Interview: Keegan DeWitt

Posted on August 30, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Keegan DeWitt is a versatile and sought-after composer who has worked on a remarkably wide range of television and film projects. Keegan DeWitt is a versatile and accomplished composer, who has strengthened many stories across film and television. This October, his music will heighten the drama of HBO’s highly anticipated series, “Divorce,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, and Molly Shannon. He wrote the scores for eight Sundance Film Festival selections including the current release “Morris From America,” starring Craig Robinson. I was very glad to get a chance to talk to him.

Music is a very important part of the storyline of “Morris in America,” with key scenes including rap and electronic music. How do you approach that?

It’s easy because Chad Hartigan and I have been friends since we were teenagers. I work with some really interesting people but it is great to be able to work with a close friend, especially because Chad and I grew up talking about movies and getting excited about movies. So the process of making a movie with somebody you went through that with is that much more rewarding. And this was one especially cool. One day Chad has this idea of, “Let’s figure out a way to make an international co-production in Germany with Americans and Germans,” so I was like “Okay,” and next thing I know, me and him are riding bikes across the park in Berlin to go to the production office and score the movie which was so great.

And then musically, it’s a tough double-edged sword in that when we sat down, we had to make so that when people watch it they will have no idea this is a score. We really wanted it to feel like the hip-hop stuff was totally authentic, real hip-hop. And the EDM with exactly the same. And so on and so forth.

Copyright 2016 Keegan DeWitt
Copyright 2016 Keegan DeWitt

And then when the score stuff happened, it just was like breathing in the film and it all felt really organic and at no point did you notice it. That’s an especially tough gamble when it is such a music-centered film and there is a ton of music in there.

It was a fun project in that I had to roll up my sleeves and go, “Okay, how do I do each of these types of music?” It was also hard because there are racial implications in it as well, just like Chad as the writer and director creating this narrative. I felt this huge spotlight on myself to not be just a white person imitating hip-hop.o for me I was really encouraged when I sat down to write like that when he’s 14. But I clued into what first got me really excited about hip-hop when I was a teenager which was the melodic stuff like De La Soul and Del the Funky Homosapien and people like that. The hip-hop that the character Morris creates is sort of goofy, like a goofier hip-hop that somebody who is coming from a slightly more naïve innocent place like Morris could get into. And so for me that was my little slot in the door. I was like, “Ah, I got it.” I could sneak in with this because this is authentic in my experience and I also think it could be authentic to Morris’ experience.

And we also thought that it was an important thing to choose hip-hop that was somewhat fun so that we weren’t trying to comment on or make things seem gritty. The thing that I thought was so rare about the script is actually like it’s just so thick with love and curiosity and all those things. And it’s like Chad said, “If you want that really gritty dark person, go see every other movie about what it’s like to be a bad teenager.” I think that’s really true. And I am always drawn to what somebody wants to do something that’s like very pop. And so I was excited to be able to do that on this as well. And then on that note also to make the electronic music feel scary too. We tried to make it really loud and aggressive so that when he’s walking up to that club on that night you feel that rock in his stomach that you would feel if you were stepping up and could just hear the pounding music from inside.

So, now that you’re working on the new “Divorce” television series, how is it different to approach a TV series versus a movie?

I was lucky on “Divorce” because it’s HBO so it super creative and artistic to begin with. And also with this show, because everyone loves Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Horgan the creator, there is just a reverence for them in the work they do that there is a lot of space and a lot of grace for the creative process. When I got there they pretty much shot two-thirds of everything and we really got to spend like three months just being creative.

I don’t think it’s often on a TV series that we are a month into postproduction and it feels like hanging out on a Saturday evening. We are all just talking about music and I would play them little things and they would get excited and be like, Oh, what’s the name of that type of drum?” Yeah, the Bodhrán, okay. Bodhrán, let’s go crazy on that and experiment with that. So we did like a whole week of crazy Bodhrán music and then did crazy flute music because that show is really like in the 70’s and Jethro Tull and stuff like that.

