The Sound of a Panic Attack: Composer Keegan DeWitt on Her Smell
What does self-destruction sound like? In Her Smell, the sixth film from Alex Ross Perry, it takes many forms: a nasty laugh, a frenetic synth loop, a warble of radio static. The sounds come hard and relentless. A raw sound wave, warped to mimic the syncopations of a demented drum machine, serves as its palpitating heartbeat. For reasons I can’t fully explain, it’s a sound that induces instant anxiety.
Her Smell sounds, and unfolds, like a panic attack. The urge to self-destruct hounds its central character, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), just as music dogs viewers for most of its 134 minutes. Such is the work of Keegan DeWitt, the 38-year-old composer behind the curious and confrontational sounds of Her Smell. DeWitt has had a fruitful five years as a musician for the screen. He’s scored Perry’s last three features (Golden Exits, Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip) along with a number of Sundance-debuts (Hearts Beat Loud, Bisbee ’17) and TV shows (Divorce, The OA). He’s also a member of the Nashville-based band Wild Cub, which made the talk show rounds in 2014 with their indie hit “Thunder Clatter.”
DeWitt here flexes an avant-garde muscle you won’t hear in his previous film and TV work. In our discussion below, he refers to this score by turns as “a weird John Cage thing” and “a ruthless exploration of the limitations of what you could call a film score.” Perry has said that the backstage-biopic Jobs served as a key inspiration for the structure of Her Smell, which unfolds in five distinct acts. DeWitt sought a similar, manic-Sorkin energy–he likens the sound here to watching The West Wing “in one-and-a-half time speed.”
DeWitt has crafted a score as aggressive (and, likely for some, as off-putting) as Becky Something herself. It’s a loud personality, impossible to tune out. The film charts the manic-depressive swings of Something, a ’90s rock star on a death trip, to quote Iggy Pop. DeWitt speaks with Filmmaker below about how he created the guttural soundbed that rumbles beneath Perry’s new feature. Her Smell starts its theatrical run in New York on April 12.
Filmmaker: This score really rattled me. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to tell you that.
DeWitt: I was sitting with Alex yesterday, and we were talking about this. I think we’re both a little surprised that people find it so intense. We wanted it to feel like a wild ride, but I think people are referring to the first hour like it’s a Gaspar Noé film or something. That being said, we definitely wanted people to feel like they’re on the edge of having a panic attack, especially during that first act backstage. It was an ongoing issue to mix it. You’ve got dialogue, you’ve got the diegetic noise of people talking in the background and you’ve got the score, which is so intense and so not just a bunch of cellos.
Filmmaker: Did you work on the sound design as a whole? I’m curious if the yelling was part of the tracks you created.
DeWitt: Yeah. Especially during the “red room” sequence in act three, there’s an entire sample loop of just people screaming. That makes it sound way more intense than it is. It’s more like samples of people on the radio arguing. There’s also a fake crowd noise thing that we mixed in. It’s a sort of white noise that runs throughout the entire thing.
Filmmaker: This was your fourth time working with Alex Ross Perry. How would you describe the sound he was looking for before anything was recorded or gathered?
DeWitt: A key piece of this is Robert Greene, the editor. He and I have a process that I don’t have with anybody else. I’ll give him cues, but I’ll also give him stems—isolated instruments from each of those cues. He and Alex will really go in and chop things up and rearrange it. The demos for this were a bunch of long-form improvisations and samples, which they cut up, and I went back and made them flow together by adding and subtracting some things. So it’s really a collaboration between the three of us.
In terms of what we talked about it sounding like, Alex from the beginning was really obsessed with Phantom of the Opera. He was like, “I want to have this feeling where we keep hearing these same things coming back, and then by the end they culminate into these big swells.” Which we tried to do, and it just sort of felt like we’d beat everybody up enough at that point. It was a more nuanced thing that we were trying to accomplish narratively at the end of the film.
Filmmaker: To me it sounds like a weird, stylized version of hearing a band tune or warm up from a green room, which is where much of the film takes place. Was this part of the idea?
DeWitt: Yeah. I was a little hesitant to do anything that sounded like band instruments. I never wanted people to confuse the band’s music with the score. It started with this idea of using raw sound waves and shaping them into drum sounds. [The sound] is being driven by a computer clock and has this weird syncopated distance to it. It has this insistence that can instantly give you anxiety. That was my first key into the sound. I was influenced by the cinematography of walk-and-talk stuff. I was trying to think of what it would feel like to take West Wing and watch it in one-and-a-half time speed. Or Punch-Drunk Love or Magnolia or things like that where you have these long takes that are sort of unrelenting and flowing.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask if there were any reference points for the score, because Punch-Drunk Love did come to mind. Was that a film you guys had discussed?
DeWitt: For sure. It was something that I wanted to pay a brief homage to, but then make it feel like what would happen if you transported that forward 20 years and sent it through a blender.
Filmmaker: Were there any other reference points in terms of the music?
