coastal duo consisted of recording live instruments. Bensi, a classically-trained cellist, layered multiple string parts on top of each other to produce the ensemble effect in his LA studio, while Jurriaans recorded choral and other parts with his own voice in a similar layering approach in his Brooklyn studio.
Solo instruments included piano, cello, and violin, while the accompanying orchestra carefully weaved in and out intimately or full on. In addition, a small boy’s choir (from MUSYCA in LA), church organ pedals, and sparse percussion became part of the score, which spanned piano-driven pieces to kinetic, avant garde cues.
And there were moments that even surprised director Edgerton. “For instance, we disregarded [the tone of] the temp music for a funeral scene,” Bensi said. “We went for a slower, frozen moment of stasis. There were dialoging violins almost like a funeral dirge. Joel loved it. And we did the same thing over the scene where Jared goes for a job. We chose to go very minimal.”
They recorded each section of the orchestra separately, allowing them to manipulate layers, leaving room for improvisation. They repeated the process when recording the choir, layering the voices and experimenting with unique-sounding rhythms and syncopated parts of the score.
This type of layering also worked for moments of ambiguity. “We wanted to convey that level of excitement they have in the introduction to LIA, but with a little bit of dread [for Jared],” said Jurriaans. “That arpeggio piano motif goes around like baroque music, coming in and out like many thoughts in his head. It’s a good way to have all these layers to the music.”