John Ottman is the only
film editor/film composer in Hollywood working on major motion pictures.
Although Ottman has scored numerous films, he only wears two hats for
director Bryan Singer. Ottman and Singer's first project in college, won a
Sundance award which then lead to "Usual Suspects," "Apt Pupil," "Superman
Returns" and so on and so on. Ottman was also one of the executive producers
for "Valkyrie", the epic film starring Tom Cruise based on the true story about German officers who attempt to
assassinate Hitler during World War II. Ottman spent months in Germany
editing the film as well performing the duties of a visual effects
editor. After editing, Ottman began creating the over 70
minutes of score with an 80 piece orchestra for the film. Mr. Ottman did
talk with our editor Jorge Saldanha about film editing, film scoring and
working with Tom Cruise, who not only starred "Valkyrie" but was an
executive producer on the film as well.
Jorge Saldanha - Dear
Mr. Ottman, we're glad to have the opportunity to conduct this interview
with such a fine and unique professional working for the film industry. What came first: film editing or film scoring?
John Ottman -
I was making movies since elementary school, and to make a movie, you
gotta put it together. So from early on, film editing became second
nature to me. But the thing is, the inspiration behind all the stories
Iíd tell were from the music Iíd listen to, which was soundtracks or
classical music. I would often make films to accommodate my favorite
scores that Iíd put on the films. At USC I continued to make films (and
edit them). After graduating, I discovered midi technology, bought a
bunch of used equipment, like an old Hammond organ keyboard, got out the
manuals and taught myself how to write music with that technology. I had
played the clarinet for many years starting in elementary school, but
never very well. However, that, listening to so much classical music,
and watching it be performed live, I learned by watching and listening.
So with the midi, I was able to get out what was in my head and soon
began rescoring my friendís student films as practice, and then
eventually scoring little projects as a hobby.
JS - I presume that being both editor and score composer
for Bryan Singer gives you a very
privileged position in the post-production process. Tell us how both aspects
interact and are related with each other.
Well, the editorís job is all encompassing, sort of like the editor of a
magazine or newspaper. He/she is in charge of telling the story, making
sure the scenes are shot properly, and if theyíre not, making sense of
the footage and conveying the scene the best way possible. Actorsí
performances are shaped, music decisions are made, etc. Almost no
decision regarding the making of the picture is without the editorís
input or design. He/she is essentially the other director on the film,
but behind a curtain, or editing room door, as it were. So, when the
editor is also the composer, thereís not much butting heads. Both jobs
tell a story (or should). Also the editor often puts in temporary music
for early screening purposes, and often the composer isnít always in
agreement with it. In my case, I agree with the editorís decision, so I
do have more control as usual, and with a star director such as Bryan
Singer, I only have one other person to make happy.
JS - About composing for films, where do your major influences came?
Two places basically: The original ďStar TrekĒ TV series, and the surge
of amazing film scores of the 70s. The original ďTrekĒ series used
traditional orchestral music to score the episodes. But they couldnít
afford to score every episode. So many of the themes were re-used to
give the show a great continuity. This is the hallmark of good scoring Ė
revisiting character and incidental themes to define a show or movie.
The music was wonderfully written and had a big impact on me. Then, as
the typical story goes for so many, Star Wars came out, and I was
overtly woken up to the excitement and power of a film score. Again, the
traditions of strong themes and intellectual scoring sensibilities were
a hallmark of scores such as "Star Wars". That was in 1977. Then came, for
me, one of the biggest moments in my lifetime Ė "Star Trek: The Motion
Picture." Although the film was too cerebral for most audiences, I was
completely blown away by a score that bridged the spine tingling scoring
traditions of the past, and something fresh and new. This is when I
discovered my idol, Jerry Goldsmith. I then went back in time to
discover all of his work from the 60s and 70s (like "Chinatown", "Planet of
the Apes", "Patton", "Alien", "Poltergeist" among many many others Ė even a TV
miniseries called "Masada", which became one of my all time favorites. I
became a junkie of his scores through the 1990s. His approach thrilled
me, and shaped the way I think about how to tackle a film musically. I
then discovered many other composers whose heyday was in the 60s and
70s. Without realizing it, most of my work keeps these traditions alive,
but not consciously. Iíve got my own sound Ė but my ďteachersĒ are clear.
JS - You have a long partnership with director and producer Bryan Singer.
How did this working relationship begin?
We met in film school (USC). He was a P.A. on a friendís thesis film. I
was helping on the set and met him. Eventually the editor on the film
was let go, and I ended up taking the film apart and re-telling the
story. Knowing the film from the beginning, Bryan observed this and we
became acquaintances. Then he wrote a short Diner-esque script which he
asked me to edit. He wanted to also act in his own film, and wasnít
expecting to freeze up. We had to get him drunk in order to act in his
role, and this meant I had to take up a lot of the slack in terms of
shot lists, and such. So he graciously gave me co-director credit. From
that he got a low budget feature, Public Access, which I eventually
edited. The composer on the film dropped out in the eleventh hour, and I
convinced him that I could write the score for the film, even though I
had just been scoring short little industrial films as a hobby at that
point. The film won the Sundance Film Festival, and from there he told
me the only way I was going to score "The Usual Suspects," was to also
edit the film. The blackmail continues to this day.