I’ve been really lucky in that way. I’ve done other stuff where you jump in and you are just creating music and you are like, “I hope that makes sense.” But with this, we really did get to begin almost as if it was a movie and go through each episode and really choose to be adventurous. I was just really lucky, especially for a relatively younger composer, to be able to be in a room that’s got that many talented people. It was an opinionated room for sure and it was a competitive kind of “Can I meet these expectations?” But that’s always exciting as long as the people are really intelligent and excited as they were.

The thing that I know that SJ fought for and resonated with me was that it’s really important that as an adult so often things can be super dark or super sad and then in the same moment totally farcical. We had to figure out ways to mix extreme happiness with awkwardness or extreme sadness with moments of real tenderness or even silliness. And so I tried to make sure that I represented all ends of the spectrum and even if I would stay on the silly side of the spectrum, there was a real humility and a real intelligence to it and then it if was sad, it still felt a little bit like off kilter, a little bit ridiculous.

Thomas Haden Church is so good in the show. He’s so funny and has such heart. One minute he’s sabotaging Jessica Parker’s life but in the other minute he’s like this dad whose family is falling apart and he’s desperately trying to keep it together. So as soon as I walked into it I knew this is an intelligent project and I really had to make sure that I continued to meet that in terms of not giving them a cue that included all of the moods and emotions.

Do you compose on the piano? Or a computer keyboard?

My main instrument is piano to compose on but this was a crazy experience in that one day we were talking about me maybe going into the project and then the next week I was flying of the New York and literally composing in the post-production office. I was just trying to be a ninja with the computer as much as I could. So there are lots of saxophones and organic things that I try to really add some humanity. And every night I would walk to the subway and be calling a bunch of people that I know all over the United States to be like, “Hey, can you send me a voice memo of you playing this theme on the saxophone but sort of make a long?” And every morning I would be getting email dispatches from players around the United States that I would then bring in and chop up and have to work on the slide to get things together.

I always say I could divide it and these two camps; the people who are great with computer and the people who are purest with real instruments. And I’m always fascinated by what if you send me a really crappy recording of your saxophone where so it feels really gritty and interesting and breathy and then I’m going to take it to the computer, re-pitch notes of it, cut it in half, slow it down, put it in double time and then once I do that with five different instruments at once it’s this really cool mix of both of those things.

I always try and remember a limitation is not a limitation. It’s like a gift, it’s a creative gift. So this thing was like how do I compose music that I have to audition in high-pressure circumstances with like 15 minute turnaround times in a production office in Greenpoint on a laptop? It’s time to treat this like it’s a scrapbook and I’ve got a bunch of scissors and paste.

Then we sit down with Sharon and SJ and everyone. It was this challenge of one group wanted a lot of the Bodhrán because it was chaotic and interesting and crazy and the other one was flute music and I was sort of jokingly at one point, “Do you realize that when you mix Irish drums with flutes you’ve got ‘Braveheart.’ I turned the flute into a saxophone because it’s got a little bit more comedy but also when used right that sound can be very emotional. So I tried to kind of leverage all of those things together and take it one notch off of what makes sense.

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Behind the Scenes Composers Interview

A.C.O.D.

Posted on October 4, 2013 at 7:30 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and brief sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language, some crude
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, some shoving, fire
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2013

AdamScottCOPortraits2013SundanceFilmMmjP6NGACVblAre today’s 20-and 30-somethings the least-parented generation in history, as a character explains in this film? To quote Rosie O’Donnell in “Sleepless in Seattle” about another depressing statistic, “It’s not true, but it feels true.” While the generation that came of age in the 1970’s and early 80’s were self-actualizing and consciousness-raising and yuppifying, their children were being raised by adults who were too often acting like, well, children.

Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation,” “Party Down”) produced and stars in “A.C.O.D.,” which stands for “Adult Children of Divorce.” It’s an apt oxymoron. Scott plays Carter, who is very much the adult in his relationship with his long-divorced but still-warring parents and with his younger brother, Trey (Clark Duke). He is also the adult in his professional life, as the owner of a trendy restaurant. But that has a considerable advantage, he points out. “It may be like a family, but I could fire the ones I don’t like.”

Trey’s engagement creates some immediate problems. He and his fiancée Kieko (Valerie Tian) have only known each other four months.  Trey cannot support himself; he is living in Carter’s garage.  But those are minor concerns compared to the “9 year marriage turned into a 100-years war” — their parents, Hugh (Richard Jenkins) and Melissa (Catherine O’Hara).  Trey wants them to come to his wedding and be civil to one another.  Even though both have re-married (Hugh twice), their toxic mutual hostility is still the most powerful and all-consuming force in their lives.

Carter, himself allergic to marriage due to the childhood trauma of his parents’ divorce (and their self-absorption, bitterness, manipulation, and use of him as a go-between and subject of endless custody disputes), knows that Trey’s plans are unrealistic.  But he can’t help being captivated, even a little wistful and the optimism and certainty of the couple.  And he knows it is in part because he has worked so hard to protect Trey from the worst of his parents’ battles.

The stress of negotiating with his parents is so unsettling, Carter seeks help from a woman he saw after his parents split up (Jane Lynch).  She is glad to see him again, but informs him that she was not his therapist.  She was interviewing him for a book about the impact of divorce on children.  And it became an international best-seller.  This puts him even deeper into a tailspin, as he reads the book for the first time and discovers what his middle-school turmoil looked like to an observer.  “Am I living in a shell of insecurity and approval-seeking?”  It is even more disconcerting that the book is a best-seller (“Fourteen printings and Margot Kidder did the audio book.”)

Meanwhile, his efforts to get his parents to be civil to one another has had some very disturbing repercussions.  And Carter’s sympathetic and supportive girlfriend of four years (the magnificent Mary Elizabeth Winstead) may not put any pressure on him, but she does point out that it would be nice to have a key to his apartment.

The storyline may be weak in spots, but the spectacular cast (Scott’s “Parks and Recreations” co-star Amy Poehler plays Hugh’s third wife) makes the most of the sharp dialogue and depictions of world-class boundary issues.  A credit-sequence coda with the movie’s real-life crew discussing their own A.C.O.D. issues is, like the film itself, sobering but still a reminder that ultimately, no matter how dysfunctional our origins, we get to decide who we want to be.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and brief situations, rear nudity, very strong language, drinking, smoking, and drug references.

Family discussion: Why was Carter unhappy about the way he was portrayed in the book? How did he try to be different from his parents?

If you like this, try: “It’s Complicated” and “The Baxter”

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Life After Divorce: The Movie Version

Posted on August 14, 2010 at 8:02 am

As “Eat Pray Love’s” saga of Elizabeth Gilbert finding herself after a devastating divorce comes to theaters, Slate has a terrific gallery of classic post-divorce movie moments, with women signaling their liberation through dancing, revenge, substance abuse — and of course a new love in films like “An Unmarried Woman,” “Learning to Exhale,” “Living Out Loud,” and “The First Wive’s Club.” (My recollection, though, is that the ballet in the underwear dance sequence in “An Unmarried Woman” comes before she gets dumped, right?)
Certainly, themes of second chances and renewal are important in movies and life after heartbreak is something everyone can relate to. There’s an entire genre of “movies of re-marriage” with classic romantic comedies about divorced or almost-divorced couple re-uniting in movies like “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” “Adam’s Rib,” and “The Lady Eve.” The lesser-known “Perfect Strangers” is a favorite of mine, about a dull married couple (Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr) who come alive when they separate to fight in WWII. They do not know how they will be able to stand their old life and are afraid of getting back together. But they are overjoyed when they meet to find that separately they have come to the same realization that they wanted to feel more vitally engaged with the world and with each other.
There are many, many movies about people who feel as though they are on automatic pilot in their lives and marriages until they discover love again, sometimes with the spouse but more often with someone new. The under-appreciated “Twice in a Lifetime” has Gene Hackman in a comfortable but dull relationship until he meets Ann-Margret on his 50th birthday. In “The April Fools,” Jack Lemmon falls for the wife of his arrogant boss. In my favorite scene, Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer show them the beauty of a deep, long-lasting love. Cary Grant is married to social-climbing hypocrite Kay Francis and then he meets warm-hearted Carole Lombard in “In Name Only.” And Walter Houston does his best to be loyal to his selfish wife in “Dodsworth” in spite of his attraction for the lovely Mary Astor. In classics like “Casablanca,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Out of Africa,” “Now Voyager,” “Back Street,” “It Happened One Night,” “Titanic,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Brief Encounter,” and “Moonstruck,” married or engaged characters find love elsewhere. Watching them, we experience again the tremulous thrill of falling in love. If we’re lucky, we bring those feelings back to enlarge our own relationships.

