An interview with the film composer Keegan DeWitt

Best known for his work on the hit US TV series Divorce, the comedy Listen Up Philip and The Hero, award winning film composer Keegan DeWitt talks to Mandy News about his latest work on Hearts Beat Loud and how he got into composing. 

2nd January 2019
/ By James Collins

Hi Keegan, please tell us how you came to be involved with music and how did that take you into film?
Growing up I was always playing music, playing in bands. But instead of keeping a journal I was recording music a lot, so I had a little cassette four-track. I was sitting in my bedroom and I would make songs and music and learn about expressing myself, layering different things, stuff like that.

At the same time I was going to school. I was obsessed with films and with the idea of filmmaking. I went to film school with the idea of becoming a director, and in the midst of that, my friends were keeping track of the music that I was making in my bedroom, which in my opinion was not that great. They were drawn to it for some reason. One of my close friends had made a film and he turned to me and said, ‘Well, you do music, why don’t you do the music on this?’ So that was my first experience of expressing myself and cataloguing my life and then becoming a film composer.

Then it just gained steam and momentum from there. What I think is really great is that a cornerstone of where I’m coming from as a composer is how I approach things as a filmmaker, rather than just as a composer.

Amazing! So, fast-forward to more recently, how did you get involved with Hearts Beat Loud?
The short answer is, I worked with a bunch of different filmmakers who came from the same school in North Carolina called the North Carolina School of the Arts and they were all floating around in the same atmosphere together. Brett Haley, the director of Hearts Beat Loud, was one of those people. He was friends with this larger group of directors. They all had these four-track recordings that I was making.

In college we were all tracking each other’s creative output. He was always aware of me as a songwriter and as a composer. So when his film started to come to fruition, we started to collaborate as composers. Early on, if ever there was the prospect of doing a musical, Brett would always invent a reason for me to write a song for a project, so on his first film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, I wrote an end credits song and also on his second film, The Hero. By the time we were doing The Hero, he said, ‘You know that song you have lying around, the singer-songwriter kind of song, Hard to be Loved?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ He said that he and his co-writer Mark had this idea of doing a father/daughter band thing and they wanted it based it around this song.

I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But then we came back from Sundance last year for The Hero and Brett said that the film was real, he was going to make it. That was when we sat down and thought, OK now we have to write four or five songs for this film and even finish Hearts Beat Loud in a lot of ways.

Incredible! A lot of composers come to the project at the tail end. Obviously they’re involved from the beginning but their work is done after the film has been completed and in the editing process, so it must have been good to be involved right from the beginning. How did that process work?
In general, with a lot of the filmmakers that I work with, I really try and collaborate from the very beginning: because it eliminates the temptation to temp in other people’s music – not so much to put me out of work but to have it all be one fluid process, rather than them put in music, then we’ve instantly already the music. And then everybody, even if they’re not trying to, instantly compares the music, and stuff like that.

I try to get in for a multitude of reasons but that’s a big one because I want to think how the tonality of the film is being influenced by these very early things that are created.

Also, with this film, we didn’t know what the songs were going to be. We knew we had Hearts Beat Loud, but then there was a lot of talk between Brett and I. I was like, ‘Well, I do have this touching acoustic thing that he could sing to his daughter.’ Once I emailed that we were OK. That became a beat in the film. Brett was like, ‘OK, she’s going to be writing the song, and we’re going to have a big end sequence where she sings the song to her love interest.’ And I had the love song and a very rough demo where I was literally singing non-words just to have a melody.

But towards the end, there was this thing as I was writing, where I was – I don’t know why – where if you told me I was good, I would remember that. Brett thought that was interesting, so that ended up in the lyrics. There was a back and forth where he would call me and say, ‘OK, here’s how it’s shaking out,’ but more in the abstract. It wasn’t until much later that I saw actual script pages. It was more just us talking back and forth.

It’s interesting, because in the world of TV, I don’t even touch stuff until it’s 100% locked. You can’t change how it looks, it’s done. It’s been approved. There’s temp music in it. That’s one world. I like to let that world be. In the world of film, I try to keep it organic and as collaborative as possible. There’s the world of these blockbuster films where they are similar to TV. They’re locked and you’re not messing with it until it’s very late in the process. I think that part of continuing to work with Brett is trying to keep that as a part of my daily process. I want to stay creative and involved, especially as I’m someone who was always really excited about filmmaking, and really drawn to the idea of it. I want to have that filmmaker alive in the process, you know.