JS - In this case describe to us a typical day working with
the "blackmailer", a.k.a. Mr. Singer.
Well it varies depending on what phase the film is in. When weíre
shooting, I see him every couple days as Iím feverishly assembling
scenes as they shoot. He might make a couple comments at that point, but
the main concern is if we got the coverage we need before tearing down a
set or moving locations. Sometimes Iíll come to the set if I have a
concern about getting certain shots/performances. After shooting heíll
let me alone for a few days at a time to see cuts of scenes, make
comments, and such. Aside from intense instances, thatís pretty much how
it goes even through the writing of the score, where heíll come by after
I score a couple scenes, and so on.
JS - What was your approach to create the score for "Superman Returns"?
Were there any limitations or reservations for the use of John Williams
There was never any reservation about giving nods to the Williams theme.
From the practical death threats I was receiving on the internet, itís a
good thing I did indeed nod to it. I was a huge fan of the original 70s
film, and, like everyone else on the production, didnít want to wreck a
great world that Richard Donner (the director) had created. But early on
I was getting so many complaints before I even began writing, and so
much pressure to do the right thing, that my brain was being crippled.
Finally, one day I just decided to simply approach scoring the film as I
would any other Ė to use my own sensibilities (largely learned from the
masters like Williams anyhow), and just score the film. This freed my
mind to be creative, and it pretty much just flowed. I was disappointed
the 120 minutes of music I wrote was disqualified to even be voted on by
the music academy simply because it nodded to the Williams theme here
and there. Sandwiched between the title sequences was a tremendous
amount of original music I wrote. So that hurt.
- "Valkyrie" seems to be an epic, very ambitious project. Please tell us
about your duties as editor and composer for this film.
Well aside from the duties I described an editor does above, the huge
editorial challenge of this film was to keep things gripping, even
though you may know where theyíre headed. It was quite a feat/slight of
hand to keep the audience enthralled when so many scenes are really
dense dialog segments in confined locations. In that regard, it was the
most ambitious thing weíve attempted before. I had to maximize the
suspense as much as I could, but without belittling the actual
historical events. Itís far more a caper film than an epic World War II
saga. So the score intentionally avoided clichťs (like snare drums and
trumpets) associated with wartime movies. The score had to become the
actual heartbeat of the film, which was tough to do without sounding
like it was trying too hard.
JS - What was it like being a co-executive
producer and working with Tom
Cruise, who starred in the film and worked with you as a co-executive
producer? Is he the cool and funny guy who appears to be?
Well every director and editor has differing relationships. Bryanís and
mine is perhaps more a partnership than most. So my duties literally
overseeing a film were not that different on Valkyrie than on our other
films. Only this time I got credit for it. Tomís one of the nicest
down-to-earth people you could meet. He has no ego that ever gets in the
way. Heís just a guy who wants to make a good film, and he loves his job
- acting. Itís like heís never forgotten why he got into it, and the
freshness to him and the excitement of making a film hasnít waned in him
at all. His attentions were hardly ever preoccupations about what takes
I was using of him and such. His concern was that we were telling a good
story, and telling it as effectively as we could. Heís got eloquent film
making sensibilities, and when we would get into it sometimes, he was
almost always right. The cool thing about him is that heís so respectful
of everyone involved that those debates actually occurred instead of
just giving us some decree. He really trusted the director, editor and
writer of this picture.
JS - What are your career's highlights?
Well, despite the difficulty and agony making "Valkyrie", working with Tom
Cruise would have to be at the top of the list. Obviously hearing my
first score come to life Ė "The Usual Suspects" Ė was another moment Iíll
never forget. I really never take any experience for granted. Getting to
score super hero films is just a blast because I get to let my hair down
and write big orchestral scores. And then there are those little
delights like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" that was just a genuinely fun project
to work on. And itís rarely so fun. Lastly, when I directed "Urban
Legends 2," the biggest gas for me was working with actors. Itís
literally a highlight of my life I look back upon being able to huddle
with actors and figure out how to make totally implausible dialog and
situations as un-laughable as possible! I just love the on-set
collaborations that can occur on a film, and I was a director who
embraced those moments.
JS - And among your upcoming projects, will there be a
new directorial effort?
Iím just picking up the pieces, post "Valkyrie". It wreaked havoc on my
personal life, as many long-haul projects can do. I also lost a lot of
scoring jobs. So Iím looking for more gigs, but at the same time
attempting to enjoy my time off. Directing is something I would love to
go back and do. But it too, being a potentially life-destroying thing,
is something I would only do it if I found a script that resonated so
strongly with me that I just had to tell that story. In other words, I
donít want to direct simply so I can call myself a director. If I go do
it, Iím going to make that project my life until itís done. I may
eventually find it, or perhaps find myself in a position where time will
permit me to leave my day job and tackle one.
Thanks for your time Mr. Ottman. Our readers send to you their warmest
and best regards.
Sure thing, and back at you all!
Special thanks to John Ottman and Melissa McNeil for make this interview