Awards Daily talks to the Nainita Desai, the composer behind Netflix’s docuseries American Murder: The Family Next Door, about how she incorporated elements of the true crime into her music.
Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door is a story, and a documentary, you’ll never forget. Weaving real-life social media and text messages into the narrative, the film tells a true-crime story from murder victim Shannan Watt’s point of view, before she becomes the focal point of tragedy.
The music sets the mood and tone of the film, all thanks to Nainita Desai, the composer. I had an opportunity to chat with her via email about creating the score for the film and how she incorporated elements of the story into the musical theme.
Awards Daily: How much of the documentary did you get to see before you started working on the music?
Nainita Desai: I watched an early rough cut that was well over two hours long, so I could get a real feel for the tone of the film. It was a very difficult watch as it felt like Shannan (the victim), had returned to tell her story—quite astonishing access and perspective, and so very different from ‘true crime’ as we know it to be.
AD: Since so much of the documentary involves showing text messages and digital messaging, did you try to incorporate sounds or cadences that mimicked those tones?
ND: Absolutely. It was a way for me to be authentic and be true to the story; to help me and help the audience connect with the story. I played the mobile phone like an instrument creating percussive tension rhythms by tapping on the cell phone with my fingers. You can hear them combined with the strings in the ‘letter reading’ scene or moments where you see a phone text message appear. It just brings those moments to life and makes it all the more real.
There are also oil tanks in the film where the bodies were found so I created some dark almost atonal textures with the found sound of oil drums—the sounds from the location—combining them with extended string techniques played by the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO).
AD: Did you know ahead of time what kind of instrumentation you wanted to incorporate?
ND: Netflix told me they wanted a live orchestral score which put me in a real conundrum. I didn’t want the pandemic to stop me from realizing the ambitions I had for the score but I got the project literally two days after the first lockdown when all recording studios and musicians had closed down for business.
I actually wrote the score with live players and the LCO in mind, hoping recording would pick up again at some point.
So I decided to scale down the size of the ensemble to match the intimacy of the story around a string quintet that gelled the disparate, disjointed visual footage into something that took the viewer on an emotional journey through the victim’s life.
We recorded the score remotely during lockdown. The engineer, musicians and myself would all be in our own homes with the engineer remotely controlling a mobile rig recording the musicians one by one, like a layered cake.
And we would all communicate via WhatsApp, Zoom or texting—rather apt for this film using social media to tell the story!
In normal circumstances, it would have taken a day to record, but it took us a week to record the whole score. We recorded the cello first, and their parts would be sent to the violas, who would listen to what the cellos had played. Finally, the violinists would record their parts on top of everyone else’s recordings. I spent a lot of time editing and mixing the music.
We ended up with a unique intimate sound that we couldn’t have achieved any other way.
AD: The music sounds like it’s building a mystery, even though ultimately most people know that it’s a tragedy (it’s in the title after all). Does the soundtrack have a point in the film that it’s building toward? And if so, what would that point be?
ND: As a well-documented case, it’s not a “whodunnit” in the traditional sense. It’s an intimate personal story that focuses on giving a voice to the victim telling the story from Shannan’s POV in first-person.
The climax of the film comes around two-thirds of the way in, with the confessions and shocking revelation of how the family were murdered. The unravelling of the story, of their marriage, takes you on several emotional highs and lows throughout their marriage. You’re taken on twists and turns with the polygraph and the interrogation scenes and finally with the courtroom trial sections.
The opening of the film has these descending string slides that predict the impending darkness. As the investigation progresses, the pace picks up. The string ostinatos create a real sense of mystery, momentum and drama to the proceedings. With the interrogation room scene, I wanted to emphasize the tension with the sound of the ticking clock. I wanted you to hang on every word that Chris Watts was saying.
AD: Were you inspired by any other soundtracks or scores?
ND: I pretty much ignored all the temp music in the score. I’ve always loved film noir, and scores that have a dark beauty about them, and I was excited about bringing that aesthetic to this film. Composers such as Philip Glass and the vibe of David Lynch movies inspired me. I wanted to bring out the dark underbelly that lurked in small-town America.
AD: The music is so beautiful, but there’s something dark underlying the melodies. What is the music saying about the story?
ND: There is a duality to the music. We wanted a score that on the surface sounded like a fairy tale marriage that illustrated the good times in the relationship, and that as the film developed, the music would get darker and darker. Those two extremes needed to sit together and work harmoniously.
As the early stages of the story unfolds, we didn’t want to give too much away. We didn’t want the music to portray Chris Watts as a monster; instead, it had to be neutral and understated, but still have character. I had to honour Shannan’s story and treat it with delicacy.
Visually, the film is incredibly rich with textured layers of police cam, CCTV, text messages, home videos, etc. Much of the material was quite raw and gritty in quality, so I wanted the music to be bold and have a serious intent to it, pulling the imagery together but also help drive the story forward.
AD: It was a challenging watch for me. Was it challenging to have to work on this film, given the subject matter?
ND: Absolutely, it was challenging. Composing for me is a very immersive experience, a little like method acting—I have to totally immerse myself into the mindset of what I imagine the characters are going through.
When I realized HOW things have unfolded with the murders, it actually made me feel quite ill. When I score a film, telling the story in the most authentic way possible with integrity is crucial for me. Inhabiting these dark musical worlds comes quite naturally to me, so in many respects it’s my natural habitat, however challenging it may be.
American Murder: The Family Next Door is available on Netflix.