How Composers Create The Sound of a Killer

By  · Published on April 24th, 2015


Why would an accused murderer want someone to ask them questions they probably do not want to answer? Doing so did not work out so well for Robert Durst, the subject of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which seemed to end with Durst admitting his involvement in the crimes he was accused of and is now back on trial.

True crime stories like The Jinx are a delicate balance as the subject, Durst, tries to tell his story and the director, Andrew Jarecki, tries to trap him in his lies. The Jinx may be a docuseries, but it still needs music to keep it from feeling like an emotion-less courtroom transcription. But the role of the music in projects like these is a tricky one. It is necessary to keep the narrative flowing, but (more importantly) it should not overly influence the raw emotions the project is attempting to capture.

The Jinx may not have ended the way Durst expected (or intended), but it did prove one thing – that there seems to be some undeniable urge for those accused to tell their side of their story (regardless of the consequences).

Out in theaters now, True Story tells the “true story” of Christian Longo (James Franco) who in 2002 was arrested for the murder of his wife and three children and was pretending to be Michael Finkle (Jonah Hill), a journalist for the New York Times, when found. This brought Longo and Finkle face-to-face as Finkle tried to figure out why Longo would choose to impersonate him and Longo saw Finkle as an outlet to tell his side of the story.

The draw of projects like The Jinx and True Story is the promise of getting an inside look at these killers, but these projects also walk a fine line of giving viewers the opportunity to get to the truth while still telling a compelling narrative and music becomes the lynchpin that holds it all together.

The most memorable piece of music featured in The Jinx is the docuseries’ opening title sequence set to Eels “Fresh Blood.” The song has a pulsating beat and ominous lyrics (“Sweet baby, I need fresh blood”), but it is the sudden howl Mark Oliver Everett lets out (set to the flash of a photo of Durst’s now deceased wife, Kathleen) that makes the song the perfect accompaniment for a series now known for its surprising twists and turns. The Jinx is full of ominous score (from composers West Dylan Thordson and John Kusiak) that helps move the narrative from the raw interview footage with Durst to flashbacks and reenactments, but “Fresh Blood” is an adrenaline injection that works to brand the beginning of each new “chapter” of this story.

Unlike The Jinx, True Story is a narrative so the use of music is more expected than in a docuseries. However the one trait both projects share is how they strip out the music whenever the two leads (whether that be Durst and Jarecki or Longo and Finkle) are speaking one-on-one. This lack of music allows these conversations to be the focal point. In the True Story clip, the music fades away as soon as Franco and Hill sit down together for the first time, allowing the focus to remain on their conversation. There are so many different elements at play during these conversations that adding music would be an unnecessary distraction. The words these men are saying to one another, and how these words are expressed, works as the true emotion in these scenes.

Variety’s Peter Debruge noted in his review of the film that True Story is “given added heft from Marco Beltrami’s near-constant yet non-invasive score.” For projects like True Story, the music needs to be constant, but should avoid being invasive. Debruge goes on to add that, “the music invites a depth of introspection” which can be heard at the beginning of the clip as Hill’s Finkle waits to meet Longo for the first time. Beltrami’s score is haunting and almost entrances you into a sense of calm despite the anxiety Finkle is clearly feeling in this moment. It eases you in to the moment these two men sit down together and adds to the moments of reflection after this first meeting as Finkle finds himself getting deeper into Longo’s web.

While the music in both The Jinx and True Story is ominous and foreboding, it also works as a safety blanket because it allows you some respite from focusing on what is being said on screen. Having to sharply pay attention to the cat-and-mouse game going on between the accused and the interviewer naturally puts one on edge so when the music kicks in it works as an almost release when you can let the notes and melodies do the feeling for you while you try and process what you are seeing and hearing. Durst and Longo are hard to define, but one thing is clear – they are men who should not be trusted and the nagging nature of the music makes sure that feeling is ever present, regardless of what may be said on screen.

Music usually helps to emphasize the feeling of a scene, but stories like The Jinx and True Story aim to avoid additional influences – their intent is to force the people at the center of these stories to stand on their own with nothing to cling to so the truth can (hopefully) be revealed. The music in each project certainly helps keep that unsure feeling alive, but it is the moments when there is no music and you are left only with words that things really start to feel uneasy.

The Jinx is available on HBO and True Story is in theaters now.