Sundance Exclusive: Composer Keegan DeWitt on ‘Listen Up Philip’ & ‘Land Ho!’

When it comes to scoring a film, having a symbiotic relationship between composer and director plays a massive role in creating a sonic texture that both engages your emotions and correlates with the work thematically. If a score truly speaks to the sentiment of the film, it not only exists to bring the filmmaker’s vision to life, but elevates the film and opens up the world on screen. And for Keegan DeWitt, with his work in the past year alone, he is swiftly establishing himself as one of the most versatile and interesting composers weaving through the world of independent film.

After scoring 2013 Sundance selections This Is Martin Bonner and Life According to Sam, DeWitt began work on two vastly different but equally dynamic scores with his friends and collaborators Alex Ross Perry, Aaron Katz, and Martha Stephens for their latest features—which will have Sundance 2014 premieres this week.

As his follow up to The Color Wheel, Perry’s new and highly-anticipated Listen Up Philip—starring Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss—tells the story of:

 Philip as he awaits the publication of his sure-to-succeed second novel. He feels pushed out of his adopted home city by the constant crowds and noise, a deteriorating relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, and his own indifference to promoting the novel.  When Philip’s idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce)offers his isolated summer home as a refuge, he finally gets the peace and quiet to focus on his favorite subject—himself.

DeWitt’s score for the film is not only stunning, but with its intricate jazz orchestration, pushed him into new territory as an artist. Recorded over a single weekend, DeWitt’s original songs take the shape of “standards” and were interpreted into different incarnations by a quintet to make the smooth deliciousness of 1950s’s jazz come alive in modern day New York.

But in working with long-time friend Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens on their road trip comedy Land Ho!, DeWitt found himself on the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. Starring Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson, the film follows:

Mitch, a brassy former surgeon, convinces mild-mannered Colin, his ex-brother-in-law, to holiday with him in Iceland. The pair set off through Reykjavik ice bars, trendy spas, and adventurous restaurants in an attempt to reclaim their youth, but they quickly discover that you can’t escape yourself, no matter how far you travel.

And in writing this, DeWitt crafted a score that followed the directors’ particular affinity for late-1980s Australian One Hit Wonders—giving a synthetic and playful energy to the story. Featuring vocals by Ólöf Rún Benediktsdóttir, the songs feel akin to what you’d hear in an 80s buddy comedy, employing another facet of DeWitt’s musical talents.

But when not scoring films, DeWitt can be found leading the band Wild Cub, whose new record Youth debuts next week. And today, in celebration of Listen Up Philip and Land Ho! having their Sundance premieres, we’re thrilled to debut a track from each of the films, which you can listen to below.

Take a listen, see what DeWitt had to say about the experience of bringing  them to life, and enjoy.

So tell me about your relationship to Aaron and Alex as filmmakers and how you connected with their work?

They’re both really different in cool ways. Alex’s score was really tough. With a lot of scores, I can build out of different things from what I have in my library or I can play everything myself, and for Listen Up Philip, it was a really daunting in that he sent me some of the greatest music recorded in American—in terms of Miles Davis and classic jazz music. The songs were intimidating, they’re not just something I can play myself.

Had you worked within the realm of jazz before?

No,  so for me, it was an especially daunting thing—but I’m a huge jazz fan and understood the basic construct of jazz. I was in LA scoring Aaron’s movie and they said, “Okay, it’s looking good for Sundance for Listen Up Philip, do you want to do it? Here’s the score that we have and we’ve got three weeks to do it.” So it was really terrifying in a way, because not only did I have to explore and understand jazz core voicing, but I had to write six or seven jazz standards.

Jazz recordings are essentially constructed like, here’s a 12 bar phrase and here’s the melody and we’re going to do that and establish that and then we’re going to abstract it through a bunch of improvisation. So I had to write them as if they were like, hey let’s act like this was a sentimental mood or a classic jazz standard—except I was writing them myself. And I went and found the five best jazz players in Nashville and recorded with them over a single weekend on tape to make them sound as authentic as possible.

It was a concept that I l had little to no experience in, but it was something that I only had one weekend to do. We were up against Sundance and we were up against what it cost to get the people I wanted—I couldn’t just get any musicians. To get people to play all of those songs that Miles played back in the day, I knew that there was a certain pressure on having to find the best players. So because we had to find them and get in a good studio and get them on tape to capture these moments, there was this huge pressure to do it.

But that was super exciting and I felt like I made up my mind right away when he sent me the movie. I sat down and watched it and I was so in love with the movie and so in love with the idea of it and the music and how they work together. I spent nine years in New York before I moved to Nashville, and for me, it just really captured this great resonant spot. So I was like, well, I know it seems impossible but I know I have no choice but to try and figure out how to do it. I also had the help of an amazing arranger, Alex Hills, who was critical in helping put the session and tracks together.

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And with Land Ho! the music was an entirely different world. Aaron is someone you’ve worked with many times in the past, so how was this experience?

The great thing about working with Aaron is, we were driving around talking about movies when we were fifteen growing up in Portland—so that’s kind of how that whole thing began. Aaron had been talking about a bunch of projects and I know Martha had been in the process of making her movies. It always happens this way with Aaron, just when I think that I’m never going to hear from him again, he pops back up on my phone and says, “Okay we decided to make a movie and we’re going to do it a month from now and it’s going to be with these people and we’re going to shoot it.”

