If there has been a more prolific composer in the history of movies than Ennio Morricone, I don’t know who it is. The Maestro, whose haunting score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight has landed him his sixth Oscar nomination as well as Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice awards, reportedly has been responsible for more than 500 film scores in a career spanning six decades. (Watch a seven-minute segment from the actual recording session of the movie above.) Mixed in with innumerable Italian scores are such classics as A Fistful Of Dollars, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, The Mission, The Untouchables, Malena, Bugsy, Days Of Heaven — the last five all earning Oscar noms — as well as my personal favorite Cinema Paradiso, which incredibly did not get even nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, the Academy’s Board Of Governors, obviously feeling guilty about the tremendous oversight of leaving the great man Oscarless, voted him an Honorary Oscar in 2007, the first given to a composer since Alex North, who went 0-for-15 in his career.
But this year it seems the 87-year-old composer is a front-runner to finally win in his own right despite competition from the likes of 50-time nominee John Williams, who is up for another of his Star Wars scores (he won one of his five Oscars for the original in 1977), and 13-time nominee Thomas Newman who, took over on Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies when the director’s favored composer (Williams, of course) proved unavailable due to illness at the time. In a recent conversation on the phone from Europe, Morricone seemed thrilled with the latest recognition from the Academy and (through his interpreter) assured me he would be in Hollywood attending the big ceremony at the Dolby on February 28. Actually he will also be here earlier, on February 26, when he gets a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
Though this is not one of Harvey Weinstein’s biggest Oscar years as he has no Best Picture candidate, TWC does look poised to sweep the music categories — not only with Morricone’s Hateful Eight score but also the Lady Gaga-Diane Warren song “Til It Happens To You” from TWC/Radius’ The Hunting Ground. I have to think it is feeling very sweet for Weinstein to have the film that looks like it will finally do it for this legendary composer. It also was one of Weinstein’s films, Malena in 2000, that represented the last nomination Morricone received before this one 15 years later. I recall at the (then-Miramax) pre-Oscar party Weinstein threw at the Beverly Wilshire, Morricone sat down and had guests rapt when he played that film’s lilting, romantic theme.
Tarantino, a film aficionado if ever there was one, has long wanted to work with Morricone and since Kill Bill has even used his themes in his movies. He told me in our Christmas Eve videotaped conversation in his home screening room that he flew to Rome to meet with the Maestro in the hope of convincing him to do an original score for The Hateful Eight, which had already completed shooting. Morricone agreed eventually to provide a theme, but one thing led to another and he turned out a complete score including overture. It is the first time in some 40 years he has composed music for a Western as well as the first time one of his Western scores has been Oscar nominated despite that timeless work he did in the ’60s for Sergio Leone’s series of so-called “spaghetti Westerns” (a term Morricone hates).
For someone this accomplished, you would not expect him to be surprised at yet another run for Oscar, but he told me he was. “No, I never expected any of the nominations to the Oscars, including this one, so this came as a surprise, really, ” he said, while also recalling the night when he received that honorary award nearly a decade ago. “I was very, very nervous, and it was a very touching moment for me. And I think that in case I am going to get another Oscar this time, I will be equally moved and touched.”
Morricone said he was was very impressed by the amount of creative license Tarantino gave him, unlike some other helmers he was worked with. “Actually, Quentin Tarantino didn’t give me any kind of specific indication. He didn’t express any requirements, so this gave me a lot of freedom. But at the same time, it put on me a much bigger responsibility. I was motivated only by the willingness to do better than I had done in the past and to give him a unique score,” he said, confirming that he wrote the score only from reading the actual script and not seeing any footage from the film.
“Yes. It is absolutely true,” he said. “But in this case the script was so full of details; every single sequence, every single gesture of any of the actors was so full of detail — sometimes even too many. But anyhow, it was so full of detail that it led me to imagining how Tarantino would want it. After meeting him, I could easily imagine what the scene would have been like.” But unlike just about anyone who has seen this movie, Morricone told me he doesn’t look at it as a pure Western, certainly not like those he did in the past. “For me this is absolutely not a Western movie,” he said. “For me, it’s a drama adventure set in a particular moment of the American history, and set in snow-covered landscape, and it’s very rare to see a Western set in that environment. So for me, this is not a Western movie. That’s the reason I didn’t score it as a Western. I really wanted to do something completely different, something unique to break really with the past of the movie scores I had written 40 or 50 years ago.
Tarantino actually told me that when he first heard some of the music, it struck him as sounding more horror movie-like in some ways. For Morricone, who should have won an Oscar for The Mission, he has his own “mission,” and that is to give each director something completely new compared to what he has done previously. “I know that my music is recognizable because there are some features in my style that are recognizable,” he said, “but my wish, my aspiration would be to give each director the music he deserves — the music that is completely different from what I have done before.”
Morricone still likes composing film music after all these years, but he also loves and devotes much of his time to composing what he terms as “absolute music” or that which can stand alone and is not dependent on anybody else. He is also back on the concert tour trail in Europe and played several dates already this year with more to come this spring. He enjoys conducting his music in big arenas. “The live concert is the way to prove that , without the images of the film, the music that I wrote intended for a film can also live on its own,” he said.
And good news for Morricone and Tarantino fans: The collaboration might not be ending with The Hateful Eight. “Tarantino has already told me that there will be a next movie that we are going to make together,” the composer said, while indicating he hopes he has more of a warning than the limited window he was given to create Hateful. “I told him that in the future I would like to have much more time. I would like to start working with him even long before in order to have the time to work, to think about the music, and also to exchange more ideas with him about what I am going to score for him. I never ask any director to work with me, but it was Tarantino who told me, ‘OK, there will be a next time,” he laughed.
OK, Quentin, we movie music and Morricone lovers of the world are holding you to this one.