The most normal guy in the room
Image credits: Brett Warren
Keegan DeWitt didn’t set out in life to be a prodigious film composer, but since making his name at the South by Southwest Festival in the 2000s and establishing himself as a firm favourite at the Sundance Festival, he has scored for movies scooping an Academy Award, three Sundance Audience Awards, several New York Times awards and an Independent Spirit Award between them, not to mention working on top TV shows such as Divorce for HBO. His music has earned a reputation for its daring and varied character; no doubt testament to his background as an amateur musician trained originally in filmmaking, who fell into movie composition almost by accident. His down-to-earth attitude, pragmatic advice for surviving in the industry and love of all things technical is refreshing and infectious.
We talk to him about his rise to fame, his approach to composition, and the part Non-Lethal Applications have played in his journey.
An accidental composer
Whilst he has been fascinated by film since a young age, DeWitt didn’t intend to be a composer. “I went to a fine arts high school for writing for film and stage; I always wanted to be a film maker, and I just happened to make music on the side.” But music was a strong influence during his adolescence: “Some people keep journals as they grow up, whereas for me it was just a little four-track in the bedroom, layering things and writing songs and doing that on the side like a hobby, to journal my world as a young teenager.” He first fell into composing when a friend asked him a favour: “While I was at film school trying to make films and learning about film, I had a friend that had made a film and had gotten into a festival. He called and said ‘I know you do music, do you want to take a run at the music?’ And that was my first time ever even considering that sort of thing, I don’t think I was even aware of film music in general. And so it just sort of blossomed from there, I started applying this thing I had been doing anyway.”
“So music was a big part of my adolescence, playing in punk rock bands and things like that, but it was never my central conceit; the thing I always really, really wanted to do was to make films. I was very heady in college, thinking about Antonioni and Terrence Malick and stuff, then this happened so I paused what I was doing to do film music. It’s something that I try to keep with me now, that idea that when I’m approaching things, when I sit down with a score I try to approach it as a filmmaker rather than a musician.”
This approach, influenced by his unusual route into composing, certainly makes his work stand out. “People love to wax about themes in film scores, which I appreciate as much as anyone else, but for me it always about sounds; the theme of an entire film can actually be the sound of a tack piano or how we’ve decided to take something and run it through tape loops and disintegrate it or whatever it is; to me that for me can be the theme, the voice for the whole score - rather than a piano phrase. Maybe that’s because as an amateur musician I was doing things by ear and improvising and feeling it. I couldn’t do the thing where I just sit down and scribe out twelve bars and hand it to an assistant and ask for five different arrangements in each sentiment. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, I just mean that I literally don’t do that. That’s why, as time has gone on and we’ve jumped forward into DAW world, I enjoy Ableton; because while it doesn’t play well for live tracking of music, to me it’s my little secret weapon where I’ll pull things into it and suddenly I’m chopping up a piano tape or whatever it is.” He’s found this a vital trick up his sleeve: “You get these crazy producers, five of them in a room who want to be artsy and show up at your studio and talk through what you’re doing. And I enjoy being able to remember I’ve got that saxophone tape from three years ago and can pull it into Ableton and within two minutes I’ve re-pitched half of the notes and dragged them out. I did so much of that on Divorce because they wanted me there the whole time, so I was essentially in the post-facilities in my own little room trolled away making music. And it was all organic instrumentation, so a lot of it was me finding organic samples that I had tracked over the years, or calling buddies and being like ‘hey can you set up your cell-phone and send me a voice memo of you playing this on the clarinet?’ then I would pull it into Ableton and chop it up five ways then fly it back into Logic or Pro Tools and lay it down.”