So I was really excited just to have Aaron working on something again. But also, because it’s one of those things where I watched it and was like, I don’t totally know how to score this—which is exciting to me. I always know something’s good if my first impulse is to not put music to it. And that’s really exciting. But with them, it was much more specific. With Alex he was like, listen to Miles’ stuff but it could be anything. That film itself spoke more in terms of themes, whereas Aaron and Martha, they said, “Hey we’re really addicted to the idea of this feeling like a late-80s, early-90s buddy road trip movie, as if there was a top 40 Australian pop band and they got hired to score it, you know?”

Like, imagine you’re in an Australian pop band and you have a number one hit and you’ve been hired by Paramount to score the new John Candy road trip movie–that was essentially what I was trying to do. And especially because there were two directors, there was a lot of exploration in some ways, and in other ways, it was a lot more strict like, this is the vibe that we’re trying to explore, we want to hit at these specific sounds.  So I was having to go and dig and find those crazy drum samples and saxophones and things like that. I had a couple funny conversations with them where I was like, “Hey guys, just so you know, although late-80s music sounds really hokey and silly, it’s super complicated because it just happens to be the single most over-produced era in music ever.”

That was another thing—I felt like, from last year at Sundance, having Chad [Hartigan]’s movie This is Martin Bonner and deconstructing opera, and then this year doing one that was 80s pop crazy sounds, mixed with Alex’s movie and Chad’s, I feel like I’ve fully expanded the capacity of my brain. I was like, this is really cool and I’m finding a way to bridge all these things. And you know, especially for me, because I’m coming from a world of being in a band that has a certain construct to it, there’s a lot of virtues to film scoring. But I feel like those projects especially, and this year at Sundance, are two polar opposites and are a great example of the freedom that I can really try and do whatever I want to do.

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I always thought that would be the greatest thing as a composer, getting to inhabit these different worlds and explore different parts of yourself as a musician to fit inside someone else’s head—whereas with a band there’s usually more of a consistency of theme.

Yeah, especially when the band has my face on it and people see my picture associated with it. But it’s different to be working on Alex’s score and holed away in some studio in Nashville with 55 to 60-year-old jazz musicians who are just gnarly dudes who have seen everything and traveled the United States in the past 30 years playing legit jazz music.

But your band Wild Cub has album coming out soon as well?

Yeah, it comes out next Tuesday on the 21st. That’s also the date that we’ll be playing Jimmy Fallon.

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So between scoring, playing with Wild Cub, going to Sundance, playing Fallon it’s safe to say you’re pretty busy. Do you work well and enjoy that kinetic energy?

It came at a good point because it also coincided with right when I had a baby. So I’ve learned to sort of wrangle chaos a lot more than I might have been able to before. But it’s also awesome because, like we were just saying, it allows you the opportunity to really be able to bounce between worlds. It’s a little bit exhausting right now and it’s getting crazier being able to juggle it all, but I’m super super lucky and super unable to whine about it.

And the fact that the people you’re working with are filmmakers who you have strong friendships with I’m sure adds another layer of enjoyment.

Yeah, that’s also the cool thing about Alex and Martha and Aaron—yeah, we’re all the same age and all friends and it’s a collaboration through our friendship, but the other really cool thing is, somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the collaboration, you start to look at these people you’ve known for a long time and gain a new appreciation for them and the craziness that they’re navigating.

You get to really, really dig deep—that’s the best thing. I sit there with Alex and Aaron and I get a chance to really work with nuance of emotion. Film music can be the most overdone obnoxious thing, so figuring out how to do it tastefully and hit these really small moments with real precision as best as possible allows me to be able to appreciate the level of detail that people are putting into their movies. So being a part of that is really great. It’s so nice to get into the idea of refinement.

Can you tell me a little about the creation of  this Land Ho! track?

Land Ho! is obviously funny and really fun, but it’s one of those things where we’ve got the score, which is like the “doing stuff” music—driving from here to there, etc—but we wanted to act like this is the most expensive licensed soundtrack from 1988 and see what that would sound like. So I started to build it out with he synth and take some from Heart & Soul or Tom Tom Club, that kind of vibe.

I was trying to embrace the ability of not having to sing on things, so Aaron called me up one night and had this crazy idea. One of our producers—Ólöf Rún Benediktsdóttir—at the wrap party for the film, sang karaoke and when she got off we were like, holy shit she has an amazing voice. So we got in touch with her and on a whim got her to track the vocals, and that’s how that came together.

And what about with “Philip #1” and the variations of it?

I wrote seven “standards” where I wanted to treat them like a song book, like let’s take these songs that everyone has heard and are part of the American songbook and introduce specific arrangements of them for Miles. And so that track is one version out of a couple versions. That’s what we did for every track—we did one version and then did them in the style of a couple vibes of old ‘50s jazz recordings. So that was one we recorded fresh to tape and has the whole jazz quintet on it.

I had always really appreciated Miles but it’s really a testament to Robert [Greene] the editor and Alex, they really had such a great selection of Miles stuff in there and ESP and other really awesome sparse stuff that really spoke, at least to me, about what I really appreciated about Miles, which is withholding. His restraint was something that I really liked.

A little something extra:

Wild Cub’s Youth will be out 1/21 via Mom + Pop.