Opening today at The Belcourt is Cold Weather, writer-director Aaron Katz's hard-to-classify indie film (described by some as a "mumblecore mystery"), which was one of the discoveries of last year's SXSW film fest. This week's Scene has a full review including an interview with Katz. In the meantime, the film's composer, Nashville musician Keegan DeWitt (who also performs Tuesday night at Mercy Lounge), will perform briefly after the 8 p.m. show tonight at The Belcourt. DeWitt sat down the other day for a talk, starting with the most important issue of the moment.
From following you on Twitter, I know you’ve been following the Charlie Sheen saga, so this interview is actually going to be all about that.
Keegan DeWitt: [Laughing] OK, that’s fine. That’s fine with me ‘cause I’m fascinated by it.
Well, I’m ashamed to admit that I am as well.
[A friend and I] were joking around about it last night. Charlie Sheen right now is like a character that we would’ve created drunk on a patio somewhere, just riffing. You know, being hyperbolic, except for this is real … and it’s terrifying.
I was wondering this morning if he’s not doing a Joaquin Phoenix type of thing. It almost seems like a trick.
[Laughing] I know. Its almost like, if he is on cocaine, it must be the greatest, most potent cocaine you could be on ‘cause the quotes are so insane. Its like he tweeted the other day about his watch and he’s like, "This is the only watch that keeps warlock time" or something like that. Its like, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. But yeah, anyway.
Yeah, anyway. So I got to talk to [Aaron Katz] the other day — you guys went to high school together right?
Yeah. I was essentially in public high school in Portland, which was a nightmare — public high school in general is just usually a nightmare for everyone — and I found a school in downtown Portland where you went and there were no grades and you made up your own classes and there were 70 kids, and somehow I convinced my parents to let me go there. So that’s where I met Aaron. We both took dramatic writing there together, which essentially was a two-hour class where we sat with a local drama teacher and we just wrote.
Aaron and I were among, maybe, 4 people in this class, and we both were 15 maybe and that’s where we first met and started bonding on stuff. ... But we didn’t get close until I went to film school and he went to film school and that’s where we started to lock into things, because we both came back being like, "Oh my God, this is terrifying," trying to make sense of film school and being away from home.
The cool thing is, there’s a whole scene in Aaron’s first movie, Dance Party, USA, where it’s kind of driving around Portland and stuff and that’s kind of a lot of what Aaron and I did on winter breaks and summer breaks at home that first year of school. We’d just meet and drive around and sit in these parking lots and hang out. That’s when we first started to really get connected to the locations and the geography of Portland. We both grew up there, but that’s when we really started to have these favorite, secret spots. Like the rose garden in Cold Weather, where Robyn and Cris meet up finally — a bunch of those different locations are places where Aaron and I would go when we were younger and get a cup of coffee and sit and talk about movies and art and stuff.
Yeah, there’s so many of these long, scenic shots of Portland in the film that seem inseparable from the music. It’s hard to imagine one existing without the other and I was wondering how you guys achieved that, but it sounds like that’s the answer.
Well, it’s definitely an interesting learning curve for me as a composer, because everything with Aaron has been so instinctual in that way. For me, composing in general is something that happened entirely by chance. I was in film school and I did music and I think Aaron was like, "Hey, we’re doing this movie Dance Party and we need a score, do you want to try and score it?" The score for that, obviously, is kind of a non-score. It’s pretty punk-rock, because I was beginning to understand what it meant to score a film. But now, progressing two films from there to Cold Weather, there is the virtue of us being connected on a more instinctual level. Not only have we known each other and worked together, there is that thing where its like, especially making a movie about Portland, with locations in Portland it made it a lot easier to begin in the right neighborhood.
This is your third film together and you’ve known each other since you were 15 — I can see that making things easier and I can see it making things harder in other ways …
I think it makes things easier. The truth is, what made it easier this time is budget. We made the first two movies — one for $2,000 and one for $5,000 — and then finally this one had a $100,000 budget. Which is still nothing in terms of money that we actually see — that just goes into everything you see on the screen.
But the one major thing it earned us was a production office. We also did a lot more pre-production, being on the phone and sending things back and forth. But we had this production office in Brooklyn where I went for two one-month periods and we would just sit there and Aaron would be on my right side cutting the movie, and then Brendan and Ben the producers would sit behind us and then I sat right next to him at a computer composing with headphones on. So not only did it help to let us work in the same room, but it also helped let the music inform the cut, which is something that’s really hard to have happen with low-budget movies. A lot of times it's people sending me DVDs and me scoring stuff and then sending stuff back and forth with Sendspace or whatever, and that’s where I’m at now where its kind of frustrating.
The really important thing, I think, in making good independent movies is maximizing the money that you have with the minimal means that you have. And I feel like we’re at this point now, and I think Aaron feels the same way in terms of his writing and stuff, where we’ve kind of maximized what we can do for no money. With Cold Weather, we're really happy with how it turned out, but you start to realize the virtue of being able to be in the same room together and having a budget and being like, "Well, let's fly you out, we’ll meet about it." It’s so much easier to be creative when that’s possible. Or being able to hire a bunch of string players and be like, "Let's get them in, let’s track some stuff, oh, that didn’t work let's have them back in," rather than having two days for all the strings. That stuff gets tough.
Now this score is very different than the others as far as instrumentation and I’d imagine the mystery element informed that somewhat. How was it different and maybe why?