The recipe for success
From working on a few films for a friend, DeWitt quickly became a regular composer at the South by Southwest Festival, then scooping award after award at Sundance, before catching HBO’s attention and netting the major US TV show Divorce. He puts this climb to the top down to resourcefulness, making friends with the right people at the right time, and trying to be the most normal guy in the room. “It definitely helped that I was as resourceful as possible at each step. In between every project I’m always hunting down new sounds and tracking things and hoarding things away, just so I’ve got stuff; so that in the moment that someone wants five different ideas I’ve still got six tricks up my sleeve in my folder of crazy samples. I also think I benefitted from a really magical time at South By Southwest, because the time when we took the first films that I was naively hacking together scores for was right when Lena Dunham was making her film then going onto Girls and so on and so forth, so there was a real focus on that festival. It was a very small festival, and at every screening they were doing Q & As so I was going down and meeting loads of people. I’m sure as everyone knows, the best way to create connections is organic friendships and hang-outs. It’s not ‘hey here’s my CV of all my music laid out for you’; I don’t feel like that ever gets you work. It’s more you end up in some bar somewhere, and everybody is having beers, so you organically meet and end up being friends. I still try and take that into everything. Even if I go into a high-pressure room where I have to audition music for nine people, I just try to be the most normal, conversational, receptive person in the room; because you realise that so often in these creative things, especially as they get bigger and bigger, there are so many crazy personalities, inflexible and impulsive personalities, that if I can come into the room and be the conversational, normal guy who’s like ‘yeah let’s figure that out’, that goes a long way."
Variations on a theme
In an industry of big egos, DeWitt is grateful that he’s always been able to collaborate successfully with directors to explore scores together, rather than having the details dictated to him: “In so much of my work I’ve had the privilege of really tightly-threaded collaborations with directors, exploring the vision for the movie in real-time and figuring out what it is. It’s harder now my world is busier, I can’t be creating twenty random ideas for a director then sit and go through all of them and dig in. That’s something that as the scale of my business grows becomes more challenging. But I still try. I always try to be a bit pragmatic; if I know that they’re really digging this sort of Nielsen-y piano and they like these dry 70s drums - whatever it is - I’ll do it, but still add an improvisational aspect. I can’t tell you how many times a day in Logic I’ll just do a random import settings thing, pull up an old session – named ‘1M12’ or something - I won’t even remember what that cue is - but I’ll open it up and grab a bit of it, a bit of that saxophone or whatever, pitch them into the world, almost in an improvisational way. That way I keep the common thread but also introduce different things and still surprise myself. That changes more obviously if it’s a larger film… a larger more expensive film involves a lot more sitting down and demo-ing and making decisions about palette.”
And the curse of directors’ fixation on themes? DeWitt is once again pragmatic. “I do think themes are important. It's something I certainly try to keep in mind, adding more themes into my quick-draw tool kit to be able to re-use them (a) to save time but (b) I do think it adds to cohesiveness to the overall length of the film. But, I do think that directors, like anybody else, are over-excited by themes because they’ve seen all the Vimeo re-caps of all the John Williams themes, or how Pixar uses music…I try to harness it for the good, but they come in and are like ‘alright, let’s put our score hats on!’ Then usually at the first note they’re like ‘what’s Tanya’s theme going to be?’ But I try to also think of that as less of a bummer than it is – I try to think I can still be impulsive and give them these crazy ideas and all that it takes to make it a theme is that they like it so much they want to use it a couple of times.”
A computer nerd in his own Wild West
From his childhood recordings on his four-track, his love of Ableton as his secret weapon, to his latest discovery of Video Slave, DeWitt has always been driven by a love of technology in his music. “I think it’s a dumb term, but I often end up saying a lot of my talent is being able to be a ninja on the computer - (a) being fast but (b) being resourceful and knowing how to jump into Ableton to do something, jump into Logic to do another thing, then jump in to Pro Tools. It helped that I was a little bit of a computer nerd growing up; even as a little kid always tinkering. But it’s hard because out here in L.A. so many people go through Remote Control and have the great privilege of being able to learn everything right down to the minutiae. Whereas I’m operating in my own Wild West, having to educate myself by emailing five composers to say ‘what do you use?’ That’s the toughest part, figuring out those critical little steps. Music editors have been a big help in that respect, I’m really privileged to have jumped to HBO with Divorce where there’s a budget for music editors, and now at Fox [working on Making History, to be released Spring 2017] I’ve got one. They’re helpful as they can give you a lot of that nerdy tech stuff just in terms of how the industry works; it saves you so much time.”
