Interview with British Composer, Nainita Desai…

Not so long ago I was channel surfing one evening through the 10 lifetimes worth of movies seemingly available for me to watch, and yet I seemed unable to decide upon one – you know how it goes.

After some time I stumbled upon a horror film previous unbeknownst to me, a supernatural thriller set in India, Darkness visible. Let me throw a little synopsis your way……

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DARKNESS VISIBLE…….

Darkness Visible is a supernatural thriller set in India. London-raised Ronnie is distraught when his mother, Suleka, suddenly goes missing and then mysteriously turns up in a Kolkata hospital. Ronnie follows, discovering an extended family his mother never talked about, and a strange feeling stirring inside him as he visits his “homeland” for the first time. 

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Before Ronnie can unravel what brought her to India, Suleka dies in an apparent ritual killing, with more deaths pointing to a series of past murders that stopped 28 years ago when Suleka left India with baby Ronnie. As the darkness within Ronnie grows and the murders reach their zenith, all roads lead to the feared witch of Kolkata’s insane asylum – Rakhee.

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I must admit that the initial intrigue I felt about seeing a traditional western-style horror feature set in India was quickly supplanted by an awareness that this film was, well, actually rather good. Yes, there are occasions when the dialogue and narrative are somewhat stilted and clunky, but in truth I really enjoyed what turned out to be genuinely inventive film containing it’s fair share of thrills and chills.

However, the thing that REALLY resonated while watching the film was the incredible and emotive musical score than underpins the whole thing. Any horror worth it’s proverbial salt lives or dies on the basis its score – In fact there are countless horror tropes that are lifted to a whole new level sometimes purely on the basis of the score. You will all have personal favourites of your own I’m sure.

So you can imagine how delighted I was after a little Internet stalking research that the score’s composer, Nainita Desai agreed to answer some of my probing and incisive questions about her art.

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ABOUT NAINITA DESAI

Working at the forefront of a new wave of emerging artists, RTS and BIFA nominated composer Nainita is a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and is the International Film Music Critics Association Breakthrough Composer of 2020. Shehas scored countless BAFTA, Oscar, Emmy acclaimed productions. The PRS placed Desai at No 2 in their Top 10 female writers whose work was most used in Film & TV through 2018. She has also been awarded Best Original Music at the Music+Sound Awards 2019 and Naturvision Film Festival 2019.


Nainita’s most recent feature releases include OSCAR 2020 nominated and BAFTA, Cannes, BIFA, SXSW winning feature doc For Sama which was also nominated for Best Music at the BIFAs 2019. Other recent projects includeUntamed Romania, the most successful Romanian non-fiction film of 2018, WW2 period drama Enemy Within, psychological horror Darkness Visible [BFI], and Interactive game / video game Telling Lies one of the top critically acclaimed releases of 2019by Annapurna Interactive including Scala Radio’s Top 5 Video Game Scores of the Year and Music+Sound Award winning Title track.


Her 2020 projects include feature film The Reason I Jump(Sundance World Cinema Doc Audience Award winner), upcoming Netflix original series Bad Boy Billionairesand innovative Quibi | BBC Studios series Fierce Queens.

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THE INTERVIEW BIT…..

Q) Before becoming involved with Darkness Visible would you class yourself as a fan of horror? If so, what movies have particularly affected you?

I’ve always been a huge fan of horror! The first horror films I saw – were The Evil Dead, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Shining and Don’t Look Now which is so very atmospheric.Cronenberg’s Body horror films such as Dead Ringers and Scannersreally stayed with me for years and had a huge influence on me, as did Nic Roeg’s imagery such as the hooded figure in red in Don’t Look Now.

Strong imagery from horrors were incredibly potent for me such as the 3 headed dog in The Thing and those creepy hands in Repulsion.I’m a huge fan of Alien and Psycho, the opening flute motif in Alien and those piercing strings in Psycho had a huge effect on me and opened my ears and eyes to the power of music in films.

More recently I have been drawn to films such as Under The Shadowand Babadook. They both created subtle unique atmospheres.What attracts me to horror is how it can reflect the extremes of the human condition and offers a powerful insight into the human psyche when confronted with extreme highly stressed situations. 

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Q) What specifically about Darkness Visible attracted you to this project?

I have always wanted to score a horror and I felt I could create a unique ‘sound world’ for this film. It was an opportunity to do something very different, to turn convention on it’s head a little. I saw the proof of concept (a 10 minute taster) which was so visually atmospheric, and I was instantly drawn into the underworld of the city. I loved the colours and textures of the visuals.

I am also interested in the human psyche – what makes people tick, plus I have also never scored a film in this genre, so I relished the chance to fuse a semblance of ethnicity into the score to reflect Kolkatta and India without resorting to clichés – something I’ve wanted to do for a long while.

