By RACHEL REEVES
For true crime fans, there has certainly been no lack of content lately. A constant and seemingly unceasing stream of books, podcasts, films, documentaries and merchandise recount the dark tales of real-world horror perpetrators of all sizes, shapes and victim counts. However, fans have quickly learned that not all of these endeavors are created equal. While some tend to glorify their villains in an unsettling form of hero-worship, others only begin to scratch the surface by the time end credits roll. For many, striking a balance of honesty, accountability and engaging factual information has proven to be a tricky endeavor indeed.
Quickly proving itself to be one of the better serial killer docu-series out there, JOHN WAYNE GACY: DEVIL IN DISGUISE takes a hard and fascinating look at one of America’s most notorious cases. Recently premiering on Peacock, this newer addition to the true crime genre beautifully conveys the horrifying realities surrounding Gacy and the way those in positions of power allowed his reign of terror to continue. Never letting Gacy himself overshadow the victims and their families, the series takes special pains to strike just the right balance of entertainment and factual information.
One of the ways which the series achieves this is through the incredible music of Tyler Strickland. In 2011, Tyler set aside his life of touring around the world with various bands to focus on original composition work. Talented and versatile, Tyler has since worked on a variety of interesting projects including Netflix’s Trial By Media, the SXSW 2021 Grand Jury Award Nominated doc, The Oxy Kingpins, FX’s upcoming series, Pride and Hulu’s Stephen King inspired series, Castle Rock. Rue Morgue recently had the privilege of chatting with Tyler and we spoke all about his work and what it’s like composing the musical backdrop for a serial killer.
First off, I just wanted to say how truly great this doc is. While there have been a lot of true crime documentaries released lately, JOHN WAYNE GACY: DEVIL IN DISGUISE is really special and in a class of it’s own. How did you first become involved in the project?
The director of the show, Rod Blackhurst is an old friend of mine. We met years and years and years ago on tour when I was in a band and he was touring as a cinematographer for The Fray. We kept in touch for probably 10 years before we started making anything serious together. We had made some short films together and things like that, but he finally got the opportunity for us to work together on something substantial. It was this show! It is something that he had gone pretty deep on with the folks at NBC and he did a lot of research about the story and the whole backstory of John Wayne Gacy in Chicago. When he hit me up about it, it was perfect. It was exactly the type of thing we were looking to work on together.
Music is so important to a project like this because the wrong tone can really send the wrong message. I mean, these are real world events. That said, what was your approach to scoring and how did you settle on a sound for the series?
It’s funny that you say that because you’re right. Some of these scores for these serial killer shows can be…cool. And you’re kind of like, this is a really dark story and this is kind of messed up. We don’t want it to ‘cool.’ But at the same time, there is something cool about using sounds from that era. And that’s what we tried to do with this show. I used quite a bit of vibraphone and things you might hear in music from the ’70s. I used some clarinets because bands from the mid ’70s like Jethro Tull made flutes and clarinets really cool. But, it’s creepy too at the same time. So, I tried to use some of that period stuff. I also created a bunch of different synths and sounds using crystal glasses filled with water that were tuned to different pitches. They were out of tune just a little bit to be a little creepy. Then, we sampled them and used them throughout the score. I think for me, one of the big things as far as the global approach to the score was that I wanted it to be mysterious, investigative and not just a thriller, creepy, slasher horror kind of score. When I think of David Fincher and all of his films and his shows like Mindhunter. Those films take me to a place where it’s all about the mystery. Similar to Stephen King, right? It’s all about the mystery with those guys and that’s what we wanted to do with this show.
In the doc it talks a lot about how Gacy had a Jekyll and Hyde personality where publicly, he presented himself as a normal, upstanding citizen and privately, he was much more disturbed. Your score often seems to mirror that duality really beautifully through your instrumentation. Was that splintered personality the inspiration there?
Exactly. One way that I always like to approach those psychological moments with a character like John Wayne Gacy is I’ll have something that is straightforward like a piano. And maybe it’s playing something that’s inquisitive and thoughtful. But then underneath it is a bed of atmospheric stuff that’s wavering in pitch and kind of out of tune. The juxtaposition of those two things at the same time make you feel like you’re familiar with the character, but there’s something about them that you just can’t trust. We would do that here with a piano piece of music, but then have some strings under it that were wavering in pitch. I also really liked what we got to do with the main title with the opening sequence. It’s very grand and it has this seriously emotional feeling to it. But, it’s also somewhere between sad and beautiful. We really wanted to avoid the idea of ever doing anything beautiful for the show, but there’s something about it that’s just really mysterious and emotional at the same time.
There’s a real balance there and it’s something that some of these true crime docs really seem to struggle with. However, this one seems hyper aware of that important balance and it never lets Gacy’s notoriety overshadow the victims.
I know that when they were editing the show there was some back and forth about, ‘Should we use this interview footage that opens every episode?’ Because, it makes it like it is his show in a way. I think in the context of other documentaries where they maybe aren’t as aware of that balance between the serial killer, victims, and the families of the victims, and they just make it about the fame of the serial killer, it would be too much in that regard. But with this show, we did put a lot of spotlight on the families and the victims. And, that interview footage at the beginning of every episode, that’s never been seen before. It’s really fascinating.
They really use that footage in the right way too. In the end, he ends up really just telling on himself and looking rather pathetic.
