Interview: Composer Jeff Beal Explores the Possibilities of Jazz in ‘Raymond & Ray’

How can you bury what’s left unresolved? That’s the question at the heart of Raymond & Ray, Apple TV+’s new film tells the story of brothers Raymond (Ewan McGregor) and Ray (Ethan Hawke) who must dig the grave of their deceased estranged father. Written and directed by Rodrigo García, Raymond & Ray is a dark, funny, and intimate look at the strange way relationships grow and tangle.

The film also offers a realm of familiar and new possibilities for Jeff Beal. The prolific composer (most well known for his Emmy-winning House of Cards score) finds himself writing a trumpet and jazz score as a trumpet and jazz player. I had the opportunity to talk to Beal about his approach to scoring Raymond & Ray, his influence on Ethan Hawke’s performance, and why his Spotify Wrapped made him love film scoring even more.

[Note: the following interview has been edited for clarity]

Awards Radar: How did you first hear about Raymond & Ray and came to be attached?

Jeff Beal: I had worked with writer/director Rodrigo García on Carnivàle years ago for HBO, which he directed a few episodes of, and I’m a jazz trumpet player. Around the same time I had done a jazz score for a movie starring Helen Mirren called The Passion of Ayn Rand. And he asked for a copy of the movie and he loved the score. Then back in 2019, I got a script from him. I started reading it and on the third page, I see that one of the characters is a jazz trumpet player. So I said, “Okay, this is making sense.” So that’s sort of how it began. [I’m] a big fan of Rodrigo’s and it’s really fun I get to work with him again.

AR: So the element of you being a trumpet player and having a trumpet player main character made you think, “Oh it’s meant to be?”

JB: It was a thrill. That’s how I started my musical life. I grew up playing jazz trumpet. In my 20s and 30s I was doing some solo records, and I still play publicly occasionally, but that was really what I was doing. I was always composing but [that] part of my career was later. It feels full circle; that I can sort of bring back [the trumpet] that I’ve used it in my scores a lot. On House of Cards the trumpet is all me playing and also on many other scores. I don’t always put it in because it’s a very specific sound. So you have a film that’s such a nice film, and also features my instrument and being able to play great pieces for Ethan [Hawke] to learn and perform is really fun.

AR: Since jazz is an important thematic part to Ray’s character and it’s a major part of your background, how did you kind of use your expertise of the specific types of trumpet and jazz styles that you would associate with him?

JB: [With] trumpet players, there’s a lot of different styles. It’s funny because Ethan actually played him in a previous movie but I love the playing of Chet Baker. It’s very lyrical and a little bit misty-eyed and a little bit moody. It felt like that was kind of the vibe of Ray’s personality. But there’s also a fire in his belly. So maybe that’s a little bit more like Freddie Hubbard, especially when he plays at the grave. It’s a requiem but he’s also letting go of some angst from his father telling him that maybe he wasn’t good enough to be an artist. This is an interesting question because really, as a jazz musician, it’s almost like everything I’ve done has informed my composing. Every score isn’t a jazz score but that sensibility of improvisation. The idea that things happen organically is always part of my aesthetic. In this particular film—I will add that it was really fun—when we go to the jazz club and we hear a band I created all that music as well. It’s also a score. Obviously, I wrote and performed the piece at the grave site. But when it comes to the jazz club, I wrote all that music. And then when Ray sits in with the band, that’s also an original piece. If you’re a writer and you see a movie about writers you probably have a certain comfort level if they get it right. So [as a musician] it was nice to be able to do justice to this music and hopefully celebrate [jazz music] in the film.

AR: Do you get that opportunity often to be involved with a film earlier in the process? I believe most composers often come on board later, after the movie has been filmed.

JB: Occasionally, it’s really fun when I do! Years ago I had a TV show called Ugly Betty. We had several times where I’d write songs for some of the actors to sing, for Vanessa Williams or Michael Uriah, and I started to do those as pre-records. But not often, to be honest with you. It’s really sort of rare, so it was a treat to be able to do this kind of piece.

AR: Going back to crafting score for Raymond & Ray, Ray has this very jazzy trumpet motif to him. And then you have Raymond. So how do you then differentiate in a dual character piece? Because to me, when I listened to the score again, I felt like Raymond had more of the piano behind him, these softer elements. When you were making the score were you trying to differentiate between the two characters? And differentiate the jazz influences?

JB: Yeah, definitely. [With] Ray we think about the trumpet. We weren’t sure how much to put in but a lot of Ray’s cues had that trumpet in the background. I started using the piano definitely for Raymond, he has that great scene when he goes into his Dad’s open coffin viewing. And it’s really uncomfortable, it’s sort of this weird twisted piano sound. I also use the bass a lot, I liked that as an instrument: the jazz bass. I felt like that represented the Father, but also represented a little bit of Raymond’s energy and his attraction to the woman who was with his father, Lucia. He’s sensitive, very uncomfortable in his own skin, but still having amorous urges towards her. There’s also an element of irony and humor in the whole piece. Part of what the music and the jazz allowed me to do was hopefully give the audience permission to laugh a little bit at the discomfort of this horrible tough journey that the two brothers go on. 

