Netflix’s harrowing The Serpent tells the true story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, a.k.a. the “Bikini Killer” or “The Serpent.” Between 1975 and 1976, Sobhraj murdered several tourists in Thailand before eventually being captured and jailed in India in 1976. Sobhraj, as played by Golden Globe-nominee Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian), demonstrated a cunning and charismatic personality, which eventually furthered his macabre celebrity status later in life. It’s the perfect role for Rahim’s extraordinary talents.
Supporting Rahim’s performance is composer Dominik Scherrer’s brilliant score. Given the period setting, Scherrer’s work needed to reflect sounds of the period and the Thailand setting, but he wanted to avoid a cliched 1970’s sound. Rather, Scherrer manages to create something that feels at once of the period and evocative of the paranoid thrillers of the era while sounding incredibly modern and fresh.
Here, Dominik Scherrer talks to Awards Daily about creating a new sound for a period limited series. He talks about recording on location in Bangkok and the unexpected benefits of recording in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, he talks about what drew him into this dark crime drama about a twisted, yet brilliant, mind.
Awards Daily: As I speak with composers through the pandemic, there’s a common theme that it changed their personal lives but not their working lives. They’re already isolated when composing and recording their scores.
Dominik Scherrer: Yeah, I know. I mean, it’s basically still the situation of me trying to write a tune alone in a room. That’s basically what composing is, but it’s nice to be in the same room with people while you’re recording. I missed that a lot. Particularly when you are doing ensemble things. You can sort out things so quickly when you are in the same place, but now I have audio coming in from 10-20 different places. It becomes a long process, but it’s kind of exciting as well because now I’m working with people from all over the world.
AD: It’s a weird dichotomy because it isolates us from other people that are in our general vicinity, but it also opens the borders to where you can work with people internationally.
DS: Yeah, exactly.
AD: So, let’s talk about The Serpent. What is it about the series that most interested you?
DS: Well, it’s sort of came to me because we’ve been talking about it for quite a long time. I’ve worked with the director, Tom Shanklin, a few times in the past, and so he already started talking about it in 2014 when we were doing The Missing. I thought that sounded quite fascinating. Then, the script started to come together, and it wasn’t the kind of straight serial killer show. It’s very interesting, particularly the way Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay wrote the script. They always add these kind of layers of intellectual depth to it, which I like. It’s also set in the 70s and in really exotic locations. Hippies and pool parties and groovy people and all that. It’s an exciting environment, not a British period drama set somewhere in a country estate. It’s definitely not dry.
AD: I know you very deliberately did not want to have a sort of a generic 1970s sound to the piece. But the finished score sounds both of the period and modern still. It has feet in two different time periods. How do you do that through your instrumentation?
DS: I’m glad you perceive it that way because that was the intention to take a few bits from the period, but in the end, they should sound like a modern score. I think some of it is just the sort of general approach now. It’s different with scoring than you had in the 70s. Now, we are happy to go for quite abstract concepts when you want tension and thriller moments. Now, we are into doing this quite radically now, more abstract with sound design elements and things like that. In the 70s, you had a lot of really interesting and groovy music, but film music sound that, in a way, still sounded more traditional. I think we are comfortable now being more radical, and that was one of the things we wanted to do. It would have been quite easy to just bring on the nice strings and the orchestra and make it big and lush or sad. But none of those people in the series would have listened to orchestral music, so I think it would have been just really inappropriate to bring in more traditional sort of scoring or instrumentation.
I also wanted to pick elements from the 70s that were kind of modernist. For example, I listened to some of the early Philip Glass and Steve Rice recordings. They are definitely of the period, but they had a kind of very much a future-orientated sound. I also have some elements like period guitar. It’s not only really about the 70s, but also kind of about the flower power years. It’s the hippies who are the ones who are traveling to Southeast Asia. They’d be listening more to 1960s music. So, even though we are set in the mid 70s, but I needed to bring in what they’re listening to as well.
AD: The score does feel somewhat reminiscent of some of the paranoid thriller films of the 70s. Did you get any inspiration from anything such as The Parallax View or The Conversation or Days of the Condor ? While your score is much more modern than what they use, it does feel like a grandchild of those scores.
DS: There is one thing that they always did in the 60s and 70s mainly for these tension moments, you know, where kind of you have maybe also done with timpani and things. Situations where action is underscored by a kind of sparseness. That hasn’t really been brought back in decades that style of scoring, suspense with percussion. I thought we could sort of bring in some of that.
AD: You recorded some of this on location in Bangkok. What did that bring you?
DS: Not everything was recorded there. I did spend like three and a half weeks in Bangkok and camped out in a great studio. It was great to be near the set, meet up with a gang, talk about things, and then go on set and have lunch with the actors. That just helps you to really get into the material. I also wanted to record some Southeast Asian material as well such as these gongs and things that you hear on the soundtrack. It’s an exciting place to record. There are some really good jazz players there in Bangkok. I wasn’t quite aware of that. It’s a little bit like New York City in the 1970s, you know, where all sorts of people came in. Musically, it’s quite an interesting place.