A Q&A with with Netflix’s American Murder Composer, Nainita Desai

  1. You come from a very eclectic background – born and raised in London to Indian parents, you studied Sitar, Piano, Tabla, Violin, Singing and Guitar. You then moved on to a degree in Math alongside Sound Design – and worked in music engineering with the legendary Peter Gabriel. How did you find your way into film/tv music, and why are you passionate about it?

    I’d always been drawn to film music but didn’t realise it was a career I could embark on. So I gained experience in all the related disciplines which gave me a great foundation. I was really into music engineering and production – a huge fan of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Bob Clearmountain etc- and the ‘sonic sound’ of albums alongside synth artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

    Working as a sound designer on feature films such as Little Buddha gave me a great foundation in audio post production and how to drive narrative via sound.

    However I’d always had musical ambitions, so I moved into music engineering working at Real World Studios for Peter Gabriel. I met a music supervisor there who offered me my first commission writing the score for a travel adventure show. Miraculously the client liked what I did and offered me more work. After that I took on every composing job I could, having sent my reel off to hundreds of film, TV and games companies. My career naturally gravitated towards composing for TV.

    My philosophy has been ‘lots of crumbs make a biscuit’ and through that I really honed my skills writing to picture.

    I learnt the craft by just doing it – writing scores for all sorts of shows from BBC natural history, history, travel shows, to Ads, factual entertainment, theme tunes and eventually features and landmark series.

    I love the variety, collaborations with different film makers, different subjects and story worlds I can dive into; helping to tell stories through music. It’s such a varied job and I love collaborating with teams, being part of telling stories and moving people emotionally through the power of music and film.

  2. Your music is so colorful, rich and versatile, it takes the listener on an adventure. You’re truly an exceptional storyteller. Can you please share a bit about your creative process, how do you find the right tone for every project whether it’s a show, a video game, a film or a commissioned piece?

    Regardless of the project genre, I have to find a way in to connect emotionally with the characters and story that is also in empathy with the director’s vision. I try to create a unique sound universe for every project creating a unique sound template which I will keep evolving throughout the project.

    but I do embrace the collaborative aspect of sharing ideas, having conversations and sharing playlists.

    I like to be brought on early, when I can write ideas and themes away from the pressures of the edit. I worked on The Reason I Jump that way. I know that not all the music may end up in the project this way but you get to try things out and invariably the right music will find it’s way to the right scenes.

    I’ll research the subject on the internet, read books, watch related films. I tend to procrastinate, ponder and think a lot. Those early stages are fun but the most challenging. I’ll spend days refining a theme but the luxury of time often eludes me so when it comes to crunch points having settled into a writing rhythm , I can write fairly fast. Melodic themes either come to me at the piano or by singing away from the studio. I’ll also think about musicians I want to use which influence my writing. I’ll search for musicians that are not the obvious choices – making the invisible visible is an exciting part of the process.

    With ‘Jump’ I held improvisational recording sessions which sometimes led me down new creative rabbit holes over the course of the 15 months I was involved. I wanted to translate all the abstract concepts and aspects of autism into music. I brought in a cellist who is autistic which made the score so much more personal.

    I’ve just finished writing different thematic suites for a project with 3 different stylistic approaches. For Sama was written with 3 different approaches where I initially wrote 80 themes in a rich Hollywood-esque thriller style but ended up writing a very minimalist intimate score about human relationships. I also brought in a Syrian Violinist to play on the score to maintain authenticity.

    The Netflix film American Murder film was similar – the true crime story is based on social media and the mobile phone, We wanted to illustrate a fairy tale marriage; to find a blend between the ‘happy families’ music that illustrated the good times in the relationship, against the darker aspects of the film.

    The score had to have a strong bold character and It really needed to help underpin the story as there are a lot of archive and graphics of text messages on screen.

    I injected found sounds from the film into the score and played the mobile phone as an instrument creating percussive tension rhythms by tapping on the mobile phone with my fingers. For me it is a way to connect the audience with the story in a subliminal way. I recorded the London Contemporary Orchestra remotely during lockdown which was technically challenging but we ended up with a unique sound on that score we could not have achieved any other way.