AR: When you were working on it, was there a specific scene you remember reading, or maybe watching during filming, that the score popped out to you or a certain vision just came to mind?

JB: I think there were a couple in this film. One scene early on I really love is at the beginning, it’s almost like a chore. They don’t really like this dad but they gotta go dig his grave. Ethan’s character is especially hesitant. Raymond has some sense of purpose, like “we got to do this,” but then they get to the room where he died. They’ve walked through and see all the family photos and they see the medicine on the shelf. I’m thinking about this too because my dad is 90 and it’s that season where you see your parents get really old towards the end. So their hearts melt a little bit and they start to maybe think about their childhood. I really love the opportunity that gave me to plant the seeds of some sort of catharsis. Not only for their relationship with their dad but the relationship with each other. Probably for all kids that lose their parents it can bring you closer to your siblings. I definitely see that as a really nice thing that happens, the two brothers start to connect and support each other a little bit more. 

The other scene that was really beautiful was a little later when Ray is talking with the nurse who helped this was with his dad, she talks about his dad listening to the music. That just really gets into Ray because he thought his dad didn’t even care about his artistry. No matter how old you get you’re always a child of somebody, and that approval of a parent is [always wanted], we are just wired that way. And the way Ray responds to the idea that maybe his dad really did care and was listening, [the film] leaves it kind of mysterious. But that haunting urge of Ray’s to try to heal that part of himself through his dad’s secret admiration of his artistic gift was a really beautiful moment. And it’s some great acting too.

AR: Did you imagine what the song he could have been listening to was or if it might be something that Ray played a lot? 

JB: Here’s an interesting thing: the solo that he plays at the grave, it’s sort of improvised, but it is a little tune. So maybe the solo at the grave was a song that Ray had worked on or played [throughout] his life as a trumpet player that maybe his father had heard. That was kind of in my mind as what it was. And actually I quoted a little snippet of that theme in a few places in the score.

AR: Did [Ethan Hawke] do his own trumpet playing?

JB: No, he didn’t. But we wanted the audience to think that he is playing every note. I recorded [all the pieces] in New York. The piece at the grave I recorded and I made a film of it so [Hawke] could study the physicality of it, the fingerings. We sent it a month before they started shooting.. He studied it and he did a great job. It was not an easy piece, and the same thing when he’s in the club. He actually played another jazz trumpet player, Chet Baker, a couple of years ago in a wonderful film called Born to be Blue. So luckily for us and for Rodrigo he had already spent some time getting a trumpet and learning how to play in preparing for this role which was great. It’s a strange instrument you got this piece of metal up on your face, the muscles in your face are sort of working in a certain way. And he really understood how to make that real on screen.

AR: And then you could always nitpick it if anything was incorrect! 

JB: Yeah, especially the solo at the grave was incredibly difficult to learn because there’s no tempo reference. It’s all sort of this free time. So every little breath he had to really memorize exactly how many milliseconds that was and when the fingers started moving again and he really did a great job.

AR: When I was watching, I felt like Raymond & Ray almost feels like a play because it’s these small casts and a lot of the drama unfolds through these tight conversations. And plays aren’t often associated with having a score behind them. As a composer, how did you see fitting your music into something that feels so dominated by character conversation?

JB: Excellent question. It’s like a chamber piece so there’s an intimacy to it that you want to respect. I love these types of projects musically because they’re all about the acting, they’re all about the performance. So the music can hopefully be there in the room supporting what’s happening and also getting out of the way. It’s not wall to wall, that’s for sure. Then every once in a while it opens up and we get some release. Another favorite scene is at the gravesite when finally they’ve dug the grave. And the two brothers who turn out to be acrobats start to [perform]. It’s this little beautiful moment of reprise and I love it in the film because you think the funeral is going to be sad. It’s a tragic thing but most times when you go to something like that everybody gets together and you actually see your family. It turns out by the time everybody leaves they’re laughing and sharing stories. That idea of duality of the emotional experience, the highs and lows, was definitely something I wanted to try to give the film [through the music].

AR: When you’re scoring a film like this, or even most films, are you often thinking about “Should the music in this scene be more mood setting or acting as an emotional undertone?” Or sometimes a score completely changes what’s happening visually. So how do you decide which roles the music plays?

JB: I love the way that you referred to it almost feels like a play. It’s very precise writing. And Rodrigo, maybe it’s his Hispanic roots in that art form of storytelling, but there is a sense of Fellini or poetry in Rodrigo’s work which I really love. In a way it is very realistic but there are also ways in which the film feels like a fable often. A great example is when Raymond goes down into the grave and he just wants to sit in there and feel what it’s like. Then Lucia is walking around singing, there’s a cue that comes in and it almost becomes a Fellini movie. In this film, we don’t really know where we are, we’re somewhere in middle America, right? But I feel like the music in this particular movie is all about the unconscious, whatever is happening in the unconscious part of the hearts and brains of all these people. Rodrigo said something the other day which I really liked, he talked about memory. He thought this film is really about memory. It’s these brothers connecting with their childhood [and] reckoning with the ghosts of the past. So I think about metaphor a lot, actually. The music in this movie is playing some metaphorical role towards memory, childhood, [and the] present day. All the nonverbal stuff, that’s what I love about film. People talk a lot in movies but I often find the most interesting part of the film is what’s not said, what you project onto people. That’s where I think music enters where the words can’t go, words can go so far but they can’t go all the way down into the emotional depths of what we’re feeling now. 

