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‘The Hateful Eight’: How Ennio Morricone Wrote His First Western Score in 40 Years

A process familiar to director Quentin Tarantino led to the first original score for one of his films to date.

Quentin Tarantino first met composer Ennio Morricone at the Cannes premiere of “Inglourious Basterds.” A longtime fan of Spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” featuring some of Morricone’s most iconic work, and “The Grand Duel,” scored by Morricone contemporary Luis Bacalov, Tarantino used some of the maestro’s work from “The Battle of Algiers,” “The Big Gundown” and “Allonsanfàn” in the film. He also later used elements from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” and “The Hellbenders” in the 2012 slavery drama “Django Unchained,” as well as an original song, “Ancora Qui.”

However, Morricone reportedly told a group of film students in Rome in 2013 that he wasn’t happy with the way Tarantino “places music in his films without coherence,” and reportedly said he “wouldn’t like to work with him again, on anything.” He later said all of that had been misconstrued. “I never made a comment about the way Tarantino used the music,” he told The Australian in October. “And I never dreamt of saying I wouldn’t work with him again.”

Whether there was a rift there or not, it wasn’t so serious as to keep the two artists apart for long. With “The Hateful Eight,” Morricone has penned his first original score for a Western in 40 years, and the first original score for a Tarantino film ever. It has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best original score and could land Morricone his first Oscar nomination since 2000’s “Malèna.”

At a post-screening Q&A last month, Tarantino said he made the trek to Morricone’s home in Rome over the summer to meet with the maestro about the possibility of writing original material for the film. It was to be a unique undertaking, as Tarantino’s work has always been populated with pre-existing songs and compositions.

“I don’t like calling them ‘needle drops’ or thinking about them as second-hand scores,” Tarantino said. “I always think that whoever uses it best gets it. But there was something about this movie, more than the others — and maybe I was a little precious about it — but I thought it deserved its own theme, something that hadn’t been in anything else.”

Though Morricone hadn’t penned a Western score in decades, largely out of respect to the late Sergio Leone (Clint Eastwood even asked him a number of times but the maestro declined), he was game. He told Tarantino he had a theme running through his head while reading the script and asked the director when he planned to start shooting, only to discover that the film had wrapped and Tarantino needed the score in a month’s time. “‘Oh, that’s not going to work,'” Tarantino recalled Morricone saying. “‘I’m working with Giuseppe Tornatore now and he just finished shooting.'”

Things looked like they were at an impasse, so they passed the time with coffee and Tarantino picking Morricone’s brain about the theme he had conjured in his head. The composer saw it as something propulsive, evocative of a stagecoach moving through the snow, driving you forward and suggesting the violence that would eventually come in the third act.

Then it occurred to Morricone that Tornatore generally takes a few weeks before showing him a film to be scored, so maybe there was time to squeeze this in. He told Tarantino he could write the theme in about a week or so and give him a recorded string version, a brass version, a full orchestral version, and then Tarantino could use it as he saw fit, supplementing it with other pieces of music if need be.

After sleeping on it, though, Morricone told the director he had even more music in mind. “It’s like he sat down to write the theme and he got more inspired,” Tarantino said.

But when the director heard Morricone’s offerings, he had to let it all sink in. It wasn’t quite what he was expecting. It was a brooding work, closer to Italian horror motifs than the choral, sweeping Spaghetti Western pieces for which Morricone had widely come to be known.

“I needed to listen to it for two or three days even before I talked about it with my editor,” he said. “Then I go, ‘What do you think about it?’ And he said, ‘It’s weird. I like it. But it’s weird. It’s not what I was expecting.’ And I said, ‘Me too!'”

The music adds a whole new edge to the film, a film that, as of last month, Morricone had still not even seen. But that manner of working was familiar enough for Tarantino to make implementing original music an easy transition.

“That was kind of an interesting thing for me, because I got to do it sort of the way I’m used to doing it,” he said. “He just did the score from having read the script, not by scoring any specific scenes. 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.”

Interestingly enough, it was a process familiar to Morricone, too. After all, he scored Sergio Leone’s classic Western “Once Upon a Time in the West” after reading a draft of the screenplay. Later, when the narrative was reworked, Leone even ended up directing portions of the film to the existing music.

Will his “Hateful Eight” compositions become similarly immortal? Only time will tell.

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