I was particularly inspired by films such as The Shining, Angel Heart, and Don’t Look Now – real classics of psychological horror – that look at the unravelling and mental descent of the main characters and in the case of Don’t Look Now – the ‘under the surface’ underworld portrayal of a busy bustling city. I used sound sources pooling from Indian classical traditions, the female voice and analogue synths as well as ancient 16th century stringed instruments like the Viola de Gamba and Sarangi.

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Q) Horror movies, perhaps more than any other genre, can be taken to a whole new level by the score. What specific horror films have resonated with you on a purely musical level?

Horror films and scores tap into our primal fears.

The Omen by Jerry Goldsmith. The use of choir is so very effective.Just listening to the music on it’s own is a terrifying experience ! Also overlooked is the ‘family theme’ played on strings it is a beautifully scored antidote to the horror in the film.

Psycho is one of my all time favourite scores – it’s potency is incredible and is such a strong character driving the film along. Particularly with the kinetic energy of the opening scene. It triggers the fear of being chased by something terrifying. 

The Exorcist – The music didn’t particularly scare me but it was such a bold distinctive choice and is incredibly memorable and distinctive. I recall outside of it’s film context, the music had incredible impact in theworld. I recall everyone was playing it everywhere through the 80’s and 90’s.

Under The Skin is a recent score that added another dimension to the film. The juxtaposition of the handmade wooden percussion and sliding strings are utterly unique and so effective.

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Q) I’ve read that you and the director didn’t want a conventional horror score for the film. What were you meaning by this?

Neil the director wanted a score that was ‘inherently evil’. At the same time he didn’t want atonal orchestral music ala Pendericki – whose music has influenced so much conventional horror scores over the decades. We wanted to make it much more cerebral and introspective, representing the inner evil that was lurking deep within Ronnie’s soulthat grows and envelopes him the deeper he immerses himself into the sub-culture of the city. 

The music helps illustrate the unveiling of the layers of his character. We didn’t want to resort to conventional horror scores relying upon shock effects and orchestral stings. The human voice in the score acted as a siren that draws Ronnie deep into the underworld. To represent the ancient witchcraft and séances I integrated the sounds of the baroque medieval violin which is a precursor to the modern violin. 

In terms of ethnicity I wanted a sense of the place but didn’t want to resort to clichéd instruments such as the sitar or tablas. So I used the sarangi played by prominent musician Sabir Khan. It has a very haunting sound as though it belongs to another world –evoking the calling of the spirits. I also recorded a lot of manipulated organic sound sources such as the prepared double bass and the halo hand pan..

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Q) In terms of the creative process bending composing the music – how much were you involved before, during and after filming?

I was brought on very early on in the project. It’s a much more immersive way of working. Being able to get deep into the character is always an interesting journey. 

I had conversations with the director who gave me great insight into the two main characters. The director had shot a proof of concept which I scored. While the crew were filming I wrote a lot of sketches and themes trying different approaches to the main theme. I found a theme that represented Rakhi, and also a theme that represented the pulse of the city. 

Eventually we settled upon an atmosphere that then formed the foundation of the entire score. The team experimented with the musical ideas which I then developed further. I would have a lot of feedback and discussions where I had to capture the essence of Ronnie and his internal transformation.

The Yamadutta – had his own ‘sound’ that had to be utterly terrifying and I created many atmospheric motifs and textures. I used the immediacy and emotional quality of the human voice to represent Rakhi – a powerful, raw organic element that would hopefully give it a visceral quality, almost like a siren calling – that seduces and lures Ronnie deeper and deeper.

Later on however, as the score has developed, we found that it was more effective to use the voice sparingly and I gravitated towards a more contemporary, electronic atonal soundscape with elements of strings, electric guitar and voices for the more emotive aspects.The guitar is the western instrument that connects you to Ronnie’s western foundations.

The city also has it’s own rhythm so in some instances, the score evolves out of the natural sounds of the city such as the revolving ceiling fan, or the bell of a rickshaw, when it transforms into an incessant heartbeat weighing heavily on Ronnie.

I also like what I call “happy accidents” – when music you write away from the visuals is laid against a scene for which it wasn’t originally intended, you gain a difference connection and outlook on the scene and it brings out a hidden sub text and meaning.

I worked right through the entre edit. Having temped the entire film with my guide tracks, we had a final spotting session where I then scored the whole film adapting and re-working each cue. The process evolved in a very organic way and was a very immersive experience. 

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Q) Are there any genre’s that you haven’t worked on that you would specifically like to work on?

I’ve written everything from musicals to nature films to docs to video games, trailers and commercials. I am open to all types of genres and styles though projects that gravitate towards the darker side of the human spectrum tend to resonate a lot with me.

