When you interview Ennio Morricone, the first thing you learn is what to call him. Do as the Romans do—he’s Maestro Morricone to just about everyone, although you can take a chance on just Maestro once he’s at ease with you.
If anyone deserves that honorific, Morricone does. The list of moviemakers he has worked with reads like a who’s who of world cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elio Petri and Bernardo Bertolucci in Italy; Pedro Almódovar, Roman Polanski and Jerzy Kawalerowicz elsewhere in Europe; and Americans from Mike Nichols and Warren Beatty to Oliver Stone and Barry Levinson.
As for sheer diversity, the Maestro is unsurpassed. He has scored horror films for Dario Argento and John Boorman, science-fiction for Brian De Palma and John Carpenter, action-adventure for Don Siegel, comedy for Edouard Molinaro and Shakespeare for Franco Zeffirelli— not to mention genre-benders for Liliana Cavani and Samuel Fuller.
He’s garnered five Academy Award nominations over the past 30 years—for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986), De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000). Like such overlooked luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, he never got to take an Oscar home. But earlier this year the Academy made amends, giving him an honorary statuette for “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.”
To say the least, the Maestro is… well, the word “prolific” doesn’t quite describe his prodigious output since he earned his first screen credit with the comedy Il Federale in 1961. One source lists no fewer than 480 titles, not counting two—Tornatore’s war epic Leningrad and De Palma’s prequel The Untouchables: Capone Rising—that the 79-year-old composer is preparing for next year.
Born in Rome, where he still lives and works, Morricone studied composition before becoming an arranger for studio recordings by the likes of Chet Baker, Charles Aznavour and Paul Anka. When he began scoring films in the early 1960s he was already a seasoned music producer, composer and conductor. He made his movie score breakthrough with the legendary Dollars trilogy by his compatriot Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood as “The Man With No Name.”
It’s ironic that Eastwood’s laconic gunslinger actually has a name in each of the installments—the no-name label was a PR gimmick—while Leone and others appeared in the credits of the first picture, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), under pseudonyms designed to hide the movie’s Italian origins from Italian audiences who’d grown tired of viewing westerns made in their own country. Morricone thus released his first important score under the unassuming moniker of Dan Savio, although he reclaimed his own name in the follow-up films, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
The trilogy reached American screens in 1967, building an instant fan base for the Maestro, whose soundtrack albums were bestsellers. While his earlier scores had been fairly conventional, Leone let him draw on his pop music experience for effects that were new to the western genre. The timbres and textures of his scores—fleshed out with ocarina, chimes, whistling, twangy electric guitar, electronically altered voices and other offbeat sounds—gives them a unique, immediately recognizable flavor.
Along with his extraordinary film career, Morricone remains an active composer of classical music, where he expresses his keenly progressive (and often avant-garde) sensibility in pure, uncompromising ways. There are few areas of contemporary music that the Maestro’s talent hasn’t touched, and interviewing him was an uncommon pleasure. His answers, made through an interpreter, were direct and to the point, sharing the no-nonsense practicality that has facilitated his creative work for almost half a century. I suspect he was itching to leave the interview chair and get back to his latest score.
David Sterritt (MM): I’m curious about how you work with directors. Do you see a cut of the film before starting on the music?
Ennio Morricone (EM): There’s no rule about what comes first. It could be anything. The director may decide to call after the film is edited or before he’s started to shoot it. If the movie hasn’t been shot yet, we can talk and the director can explain what kind of movie it will be and what the images will be like. If not, I may be able to read the screenplay and discuss it with the director before starting the score.
MM: Are some directors unable to discuss music articulately?
EM: That happened to me just recently—a director told me he didn’t know how to say what he wanted. In a case like this the composer has to work on his own, which is a huge responsibility.
MM: If a director is musically literate, is there more danger that a clash of wills might develop between the two of you?
EM: That has happened to me, and at those times I bowed out of the project. Almost for sure, when a director asks for something special, it’s because he has a memory of some music he’s heard before and he doesn’t have the musical creativity to understand what [new musical ideas] we could use… The director certainly has the right to express his own ideas for his own movie, but we have to reach an agreement. If that isn’t possible—if I have to be the slave of somebody else’s ideas—I prefer to just walk away.
MM: How much of your composing is inspired by the subject and mood of the film, and how much by the musical ideas that interest you at the moment?
