London-based composer Nainita Desai recently crafted the original score for the Netflix true-crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door. The project is one Netflix’s most watched documentary features to date and recounts the 2018 murder of Shannan Watts, which took place in Frederick, CO.
American Murder uses archival footage, including social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages and home video footage to depict the events that occurred
Desai and director Jenny Popplewell decided early on that the film would give Shannan Watts a voice. And despite the delicate subject matter, Desai wanted the score to have a strong, bold character that would help drive the story forward.
Much of the score is built around a string quintet, which was surrounded by electronic elements. Since the story is mainly told from Shannan’s social media documentation and text messages, Desai decided to use found sounds to demonstrate authenticity. She brought in a percussionist to play various bits of handmade percussions and phone tappings on mobile phones with fingers, which she used to create percussion tension rhythms. Combined with strings, they can be heard in “The Letter” scene and the moments the viewer sees text messages on-screen.
“The music brief was to create a score that honored Shannan Watts’ story from the first-hand perspective of the victim, treating it with delicacy and to not portray the murderer as a monster, but to be neutral and understated,” Desai explains. “I had to create a score that sounded like a fairy-tale marriage, so that as the film developed, the music would get darker but still emanate momentum and sensitivity.”
In addition to the phone percussions, Desai also created dark, atonal textures with the sound effects of oil drums, just like those the where the bodies were found.
“Recording the score remotely with the [London Contemporary Orchestra] during lockdown, the engineer would be in his studio, remote controlling via TeamViewer, Source-Connect and Audiomover apps, the mobile rig the musicians had in their homes. We would all communicate via Whatsapp, Zoom and texting – rather apt for this film based around texting and social media!”
Desai adds that instead of a day in a studio, it took a week to record the players, layering them all like a cake.
“Recording the cellos first, 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. The recordings varied a lot acoustically, so it was a huge challenge to edit and mix it all together, but it did produce a unique, intimate sound that we couldn’t have achieved any other way.”