Why Kevin Costner's cowboy soundtrack came from Scotland's 'wild west'

There is a huge list of credits on the end of Kevin Costner’s latest film Horizon: An American Saga.

Hardly surprising, given it is three hours and one minute long and just part of a four-film vision which the Hollywood actor and director has wanted to make for almost 40 years.

Among those names is a Scottish orchestra which played a central role in the film, released in cinemas this past weekend.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) was approached by Costner last year to record the soundtrack for the film.

Composer John Debney – whose credits include Elf and The Passion of the Christ - had worked with the RSNO before.

“We had no scope for recording in LA, so I offered a few options,” he said.

“We considered London, and Nashville but when I mentioned Scotland, Kevin’s eyes lit up.”

Both Debney and Costner came to the RSNO Centre last August and spent five days recording the soundtrack.

“I think it’s one of the greatest moments of the filmmaking process, to be in the scoring session," Costner told BBC Scotland News.

"I work harder on getting the cameras and the screens into the room and let John (Debney) do the heavy lifting but I wanted the musicians to see and that was a new experience for them to see the film and meet the filmmaker and be a part of it and I think they really responded to that.

"You can be a minimalist and get back or take a bold run and match the landscape and John’s talent meant he matched the landscape.

"Music is important but it’s important to get the right guy and for Horizon, John Debney was the right guy."

Although the RSNO is known for its recording work, it is only since moving into its own purpose-built centre in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall complex in 2015 that it has been able to develop permanent facilities.

“It was a thrill to give them a chance to play on a canvas so big," Costner said. "All we wanted to do was make them feel a part of it because we knew the difference they were making.

"It’s a thing I want to have out there that people can find and watch and revisit and marvel at the scenery and the performances and this music which is a magic carpet of emotion that just picks you up and takes you away the moment the first stake goes in the ground.”

As lead trumpet player with the Philharmonia orchestra in London, Alistair Mackie regularly worked on soundtracks at Abbey Road.

When he became CEO of the RSNO in 2019, he saw a chance for the orchestra to pick up on the demand for recording work.

Two years ago, they launched their own studio for film, television and games soundtrack recording.

As the only orchestra in the UK with in-house facilities to record sound to picture, they have secured a range of clients including Warner Bros, Netflix, Sony, Disney and Apple TV.

But it can be months or years before the orchestra can admit involvement in projects.

“We’re doing a lot of work on movies and video games but we have to sign non-disclosure agreements so we have to respect the privacy of the clients who come here until the film is released and then we can shout about it,” Mackie said.

Projects since released include the films The Woman King and Argylle, TV show Life on Our Planet and the video games Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and Star Wars Outlaw.

And, of course, Horizon: An American Saga, which earned Costner an 11-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival when it was screened there in May.

“Kevin Costner was very active in the film making process,” Mackie said.

“He didn’t want to sit in the control room, he wanted to sit with the musicians in the recording studio so we found him a sofa and sent someone round to John Lewis to get the biggest possible television screen so he could watch the film while he was listening.

"He was fabulous to work with and it was great to see him there in the middle of the film-making process.”

Costner is passionate about Westerns. He directed and starred in Dances With Wolves in 1990, which won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

He and composer John Debney had previously worked together on the American TV series Hatfields and McCoys and bonded over their mutual admiration for the 1962 film How The West Was Won.

They both hoped to return to Glasgow at the beginning of June for the recording of the soundtrack for the second Horizon film, which is due to be released in August.

That proved impossible, with both composer and director tied up with post-production in LA.

But they were able to join the recording sessions virtually, thanks to the newly expanded control room in the Glasgow studio.

“The development of technology has been mind-blowing,” Debney said.

“I can sit in my studio in Burbank, California and I’m talking to everyone in Glasgow in real time. I can hear the music play, talk to the engineer, and talk to the conductor.

“Not as good as being there but it’s the next best thing. And hopefully we’ll come next time.”

Costner is already planning the third film in the four-part epic. Much will depend on the success of the first two but they hope to work with the RSNO again.

“I am a little worried they’ll get so much film music they won’t have time for me,” Debney said.

“But we’ve been blown away – Kevin and I – by the passion, the professionalism, the accuracy, and the joie de vivre of this orchestra. They’re as big a part of the filmmaking process as the editor, and the cinematographer.”

Costner said: "I’m desperate to make a third film. If I could pack up everyone I love and put them on a jet and bring them, it would be a moment they’d never forget.

"To hear 90 pieces of an orchestra playing as one. It’s one of the highlights of making movies and once you see it, you never forget it.

"Technology can make us lazy but it can facilitate us with a great problem but really I want to walk back into that room and sit with those people that make such a difference.”

Costner added: “I look forward to walking the streets of Glasgow and dipping in to listen to these musical angels.”

In challenging times for public funding, the revenue stream from soundtrack recording is an important one for the RSNO, but it is also a useful way for the orchestra to reach as wide an audience as possible.

“I want this orchestra to be relevant to every community in Scotland,” Mackie said.

“You might not like classical music – and that’s ok - but when you go to the cinema you can hear Scotland’s national orchestra playing on these soundtracks.

"This stuff goes all over the world and is listened to by millions of people and Scotland’s name travels with that music and these wonderful films.”