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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Escape from Planet Earth

Posted on February 15, 2013 at 11:15 pm

A new animation studio called Rainmaker has produced its first film, “Escape from Planet Earth,” a story of sibling rivalry and aliens.  It almost works as an amiable, if derivative time-waster for kids with a few jokes for the grown-ups, but too much is unsettlingly off-base.

On the planet Baab, where the inhabitants are blue and nearly bald, Scorch Supernova (Brendan Fraser) is a big, brash, brave, impulsive hero.  His Buzz-Lightyear knock-off spacesuit is festooned with NASCAR-style sponsor patches.  In between missions, he promotes his cereal brand, Scorchies.

His brother Gary Supernova (Rob Corddry) is the brilliant but careful, brilliant mission control specialist who makes sure Scorch knows what he has to do, where he has to be, and how to get back home.  His coffee mug says, “I (HEART) Safety.”  Gary tells Scorch to proceed with extreme caution and Scorch responds that he will proceed with style.

Scorch always calls Gary his “little brother” and Gary irritably reminds Scorch that he may be smaller but he is actually older.  Each feels unappreciated by the other.  And each secretly thinks his contribution is the more important one.

They complete a successful mission rescuing kidnapped Baab-ian babies from a planet inhabited by creatures with big teeth who thought of the babies as a delicacy.  But it put such a strain on their working relationship that they split up, just as Scorch is about to undertake his most dangerous mission of all — a trip to “the dark planet” of earth, “the only world in which evolution goes in reverse.”  More than 100 aliens have landed there and none has made it home.  Scorch, insisting he can do it on his own, arrives on earth and is immediately captured.  Gary goes after him, and he gets captured, too.  And of course they are taken to Area 51.

They are held there by General Shanker (William Shatner), where they are forced to give up their inventions — like social networking, cell phones, computer animation, and search engines — so that the general can finance some big contraption he says is to help preserve peace.  The brothers will have to learn to work together and to appreciate each other if they are to get back home.  And they will need the help of Gary’s wife Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker) and son.

There are a couple of good jokes and some of the characters are well-designed and voiced, especially Jane Lynch as a one-eyed alien who appears to be made out of lobster shells.  The prison-like setting where Scorch, Gary, and the other aliens are kept and much of the humor is reminiscent of films like “Paul,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”  But the movie slides from the unimaginative to the weirdly creepy when the aliens are told that if they work they will be set free in a chillingly insensitive echo of the infamous Auschwitz gate.  When Gary’s boss (Jessica Alba) repeatedly insults Kira for being a stay-at-home mother, it falls flat.  So do the jokes about Gary’s being a nerd, making fun of him for being smart.  It’s one thing to have all the aliens breathe air and speak English, but having them travel back and forth between planets in less time than it takes to fly from New York to Chicago and have characters show up on Baab when they were left behind on earth three days earlier feels less like sci-fi than laziness.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and action and some scary-looking aliens, some potty humor, and a parent getting crushed by a UFO.  There are some oddly insensitive jokes about nerds not having any friends and stay-at-home mothers not being capable.

Family discussion: Why was it so hard for Gary And Scorch to be nice to each other?

If you like this, try: “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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Sex and the City 2

Posted on October 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

After two years as Mrs. Big, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) admits that she’s feeling a bit too “Mr. and Mrs. Married.” Mr. Big (Chris Noth) wants to stay at home with take-out and cuddle while watching black and white movies on the big-screen TV he thought was a wonderful anniversary gift. But Carrie, who apparently wanted to get married because she thought it would be just like dating but better because she wouldn’t have to worry about whether the guy was into her, thinks they should be dressing up (and as we all know, that means DRESSING UP) to go to crowded events featuring red carpets, velvet ropes, and high, high fashion. Big wants to pass on that? Go figure!

That conflict is about as close as we get to a plot in the leisurely 2 1/2 hours of “Sex and the City 2” onslaught of fabulousness. When Carrie tells Big it is hard to keep “sparkle” in their relationship after a while, she is speaking for the highly lucrative franchise as well. Once we left everyone living happily ever after once in the television series and then again in the feature film, how many eggs are we really willing to unscramble to crank it all up again?

Not too much, which leaves us with about 150 minutes that feel more like an infomercial than a story.

The first movie ends with a wedding; the second begins with one. In the television series, Carrie and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) each had the fashion-forward divette’s most indispensable accessory, a gay man to serve as adviser, confidante and acolyte and to provide an endless supply of “you go girl” support and guidance. They hated each other on sight. But fabulousness requires that somehow, off screen, they decided they were in love. And so we begin with a wedding that makes over the top seem under the bottom. When a guest, observing the gay men’s chorus singing show tunes, the swans, and the “snow queen exploded in here” decor asks rhetorically if it could be any gayer, the answer arrives as the officiant turns out to be Liza Minnelli, who throws in a rousing rendition of “Single Ladies” after the vows. With a brief flashback to explain how the fabulous foursome originally met so we can see their 80’s looks (I predicted Miranda’s power suit with gym shoes look but not Samantha’s efforts to channel Lita Ford) the movie hits its high point.

To get the ladies and the story away from the dreariness of post-financial meltdown economic doldrums, the foursome jets off to a luxe week in Abu Dhabi (filmed in Morocco). The burka and camel humor (Charlotte actually falls off a camel) has the sophistication and cultural sensitivity of a Hope and Crosby movie. But there is a brief if awkward nod to global sisterhood and at least the Mideastern characters are played by Mideastern performers. The real fantasy here is not the endless spending power of the ladies or the objectification of the men; it is the way they eat and drink and loll around but still maintain their highly disciplined figures and radiant complexions.

The trip gives them many opportunities to change clothes (they put the “lug” into “luggage”). And it is here where the story veers into Lucy and Ethel territory and the puns get truly painful. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) worries about menopause (the movie makes some very dangerous endorsements of self-administered medications that have been called quackish and even harmful). Charlotte worries about whether her husband will be tempted by the nanny (the gorgeous Alice Eve as “Erin go braless”). Miranda wonders who she is away from her job. And who does Carrie run into on the other side of the world but the one who got away, Aidan (John Corbett).

It starts to get out of control more than once, but it continues to be grounded in what made the series work — the unconditional love and support of the four friends. On the other hand, we never see them providing any support to the men in their lives. Carrie’s insistence on going out is particularly poorly timed because her husband has had a difficult day at the office. She never makes any effort to understand what it means to him to have the market drop 100 points or to express anything but petulance and self-absorption. This movie is a grown-up equivalent of playing with Barbies and Carrie’s ideal man is an 8-year-old’s idea of what a Ken doll boyfriend (with operative ability) should be like. They are forever devoted, out of the way when not wanted, make no demands, look good in formal wear, and give lots of bling. We are supposed to find her endearing, but when she is with Big, she seems like a selfish child. Even the mistake she worries about is all about her, not about him.

And yet, I found myself smiling as I watched more than once. Writer/director Michael Patrick King knows it is not the fashion or the romance we tune in to see but the bond between the women who acknowledge that they are each other’s soul mates. It isn’t the fantasy of glamor and Ken doll boyfriends we respond to. It is the reality of women’s friendships, which we love to see recognized and appreciated.

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