Absolutely. When writing music for film, usually that doesn’t involve the main characters actually singing the songs. Were you creating demos for them, or working with the actors to teach them the songs? How did that work out?
It was challenging, because you know Nick (Offerman) is a huge Wilco fan. He actually has a diverse taste in music and a keen ear but I think in the wheelhouse of how he would see himself is more Bruce Springsteen, Americana – very much like Nick. And Kiersey (Clemons) also has diverse taste but it’s more Soundcloud, a young sort of vibe.

I sit somewhere weirdly in the middle, being a 36-year-old white guy who likes Little Dragon and Wild Beasts, so you see what I mean? I looked at it like, ‘You’re reading words on a page, you have to squint your eyes a little.’ I was trying to make this as organic, real and seamless as possible. But in the end, letting it be somewhat amateur, resisting the temptation to say ‘Let’s make both of these nail any song that they play.’ Make it sound like a hit. It’s not going to be crazy and loud or super-mastered and super-mixed and feel like a period track. Instead, it should feel like that magical thing, you know like you‘re in the room and they just recorded it. Let it maintain that feeling of Kiersey could have just recorded it in her bedroom by herself.

There’s a long history of recordings in general where everybody has that gripe where their favourite band did an EP, then they re-did it. I wanted this band to be like that, where if you took these songs and gave them to Dr Luke and said, ’Do it!’ you’d instantly lose interest in them. Once I keyed on that, and that’s a vulnerability for me, I resisted the temptation to make them awesome. I felt mean, because I wanted everyone to feel that he knows what he’s doing. I had to check my ego and my pridefulness and just make it seem like, ‘they just recorded that.’ And that’s what’s magical about that.

Amazing! When you’re writing at home, do you have a studio? When you were working on the film, was that in your studio, or was that recorded elsewhere?
That was the great thing about it! I’ve my own small studio here in LA and it was like when Nick was doing vocals, he could hang out here with the mic set up. We had to turn the air conditioner off because it was too loud. We got all sweaty, it was good! It was the same with Kiersey. We got really close. Like I said before, I’m just a 36-year-old white dude and I’m like, ’Here’s my indie song that I wrote for you.’ And she closed her eyes and it was like stepping off a ledge, like ‘how am I going to sing this song?’ She and I bonded especially over getting the vocal performances, because we had to work together.

Sounds like an amazing project to work on and very different to the normal process of working on a film.
For sure! It was also hard because it happened in a weird blind spot for me. I make music every day, I’ve toured with an indie rock band all over, I’ve heard my songs on the radio. So Brett would say, ‘We’re going to do this sequence, and they’re going to record it. We’re going to show her playing the bass or the drums.’ And in my brain, I’m thinking, ‘yeah, that’s pretty boring!’ But I was really happy for Brett because Brett knew that these are the things that are exciting. This is the stuff that people want to watch. Whereas, if I wrote that sequence, I’d be like, ‘but none of this is exciting!’ because I do it every day. I was grateful to have his lens through which to look at it.

You said you worked from your studio at home – could you tell us which programmes you use? How much in the box and how much out the box are you normally working with?
You know, it’s a battle because in the world of composing, especially for film and TV, stuff is so fluid right up until, literally, the last second, so I end up using more stuff inside the box than outside the box. Mainly because I use a lot of samples that I’ve created, by hunting down the very best stuff. I get stuff then I end up manipulating it a lot. I use Logic and Ableton and all that… the UAD plugins, which are really good.

I’ll use a certain amount of outboard gear but for the most part – and I feel it’s interesting – because people like to categorise composers as either a big orchestral composer or an electronic guy, it’s all synths and in the box. I really try to sit in the middle of that world. Not so much on Hearts Beat Loud, but on other projects like Gemini and stuff like that. I’m taking a live recorded saxophone and chopping it up in the computer and literally re-performing it, re-pitching notes, stretching them, shrinking them, making the saxophone sound like a flute. I literally take things and treat them like a scrapbook. It’s interesting to blend and pervert things like the orchestral sample of a beautiful violin, running it through a four-track cassette recorder, angling it up then re-pitching it in the computer, that kind of stuff.

On the score of Hearts Beat Loud, there’s not one synth but two of them stacked together, which is called a Moog Mother 32. It’s just a basic sine wave oscillator that’s got these arpeggios running through these really long reverbs.
That’s really cool! A lot of the people who read our interviews and website are people who want to be musicians in film so it’s interesting to get that kind of information from you.