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For Your Netflix Queue Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Sweet Home Alabama

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:18 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and sexual references
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking as a sign of free-spiritedness, character gets drunk and gets sick
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Positive gay characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2002
Date Released to DVD: 2002
Amazon.com ASIN: B00007E2F5

It’s official. Reese Witherspoon is the new Meg Ryan.

That means Witherspoon has the charm, sparkle, and impeccable comic timing to keep an entire movie afloat and make it look effortless. She makes watching it seem effortless, too. That’s a good thing, because it takes every bit of her talent and all-around adorability to keep it aloft, considering the considerable weight of its uncertain script. Without her, even the enticing premise and an exceptionally able supporting cast would sink under the weight of a plot that somehow manages to be both predictable and disjointed (I’d bet a bucket of popcorn that there was some serious recutting along the way).

Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a fashion designer just breaking through to the big time with her first solo show. Not only is it a huge success, but she also gets a swooningly romantic marriage proposal from a gorgeous, thoughtful, supportive man who adores her – and who happens to be the son of the mayor of New York (Candice Bergen).

It’s the 21st century Cinderella dream come true, except for one hitch — literally. Way back when she was just Melanie Cooter of Pigeon Creek, Alabama, she got herself hitched to her childhood sweetheart, and now she needs to get herself unhitched so that she can be free to marry Prince Charming.

So, she goes back home for the first time in seven years, and she finds out that you can take the girl out of Pigeon Creek, but you can’t take Pigeon Creek out of the girl. Her accent comes back, and, more disconcertingly, so do some of her feelings for her husband, Jake (Josh Lucas).

The movie spends too much time reuniting Melanie with people from her past. There’s a lot of “Melanie? Is that you, girl?” It also spends much too much time introducing us to all kinds of adorable cracker stereotypes without much payoff. It wastes time on a tired plot twist about Melanie’s exaggeration of her family’s social standing that even the movie’s characters seem bored with. But Witherspoon is such an unquenchably winning presence and such a fine actress that I defy anyone to watch it without smiling.

A terrific soundtrack also helps, with a cover of the irresistible title tune and delicious songs by country greats. Lucas and Dempsey are both dreamy enough that even movie-savvy viewers may find it hard to pick the winner. Director Andy Tennant (“Ever After”) delivers a romantic comedy that should be able to hold a strong position at the box office until the next Julia Roberts movie comes along.

Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language, gay characters (one out, one closeted) who are positively portrayed, and references to an out of wedlock teen pregnancy. Melanie gets drunk (and gets sick). Drinking, vandalism and minor crimes are portrayed as evidence of a free spirit.

Families who see this movie should talk about why people are tempted to lie about their past, and how they would respond if they found out someone they cared about had lied to them. What does Melanie mean when she says “I figured if I was pointing at you, no one would see through me.” What didn’t she want them to see? What is Melanie likely to do next?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy, “The Runaway Bride” and “Never Been Kissed.” They should also check out the wonderful classic with a similar plot, “I Know Where I’m Going.”

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