Composer David Murillo Takes Independent Path to Netflix's Top Foreign-Language Show
In fewer than five years since he graduated from Berklee, film composer David Murillo R. B.M. '16 went from being a new arrival to Los Angeles with few connections to landing a job scoring what would become Netflix’s no. 1 foreign-language show, the Mexican crime thriller Who Killed Sara? (Quién Mató a Sara?).
Murillo, who is from Medellín, Colombia, found a path to success in L.A. by sticking close to home, in a sense. The first American feature film he scored, 2020’s Blast Beat, is about a Colombian family moving to the United States. “How they experience that American dream through music was definitely something that was very important to the filmmakers,” Murillo said. And who better to tell that story than a Colombian living out his own American story, one that winds through the Latino community.
The opportunity came about through the wide-ranging networking that Murillo has been doing over the years through attending festivals and film markets. “It was a lot of hanging out, getting yourself out there, especially in the Latino community, because I’m totally confident that ‘inclusion’ is a word that’s currently on everyone’s mind now in L.A.,” he said. “So there’s a lot of attention being brought to diverse stories. Different communities telling their own stories, and I have to use that to my advantage. I feel like a fish in the water with my Latino community because they get me, and we get each other, and we’re all trying to become this community that gives each other opportunities.”
Blast Beat brought Murillo back to the Sundance Film Festival (where a 2016 film he scored, Between the Land and Sea, won two awards). There, he got on Netflix’s radar and was eventually tapped to be the composer for its Mexican film Dad Wanted. He happened to start working with Netflix just as it was experimenting with exposing American audiences to more international content.
When you see a Mexican, when you see a Colombian, when you see a guy from Argentina, in L.A., I think there's this very special thing that happens: we are all Latinos.
“Who Killed Sara? was the first Netflix original series from Latin America that they wanted the world to have access to, and that’s why they dubbed it in eight different languages, to see how well a Latin American concept would actually be received in the world, and it actually did extremely well,” he said. Indeed, it became the platform’s top foreign-language show, and reinforced a trend—seen in events such as the film Parasite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, or songs from Bad Bunny regularly charting—toward a strong U.S. market for culture from outside the Anglosphere.
Though Murillo’s latest projects come out of Mexico, he says he’s able to relate to the culture through the common Latin roots he shares with Mexicans. “It's all about kind of finding those things that bring us together in order to utilize that and include that because, at the end of the day, when you see a Mexican, when you see a Colombian, when you see a guy from Argentina, in L.A., I think there's this very special thing that happens: we are all Latinos,” he said, adding that the priority is to start getting Latino stories told before exploring the differences between Latin American communities. And though he is thankful for his work on Netflix’s Latin American projects, Murillo said his eventual goal is to work on the company’s U.S. originals.
An Independent Path
Since the day he graduated from Berklee, Murillo has had his eye on working for Netflix. Instead of starting out working as an assistant to a more established film scorer, Murillo chose to go the independent route. Though he acknowledges that there is much to be learned as an assistant, he felt that it takes a certain personality to spend years working under someone else. “I had faith in whatever I could do on my own much more so than going the assistant route,” he said.
But being on your own involves a lot of people. It means growing your network, building and maintaining relationships, finding collaborators, and having enough rapport with filmmakers to understand what they want “without actually speaking music but rather really getting to know how they want to communicate...and what makes the strings in their hearts move and vibrate.”
In this business, he said, the importance of managing relationships—of being kind, amenable, and personable—cannot be overstated: “The last thing you have to do is write good music. The first 10 things that you have to learn are all about the business, all about handling people or a team, [and] also communicating effectively with others.”
Another essential part of being an independent film composer is staying motivated when you’re your own boss. Murillo says he struggled his first year after college to stay intrigued and creatively driven. He found that having a routine to keep him accountable for what he wanted to achieve was helpful. “So many composers have tried the independent route and they face what we all have faced, and it’s ‘I don’t have any projects, so what do I do?’” The key, he said, is working when no one is seeing you and finding ways, inside or outside of film scoring, to keep your artistry nourished.
But for now, Murillo is plenty busy. His next project, also for Netflix Latin America, is a reggaeton series out in early 2022, and he’s working on the next season of Who Killed Sara? Not bad for a musician who ventured out on his own just a few years ago. “I decided to go the other way, just to try my luck, and so far it has worked out, knock on wood,” he said.