Exclusive interview for ScoreTrack.Net

Award-winning 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.

JO - 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?

JO - 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?

JO - 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.

JO - 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 themes?

JO - 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.

JS - "Valkyrie" seems to be an epic, very ambitious project. Please tell us about your duties as editor and composer for this film.

JO - 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?

JO - 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?

JO - 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?

JO - 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.

JS - Thanks for your time Mr. Ottman. Our readers send to you their warmest and best regards.

JO - Sure thing, and back at you all!

Special thanks to John Ottman and Melissa McNeil for make this interview possible.