Video Slave finds a new master
As part of his ‘Wild West education’, Dewitt discovered Non-Lethal Applications, and was immediately impressed. “I’m a big Spitfire follower, because they have the most organic real-feeling stuff. I was watching a tutorial about how they were doing their track-laying. And at that time I had an especially frustrating music editor where I was sending him things and getting weird things back, so it was like ‘alright, how do I solve this problem? I need to be able to hand over a definitive thing where things are already laid in against picture with a definitive timecode.’ I saw Spitfire were running video through Pro Tools, so I opened it up and started my Pro Tools induction, for better or worse (it’s no secret Pro Tools is such a pain the butt on so many levels especially when it comes to video!) I started to sniff around online and that’s when I found Video Slave. I downloaded the demo thinking ‘urgh, how can this be much better’, but it was so seamless in terms of the playback, especially in the world of Pro Tools where it was air message after air message.” Aside from this seamless performance, DeWitt was won over by Video Slave’s remarkably low CPU usage: “I have to be based on a laptop (I wish I could just use a Mac Pro and screen through all my sessions but it just doesn’t happen that way ‘cos you got the producer wanting you to drive to his house so he can tell you where to play the notes…) - so I have to be able to have something which doesn’t eat up any of my music-making ability”. Video Slave was the perfect answer: “It wasn’t using any of my computer to churn back the video, which even Logic does a little bit.”
On top of this, in his distinctive approach to composition DeWitt hit upon an extra advantage of Video Slave: “The biggest unexpected pay-off was it separated my video from my sessions; it allowed my sessions to just be this little encapsulated weird world, so if it was a crazy cue it could be this messy little weird cue and it wasn’t tied into anything else and couldn’t bleed over into anything else.” This magic has come into its own in recent months as DeWitt’s projects have mushroomed: “Now I’m often working on three shows at once! This past month has been the perfect example, where it was like five films for Sundance were all finishing in a three-week period. I was finishing one TV show in the middle of another and starting a third, and in a day I was jumping between five different video things, with each assistant editor on every show or movie thinking they’ve discovered the gold standard for how to do their time code and what offsets are going to be and all that stuff. I didn’t realise it until the end of the day one day last week where I was like ‘this is incredible that I’m able to jump here where they’re starting at 52 seconds, and these people are starting at 58 seconds, and just being able to open up my pre-saved playlists on Video Slave was incredible, ‘cos it was so quick and I wasn’t thinking about video.”
When he compares this to his workflow before Video Slave, it’s hard to believe:
“I was like a caveman doing my own cut-downs in QuickTime, actually going and chopping down the scene and then throwing it into Logic ‘cos I didn’t want to have to waste computer time or power to power the entire thing. It’s made it so much simpler for me to not have to store video in my DAW. Now it’s so great, because in each of my projects I now have my footage folder and it’s got all the locked cuts with all the Video Slave playlists on it, and the fact the playlists work so seamlessly."
"Often I get a movie reel summed, but on a couple of movies I didn’t, and it was so nice to be able to have all five reels in there and jump to time code and be able to be digging into it. When I’ve got three things fluting at once it seems like a silly thing to whine about spending five minutes setting up video on a specific thing, but just last night I had a show runner here torturing me on a thing and it was so great being able to jump into five different episodes really quickly and hop to a point and play it back.”
As for composers who are still using other DAWs, unaware of the magic of Video Slave, DeWitt is astonished at many of them – “Those using Pro Tools, I don’t understand how they are, because I couldn’t even get it to play back and I have like the most powerful Mac Book Pro that there is!” For those still reliant on Logic, DeWitt would advise them “it’s a broader question of how you start structuring your sessions in a way that is professional, so that when your business scales you can go back and open up a session and not have it griping about a missing video file that was a two-hour video file… you were sitting your music somewhere on bar 150 and relying on weird tempo marker points to accomplish things. Video Slave just makes it so that every time I’ve got a Video Slave template in Logic and I open it up, it’s already there and I literally get my cue sheet, copy and paste the time code, hit it there and it’s ready on bar five and I know now every time I open up episode 6, bar 5 it’s ready to go, I just open it and press play. So quick, so fast.”
For someone whose star has risen so meteorically, you might expect some lofty advice for anyone following in his footsteps. But with characteristic self-deprecating humour DeWitt says the best possible tip he could give is “whatever email seems a great idea to send at 10pm at night is an even better email to send at 8am the next morning! I can’t tell you how often I’ve drafted an email and I’m sitting reading it back reading thinking this is going to be good, I’m going to send this thing off, and go to bed feeling great… then you wake up in the morning thinking ‘oooh… could have waited on that one…”
Though judging by DeWitt’s resume so far, a couple of late-night emails from such a down-to-earth guy can’t have done too much harm…