Well, a couple reasons. One is that between [Katz's second film] Quiet City and Cold Weather is when I did a lot of other score work, and it was for a lot of people where I said, "I like your movie, you don’t have any money." So the best I could do in a lot of those situations was piano-only scores. And I love piano-only scores. My biggest influence as a film composer is Michael Nyman, and his Wonderland score is the perfect example of a killer, primarily piano score.
That being said, I think by the time Cold Weather came around I think I was ready to do something a little more dynamic, and I think Aaron was too. On top of that we also just started from a different place. We just started talking about different ways that we could construct sonic landscape that didn’t feel … we knew it was going to be score-heavy at some points, we knew were going to need to drive some of this narrative with score, so how do it without it feeling like an episode of 24 or without it feeling too cheeky?
So we started to do it with organic sounds, and so there were a lot of initial cues of footsteps and kids slapping and water and all this stuff and we started to cut that in and it didn’t make sense. You know, it's weird to hear water as part of a film score if there’s not water happening on the screen. So we started to move away from that and take it more into the orchestral world. So I felt like it's kind of like The Dodos mixed with orchestral stuff.
One of the things that Aaron mentioned was that you guys really wanted to stay away from of the more cliché sounds of the genre and I think you did that.
Well, yeah. A perfect example of Aaron being good and tasteful is two big cues that aren’t in the movie. Both of them had stuff that was like, "We're doing stuff!" and those got cut, and I remember fighting really hard for them at the time, which I guess is kind of my job to do. But now I’m really happy that they’re not there. It does something really important for his aesthetic to not have them there. He uses the score and some of the mysterious stuff to build tension, but he never uses it as a way to crutch himself one step forward. Because the whole point of the movie is, it's this naturalistic sleuth thing, where it's not as risky as it is in the movies — but maybe it is and you never really know if it's actually a movie about being a sleuth or not. So it's kind of nice that the bottom drops out, in terms of theatrical support, when it gets really high stakes.
It seems like the opportunity to perform the score live would be kind of rare. How has that been and what are your thoughts about getting the chance to do that?
It's fun. We’re not going to do the actual score to the movie, cause it seems like that would be a little bit obnoxious. But we’re going to do the ending-credits cue, and the reason I chose to do that is, it's kind of the perfect example of the mix between the two aesthetics we were talking about. There are organic sounds — a bunch of clapping that happens and some water stuff — but then there’s also a bunch of glockenspiel and violin, so it kind of mixes both things together. So it will be a fun way to show all the different work we put into the score in one cue. I’m excited to do it.
It's also nice because, in terms of Nashville, I really kind of live in a bubble here where the only thing I do is the pop-songwriter stuff. So everybody here has kind of heard about the film-score stuff for the last two and a half years that I’ve lived in town, and no one’s seen any of the movies unless we’re at SXSW and they happen to catch a screening or something. So it’s a cool way to get people who are in my band and all my friends to be a part of the performance and to go and see the movie and see, "Hey, this makes sense, it's real now. He wasn’t just making it up."
I was talking to a friend the other day about the film and your score, and we discussed the possibility that you have the best job out there. Then you emailed me back to tell me you were free all week — which I thought pretty much confirmed it. This is one of those questions that is actually a statement that you can respond to.
Well, what I would say is there’s two pieces to that. The first is, I would love — and this is a subtle way of saying that I don’t really make money off of film scores — but I would love for Cold Weather to be the thing that allowed me make money from film scores or to make another movie. The cool thing that I’ve experienced out of the independent film side of stuff versus the pop music side of my career is that people love movies and they attach to movies and they’re smart people and really passionate people. Probably since the day Quiet City came out, or at least since its been on Netflix and IFC pretty regularly, I get an email every three weeks from an awesome, intelligent person whose making a movie and wants me to score their movie and none of them have money. So I try to figure out a way to either give a new score or work on or actually do them as much as I can, so it has given me the opportunity to meet a bunch of really cool, young people. One guy, Matt Jay, I scored his movie The Mountain Crumbles, and then he directed a video for me and he just finished working on Meek’s Cutoff, that new Kelly Reichardt movie. ...
The good news is that in terms of being a practical career model, film scoring could be a really cool way for me to not have to worry about how broken the pop-music model is. It could be a good way for me to make money and not have to do the other thing. That’s a thought at least.
It is the best job in the world for me. Because I went to film school, I associate a lot of times with movies before I associate with music. So this gives me a way to play a really significant part in film still. The cool thing about scoring a movie is that you get the opportunity that no one else gets. If there’s a scene and a woman’s sitting outside in the backyard, and her husband comes to the door and is just holding a cup of coffee, looking out at her sitting with her eyes closed in the backyard, they can't say anything about what that connection is. The director can kind of say something and the cinematographer can kind of do something with how he frames it and with how the light hits everything. But I’m the one person who gets to tap one piano note, and that’s the acknowledgement of what it is. I get this opportunity to do these subtle things and say things that no one can say. It’s like the Chekhov thing. The best part about Chekhov to me is it's people eating dinner and everyone’s being civil, but one step beneath that everyone’s lives are falling apart. That’s the work that I get to do, which I love.
So what’s next for you now?
Well, now we’re in the midst of a very music-oriented push because SXSW is all of March and we just released this EP and a 7”, so we’re spending the next couple of months promoting that. But right now, we’re really just happy with the legs that Cold Weather’s getting. The big hope every time we make one of these movies is, let's just hope this gets us one more movie. That’s the hope right now — that the same team that made this movie, that we get to do it again and not in four years or something. That’s the hope — that we can continue to do this more regularly.