DeWitt: When I sat down to build the tracks, it was one of the few times when I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I thought, “OK, I want to mix the sound of someone walking in the snow with a dog barking in the distance with this crazy weird synth drum with the sound of a pipe organ.” I liked the fact that it almost felt like a weird John Cage thing. I was constantly trying to play organic, non-timed sounds against things that were strictly timed and computer-driven. I would sit down and think, “How do I use this synthesizer and make it sound like an organ?” Or I would take a sample of a real organ and think, “How do I make this sound like a synthesizer?”
Filmmaker: Were there other musicians involved, or did you play everything we’re hearing along with the samples?
DeWitt: No, it’s all me. It’s all stuff that I’m either playing on the Eurorack, the modular synth, or stuff I’ve collected with my tape recorder, or just random samples from a saxophone.
Filmmaker: Have you spent much time in green rooms and at backstage at shows yourself?
DeWitt: Ironically, I have. I was in a band for five years where all we did was tour nonstop. It was never a climate that was like what you see in the film. It was a lot of bored people on their iPhones.
Filmmaker: How would you describe that sound, what you hear when you’re in a green room?
DeWitt: In general there’s a lot of stuff that’s super muffled. I took the high frequencies out of things. A lot of the rhythmic stuff is super low, super guttural. You almost feel it with your belly more than you hear it tonally. Then the things that are brought to the front are weird things like radio static or random reverse cymbal sucks. They’re things that are a little more like radio static happening within Lizzie’s brain.
Filmmaker: Your score is super prominent except for one scene that takes places in Becky’s home when she’s sober and off the grid. And then she steps outside, and we begin to hear the score again. I’m curious what you think your score embodies within the world of the film.
DeWitt: I think there’s a couple of things in play. One, you need to have some absence of sound at that point just to let everybody gather themselves. But also, as Alex described it, this is her moment of equilibrium. He really wanted to make it feel like by the time she walks out of the house, we see her face, we’re about to pivot to the next scene, and you get this impression that she’s not finished yet. You get this sense that there’s a thing at work inside of her, that has a grip on her, that’s not finished with her yet. That’s a lot of what the music is: It’s this thing that’s constantly dragging her forward. She can’t get exorcized of it.
Filmmaker: How was this experience different for you from Hearts Beat Loud, another music-driven film you scored in 2018?
DeWitt: Substantially different (laughs). One is a ruthless exploration of the limitations of what you could call a film score. With Heart Beats Loud, because there was so much live music, we thought, “How do we make music that doesn’t feel like we’re adding too much to people’s plates?” It’s more like a nice breath. That’s a film to bring people in with its non-judgmentalness. It’s like, “Let’s just warm everybody’s hearts,” whereas this film is the polar opposite of that.
Filmmaker: It was fascinating that you had both those credits in the same year – two radically different, music-driven films.
DeWitt: I’m driven to it because it gives me a wide breadth of things to do and explore. It’s not like Brett [Haley] was sitting there saying, “It’s gotta be safe! Make it sound safe!” It’s just a different set of challenges. I’m sure if Brett had done a movie about the same thing [as Alex], we would have been just as adventurous.
Filmmaker: Was there ever any discussion with you being involved with the songs in Her Smell?
DeWitt: Very, very early on. But, one, I’d just done it with Hearts Beat Loud, and so I wanted to embrace this as a totally different challenge. More importantly—and I’m not saying this from a place of being altruistic—I felt it was important that the songs be written by women. It’s a film about women musicians. Especially because I knew Alicia [Bognanno] from Bully. I hadn’t met Anika [Pyle] until this project; she wrote the Aker Girls song. It just was obvious. [Alicia] was made to write these songs.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned a few phrases like “panic attack.” For you personally, is this what your head sounds like during a panic attack or a moment of terror?
DeWitt: When you’re making a film like this, it’s always a delicate thing because you can’t indulge in it. It’s fun to push the limitations and be sort of contrarian about it, like “How intense can we make this?” But you also have to police yourself so you’re doing it in service of the film, not just to be provocative. I was trying to balance all of that. I always wanted to make a long-take score that’s insistent and goes here and there. You can’t ask for a more wide open playground than this. With Hearts Beat Loud or the TV shows I work on, there’s very real limitations to the kind of language musically that I can do there. I don’t think that HBO’s Divorce is going to have a 20-minute-long modular synth cue (laughs).
Filmmaker: This seems like an example of a great score that I could basically never listen to outside of the film.
DeWitt: I was thinking that as I was finishing it (laughs). “Well, there’s an audience for this. It might be a niche audience and it might be a little bit masochistic.” It’s one thing to listen to the sketches that are each three or four minutes long; that’s just like dipping your toe into that manic feeling. When you listen to the entire score front to back, it does feel like by the time you’re done you’re just exhausted. I just kept having appreciation for Robert and Alex who had to watch these sequences over and over again. For me, I can score it and send it off, and I don’t think about it as much. For them, they’ve seen it about a million times.