“There have only been a few filmmakers who have gone into an old genre and created a new universe out of it,” Quentin Tarantino begins in a particularly long and rambling conversation about the impact of spaghetti westerns. For the director, the quality of a filmmaker lies in their ability to reconstruct pre-existing material in such a way that they capture the mood of their own time. It’s almost as though Tarantino – who earned his unflinching auteur reputation with films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill – regards cinema as a living entity, one that must be fed with fresh work if it has any chance of survival.
It is perhaps this belief that has led him to create some of the most provocative mainstream films of the last 20 years. It is also this belief that had led him to celebrate the work of Italian directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari and Franco Giraldi. But, there is one director who stands head and shoulders above the rest, a director whose work captured the imagination of a young Tarantino to such as extent that it convinced him to pursue a life in cinema.
“The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West,” Tarantino began in the first few moments of that extensive interview. “It was almost like a film school in a movie. It really illustrated how to make an impact as a filmmaker. How to give your work a signature. I found myself completely fascinated, thinking: ‘That’s how you do it.’ It ended up creating an aesthetic in my mind.”
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was directed by one of Italy’s most influential directors, Sergio Leone – the man credited with inventing what we today (perhaps lazily) refer to as the spaghetti western. For Tarantino, it was Leone’s unique vision that marked him out as a key innovator: “Leone’s movies weren’t just influenced by style,” he once said. “There was also a realism to them: those shitty Mexican towns, the little shacks — a bit bigger to accommodate the camera — all the plates they put the beans on, the big wooden spoons.”
“The films were so realistic, which had always seemed to be missing in the westerns of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, in the brutality and the different shades of grey and black,” Tarantino continued. “Leone found an even darker black and off-white. There is realism in his presentation of the Civil War in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that was missing from all the Civil War movies that happened before him.”
But Tarantino was also struck by Leone’s playful use of music. As he explains, it was Leone who inspired his own exploration into the thematic potential of non-orchestral soundtracks, something that has come to define the American filmmaker’s unique style. “It was Leone who put the music to task and turned it to opera,” Tarantino notes.
“I know there are examples that will be contrary to what I am saying, but it feels as if Leone is the first guy ever to cut picture to music in that way. Before him it just happened by accident where somebody thought it would be cool for a little sequence, but didn’t think they should do it for the rest of the movie. But the way we cut to music now: you pick some rock song and you cut your scene to that song. That all started with Leone and Morricone, and particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.“
“Morricone and Leone affected my films in every way, shape and form,” Tarantino concluded, “I never understood what surf music had to do with surfing. To me, it always sounded like rock’n’roll spaghetti western music: Morricone music with a guitar-driven beat. I’ve always said that Pulp Fiction was a modern-day spaghetti western. Then I started using bits of music Morricone had written for other movies. Then I worked with him as my composer — which I’d never done before with anyone. It went from him not getting it, and then him getting it — him literally seeing my way — and then to me working with him on The Hateful Eight.“