The Secret Soul of Film is Sound

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Music is one of the most mysterious parts of a film. It can be oozy and sensual, thick and bombastic, or completely distracting and out of place. It’s a subtle art form and, if done well, hides itself almost completely in the movie-going experience.

Aside from dressing, though, what is the actual point of a score?

Ennio Morricone, the legendary Italian film composer who won the Oscar this year for “The Hateful Eight,” believes music acts as an omniscient force, a translator. “Music in a film must not add emphasis, but must give more body and depth to the story, to the characters, to the language that the director has chosen,” he tells “American Film” magazine in a 1991 interview. “It must, therefore, say all that the dialogue, image, effects, etc, cannot say.”

Morricone does not speak English. Maybe his success lies in what he doesn’t know. As with all the best film composers, he channels his imagination through a single, heightened sense–thus elevating the work as a whole.

What is it like to be so hermetic, to witness a film through the monitors of a sound room while filling in the blanks? BTRtoday speaks to celebrated indie composer Keegan DeWitt, whose recent credits include “Listen Up Philip,” starring Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss, the Oscar-winning documentary short “Inocente,” and the upcoming HBO series “Divorce” starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

“Just like anything else,” he says, “once you really dive in that deep, it’s tough to have the perspective on how successful you’ve been.” Some of DeWitt’s projects involve intense discussions and the reviewing of dailies. Others are more intuitive, like the films of Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip,” “Queen of Earth”), which come from a special chemistry. In the case of these, DeWitt sent in music and, upon reviewing early cuts, felt an immediate electricity, “like we were really working off one another.”

That’s a pretty unique situation, though. Much of the time, the process of scoring involves problem-solving.

“I’ll watch a cut and know that I have an opportunity to help push pace or accentuate moments,” DeWitt says. “I try to avoid making that assumption, though, as often my instincts might be different than a director’s.” Being out of sync with a director can be the result of bad communication or a tough shoot, but it’s not hopeless.

Hollywood is full of stories of embattled composers and tyrannical directors. Morricone himself feuded with Brian De Palma during the making of “The Untouchables,” with De Palma insisting on a more triumphant-sounding theme. James Cameron tortured James Horner with tight deadlines and a hectic work schedule on the production of “Aliens.” Both scores remain classics.

DeWitt has survived in part because of his good attitude. He’s able to meet a director’s needs and values the exchange. “I always find that the most rewarding projects are ones where the filmmaker is approaching the scoring process as a fresh opportunity for inspiration.” Perhaps the director is overprotective of the film or has lost sight of it. Keegan provides this new perspective, a much-needed break in the ego.

“Sometimes you can encounter people who feel a little anxious about really diving in and being open to being surprised that late in the game,” he explains. Some don’t communicate well and fail to see him for what he is. “I’m really there, not only to help them and their project succeed, but because I have a unique and exciting set of talents. I bring a whole wealth of experience and inspirations that are unique to me.”

Good communication doesn’t have to be excessive, however.

“Great directors know how to give you their briefing, engage you in talking about what inspires them, and then give you room to be creative,” DeWitt adds.

Too much interaction can kill the mystery. So, too, can an attachment to a temp score (a piece of music used in place of a yet-to-be-completed soundtrack), and a refusal to see “something really exciting that, while not exactly what they expected or asked for, really works in an unforeseen way.”

Scoring is profoundly psychological, as Morricone hints at. How connected a composer gets to the characters and their secret language is up to them.

“I really try and work in the world of the intangible,” DeWitt says. “Score is really conscious in many ways. It’s an instinctual thing and it should be complicated and tough to put a finger on, just like human emotions.”

Instead of blindly supporting the narrative, he might swerve in a different direction, the way we all do under the surface.

“I try and just sit in front of the keyboard and let something about the scene speak to me, and let it be as tectonic as possible,” he continues. “Score is a powerful thing in that, if you use it right, a single piano note can say something about a scene or a shot or a single line of dialogue.” And as there is a tacit need for space among collaborators, DeWitt also tries not to get in his own way. He consciously makes room for sparseness and impulsivity.

Another tradition in the world of film scoring is the rock band. Danny Elfman had Oingo Boingo, Mark Mothersbaugh had Devo, and Keegan DeWitt has Wild Cub, an indie group based in Nashville. However, the rock band is one perspective Keegan doesn’t need in his film life. “I always tried to really separate those two worlds for myself,” he says. “I felt, whether it was true or not, that being perceived as ‘someone from a band’ who then scored films… was a little bit of a chink in the arm.”

The aesthetic is totally separate, too. DeWitt is adamant that he’d never throw a band’s song into a film haphazardly, that the driving forces behind the two are so opposed.

“The band is more a creative outlet where I get to be playful and get some energy out,” he clarifies. “I do often wish they could exist exclusively and have no one connect the dots, because I have very different views of them.”