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Quentin Tarantino’s Music Supervisor Mary Ramos on Telling Stories Through Music

On Saturday Quentin Tarantino’s music supervisor, Mary Ramos, will be a keynote speaker at music biz event Midem in Cannes, France. Variety spoke to her about her 23-year career, including her work on Tarantino’s movies — from “Pulp Fiction” to “The Hateful Eight” — and other pics, such as this year’s best-picture Oscar-winner “Spotlight.”

So is Tarantino different from other directors? “Every director I work with has their own unique storytelling style. They’ll tell a story filtered through what’s important to them. It’s my job to help them tell their story through music,” Ramos says.

“What makes Quentin standout is his bold use of music. Often times it is a main character in his movies. The reason is the referential element to his storytelling. We respond to Quentin because music is so much in the forefront and it’s such a bold use, like using David Bowie in a World War II movie. That’s bold, and incredible, and remarkable,” she says, referring to “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” in “Inglourious Basterds.”

Often tracks that Tarantino uses in his films have been chosen because they were previously used in a classic movie. “Quentin filters his stories through his own love of films. It’s a major part of his storytelling style. So a lot of times he is attracted to a track from an old film for its referential quality,” Ramos says.

Tarantino love of classic movies is matched by his love of classic technology, and not just celluloid. “I still use cassettes when I’m working with Quentin,” Ramos says. “He’s very much an analogue person. He will make mix tapes when we are doing the soundtrack album for the record company. It will be hand-made by him.”

Just as Tarantino has resurrected the careers of actors, most famously John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” he has also rekindled appreciation for the work of forgotten song writers and musicians. “There is a Tarantino bump that’s given to music he’s used in his films,” Ramos says, citing the example of “Woo Hoo” by The 5.6.7.8s, which was used in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.”

It’s not always easy to get rights clearance for a piece of archive music, and it sometimes requires perseverance on the part of the music supervisor to track down the song writer or musicians. “My work is creative but it can also involve a lot of detective work,” Ramos says. Such was the case when Tarantino wanted to use a flamenco disco version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda, recorded in 1977, for a scene in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” where The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, faces off in a final sword battle with O-Ren Ishii, played by Lucy Liu. “It’s a great, quintessential Quentin moment,” Ramos says.

But there was an obstacle to using the track that appeared insurmountable. “The record company flat out denied the use because there was a legal dispute involving the lead singer, Leroy Gomez. But I couldn’t accept no as the answer, so I started scouting around on my own and tried to track down Gomez, who had disappeared in the 1980s.”

It was 2002 and there was scant info on the internet, so Ramos had to use copyright records, phone books and newspaper clippings to find her man. Finally she located his mother, who said Gomez was living in France. “I called him up and got him to work out an agreement with the record company, and so we got to use the song in that amazing scene.”

Working with Ennio Morricone on the score for “The Hateful Eight” is a treasured experience for Ramos, crowned by the Italian composer’s Oscar win. “It was a lifetime highlight,” she says. “He is gentle and sweet, but incredibly unique and cool. It was really amazing to work with him.”

Morricone, like other partners on his movies, was greatly assisted by the great detail that Tarantino puts into his scripts. “His screenplays are very much like he’s sitting there telling you the story. His scene descriptions are very detailed — detailed to the point where he’ll give you all the references, and it’s almost like you are having a meeting with the director,” she says. “That’s what it was like when Ennio first read the script. He didn’t get direction from Quentin until later, but he pretty much got Quentin’s direction from the script.”

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