We meet Keegan DeWitt: The Composer of HBO’s Divorce and member of the band Wild Cub

Ahead of the premiere of the new half hour HBO comedy series Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, we meet Keegan DeWitt, the composer of the series and member of the band Wild Cub. He talks to us about how he came to be a part of the series,  we learn a bit about the creative process behind it and we also look at some of his recent film work, including the brilliant Morris From America.

How did the opportunity to compose music for the show come about for you? Did they reach out to you or was it more a collaborative effort?

For Divorce, it was definitely a project that had been buzzing. My agent brought it to me and I was immediately excited to dig into, mainly because of the well known creative artists over at HBO, but also because of the amazing team behind it. I was a huge fan of Sharon Horgan because of “Catastrophe”, I had filled Sarah Jessica’s work as most people have and I was instantly excited by the prospect of getting to learn from show runner Paul Simms (“News Radio”) and one of the directors Jesse Peretz (“Girls”).

Not only was the writing and the pilot hilarious and deep, but I knew that it was a special opportunity to work with some of the most talented people out there right now.

I instantly noticed how well suited the music was to each scene or instance, were you given any brief on what kind of music to include or are you allowed more free reign?

Well, unlike the large majority of TV, HBO and the entire team really gave us the time and investment to make it special. I think that was true at every stage of the process. From the very beginning, and a lot of this really stemmed from SJ’s advocacy, we were trying to do something you unique and never just stop at the first impulse. I heard about the the project on a monday and within 10 days I was in NYC in the middle of the winter time, setting up shop in the post productions office. I would come up with a huge range of ideas, really trying to make them as different and crazy as possible. Then we’d meet every weekend, a huge group of us: Sharon, Paul, Jesse, SJ and our amazingly talented music supervisor Michael Hill. I’d just toss a bunch of ideas at them and then that’d sorta spark the conversation. It was super open and really supportive and adventurous, everybody collaborating.

It was really special in that it’s not often you have that many people with such intimidating backgrounds, all rolling up their sleeves, never flexing any ego, and just saying… “what’s the most exciting idea here?”

What are the main differences (if any) in working a musical score with a TV series than with a film?

As I said above, often time can be a huge factor. On network shows especially, you’re just chasing the cut and trying not to loose your head at any point. HBO helps make that different, especially because this was such a priority project for everyone there. So, in many ways, this project had some similarities to an indie film. We were being brave with our choices, we had time to dig in and I felt a real connection with all the creative brains. I’d have SJ shooting an email at 10pm, just excited about music and lending encouragement. I could call Paul Simms and say “is this horrible?” and have a laugh about a silly idea. It was really unique in terms of Film v. TV environment.

It goes without saying how accomplished you are within the indie film market, what was it about a television series like Divorce that made you want to be involved?

On any project, the goal is to make the process feel rewarding. If there is anything I’m proud of in my catalog of work, it’s that each project shows an undeniable collaboration with a specific definitive director/producer/writer. It’s not just a “stock sound” that I throw on every project. I really want to be entirely available to a true collaboration and transform myself, challenge myself. So this show especially, I was drawn to the idea of learning from the best an seeing how that’d shape my work.

I also was drawn to how well Sharon and the writers, as well as everyone else, captured the duality of adult life, and family especially. They bottle adulthood perfectly in that the saddest moments often feel laced with the absurd, or the most hopeful inspiring moments can come from the darkest times. This is an endlessly thrilling idea to me artistically and after seeing the pilot I thought: “they get it”.

Are you able to watch the projects you’ve done the music for, DIVORCE included, without any self-criticism? Are you able to remove yourself from the overall product so to speak and just watch it as a viewer? Or is it difficult to be objective?

I certainly had to check that at the door for Divorce, mainly because it was very clear that it was going to be high-profile before I even began. I had to instantly just forget that, especially because it’s a comedy and it’s silly and sometimes it just has to be… goofy… or work purely in service of the script. So I can’t be winning the Oscar with a huge orchestral tear jerker at every turn. I really needed to remember that I was hired there to be in service of these talented people, and always be diligent to be inspired and artistic in what I’d approach.

So there are plenty of moments where I got to stretch my wings and do something very crazy or beautiful, but then there are others where I had to play purely in service of a specific story point, it’s all a delicate trade off and balancing act. But it became very clear early on, I could not worry about the size of the audience, and remember that my job was very simple… to be as artistic and innovative as possible, but always in service of this terrific material.

Looking at one of these projects, Morris From America has been having a great run on the festival circuit, and it’s a film we loved here at The Iris. How have you felt about the reception of that film in particular?

Morris From America is, to me, like a family member in a way. Chad (the director) and I grew up together from freshman year of university and up, so we have been dreaming of making movies and then actually MAKING movies for a long time now. I flew my entire family (wife and 2 young baby girls) to Germany so we could have the entire experience of scoring the film alongside each other. We were constantly in contact, and that’s one of those films where I’m not just spotting it and scoring remotely. Chad and I are talking about the edit, about the script, about every aspect. I’m lucky in that, between Chad and a couple other directors, I’ve got some very close personal friends that I have the opportunity to make movies with. Then taking those to film festivals everywhere and seeing them grow is truly special.

How do you balance your composing work with Wild Cub, and how does a project like this influence the work you do for film and TV?

Currently, composing is the bulk of it. I was composing for film/tv long before Wild Cub, but when our record started to take off, it lead to a wild ride all over the globe. There is a new Wild Cub record that is almost complete and we’re excited to share that with the world. Sadly, it ends up falling 2nd in line to composing because scoring films has been my life ambition and was there long before it.

The record industry currently is so broken, that it can be a very troubled place to exist. It was a magical time to share our music everywhere, but it was also a welcome return when I was able to drop back into my film composing full on. Mainly because the budgets are real, the projects are varied and ever changing, and there is more freedom there.

That being said, nothing can match the feeling of knowing your song has reached someone on the other side of the globe and impacted their lives and relationships. That’s why I still fight to keep Wild Cub happening, even when my composing world makes it difficult.

Is there coming up with Wild Cub?

New record wrapping up now and hopefully out there in the world very soon.

Divorce airs on HBO in the USA from this Sunday, and it will be fast tracked to Australia on Showcase on Wednesdays from October 12 at 8.30pm.