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.
“But what also impressed me was the violence,” he continues. “From the script, I could tell there were extremely brutal sequences but they were necessary in order to show that Tarantino himself was truly on the side of the victims.”
While they were together, Morricone dreamt up the theme for the film’s opening stagecoach ride. Pleased, Tarantino said the film had finished production and he would want the music within a month. And though he was initially hesitant, as Tarantino recalled in a Q&A following the film (as reported by Variety), Morricone realized he had a couple of weeks before Tornatore would send him his film. So, with some of the music he’d written for John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi–horror masterpiece The Thing, the composer could tender the score.
The incorporation of unused music from the Carpenter film made sense since, in a way, The Hateful Eight could be a descendant of The Thing, with its wintry setting, suspicious rogues, gallons of blood and star Kurt Russell. In the case of the 1982 movie, filmmaker John Carpenter had decided that for once he would not write the music for one of his movies by himself, as he’d done with hits like Halloween and Escape From New York; instead hired one of his heroes. “He’s fabulous and just genius,” Carpenter told Rolling Stone of the collaboration in 2014. Throbbing, eerie and as chilling as the movie’s Antarctic climes, the soundtrack evokes the paranoia and uncertainty that Russell’s character felt throughout the picture.
“Tarantino considers this film a Western; for me, this is not a Western. I wanted to do something that was totally different from any Western music I had composed in the past.”
“The collaboration with Carpenter was really something extraordinary and something very peculiar, as well,” Morricone says. “He came to Rome to show me the movie but immediately after the end of the screening, he had to rush away, so I couldn’t speak to him. I was very impressed by what I’d seen but I was concerned, because he didn’t give me any clue or indication about what he wanted.”
For his part, Carpenter recalls asking Morricone at one point for “fewer notes,” something “really simple, synth-driven, effective,” which is a perfect description of what made the final cut. But regardless the composer created a handful of pieces for Carpenter to consider. “I tried to produce different sounds in different styles,” he says. “In the end, he chose just one single piece of music. Now one of the pieces he didn’t use is in The Hateful Eight.”
Tarantino has likened the finished score, which ominously foreshadows the movie’s gory third act, to something more appropriate for a horror or giallo movie. It’s a stark contrast to what the director had in mind when he wrote the picture. “Quentin Tarantino considers this film a Western; for me, this is not a Western” Morricone says of The Hateful Eight, what he considers an adventure film. “I wanted to do something that was totally different from any Western music I had composed in the past.”
The process, though – establishing musical ideas from just thinking about the story – was somewhat similar to how Morricone worked with Leone. A composer since he was six years old and a trumpeter taught by his father, the Maestro had attended the same school as the iconic Italian director, who hired him to score his 1964 Western For a Few Dollars More. Leone was cautious of Morricone at first, as he felt the composer’s score for the 1963 Western Gunfight at Red Sands sounded too much like Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for Rio Bravo, but Morricone admitted that he’d only written it that way because he needed money and the director insisted on it. So Leone took a chance.
Morricone then went on to unclutter the sound of the Western, as relayed in Christopher Frayling’s 2012 biography Sergio Leone, since he felt American oaters came off too busy, too symphonic. Each character had a theme, and everything had purpose. Whistling evoked solitude, springy electric guitar relayed chaos. It was a sound so original it worked, and Leone continued to work with Morricone for decades. Rather than give him scripts, Leone would tell the composer the story like a fairy tale, Morricone would write music, and the director would play it on set. Although the composer had Tarantino’s script, he wrote his music for The Hateful Eight as an impression of the story and recorded it with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
“He just did the score from having read the script, not by scoring any specific scenes,” Tarantino, who was unavailable for this article, has said according to Variety. “It was all mood music. It was music he thought would be right for the film, that could fit in different moments, but nothing specific. And he just gave me the score. It was up to me to lay it in.”
Where the Maestro’s scores for Sergio Leone sounded sparse, with interplay between brass, mouth harp and dramatic singing – Clint Eastwood once remarked that the director and Morricone “operacized” the Western genre – The Hateful Eight’s music evolves into a lush orchestral work. It begins with an “Overture,” a touch reminiscent of Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, and it presents a gripping, slow-building teaser of the film’s tumultuous main themes with oboe, bells and strings wiggling about. “I had no idea Quentin would open the film that way,” Morricone says now. “I gave him five pieces of music, and I respect his choice.” The overture has reportedly drawn applause at screenings before Tarantino regular James Parks could even utter the film’s first expletive.
The movie’s main theme – “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock (Versione Integrale),” as it leads the soundtrack album – is even more suspenseful. Violins play a shrill, solitary note as low, powerful bassoons worm up with the theme of the overture. A stagecoach traverses a snowy terrain on the screen before stopping in front of Samuel L. Jackson, a bounty hunter, sitting on a pile of corpses, and the music reflects the scene’s iciness. “Tarantino didn’t give me any specific indications or specific requests for what he wanted,” Morricone says. “He just mentioned the importance of the snow.”
As the eight-minute composition continues, a chorus of men grunt “hough, hough” like the reinsman commanding the vehicle’s horses, before a torrent of trumpets and brass rain down hard. Although Morricone denies it when mentioned, claiming it to be a new idea, it’s the one through-line back to his scores for Leone — see the title theme in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where men holler below its signature yowling.
“In the past, we used the so-called ‘reality noises’ because in Sergio Leone’s opinion, they were very, very useful to convey the right message to the audience,” Morricone says. “It was useful to covey to people living in the countryside the sound of the city or vice-versa. For instance, I used whistling because they were useful to convey the real meaning of the film through simple noises that could be understood by anybody.” But, he says, he uses the men’s voices in The Hateful Eight are new for him, at least to his ears.
“Fifty, almost 60 years have passed since I started working with Sergio Leone or in the Western movies of the past,” Morricone says. “My ideas about music have changed. I really wanted to do something totally different from what I had done not only with Sergio Leone but also with Sergio Corbucci and all the other Western directors I had worked with. It is incomparable.”
Showing that progression remains very important to Morricone, who, in recent years has frequently conducted orchestras playing songs from throughout his career. As with The Hateful Eight, he’s very mindful to present not just his early works but how he has grown. “I have always been very, very rigorous in selecting the music pieces to be performed,” he says. “It’s very important to present to the audience a combination of the most famous, maybe the easiest, music pieces along with some of the most difficult and challenging music. It is important for my dignity as a composer.”
A respect for that dignity is what he felt from Tarantino, and it’s the reason why The Hateful Eight soundtrack came to be. “When I met Mr. Tarantino, I felt that he really trusted me,” the Maestro says. I knew that because he selected some pieces of my music for his films. He was ready to give me all the freedom I wanted to compose.”