  3. An in-demand composer, you worked on some high-end productions (various BAFTA, Oscar and Emmy acclaimed projects) such as Oscar-nominated For Sama, Sundance 2020 winner The Reason I Jump, and Netflix’s most-watched documentary to date, American Murder: The Family Next Door, which is now in consideration for an Emmy ! What are your biggest takeaways from working on such projects?

    We are going through a golden era of creative documentary film making and film has always been a transformative medium for me. So it’s an honour to be a part of these important stories

    In educating and engaging audiences.

    Going on exploratory, experimental journey and process can really help with finding the truth in the story.

    With American Murder we tried to tell the story mainly from Shannan Watt’s point of view as the story is told mainly in the first person. A unique 1st hand perspective from a murder victim.

    Every story has it’s nuances and to be entrusted to be a part of of telling those stories is an incredible honour and privilege.

  4. You recently also scored Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, a 3-part Netflix crime-documentary series premiering later this month. How did you approach this score and do you find scoring documentaries different from scoring narrative films?

    The Sophie series launches on Netflix on June 30th. It’s an incredibly well known murder case but we wanted to take a rather unconventional approach working against the tropes of true crime. I was very influenced by the texture, cinematography and creepy atmosphere the director had described in the series Bible. There were lots of references from art to cinema that were incredibly inspiring and ‘spoke’ a musical texture to me. This almost monochrome gritty dark look steered me towards a minimalist sound palette with a sense of the bizarre and uncanny eeriness. I created themes for the victim’s family particularly for the son which had empathy and emotion. Sophie’s theme itself has a ghostly feel to it and there is a quirky bizarre theme for Ian Bailey, the main suspect that reflects his personality.

    I tend to approach feature docs and narrative features in the same way. I always try to write thematic scores for docs. It ties everything together and brings cohesiveness to the project.

    Documentary music often has to sit under dialogue and therefore be less melodic sometimes.

    It’s generally important not to overwrite – I used to fall into the trap of writing music to ‘impress’ my clients writing music that was too rich and full, or harmonically so complex that it detracted from the images and story. The most important thing I learnt is to serve the film. It took me a while to work that out through trial and error!

  5. What do you wish people knew about your work as a composer, and what are you most proud of?

    Being a composer is like being a psychologist. You have to be perceptive and have insight into the human condition. Composing is a bit like being a method character.

    I wish people knew that being a composer is a real job and not a hobby; and were aware of the level of skill, patience and time it takes to create a piece of music. There is still a lot of stigma about ‘working in the arts’ not being a real or valid profession.

    I am drawn to projects that throw me in at the deep end, out of my comfort zone,  tackling subjects and styles I’ve not handled before. It can be terrifying and stressful but extremely rewarding when it comes together.

    I’m proud of so many projects that have opened up my world such as The Reason I Jump and For Sama.

    The most personal and rewarding project I have ever undertaken is Mumbai High-A Musical , a musical I wrote for the BBC – I had to write songs in 6 different languages. working with a film crew in the slums of Mumbai teaching children how to sing (they couldn’t sing or dance). It was a first for me in every respect – I’d never written songs or lyrics before, I only speak English and the pressures were huge with a film team relying on me to deliver before filming started. I remember crying myself to sleep during the project thinking I couldn’t do it. At the end of the project I felt having got through that experience, I could take anything on.

  6. And lastly, what can you share about your upcoming projects?

    Outside of film and TV I’m working on a couple of video games, a large scale light / art installation which is like a breath of fresh air but also a huge challenge !

    I’m scoring a few feature documentaries and series covering very diverse subjects including one about a Japanese game show host, a mountaineer who broke a world record climbing the world’s most dangerous mountains, and Look Away – about the dark side of the rock and roll world and statutory rape of underage teens.

    I’m also scoring a drama which is fun and exciting and a beautiful 6 part landmark BBC series about Tea – yes Tea!

    Interview by Nami Melumad

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