Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (released Dec. 25 by The Weinstein Company) is the first western that legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone has scored in decades. But anyone expecting the spooky, avant-garde soundtracks he did for Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti westerns The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 and Once Upon a Time in the West in 1969 will be surprised.
“It would have been absurd to write something of that sort!” asserts Morricone, who is talking from Rome, through a translator, and seems almost offended by the idea of repeating himself. The soundtrack for The Hateful Eight (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell) has all the surging drama of Morricone’s best work, but it also features the creeping dread of horror-movie music, with none of the whistles, whip-cracks or other odd instrumentation the composer’s revered western scores are famous for. “The music I wrote for Leone is almost 50 years old — this is totally different,” he adds. “I always try to give each director his own specific musical location, if you will.”
At 87, with more than 500 film and TV soundtracks — plus enough commercial appeal to conduct orchestras on arena tours in Europe — Morricone (whose score for The Hateful Eight has been nominated for a BAFTA Award in the best soundtrack category) is the eminence grise of scoring. He and Tarantino are a match made in film-geek heaven: the director inspired by the grindhouse aesthetic and the composer behind the music to many of the classics that defined it. Tarantino has long touted his Morricone obsession, citing him as an inspiration for the music in Pulp Fiction and using parts of his old scores in Kill Bill and Death Proof. “Morricone is the maestro — he’s the top, as far as I’m concerned,” he tells Billboard. He asked Morricone to score Inglourious Basterds, but the composer turned him down. They finaly collaborated when Morricone wrote a song for Django Unchained. Despite being quoted in 2013 as saying he didn’t like the way Tarantino utilized his music — complaining he “places music in his films without coherence” — Morricone today insists he was taken out of context. “I love the way he used my music. I only criticized one scene [in Django] where there was incredible violence.”
Tarantino didn’t formally discuss The Hateful Eight with Morricone until June, on the day before the composer presented the director with two prizes at the David di Donatello Awards in Rome. “I read the script and it was a masterpiece,” says Morricone. “He has this ability to have violence that comes so suddenly and is so weirdly absurd that it becomes something else.”
By then, Tarantino had finished shooting the film, and Morricone agreed to write a main theme and give Tarantino material he had written for John Carpenter’s The Thing that was never used. Morricone ended up writing 25 minutes of original music in a month, recording it in July in Prague with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, as Tarantino looked on, beaming with pride. “When your ideas are clear,” says Morricone, “you can write music quite rapidly.” (In December, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined that the soundtrack will be eligible for the best original score Oscar. Morricone received an honorary award in 2007, but has never won for original score.)
With another European arena tour slated for early 2016, the composer has no intention of retiring soon. “A film composer is heard but he’s not seen; we don’t see the reaction of the public to our music,” he says. “Only when we perform it can we see whether the truth we wanted to convey with the music is there. I love my job.”
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.