Ennio Morricone Tells the Secrets of His Hateful Eight Soundtrack
The slow whistle from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The ticking of a watch in A Few Dollars More. The harmonica melody in Once Upon a Time in the West. In his 70-year career, Ennio Morricone has composed the scores for over 500 movies, reinventing its role and defining the sound of the Italian Western. For Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Morricone returned to the form after 30 years, composing his first score for a Western since Buddy Goes West in 1981—although Morricone wouldn’t describe it that way. “The Hateful Eight is not a Western film—it’s an adventure movie,” he says. “The only reason why people tend to call it a Western is because the story is not set in our time.”
The Hateful Eight—which is a bit like a gruesome game of Clue during Reconstruction in Wyoming—certainly isn’t set in our time. And Tarantino hasn’t framed it as a contemporary movie, either: He’s showing the film, which has an intermission and an overture, in the almost-bygone 70 mm format. But despite its devotion to another era of film, Morricone sees The Hateful Eight as defying categorization. And in his score, released on vinyl on December 18, he set out to create an equally unconventional experience.
The Ticking of a Watch
In the early 1960s, scores for Western films were sweeping and symphonic, like Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for The Magnificent Seven. But young Morricone didn’t have access or funding for a full orchestra. So, to create the soundtrack for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, he turned to everyday sounds: the crack of a whip, gunshots, and that unforgettable, haunting whistle.
These sounds weren’t just cheaper to manufacture than a full orchestra—they were more realistic and evocative. “All kinds of sounds can be useful to convey emotion,” says Morricone. “Sometimes an unknown, unconventional instrument can add something different to the music.” For Morricone, a score wasn’t restricted to conveying a plot’s crescendos. It could communicate a character’s creeping dread or anxious excitement—or a sense of running out of time, as the ticking clock does in the climactic duels of My Name is Nobody.
As Morricone sees it, everyday sounds can integrate the music directly into the reality of the viewer. “These sounds can convey the idea of the so-called ‘complete music,’” he says. “It’s music made up of the sound of reality.”
70 Years of Experimentation
A composer with Morricone’s well-earned reputation could rest on his laurels, and compose scores with those everyday sounds he was first known for. But while he still finds ideas for his music in everyday sounds, Morricone continues to experiment. “I’m continuously thinking about music, continuously researching and attentive. I cannot just remain still,” he says. “I don’t want to remain conservative; I want to go ahead and look at the future.”
And with The Hateful Eight, that future includes Tarantino. The director had reused Morricone’s music in several of his other films: Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, and Kill Bill. But for The Hateful Eight, he knew he wanted an original soundtrack for the first time.
“This material deserved an original score,” explained Tarantino in an interview with Christopher Nolan. “I’ve never thought that way before. I didn’t ever want to trust a composer with the soul of my movie.” But he decided he could trust the man whom he describes as his favorite composer in history.
But when he went to Rome to ask Morricone, the composer didn’t have the time to write a full score. Eventually, Morricone agreed to write 25 minutes of music, including the theme. For the rest of it, he was able to take previously unused tracks from the score he wrote for John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982—which Tarantino independently cites as the greatest cinematic influence on The Hateful Eight. As he explains to Nolan, in The Thing, “the paranoia just bounced off the walls, until it had no place to go but the fourth wall, out into the audience”—an effect that Morricone’s music, originally written for the horrifying Arctic isolation of The Thing, brings to the remote, snowed-in Minnie’s Haberdashery in The Hateful Eight.
But Morricone urges his listeners to hear The Hateful Eight score apart from his previous work—especially from the enduring legacy of his spaghetti Westerns. “Forget the work that I’ve done in the past for the Italian Western or for the Sergio Leone movies,” he says. “Quentin Tarantino and his film really deserve a music of their own.”
A New Sound for Tarantino
To create that original score for Tarantino, Morricone largely turns to tools unavailable in 1964, like synthesizers, which drive the tense, gloomy eight-minute overture. (Morricone’s compositions for The Thing, used in The Hateful Eight, were some of his first work with synths in the early 1980s.)
The experimenting composer isn’t above technological advances, but he’s quick to warn young composers of the dangers of seductive technology. “Electronic instruments have to be used to justify something that doesn’t exist, not to replace for instance an orchestra,” he says. “If you use the synth just to recreate the sound of an existing musical instrument, it is wrong. But if you use the synth to create sound that doesn’t exist, that’s a very wise way to use it.”
So technology can be a cautious step forward in music composition, as long as you don’t use it as a crutch. “If the composer—or the so-called composer—becomes a kind of slave of technology, if he uses technology in a toxic way, this is not progress,” he says. As Morricone sees it, technology’s role in music is “a moral stance, not only a technical stance.” A broader variety of possible sounds can benefit a soundtrack, of course, but the ease of synthetic sounds is not worth the loss of the authentic and everyday. Use technology to add a human whistle or the real tick of a watch, but don’t replace them with false facsimiles. As he describes it, in composing, “everything must start from your soul, from your heart, even when you use technology.” In his score for The Hateful Eight, Morricone is, in part, reusing music composed for a thriller in 1982 for a Western in 2015—but 70 years after his first Western, he insists he’s still experimenting, from the heart.