Elizabeth Moss in "Queen of Earth"

Interview: Composer Keegan DeWitt on Creating the Sounds of the Summer at the Movies

It’s a busy time for Keegan DeWitt. This time of year always is for the composer, working with filmmakers preparing films to submit to Sundance. But this particular year, even in spite of the chameleonic quality of his work, moviegoers are likely to have taken notice since he has had no less than three films in theaters this summer — the Blythe Danner-Sam Elliott romance “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the Cobie Smulders pregnancy comedy “Unexpected” and “Queen of Earth” featuring Elizabeth Moss losing her grip on reality.

“It’s good,” said DeWitt, who is also hard at work on a new album with his band Wild Cub. “You’re trying to finish three or four things at once, but this is good.”

There’s a reason DeWitt is so in demand. Ever since receiving a panicked call from his high school classmate Aaron Katz asking if he could score his first narrative feature “Dance Party, USA” after a surprise acceptance into SXSW in 2006, DeWitt has been one of the film world’s most innovative thinkers when it comes to scoring. His ongoing collaboration with Katz alone has produced wildly different forms of musical accompaniment, whether it was the jangly foreboding of his score to the mystery “Cold Weather,” set in the duo’s native Portland, or more recently, the seductive synth-heavy soundtrack of the Icelandic octogenarian road comedy “Land Ho!,” which Katz co-directed with Martha Stephens.

However, as DeWitt has accrued more ongoing relationships with filmmakers, many of whom don’t tend to use anyone else after they’ve worked with him whether it’s “This is Martin Bonner” director Chad Hartigan, “Life According to Sam” co-directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, or now “I’ll See You in My Dreams”’ Brett Haley or “Queen of Earth”’s Alex Ross Perry, his sense of musical adventurousness only seems to grow. He deploys a wrenchenspiel, a customized instrument made up of tuned wrenches, to punctuate Moss’ mental breakdown in “Queen of Earth,” while a human chorus gives voice to the swirl of thoughts inside the head of Smulders’ soon-to-be mother in “Unexpected.”

DeWitt has a way of bringing out the distinctive quality in the characters his music accompanies    and feeding off the wilder impulses of daring filmmakers, likely stemming from the fact that his background is as much in film as it is in music. During a rare break in his schedule, he took the time to reflect on his career thus far and this particular moment in it as well as the constant reinvention that keeps him going.

Keegan DeWittSince you were working with Kris Swanberg for the first time, let’s start with your work on “Unexpected.” How did that collaboration come about?

I knew Kris very abstractly. We were migrating around in the same circles of people and she just called me and asked, “Would you be interested [in “Unexpected”]? And I’m always eager to work with female filmmakers in general. It’s not as common, sadly, but it’s a lot more rewarding for me [because] they have a really interesting point of view, especially as storytellers. I knew Kris was directing and she wrote it with another woman, then the producer Andrea Roa was also a woman.

Also, Kris is just a very cool person. The script was really great and what impressed me about her, talking with her on the phone, was her attitude, which was essentially like, “I only work with people who I enjoy working with and are nice people.” It seems like a simple, obvious thing to say, but you spend a lot of your time in the film world dealing with people who are difficult or too intense or whatever it is. I just appreciated this from the very beginning. She made it clear that she wanted to have a peaceful and really creative, cool and positive working atmosphere. I was glad to do that.

Am I mistaken or was “Unexpected” the first time you used voices for part of the score?

Yeah, I did it on two things this year.  “I’ll See You in My Dreams” has the song that I wrote for Martin Starr to sing in it and there’s a version of that I sing over the end credits, which happened because it was asked for in the script. I did it out of necessity more than anything – another instrument to use.

So much for me is about trying to key into new instruments. Any time I pick up a project, I initially start to wonder, what can we do here, instrumentation-wise? That’ll give this a specific point of view. With [“Unexpected,”], it was interesting because it’s a mix between heavier piano, loopy and atmospheric things, then very organic, home-recorded acoustic guitars and vocals that I tried to mix to sound relatively amateurish.

Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner in "I'll See You in My Dreams"That song you write for Martin’s character in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” winds up being the crux of that film. Was that a challenge in addition to creating the score?

