Ray Colcord on Scoring Heartwood

An Interview with Ray Colcord by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Ray Colcord The camera races through a great redwood forest. A boy and girl run fast through the trees. The orchestra totally carries the scene with sweeping textures and emotions beyond words. The music becomes one with the film. Composer Ray Colcord is behind this magical music. HEARTWOOD makes you laugh, cry, and feel like you were born again. With the vision of director Lanny Cotler and the orchestral film score of Ray Colcord, HEARTWOOD comes to life. Raised in Texas, Colcord got involved in the music scene in New York, working as an A&T rep, keyboard player, and music director for an improvisational comedy group. Composing synth scores for the improv group gave Colcord some practice in underscoring drama, and he soon found a home composing music for cable and network TV projects. Since 1982 he has scored seven feature films and some 600 episodes of television. From his excellent score in HEARTWOOD to his recent television project KV-5, the emotional power of his music speaks out.

Why did you get into film scoring?
I think it’s emotional. When you see film and you hear the music, either you’re moved by it, excited by it, thrilled by it, or you’re not – and I always was. I’ve been all over the place, in a professional boys’ choir, a rock and roll keyboard player, a record producer, but the most thrilling moments as a fan were always watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, EXODUS, GONE WITH THE WIND, or THE GREAT ESCAPE.
I think that most people who get into film scoring have to have two things. You have to be passionate about film music and the effect of the combined picture and music. Also, you have to hear music in your head when you see a picture. I can’t imagine trying to score if you didn’t feel empathy for the picture and have something calling to you, telling you what possible styles you should be working in, what tempos you might be in. What excites me the most is music combined with picture, it’s really moving, exciting, mysterious, grand and powerful.

How did you get the job to score HEARTWOOD?
HEARTWOOD is an independent film with a $3,000,000.00 budget made by two brothers. They came to L.A. looking for a composer. It was a small package for a feature film, $50,000. They interviewed a number of people, we met, and they kept interviewing for weeks and weeks. For whatever reasons, based on some of the music I had done that they had heard, after many meetings they decided to give me the shot.
I wrote about 56 minutes of music and demo’d it very extensively. I did that for two reasons: I wanted them to be confident in the music I was writing, but more importantly, I wanted to convince them with elaborate demos how much the film could be helped with a real orchestra.
Finally, as we got close to scoring, I managed to convince them that this was the last chance to really elevate the film. I asked them to double the music budget so we could afford an orchestra. They went back to their investors and got another $50,000. That bought me 9 hours with 47 pieces. We did it here in Los Angeles under the low budget film agreement, all union. I was obviously very happy to have an orchestra to record this melodic, romantic, emotional score. There’s just no comparison to what an orchestra’s going to bring to it. We just hit home runs throughout the whole session; it was just one of those blessed couple of days when everything seemed to go right.

heartwoodExplain your method of scoring in HEARTWOOD?
The first thing you have to do is spot the film. You have to get to get together with the producer and the director, then decide what style of music is appropriate for the score. You’re going to have some pretty free ranging discussions about style. That was not a big controversy in this film; they had a lot of sweeping shots of redwoods. It was a sweet story, it was romantic, and there was a lot of time spent in the redwoods, which is sort of a quiet spiritual place, so it called for an emotional, evocative, poignant kind of score.
So we established the style by spotting, then you have to establish, with the director and producer, the specific places where the music’s going to be and what it’s going to accomplish. In this case the spotting was very detailed, there were a lot of things going on that weren’t necessarily apparent, that had to be made apparent for the film to work. I almost always work from picture, get a video and watch it. Usually the picture tells you something. It wants a certain style, tempo, and rhythm.
Then I sit with the video at the keyboards with samplers, strings, brass, piano, oboe, and woodwinds, whatever. I improvise and try themes and styles against the picture. You’ll find ten different ways to score a picture, two or three of them will seem in the ball park. Then you have to adjust it based on your spotting notes. I get my themes and ideas by playing instruments against the picture, but when it comes time to think out in detail something that’s quite complicated, like a Main Title that had to include three or four different styles and tempos, then I have to put it down on paper. I find going to the paper forces you to organize your thoughts on a higher level.
The big cues had to be written out on paper, sketched at least six to eight lines wide. That’s the only way to have two or three melodies intertwined and have them work, you simply can’t fake that. You’ve got to look at it harmonically on paper and do the final analysis. In HEARTWOOD, none of the mock-up made it into the score except for some deep chiffer pipes, they sound like a giant recorder.
If a recorder was six feet in diameter and a hundred yards long, that sound became a sound associated with the big redwoods. That wasn’t a sound that could be made with a real instrument, so that stayed. Also, I bolstered the bass violas a little bit to get that bottom fundamental you hear in theaters now, just because we only had two bass violas. With those exceptions, everything else was orchestra.

Do you think HEARTWOOD helps throw you into the, limelight of this industry?
It’s one step. We’ll see how the film does. I just don’t think a film this small is going to come out and get huge national acclaim. It happens every once in a while, but the rule of thumb is that it’s one or two films a year. You really need a breakthrough film that gets you national attention. For David Arnold it was STARGATE, for Mychael Danna, THE SWEET HEREAFTER and THE ICE STORM have put him on the national map. You need something that really grabs some attention to be moved up into the rank of the fifty guys who work all the time. I don’t know if this will do it, but it’s certainly going to help. I couldn’t be prouder of the score I created here.

What is your dream project in scoring a film?
A film that is hugely emotional, romantic, and poignant, where the audience is moved a lot. That’s what’s great to score, something that’s already moving where you can join into something that’s already successful, that’s great.

What are your future plans in scoring?
I’m very close to finishing my 600th television episode. The last project I did was a one hour special for ABC called KV-5, about the exploration of the largest tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. HEARTWOOD should come out soon after this.

A special thanks to Robert Messinger of Vangelas Management far arranging this interview.

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