Exactly. That’s what we wanted to do with the score and the show. We wanted to show Gacy in his most comfortable environment when the cameras are on him and he’s just spewing out lies. That’s where he’s most calm. And, to really let the audience take all of that in and just realize in their own time that he’s just lying about all of this stuff. To organically catch him in that lie and then shift the perspective using the music and the editing to really bring the hammer down.
You mentioned the editing which I actually wanted to ask you about. When it comes to pacing for a doc, the music and the editing are so crucial to how effective it is. So, from a composing standpoint, how does that effect what you do? Do you start with the big moments and then deconstruct those to fill in the smaller moments? Or do you actually start with the slower moments and build up?
That’s a great question. It really varies depending on what the project is or what the series is. In one like this, we probably start with some of the lower energy moments and scenes and then build up to it. One thing that was really important for me early on in the process was to find a musical theme for Gacy. Then, it’s kind of a matter of just strategically placing that theme throughout the show. In really big moments where we’re really coming down on him, that theme is big. It’s played on strings and with a full orchestra sound. Sometimes we’ll start small to find those melodies and then make big versions of them for the really important scenes. And then on other projects we’ll start with the big ones and take those themes and sprinkle them throughout the more atmospheric scenes in the show. It’s different on every project. It’s wild. And also, some filmmakers don’t really like musical themes. They’re like, ‘We just want everything to be tension in the background.’
For obvious reasons, this doc is really emotionally heavy. These are real stories and real events. Did this project take any sort of emotional or creative toll on you? How do you balance the subject matter and the work?
That’s a really good question. I think when I first started working on this, when Rod first called me, I wanted to get a head start. I wanted to write as much music as possible before the deadlines started coming in and people were just sitting around waiting for music from me. So, I actually got started early and wrote probably an hour and half of music before the show really started editing. And all I had to work off of were some audio interviews of John Wayne Gacy. As inspiration, I literally put them on the speakers in my studio and just played them full volume like, non-stop for 10 hours a day. As I was writing and coming up with sounds and melodies on my piano, that definitely has a way of making you a little crazy. [Laughs] It was interesting though. I really wanted to tap into, ‘Where is he coming from?’ And I think that was a way to do it. To just spend time with his audio and interviews. I think it was important for the show for me to tap into that place. That place where he’s so confident and so calm because the music needs to stay calm and confident. It can’t just be non-stop aggressive thriller music. So that’s how I got into that headspace for this one. And yeah. I had to get out of the studio for a couple days at a time. For me, it’s hiking. It’s going to the beach. Whatever the absolute opposite of sitting in a studio listening to a serial killer talk is probably what I find myself doing. It’s really important to step away when working on projects like this. And listen, I’ve done a lot of documentaries. But it seems like the more captivating ones and the ones that do really well are dark stories. True crime, serial killers, drug dealing, you name it. I’ve done all of them. So, I’ve gotten pretty good at separating my mental space from my work schedule. When I’m out of the studio I don’t think about it.
You also worked with fellow composer Chris Westlake on Season 2 of of the Stephen King inspired show, Castle Rock. What exactly was your role on that project and what was the experience like?
Chris is actually my neighbor which is so amazing and serendipitous. He moved in next door about a year before Season 2 started and we just became really good buds. We have a lot of mutual friends. It’s a small world, the composing world here in L.A. He was pretty overwhelmed, he’s a really busy guy and he needed some help with Castle Rock. It was such a fun opportunity for me to write some stuff I hadn’t done before. And you know, all Stephen King stuff is just so trippy and psychological. It is all about getting inside the head of the characters. That was a huge part of the role of the music in that show. I think mostly I was responsible for creating some weird sounds for the show. Things that you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It was really cool.
For many years you were a professional touring musician. What sparked the transition and attracted you to composing for film and television? Was it always something that interested you or something you kind of fell into?
It was always something I was interested in, but I didn’t know how to go straight from touring as a musician into scoring a John Wayne Gacy series. There was definitely a three or four year window where I was just writing music for whatever needed music. I had friends that were making commercials, that were making indie films and that was more obviously a film scoring role. But I was also looking for opportunities outside of it. I was friends with Alex Blumberg who makes a lot of podcasts and he had me write a lot of music for his podcast back in the day. And then that kind of blew up! I was always just looking for opportunities to write music outside of traditional film and TV opportunities. Once I started getting some of those things I had more opportunities coming in for scoring TV shows. I worked on National Geographic Explorer shows and I was writing world music for Nepal, India and all these places. I thought it was the coolest thing ever! The fact that I got to work from my studio in my house and have my dogs around was so cool. I don’t have to be on tour in a bus traveling around nine months out of the year. It’s kind of the ideal life for me.
You’ve worked on so many different projects. Is there a genre or style you prefer? Or is it the variety that keeps you interested?
I’m always looking for opportunities to write music I’ve never written before. With the exception of like, jazz and the things you really need to study for a long time to be good at. I’m always looking to sharpen the other tools in the box. For me, psychological thrillers and mysterious shows are very interesting. It is always such a fun space to create in. And other than that I’d just say that I love writing string music. Specifically smaller ensembles like string quartets. Those are a real sweet spot for me. I’d love to do a Western like that. I think those are such cool musical opportunities and that’s something I’ve really been trying to get some traction on.
Oh yes. Bring the Western back!
What about a psychological thriller Western!? Technically that’s No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, but there you go. Amazing films, amazing scores.
JOHN WAYNE GACY: DEVIL IN DISGUISE is currently streaming on Peacock. You can also check out more of Tyler’s work on his website and listen to his complete score for the serial killer docu-series on Spotify.