EM: Both are important. The story is important, the acting is important, the psychology of the characters is important and so forth. But if the director and composer are good ones, the composer can respect the story and characters and still put his own style into the music.
MM: Do you have a favorite movie genre for which to compose?
EM: My favorite music is the absolute music I compose for concerts, outside the cinema industry. In cinema, I have fun doing all of them.
MM: Do you ever feel a sense of “culture shock” when jumping from one genre or director to a very different one?
EM: It isn’t a problem. The important thing is that I take into account the different places or cultures where different films are made—what the society and music there are like. When a director in Japan asked me to do a film, I said, ‘I can do the film for you, but I can’t do Japanese music. That’s not me. I can do my music.’ The director said that was fine.
MM: I take it that you do research for some of your scores then.
EM: Certainly. An example is when I did The Mission. I had to learn the kind of music that was being played and studied in South America in 1750. This was very important because that particular movie had so many elements—the different instruments, what the missionaries were teaching the Indians and so forth—and it was necessary for me to examine all of this. Sometimes a film requires that.
MM: When composing for movies, is it ever frustrating not to have firm control over how your music will be used in the film?
EM: That can be frustrating, I have to admit. But sometimes when a director moves a piece of music from one part of the film to another, it can prove to be very [effective] and well done. So sometimes it’s a nice surprise for me!
MM: How much control do you have over the CD recordings of your scores?
EM: One hundred percent.
MM: In the movie Amadeus, the emperor criticizes Mozart for writing “too many notes” in a piece he’s just heard. Nobody would accuse you of that, but you are amazingly prolific. What’s the average amount of time it takes to write a score?
EM: If my mind is clear and I know what I’ve got to do, I can write a score in two weeks… If my mind isn’t clear and I don’t have a good idea of what I have to do, I can’t predict how long it will take.
MM: I’m sure you have opportunities for many more projects than you have time to do. How do you choose which projects to accept?
EM: The first consideration is how much time I have available. The second is how much I like the director and I must also be interested in the story. But in some cases I just say yes because I want to; it’s a leap of faith and I go with it.
MM: You compose your music in the most thorough possible way, right down to writing out the orchestrations. Why not take advantage of assistants to do the more mechanical parts of the job?
EM: For me, those who don’t do their own orchestrations aren’t real artists; they’re half-composers.
MM: I suppose that’s one of the things that allows you to create such distinctive music—one knows “this is a Morricone score.”
EM: I can only say that it’s my music because it comes from me. Everything affects this—the ideas I have for the score, the orchestrations, the counterpoint, the simplicity or complexity of the chords and other things. All of these together are what make my style… and the one thing I never do is deny my own style because of what the director wants. I always put my own personality into whatever I do. I couldn’t do anything else.
MM: Ever since Max Steiner in the early days of sound film, most composers have used some kind of leitmotif system—associating a particular theme with each important character or story element—to help the audience follow the narrative. Your music seems to rely more on timbres and textures than on conventional melodies.
EM: Yes, but everything is useful, including leitmotifs, because they help the audience.
MM: Music usually supports the mood or action of a scene, but sometimes your music creates a contrast or counterpoint to the words and images. What’s the purpose of this?
EM: It serves to underline the psychology of the actor and the character instead of just following the action. You can’t do this all the time, but you can do it once or twice in a movie. It’s usually something the composer suggests, not something the director thinks of. If the director doesn’t accept it, you have to do something else.
MM: Glenn Gould once said that horror movie music would get people so accustomed to dissonance that they’d become more receptive to atonal music as a result. Based on your experience, can music heard in films unconsciously affect the kinds of music that people will be able to accept and enjoy?
EM: Of course! That kind of music can only be used for certain kinds of scenes, but I sometimes compose very strong avant-garde music for scenes where it’s appropriate, and getting audiences to accept this kind of music is my goal. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.
MM: Do you watch your movies with audiences to see how they react? Do you care about what critics say?
EM: Of course. I’m very interested in what audiences and critics think about my music.
MM: Do their responses affect what you do in later scores?
EM: Not at all!
MM: There’s an excellent book, Unheard Melodies, which says that the audience should be emotionally affected by the music without being consciously aware of it. Do you agree?
EM: I say that when there is music in a scene, the rest of the film shouldn’t interfere with it!