Todd McCarthy: Ennio Morricone In Hollywood

Todd McCarthy: Ennio Morricone In Hollywood

July 9, 2020

When the late, great writer-director Samuel Fuller finished shooting what turned out to be his final Hollywood studio film, in 1981, his producer Jon Davison asked who he had in mind to compose the score. After a reflective pull on his cigar, Fuller barked, “Let’s get Morricone.”

And so it was that one of the greatest film music composers of all time made one of his early jaunts to Hollywood to record a haunting soundtrack that, for more than 20 years, was not available on vinyl or anywhere else. And neither was the film itself, the controversial White Dog, which was barely released and only came out on DVD, from Criterion, in 2008.

Although the august film music composer Ennio Morricone, who died last weekend at 91, became internationally renowned in the late 1960s in the wake of his sensational scores for Sergio Leone’s Dollars Westerns, just a small minority of his work came on Hollywood films. His first job on a major American studio production inspired him to some unusual, highly effective results on a cursed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, in 1977. Then Terrence Malick engaged him in a difficult but ultimately rewarding collaboration on Days of Heaven.

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Four years and 45 film scores later (Morricone was nothing if not prolific; in the end he created the music for some 400 pictures, many of them Italian or Europudding co-productions), the composer took on two more Hollywood assignments. One was John Carpenter’s remake of the sci-fi horror classic The Thing, for which Morricone composed an eerie, unusual synth score Carpenter subsequently elaborated upon. The other was Fuller’s White Dog, a film maudit, as the French say, if there ever was one.

The book was based on a semi-autobiographical, partly fictionalized 1970 novel by the French writer Romain Gary in which he controversially wrote of a German Shepherd that had originally been trained by a white man to attack Blacks. Subsequently the dog was sold and retrained by its new Black owner to attack whites.

When Paramount wanted to rush several films into production to beat a looming strike, one of the projects the studio chose was White Dog, to be produced by the studio’s Airplane! producer Davison (who went on to make the original RoboCop and Starship Troopers, among others). Fuller, who had known Gary, felt the key necessary change was not to have the dog merely reverse the racial identities of its victims (and thus simply perpetuate racial violence), but to have its new owner (played by Paul Winfield) try to train it to be non-racist, clearly a far more desirable goal.

All the same, some civil rights groups had problems with the project. As a result the film, which was generally well reviewed by the few critics who managed to see it, barely opened, generated minimal grosses and, after years in oblivion, came out on the Criterion DVD. Two years later, an official CD of Morricone’s White Dog score was finally issued (anything you might have encountered earlier was a bootleg). And a great thing it is to listen to.

After Morricone passed away, I called Davison, with whom I had worked for a couple of years at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and who had generously arranged for me to attend Morricone’s White Dog recording session in Hollywood nearly 40 years earlier. As Jon remembered it, “Sam wanted him, Paramount had no problem with it and it just happened. We sent him a video of the picture, he came over here and knew pretty much exactly what he wanted. He played the score on the piano for us before he recorded it. It took just two or three days to record.”

My recollections of the sessions are that they were quiet, well organized and very controlled, with no fuss or nonsense. Morricone really seemed to speak no English at all — he certainly didn’t try — but he was able to communicate in simple, direct ways with his Hollywood musicians. Davison recalls having sent letters to the composer beforehand advising him that Fuller’s only request was not to include any choral passages (a motif Morricone indulged in on many occasions), and I detected no tensions or difficulties during the work.

In fact, the only problem emerged when it was time for lunch. My request to interview the maestro for Variety had been granted days before, but when we were due to sit down in the commissary, Morricone gave me a startlingly hard time. “What do you know about music?,” he barked, via a translator, foregoing any niceties. “I don’t know if I can talk to you.” Rather taken aback, I let it be known that I’d grown up in a musical household, had studied piano for 12 years and clarinet for nearly as long, that my mother was an orchestra cellist and my sister and brother-in-law were professional opera singers.

This seemed to settle him down a bit and, via a translator, we managed to have a very engaging time, speaking of Sergio Leone, of course, but also of opera, of Fuller, his life in Rome and some of his other work. Here was a man, I felt, who was a complete master of his craft, inexhaustibly inspired, entirely prepared, exceedingly precise and tremendously serious about his work. He treated the musicians with respect but was enormously exacting.

Davison told me the other day that, on one of the nights Morricone was in town, they and a small party dined at Rex, the then-top Italian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. “At the end of the evening he took several napkins and wrote a different musical theme for everyone at the dinner.”

Always creating, always charged with music in his blood, that was Ennio Morricone.

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