At its core, Ozark is a story of contrast. Contrast is everywhere. Behind the seemingly law abiding and calm nature of Marty Byrde, a family man with a 24/7 glint in the eye, there resides a serious, high-level money launderer. Opposing the party-loving, carefree adolescents are oil-covered, cynical rednecks. Most of all, the serene setting of the Missouri highland's sun washed greenery and vibrant blue waters are contradicted by the shrill strings and disconcerting thud of the show's score.
Like the setting, #Ozark's score takes on a life of its own, enclosing the idyllic landscape with a sense of ominous dread. The two men who created it, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, spoke to Movie Pilot about the motivation behind the music, it's unique conception, and the importance of restraint. The result? A score that melts into the background but grabs attention when necessary, catching the viewer off-guard.
High Violin And Garbage Percussion
Thanks to their previous connection with Jason Bateman while scoring 2015's The Gift, Bensi and Jurriaans were signed on to Ozark early, giving them time to digest the essence of the show before recording a single note. Fortunately, Bateman knew from the offset the tone he wanted. "He'd seen the dark, half idyllic, beautifully vast open nature but then also the trashy engines and dirt and garbage, and boats and jet skis and that life style. He really wanted us to start thinking about that when we were starting to come up with the palette," says Jurriaans.
That process usually takes time, as the pair need to understand the ebb and flow of the story before they work on the foundation of the musical structure. For Ozark, the core of the score was created, not out of guitar solos or piano riffs, but rubbish. Actual rubbish. "It's pretty rare for these conceptual ideas to work out but this one did," Jurriaans explains, "the idea that we could go and record a bunch of junk, 'garbage percussion,' which became like a center point for the score, this really kinda dry, metal, plastic and glass percussion."
Finding the unique angle with the so-called "garbage percussion" gave the pair the motivation to explore new territory, while sprinkling their own distinct style over the top. Thanks to belief from Bateman and the freedom to do their own thing, the ball was rolling quickly. "Once we showed Jason a couple of pieces with the junk percussion, he was like 'I love it, I love it, keep going guys, dreary and moody, just what I'm looking for'. And it all made sense very quickly," says Bensi.
Once the tone for Ozark had been honed in and fine-tuned, contrast also took center stage in the composition. Throughout the show's debut season, the undercurrent of heavy, dense bass is occasionally pierced with high-pitched, shrill strings. In one scene, Marty wakes early in a motel, contemplating the magnitude of an impossible situation. A foreboding, horror-esque crescendo of violin, disjointed and jolty, is laid over the top. The strings here at intended to reflect the character's inner struggle, at "dramatic turning points where man is deciding his fate," says Bensi, adding:
"The real challenge is to make sure they don't sound cheesy. So, how do you do that? You do that without baritone and then manipulate the sounds a little bit to dirty them up so they're a bit more vintage, and you do a small group of them and that's plenty, plenty of seasoning."
On top of capturing the internal angst of the characters, the strings were also used to unsettle the audience, to remind them that, generally, the characters are unpleasant people — another illustration of the nuance of Ozark. Although on the surface many seem genuine (such as Laura Linney's adulterous wife Wendy or Jason Butler Harner's FBI agent, Roy Petty), each character has their own set of questionable morals. Jurriaans explains:
"We love Jason Bateman because he's got this humorous smirk all the time, but the characters are super dark, everybody’s got these terrible flaws, so we really wanted to drive that home and keep people on the edge, challenge their listening a little bit with those high violins and buzzing sounds. And distortion. We put distortion on everything."
While nail-down-a-chalk-board notes have a naturally disconcerting affect, a less offensive element, bass, was also distorted in a similarly unnerving way. Conflicting the strings of inner struggle, Ozark's striking, dull and relentless thump appears the moment when the consequences of a decision begin to unfold, like a musical cause and effect. Created using analog synths as part of the process of "exploring the range of sound," they're suffocating. "Those bass tones were super important in creating this menace," says Jurriaans, "there's a constant menace — it's dark. You see it in the cinematography too, they did such a great job with that, even when it's daytime, everything is dark."
Finding The Theme In An Eclectic Mix Of Projects
The pair's oeuvre includes an eclectic mix of shorts, documentaries, features and television shows, generally erring toward darker themes, but with breaks for "more lyrical, beautiful, lighter music." This year they scored the Emmy-nominated documentary, LA 92. For their work on Denis Villenueve's Enemy (2013), they won an Achievement in Music for Original Score at the Canadian Screen Awards. In recent years, they've worked on a number of #Netflix productions, including The OA, Amanda Knox and The Discovery. Naturally, by applying their talents to a number of different formats, the intricacies of Danny and Saunder's working process is rarely the same.
Targeting the general story arc is fundamental, allowing them to produce a score that evolves and tells its own, interlinked story (which Bensi refers to eloquently as a "symphonic arc"). Whether the source is a binge-ready Netflix drama or serious, feature length documentary. "We don't just do one episode at a time and think that's good enough," Bensi says, "you make sure you’re paying attention and your textures are doing the same thing in instrumentation and gravitas so you're not blowing off too much too soon."
Considering how the score can influence the overall tone, it's no surprise that there's an element of trust required between composer and director (or editor or producer, depending on the project). Often, when this trust is achieved, the director will give the pair a free rein to work their musical magic. "Denis [Villeneuve] was great. It's another situation where we've had a director who was basically like 'I love what you do, do it,'" says Jurriaans, adding that 50 per cent of the process is communicating and working through ideas.
This is a process soon to be taken for Siberia, an upcoming project starring Keanu Reeves as a merchant who travels to Russia to sell a collection of conspicuous diamonds. This is the second time they'll work with director Matthew Ross, after his impressive debut, Frank and Lola. Although specifics were undisclosed, Jurriaans laughs as he mentions that, like the majority of their back catalogue, the film will be dark. "There's a lot of different directions we could go, we're talking about noir-ish kinda feelings, but we're not sure yet," says Jurriaans.
Scoring Again For 'Ozark' Season 2
That darkness, a recurring theme in their work, was the perfect foil for Ozark, and helped to form its identity. Amidst Netflix's renewal clamp down — they recently cancelled Sense8, The Get Down and Gypsy — a second season of the crime thriller has been confirmed. Bensi and Jurriaans will again produce the score. Already, they're thinking of ideas, how to evolve the sound while sticking with the theme. Talking of how they'll approach Season 2, Bensi said:
"We're going to hit the ground running. There will be a new sound and we can afford to do that. It can be brass or something crazy, to keep it moving and change the texture. We can only honk back to season one where necessary, otherwise we've got to try and progress, keep it interesting and keep it intelligent."
Considering the duo's work to date, a score that is crazy, interesting and intelligent is guaranteed, a fitting contrast to complement the oxymoron that is Ozark, garbage percussion that is anything but garbage, an idyllic location that is anything but ideal.