Sundance Spotlight: Keegan DeWitt

The interweaving of emotional turmoil between two Brooklyn families is the backdrop backdrop for Golden Exits, the third project on which composer Keegan DeWitt has collaborated  writer-director Alex Ross Perry. The film, which screens at Sundance, features an cast of indie all-stars that is bound to draw significant attention: Chloë Sevigny, Jason Schwartzman, Mary Louise Parker and Adam Horowitz, for starters. DeWitt has his own indie cred, having provided music for a total of eight films that made it to Sundance in the past four year — 2014’s jazz-inflected Listen Up Philip, loosely inspired by the life of novelist Philip Roth, and 2015’s Queen of the Earth, a lake house frightener starring Elizabeth Moss for which DeWitt drew praise for his dissonant score — both directed by Perry. DeWitt’s top-grossing project to date was the sci-fi film Project Almanac, produced by Michael Bay. But the 34-year old Portland native isn’t chasing box office earnings. The lead singer and songwriter for the band Wild Cub is happy to continue experimenting, lending his talents to works as diverse as the Euro-rap adventure Morris From America to the song-infused I’ll See You in My Dreams. DeWitt took a few moments before heading for Sundance where he will participate in a BMI Roundtable to to talk to MaxTheTrax.

What was your general approach to this project?

Composer Keegan DeWitt

Composer Keegan DeWitt

Keegan DeWitt: We were excited to take a film that is essentially an exploration of people’s lack of love and disconnection and score it as though it were a sweeping romance. We started with some raw solo piano sketches that I had laid down and felt really excited about. The solo piano stuff felt really stoked with longing and also had a distinct New York feeling to me, maybe from spending my 20s in Brooklyn and falling in and out of love there. Eventually, we experimented with really trying to up the scale of those pieces so they almost felt like they could be used in The English Patient or something. We wanted to have that wide range, small intimate piano sketches that then transformed into massive Hollywood orchestral recordings. Alex and I were really interested in the idea of trying to compose music that felt as romantic and cinematic as possible.

What was the most unusual decision you made, or biggest chance you feel you took, to achieve your desired result with this project?

Keegan DeWitt: It’s always challenging to try and tackle massive orchestral scores with indie budgets for sure (laughs). But I think it was also just a tight rope walk in general trying to see if we could in fact these giant cues against what is a pretty intimate film about a few couples in Brooklyn. We ended up somewhere in the middle in the end, and I think it actually ended up for the best. It’s important that you not let a cheeky idea take over. It’s a great way to begin the process, but also a testament to Alex and my process that we can sort of revise our approach as we go. In the end, the mix helps to make the music less provocative, and in many ways, a bit more like you’re reading a novel or something cool.

What an interesting way to describe it. Composers come aboard at different stages in a project. At what point were you brought in on this? 

Keegan DeWitt: Alex and I have been collaborating since Listen Up Philip, and have got a great thing going. For someone with such a specific vision of things, he really grants me a lot of respect and endorses me to fully commit to my own inspiration early on in the process. He’s very refreshing in that, from our earliest collaborations, he’s always really wanted to embrace my involvement as a unique part of the creative process. I work with a lot of directors who have already pre-decided what music they think might work best for the film and it’s very tough to surprise them or perhaps guide them in a different direction that could be exciting. Although I’m sure Alex has plenty of music ideas, I really appreciate his trust in me. His editor, Robert Greene, is also very musical. So usually the process is triangular in that way. It’s the three of us all getting inspired and working with the cut and music in unison. It’s exciting in that I’ll often just send a large folders of music, and they almost treat it as footage. Instead of “this is interesting, how can we give notes to change it” they treat it more like “this is what we captured, what’s it telling us? How does this inform our cut?” That’s pretty cool!

On an independent film there’s a lot of pressure to economize, which requires quite a bit of invention, and reliance on prerecorded libraries. How did you bring your score to life? 

Keegan DeWitt: These recordings, like much of what I do, are hybrids of real pianos, fake pianos, real string players, fake string players… and beyond that… a lot of me taking sounds into the computer and treating them like I’m making a scrap book. I chop stuff up, repitch it, stretch it out, slow it down, etcetera. Often people seem to want to create a division between classic orchestral composers and people who primarily work on computers. For me, it’s a mix. Samples can sound lifeless and boring, so I’ll mess them up or use them in strange ways or process them through a cassette tape. But sometimes, a cello recorded in the nicest studio with a perfect performance can also sound limited in its emotion, so I’ll do the same there. It’s always just a question of how to make the emotion really palpable, and obviously, budget constraints.

What kind of parameters were you working with on this film?

Keegan DeWitt: With Golden Exits, Alex and I were actually writing and prepping music for a much larger project that was taking too long to get going. Alex was getting frustrated and decided to just go and shoot this thing, which I appreciated. Our budget, in that way, was very very limited. That being said, a lot of my job is to be collecting sounds, hunting down the best sounds, all the time, even between projects. So I had sort of already been thinking of doing this larger orchestral romantic thing and sketching ideas, asking players to send me some tracking and stuff. I had already been sort of stewing on the idea. When it came time to tackle the larger stuff, it just took me being as resourceful as possible. Calling in favors from some players, but more than anything, just knowing how to ninja as much stuff as possible in the computer. Lots of layering and most importantly, lots of processing in terms of adding the right compression and signal chain to the pianos, to the string performances, so they feel gritty and real, even if it’s only a certain number of true players.

How about the mix?

Keegan DeWitt: I do all the basic mixes myself, which is not how I would do it if the budget were larger. It was then taken to Fall On Your Sword, who do all of Alex’s films.

And you’re based in Nashville? Where you still find time to occasionally perform and record music with your band, Wild Cub?

Keegan DeWitt: The composing takes precedence, because its my chosen career, and I love it. The projects are all so different, and there’s a lot of freedom. But at the same time, it’s amazing to be able to reach someone on the other side of the world with a song. “Thunder Clatter,” from our album Youth, charted in the UK, and recently popped back into the top 15 on alt radio. So it’s fun. We’re just finishing a new record which will hopefully be out soon.

Image result for golden exits

Mary Louise Parker and Chloë Sevigny in Golden Exits (Photo: Sean Price Williams)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.