The budgets on things are just like… you could stop at the sentence, ‘Having a studio in LA.’ That’s exorbitantly expensive to begin with, you know? And the gear, that’s just a black hole of money. I agree with the prevailing data that analog is better, but the reality is that it’s just not practical, especially for me, as I have to be so improvisational to the last second, and flexible. But I do remember with my band Wild Cub on our last record, we had Mark Needham, who mixed all The Killers’ stuff – really successful mixer, incredible guy. Everything he does is in the box.

It was a liberating moment, I think to go and meet with and work with someone who was one of the pre-eminent mixers out there. He was mixing giant pop hits for Kesha! And he was like, ‘Yeah, the distance between this and that thing is negligible. Don’t worry about it.’ That was a big moment of, ‘cool! I can stop carrying around this weird shame about not having $20,000 dollars’ worth of outboard compressors in my studio.’ I was always trying to be more thoughtful with how I spend money. I’d rather spend three grand building a really cool modular rig, where I can create music in a way that was totally different to how I would create it in the computer, be super-creative and expand my creative brain, than spend the three grand on a nice Mic PreAmp.

For me, miking a guitar is not a creative thing. It’s super-artistic and creative if you’re an engineer. There are certain brains that can make an art form out of how to mic a guitar. For me, it’s an instant creativity-killer. So I try to be strategic with the money that I do spend in the studio, because I always want to make sure that it goes towards writing that next film score. If I’m going to invest 500 bucks in samples, sometimes that can be the biggest, best investment because I’ll download something like these crazy drums – and instantly, it’s a film score. I can hear it already. All I have to do now is write it, you know?

I was reading something the other day, with Björk, where people said, ‘computer music doesn’t have any soul.’ She said it was impossible – whoever’s creating it hasn’t put any soul into it.

I would agree with that 100%. Moving on to the future - I see from your IMDb that you’ve been working on a lot of things since the film. Could you tell us about that? What can we expect to hear from you soon, that you’re allowed to tell us about?
I’m working on a film with Alex Ross Perry who I’ve done films with before. We’re working on Her Smell, a film with Elizabeth Moss, loosely based on the life of Courtney Love. It’s pretty wild. I’m working on a TV show with Elizabeth Olsen, called Sorry For your Loss, which is pretty cool. I’m working on a film with Ben Platt and Lola Kirke, but the title’s going to change. I’m doing lots of crazy experimental stuff for the TV show, organic stuff that I’m running through tape loops and four-track recorders. The Ben Platt, Lola Kirke thing is going to be woodwind and pianos and other crazy things, so it’s a nice cross-section.

Sounds great. We’ll have to get you back on to talk about these projects.
Of course! It feels strange, because by the time I’ve finished them and they see the world, there’s a two-year gap that elapses. It’s got to get finished, get mixed, go to a film festival, then come out. It’s a strange thing when a film comes out a year and a half later. It feels current but it’s twenty steps down the road.

Totally! What advice do you have for readers who are keen to pursue a career in film composing?
It’s difficult. It’s a strange world, especially as budgets shrink. There’s so much work out there now, because of Netflix and everyone else. There’s so much content. That’s an encouraging thing, I think. It’s hard for me to say, because everybody has their own route, but for me, the most helpful thing has been cultivating really personal collaborative relationships with directors. Some people go interning somewhere else, or they come in through being in a band. For me it was just building friendships with directors, because it allowed me to do work…

It’s hard because if my agent gets me a job, maybe I get hired out of four other composers or something like that. The likelihood that I’m going to be able to do something crazy and interesting and signature-sounding on that project is very slim. It’s just the nature of how you come into it. The beauty of working with Brett or Alex Ross Perry is that they’re really saying, ‘We’re giving you carte blanche at the beginning of the process. What do you want to bring to this?’ That’s why it’s so important to me to keep those relationships, because I really want to be able to grow and challenge myself. But also because if you can come up with those directors, it gives you the opportunity to really put your voice out there in the world.

You know, it’s like if Mica Levi had been hired to do the work she did for Under the Skin. That score’s such a great example of a director saying, ‘What is your voice? What do you want to bring to this process?’ You know? The more you enter into things as standard – getting hired because of your reel, it’s just so much harder to find directors that will say, ‘blow my mind. What’s an idea that I don’t have for this, that you’ve got?’ Cultivating those relationships early on is really helpful, I think.