I also like to work on innovative projects – I’m currently scoring for a series for Quibi, a new online streaming subscription service creating high end content for mobile phones, and last year I scored Telling Lies, an interactive feature film where the music is non-linear and adaptive to what is happening on screen. Projects that utilise music in interesting way with new working processes and techniques that are creating new challenges are always inspiring.

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Q) When composing a film score, how important is it to you as an artist that the music is able to ‘stand on it’s own’ & be listened to as a separate entity?

The most important thing is the score needs to serve the film. However, I also try my best to also ensure that the music works as standalone music.

When writing theme and ideas I will sometimes write a full length version that can then edited be down for the film when worked to picture. However the long versions can then also work for the soundtrack release so the answer is both, depending on who the audience is.

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Q) Is the creative process for you the same regardless of the source material you are creating music for?

If I’m scoring for mainstream TV then I don’t have the luxury of much time to write away from the visuals. It depends on the schedule and when I’m brought in. I’m a very visually-inspired person anyway so the director may give me a brief of what they like or dislike. We will have discussions about things that inspire us and gradually out of those conversations, an approach will emerge. 

When writing, ideas may form when I am doing the least musical activity such as shopping or taking a shower !

Regards my creative process, my main instrument is the keyboard and my main software of choice is Logic Pro. These days, film composers pretty much have the same tools and we all have access to the same sound libraries, so we have to find ways of standing out from the crowd and creating a unique score.

I like to be brought onto a project as early as possible and do as much research as I can around the subject before the edit starts if possible.Finding a conceptual approach in collaboration with the director helps me get to the heart of the story.

I’ll occasionally write ideas from the script or at least away from the visuals, which can be quite a liberating way of writing. Allowing for the process of experimentation, I experience at times what I call “happy accidents”- when you write music away from the visuals and lay it against a scene for which it wasn’t originally intended, you gain a different connection and outlook on the story, and it brings out a hidden sub-text and meaning that can be a pleasant surprise. 

But I’m also often brought on just when the edit has started so have to work under a lot of time pressure. I will get sent rough scenes and cuts and so the pace, tone, style and look of a film will immediately inspire me and I go backwards and forwards with the team up until the final mix.

I find that I stay creatively fresh by writing in different musical styles across various genres and not repeating myself. 

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Q) You’ve worked in British television for over two decades scoring countless BAFTA, Oscar, Emmy acclaimed productions. Do you have a favourite piece of work?

My current projects tend to be my favourite projects ! I’m very proud of my recent scores for For Sama and Untamed Romania.

For Sama is certainly one of the most unique and important films I have ever been involved in. I felt this responsibility to do the film and Waad’s life story justice, to tell the story through music in the most true and authentic way possible. The music had to capture the onslaught of angst, fear, tragedy, hope and feeling of pathos that was prevalent. It’s a minimalist score that supports Waad’s journey in a very subtle, and poignant way.

It was created using electronics, piano, strings and a Syrian violinist. The edginess and soulfulness of his playing perfectly captured the aching heart of the film and it’s been a very moving experience to see the film and music resonate with audiences. 

Untamed Romania is a theatrical feature film journeying into Romania’s astounding wildlife. The score was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It was my first opportunity to write for a live symphony orchestra and a dream come true. Something I really relished! I wanted to take the viewer on an emotional journey throughout the film with varied musical colours and textures. I developed a lyrical thematic score using melodies to pull the film together.

The score had to evoke the magical fairy tale feel of Transylvania with it’s magical forests and it was an opportunity to bring out a different side to my creative voice.

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Q) What are the future plans for Nainita Desai?

I have a few projects being released soon.

My latest feature is The Reason I Jump that world premiered at Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award prize. It will be coming to cinemas in the UK later this year. The film is based on the best-selling book that was written about twelve years ago by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy who is non-verbal autistic. It’s a very immersive film that makes the audience feels what Naoki experiences as an autistic boy. The soundscape was mixed in Dolby Atmos / 360 sound and is a blend of sound design, found sounds, raw acoustic instruments and the human voice.

I have scored Fierce Queens, a 15 part natural history series for QUIBI, a new streaming platform made specifically for mobile devices and created by Dreamworks co-founder and former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that launched in April. Each film is 10mins long focussing on a different female species in the animal kingdom. 

Bad Boy Billionaires is a Netflix Original series coming soon about the scams that some notorious famous billionaires carried out for years, conning millions of people out of their money. It’s exciting, dynamic, slick and quite a story !

I’m also planning an album of music accompanied by a film experience of the music that I’m putting together. I can’t talk about it very much at the moment but something I’m very excited about !

CONTACT FOR NAINITA…

I would like to thank Nainita for taking time out of what I know is a hectic schedule to answer my questions.

You can find out more about Nainita Desai RIGHT HERE.

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