Everyone who works with Ennio Morricone calls him “Maestro.” It’s a title that’s both deferential and affectionate for the prolific, 87-year-old composer. Since the late Fifties, he has written some 500 movie scores, including such celebrated and iconic contributions to soundtracks such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Mission and Cinema Paradiso. His music has inspired a wide swath of artists from Metallica to Celine Dion, as well as filmmakers from Sergio Leone to Bernardo Bertolucci. But despite this, he has received few film awards in the U.S. for his individual works. This year, he got a Golden Globe for his work on Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight.
“As far I am concerned, [he] is my favorite composer – and when I say ‘favorite composer,’ I don’t mean ‘movie composer,’ that ghetto, I’m talking about Mozart … Beethoven … Schubert,” the effervescent director said while accepting the trophy on Morricone’s behalf. “I have to say that I directed the movie … [so] I say thank you, and grazie, grazie.”
Tarantino’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Maestro’s contribution to The Hateful Eight is indeed a remarkable, late-career high-water mark. Cold, intense and tumultuous in equal measure, it matches the film’s crescendo of violence from its opening overture to the ending number, the single note “La Puntura Della Morte,” or the “sting of death.” But what’s curious about it is how it almost didn’t happen at all.
The filmmaker only began using original music in his movies with Django, though his admiration for Morricone is evident in the way he used old pieces of the Maestro’s scores in all of his films beginning with Kill Bill. Morricone, who scored what Tarantino has described as the “greatest achievement in the history of cinema” (1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). But when Tarantino first approached Morricone, the composer rebuffed him. “I had no time,” he remembers saying. “It was the same when Tarantino asked me to write music for [2009’s] Inglourious Basterds.”
It seems that Cinema Paradiso filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore had just booked the maestro for his upcoming movie La Corrispondenza. (Tornatore is also making a Morricone documentary, Lo Sguardo Della Musica.) “Then Mr. Tarantino came to Rome [last June] to receive the David di Donatello Award, which is a very important Italian award for filmmakers,” the composer says. “He’d sent me the script and then he came to my house. I read the script together with my wife and thought it was a wonderful story. We spent half an hour together, and it convinced me that I could do it.”
What interested him was the strength of Tarantino’s script. “It starts quite simply: we see some people on a stagecoach and the meet, almost by chance,” he says. Morricone is at home in Rome and speaks via an interpreter who, like everyone, calls him Maestro. “There is a woman who is going to be hanged when they get to the city they’re headed to, and it ends with the reading of a letter by Abraham Lincoln. All these elements impressed me.