No. Ironically enough, Wild Cub is in the process of writing and recording the next record right now. Sometimes at that moment that can be very difficult. It’s hard to write a pop song with good lyrics, good structure. That’s a lot less improvisational in nature for some reason for me. Every once in a while, you luck into that song where you write it in 30 minutes, record it, and it’s done. I wish they could all be like that and the song for Brett’s film was.

It’s another perfect example of limited means and if you employ them right. I knew I had to do that on some instrument that could be performed by an amateur – in this case, a ukulele. The [chord progressions] were simple and repetitive, but still when he performs, it’s got this depth to it. It was great to start from that restriction because it had to be these three chords more or less. From there, it just was able to write itself.

Brett also said you sent him a perfect opening cue that became the foundation for everything else. Did you actually have a plan in mind when you sent in that cue?

No. I usually try and start by sending people five or six things and letting them all be a little bit different, so I can try to clue into the project that way. Brett had a really specific idea for the tone of his movie – he felt a self-awareness about it every being too sentimental or wistful, which I think is well-founded. There was definitely some stuff [like that in] what I had given him, but my idea was there would be a broader spectrum and moments of focus, which was where you’d put the more intimate, heartfelt stuff. At some point, he pulled those back and asked for more of the broad spectrum stuff.

Actually, some of that stuff ended up going in “Unexpected” or at least the sparks for it. There’s a really touching sex scene in that movie where it’s just an acoustic guitar. That’s a cue that wasn’t the exact queue that I had sent to Brett, but a similar construction that I thought was interesting. Just this acoustic guitar with basic changes. That’s the one benefit of doing multiple projects at once. You can kind of reappropriate impulses that you’re excited about.

Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean in "Unexpected"You actually seem to refrain from having an aural signature. Is it important to do something different each time out?

Yeah. If really wanted to be business-savvy, I would be one of those composers where every single one of my scores would sound exactly the same. It probably would be easier to get work that way, but I like to feel like the legacy I would have is my collaborations with artists. I have a band parallel to all this [composing]. The idea of getting to create music is not the exciting thing for me. It’s getting to do it in collaboration with someone else creatively.

A huge part of the project is linking up with whoever the director is and trying to figure out a cool language that we can speak. The most important part of that is being totally selfless. A lot of times I’ll give things to Alex Ross Perry and his editor [Robert Greene] – all the different stems and pieces so that can feel freedom to cut things up, rearrange them, and create their own cues out of cues that happened elsewhere. I feel like that’s where the real excitement can kind of start to happen. At this point, I’m doing enough movies that just sitting down and scoring a movie is not the ultimate thing. I’d rather have some unique fingerprint from a collaboration.

You’ve said before that you actually think your work for Wild Cub is more cinematic because you’re charged with creating an entire soundscape whereas in film, music is just one element. Do you find that going between those two worlds is complementary?

When I watch a film, if I really enjoy it and connecting to it, I want a score to be there as little as possible because usually that means that the film is succeeding without the score and that’s always a really great, healthy place to begin from as a composer. The absence of score is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the presence of score. This is true of classical music or even pop creations given the right construction. What’s really interesting is to be able to create a base and minimalism in terms of the score. That, in itself, sounds a little hypocritical of me to say since I did “Cold Weather” and other things like that, which are pretty busy scores, but I like to have that as the place that I’m starting from.

I feel like there is a specific type of score that exists that’s done really well by a lot of people and it exists in Hollywood, essentially as an entire machine of creating scores like that. For me, it’s about linking with the director and figuring out how to make something that feels really artisanal. It’s couture. It’s made specifically for this thing.

I wanted to ask about “Cold Weather,” which seemed like a breakthrough in terms of taking unconventional instruments or sounds and creating a score from it. Did you feel it was?

