John Carpenter Pays Tribute to Ennio Morricone and His Haunting Score for ‘The Thing’

Exclusive: "He was like an X-ray composer. He brought out the theme of the movie that hadn't been thought of before."
Italian composer Ennio Morricone directs an ensemble during a concert of his "60 Year Of Music World Tour" in Milan, ItalyMorricone, Milan, Italy - 06 Mar 2018
Ennio Morricone
Luca Bruno/AP/Shutterstock

For John Carpenter, Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died July 6 at age 91, “is one of the great composers, he was brilliant.” Like most cinephiles, Carpenter discovered him through Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, from the Dollars Trilogy through “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which Carpenter considers to be his “triumph. It’s one of the great scores all time, and launched that movie into another place: epic opera. It’s the ultimate in composing. You can’t get better and more profound than that.”

Leone and Morricone were schoolboys together, and collaborated on movies at the script stage. Because Leone never recorded sound on his westerns, the director would play Morricone’s music while he was shooting. “Morricone came from experimental music, a strange place,” said Carpenter, who almost always composed the music for his movies. “The studio had no interest in me scoring ‘The Thing.’ Stuart Cohen, the associate producer, suggested, ‘Why don’t we get Maestro Morricone to do it?’ So we hired him.”

Carpenter flew to Rome and met the composer with a translator (Morricone never learned English).  The composer played the director several compositions. “It was all way too flourishy and ornate,” said Carpenter. “I said to him, ‘Ennio, use less notes.’ And he did. That was the main title theme.”

Later the composer came to Los Angeles to watch some footage. “He recorded the score in sections for us: ‘use it wherever you wish,'” said Carpenter. “He came later to record. I watched him conduct his orchestra sessions at Universal. It was fabulous. He added something to it, that I didn’t realize, didn’t ask for. He brought it: this deep, tragic sense that this is the end of things, of everything. Oh my god, it really worked. I was delighted with it.”

At the end of the mixing process Carpenter and his editor realized there were some gaps in the score. “A certain scene needed a little carpet music, dark chords,” said Carpenter. “I just shoved them in there. Real simple shit. He brought the lush and depressing, the romantic tragedy, and I brought the drone quality.”

Carpenter has “no clue” how unused bits of Morricone’s “The Thing” score ended up in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.”

John Carpenter
John CarpenterHell Gate Media/REX/Shutterstock

“He has done so many different kinds of scores,” said Carpenter of Morricone, who’s credited with some 500 over a lifetime. “He was a traditional composer but with a layer on top that is difficult to describe. He had the knack. The music would go deeper into whatever the movie was, it would bring out something in depth, a theme, a feeling. He was like an X-ray composer. He brought out a part of the theme of the movie that hadn’t been thought of before.”

Carpenter continues to compose music, and is following up his score for David Gordon Green’s 2018 “Halloween,” which brought back the original cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, with uber-violent “Halloween Kills” (October 16, 2020), starring Curtis, as well as the original’s Kyle Richards and Nancy Stevens.

“The cut is done,” said Carpenter. “They’ll mix it in New York in the next week or so. Then it will be in the can. My work is all done. The movie is something else. It’s fun, intense and brutal, a slasher movie times one hundred, big time. It’s huge. I’ve never seen anything like this: the kill count!”

And Carpenter has just dropped a free single, “Skeleton,” from his new album, “Lost Themes III,” which comes out soon. In his downtime, Carpenter plays his favorite video game: “The Last of Us 2.” “It’s beautiful. So far I’ve done very little zombie killing. I’ve had a snowball fight and played guitar.”

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