AR: Yeah, I feel like there’s like a world where the acrobats come out and it all sounds like circus music but there’s this quietness that’s throughout. It even ends so quietly, it’s just them going off into the distance. 

JB: No, it’s true! It’s like this balloon where the air is always gonna come out, you have this thought that “Ah, it’s all gonna be okay.” Or at the end after the jazz club when you think maybe [Ray] and Kiera are gonna get together and he just can’t get in the car with her. Then he runs after the car but it’s always the two steps forwards, three steps back kind of feeling. It’s almost like tragic comedy in a way. The thing that I love about [the film] is when I was on set with Ethan the day he shot the trumpet scene he said something really beautiful. What he loved about doing the movie he said, “There’s no explosions, there’s not a lot of crazy plot twists. It’s just about that strange world that it’s trying to create [that] feels much more like how real life happens.” When you do as well as these actors do they disappear. You forget that you’re actually watching performance and scripting. I also thought Ethan said something in Toronto when we premiered the film that spoke to me a lot. Rodrigo in the writing of this, what I think you’re almost alluding to in a funny way in your question, is a way this film deals with the awkward way men sometimes express their emotions. [It] often can be inelegant because we’re just kind of raised that way or we’re wired that way. This is a very typical but often sideways and jagged road that they take towards self discovery.

AR: After [Raymond & Ray] are there any specific types of film projects that you’d be interested in taking on? Something new that you haven’t approached before or if there are any directors or other mediums that you would really like to work with in the future?

JB: I think everybody has a bucket list and I’ve got a few on mine. I’ve been lucky to work with some of them. There are several [directors] that I really admire, you know, directors, you know, I love Barry Levinson’s work. I love Darren Aronofsky. I love Alejandro González Iñárritu, I’m a big fan of his work. But I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve worked with David Fincher, Ed Harris, and Rodrigo. At this point in my career, I’m doing a lot of concert music which is really fun, I’m working on a violin concerto. I’m also branching out into things that I feel like made me a better film composer to further propel my growth. It’s dangerous and sometimes in a career you can get too comfortable, you know how to do it. I like the feeling of being a little scared. Can I really pull this off?

AR: Is there any style of music you’ve never really tried to approach? Maybe to try next?

JB: Yeah, it’s funny. I love electronic music and I’m known as the literate guy. People come to me for orchestra scores or chamber-y piano scores. It’d be really fun. Actually, I haven’t done a big orchestral score before. I’ve done a lot of scores with orchestras, but it’d be fun to do something sweeping, where you can have a really big romantic film that would be really fun. I’ve never done one of those

AR: A little bit of John Williams bombast? 

JB: Yeah! Every film composer dreams of those things, we get our own little versions of it. I love epic and I’ve been able to do epic but it’s through a slightly different lens. [I did] HBO’s Rome years ago, and then obviously House of Cards had a lot of operatic size to it.

AR: So when you do film versus TV, is TV a much longer ordeal since it’s more episodes? Because I often feel like TV scores are usually not much longer than a film score. I’ll go to the album on Spotify and it’s only an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

JB: Yeah, that’s definitely not all the music and most series, like for House of Cards, It really depends on the series and how much music is written. Generally if you score all the episodes of an episodic series, you reuse some cues. But for example House of Cards, which was a pretty music heavy show, and most of our seasons were 12 or 13 episodes, if I made a playlist of all the music from a season it would be 6 hours of new stuff that I generated. But you’re not going to put out a record of six hours of music usually. So every season of House of Cards we did a soundtrack album and it was two CDs worth. That was maybe an hour and a half worth of music. But it’s not quantity, it’s more about quality and its specificity. An album is [also] a different experience you’re asking for somebody’s time. Like, “Hey, come over here, I want you to listen to all the six hours of music I created.” But without the show that’s not really the point. All that music is in service of the experience of watching the series. So I think a soundtrack album is another piece of art that you’re creating for the listener to have an hour of their time, or maybe a little more, a little less, where they can just focus on the movie. I love that about that. 

It’s funny I just got my Spotify Wrapped as we all do this time of year. As an artist I got one. So I saw how many people listen, a million listeners and 7 million streams, something like that. It’s so funny, we’re in little dark rooms so the idea that these scores we do become albums for many people, become music they really love to listen to is just really fun. I love the process of putting together a soundtrack album. Raymond & Ray was fun because it feels a little bit like a jazz record. We have the score and then I also put on the three songs from the jazz club. Maybe someday we’ll do vinyl of it because it’s just about the right length. I think it’s about 45 minutes. It’d be fun to put it on vinyl someday!


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Written by Leila Jordan

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