It was definitely a turn towards me trying to take the work I was doing a lot more seriously. When we did Aaron [Katz]’s first movie, it was like I was just the only person he knew who knew music at all. We recorded some crappy piano demos in our living room when we were teenagers. What I’m actually the most proud of with “Cold Weather” and what I carried on as a really useful lesson in my career is how valuable it is to make the limitations that you have a strength for yourself. We were in a situation where a lot the sounds on that score were  facilitated by the fact we didn’t have a budget to have a huge orchestra. How can we do this and make it as interesting as possible? [The answer was to] use music as a totally non-musical thing – make it a rhythmic thing.

Since Aaron and I were close friends, that’s also the first time where it was ideal in that we were scoring and cutting the film sitting right next to each other in a room in Brooklyn. We’d be throwing files back and forth and watching things instantly and changing things. Ever since then, that has been the ideal for how I’d like to be able to collaborate with filmmakers rather than them sitting with a film with a bunch of temp music, then [telling me how they want it] to sound like that or having to score the movie totally cold after the fact.

On your two other recent films, Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” and Brett Haley’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” you’re actually working with directors for a second time. Did the dynamic, in fact, change?

Alex and I get along really well somehow. We’re very different people, but we link really well and we a mutual admiration for what each other does. Also in that, there’s a difference there. You find so often in a lot of art forms, especially in film, that people are hiring you to edit or score or act in a movie and really what they want you to do is recreate whatever they have in their mind – they already have a perception of what you’re going do to for them, and for me it’s only interesting if it has to be compromised and improvised around whatever I [bring] as a unique voice as a composer.

Alex will just [say],”Send me some stuff,” I will, and we work from there rather than having a temp score in there. It helped that did “Listen Up Phillip” – I got the call when the movie was due in three weeks and he needed an entire improvised Jazz score recorded, so it was this huge leap of faith that he picked me. The fact that we accomplished that together in such a crunch created this trust between us. Alex and I are working on three different things right now because of that.

Katherine Waterston and Elizabeth Moss in "Queen of Earth"There’s an instrument in “Queen of Earth” — a wrenchenspiel — that seems pretty obscure. How do you even stumble upon something like that?

I’m always looking for anything that can serve as something both melodic and rhythmic at the same. That’s a perfect example of that, especially when you try and dampen the mallets. It’s never a ding.  As soon as you have drums or big rhythm in a film score, suddenly it becomes like “Avatar.” It creates these epic stakes. My ongoing challenge, no matter what the project is, is to find things that can derive the score rhythmically that are not drums. Mallets are a great example. I used strings in “Cold Weather” a lot. Helmets are good stuff. I’ve always got to have that on my radar in terms of things that I’m looking out to try and bring in my arsenal of stuff to use.

With “Queen of Earth,” the wrenchenspiel was something that sounded broken, which I liked, and has this identity to it that was very childlike, sing-songy and also a little amateur and beat-up. That was actually part of a much larger cue – this is a good example of working with Alex and Robert Greene, Alex’s editor. In the very beginning of the movie when it flashes over the water, you hear a bunch of clarinets and horns washing things under some of the bells in there. The cue was initially six minutes and it was a long, long build, almost like something you’d listen as a overture for ballet. I gave them that with all the stems separated out. By the time, we started getting an assembly cut together, Robert had used the initial cue but yanked out those bells, so it was like “Okay, where can I use these?” That’s how he created this insistent loop that happens a lot through the early part of the movie.

There was a time you wanted to be an actor. Do any of those impulses for character end up helping you create scores?

Yeah. Initially, I went to film school for writing and directing. Acting was just the next exploration of that. I was just always excited about film in general. After two years of doing acting, I felt like, “Thank you, I’ll be letting myself out now.” I do feel like that’s why all the scores are so different and why it’s so collaboration-based. My instincts and inspiration for working on a project is the love of film in general. It’s not from music.

I also always really loved subtext. My tastes in filmmaking was more Antonioni-esque, and in playwriting, Chekhov and the idea of voicing the intangible somehow even though it’s not explicitly written on the page. I just lucked into the fact that score can perfectly serve that function, which is saying the unsaid in a scene. I was just privileged enough to luck into that and be able to appropriate all the trades that drew me into filmmaking initially, which is [finding] this intangible thing in the air that you can’t quite put your finger on.

“Unexpected”, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Queen of Earth” are all now open in theaters and available on VOD.

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