Science Fiction Filme.) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think you´re work have got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, SUPERMAN RETURNS and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into filmbusiness. Why have you choose the way of being into special effects?
John Ottman) I was always creating stories as a kid, starting with audio productions on cassette tapes. I’d perform multiple voices with a friend of mine, complete with sound effect and music from soundtracks. That evolved into making some rather extravagant science fiction Super-8 films, some an hour long. I would build sets in my parents’ garage, build big space ship models, design costumes and recruit actors from the neighborhood.
So I was pretty experienced as a budding filmmaker by the time I went to USC film school.
After film school I ended up in a 9- 5 job for a few years. I would continue to write music and edit films in my free time. To make a long story short, I ended up helping Bryan Singer by completely disassembling and re-editing a low budget film he directed called Public Access – all while working my 9-5 job. The composer wasn’t working out, but we had a deadline for the Sundance film festival. So I also ended up writing the score. This was even more unique at the time. The film ended up winning the festival. Based upon that success, the Usual Suspects cast and crew was assembled a year later. I only wanted to score the film, but Bryan insisted that I would never score a film for him unless I was also the editor. That’s when the blackmail began. I did double and triple duties (sometimes being a producer) on the films we made. My involvement with visual effects was just a necessary evolution because Bryan ended up veering into the big superhero films. But these days, even basic films require special effects considerations. Bohemian Rhapsody required special effects for the crowd scenes, for instance.
SFF.) Do you have any personal idols or role models in your business? Is there a movie or an event which make you think: “I want to do the same thing.”? Do you have any collaboration which was the most influential in your career and why?
J.O.) Jerry Goldsmith and Steven Spielberg are probably my biggest idols. I should clarify and say, that, of course, John Williams is a genius and I worship his profound work. I’m a huge fan. But after I saw Alien and Star Trek The Motion Picure, I became a Goldsmith fanatic, appreciating how his scores delved into the psychology of scenes. I then went back and collected all of his scores. I grew up similarly to Spielberg, who was also making films as a kid; and we even both played the clarinet. But I diverged into editing and scoring, where he was able to jump straight into making films, which I always envied. I dreamed of working with him in some capacity.
I’ve had many influential collaborations, but very early in my career I was given a film to score called Incognito, with director John Badham. It was the first time I felt the confidence to embrace my own style and write the music without any influence from a temp score. It was a complete canvas for composer. There were many long sequences, some five minutes or more in length, that were completely musically driven. It’s as if I was commissioned to write a symphony. The devastating part was that the film was never released. Sometimes your best work remains in obscurity. The same thing happened with Snow White A Tale of Terror with Sigourney Weaver. I wrote my heart out and the film wasn’t released theatrically. Then years later was Astro Boy. I really wrote my heart out, breaking new ground for myself. But the film completely bombed. Again some of my best work wasn’t experienced by many people.
SFF.) How concretely does the editor's work affect your own score? Do you compose on the basis of your own editing or do you edit to your music?
J.O.) People are surprised that when I edit a movie I do it completely dry of music. I don’t put in any temp score until I’m completely done with my cut. I’m really not consciously thinking about the score, but perhaps subconsciously. I will create pregnant areas where I know there will be a profound moment in the score; but what that music is, I don’t know at that point. Editing a film is an overwhelming task, so I really have to put on one hat and then the another. But there is indeed long periods of dreaded overlap where one hat is on top of the other. It also makes for much more cohesive temp score when the music is added after the cut; otherwise it gets chopped up repeatedly during the editing of the movie. And sometimes I create such a great temp score I get completely intimidated by it! It then trains me even more to think out of the box when writing the actual score and be even more objective.
When I’m only the composer, I think the biggest challenge is making a case for why the temporary music isn’t always correct. As long as one can explain things from a story point of view, they will be open to suggestions.
SFF.) How do you prepare yourself as an editor for such big projects as BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY or SUPERMAN RETURNS and how do you proceed with the editing for such projects?
J.O.) I worry a lot! Every job seems even more overwhelming before you dive in. Especially if you’re doing multiple tasks like I’ve had to do. It’s always been in my self-interest to make sure as many things as possible don’t blow up in my face later. So even at the script stage, I make many notes on areas I think we might have problems story wise. I also tried to anticipate any issues during shooting that would come up later. No one was more proactive about solving problems beforehand as I was. I had an enormous score to write months later, so therefore I could not afford to have a film that had problems in post. There’s a sort of a clairvoyance I had to train myself to have to avoid major re-shoots.
When doing both jobs, it’s not like I could just stop editing and tell everyone I was going off to write the score. The management of the movie never stops, and both jobs overlap to the very end. Fortunately, on Bohemian Rhapsody, I didn’t write a score. I thought it would date it, making it feel like a cheesy movie of the week. I really wanted the music to be organic to Queen. So I used a lot of the separate tracks from their music to score sequences, or I used opera as source music. There’s a moment where Freddie and Mary break up in their living room; instead of using score, I tailored „Love of My life“ that was on the television in their living room. That made the scene way more devastating, poignant and real than score could have.
SFF.) Which software do you use for editing (and if so why) or do you work analog?
J.O.) I use Avid only because it’s what I know. I hate learning new things!:-) For The Usual Suspects and other films of that era I was cutting on film using a Steinbeck flatbed. Cutting on film trained my mind to preconceive the scenes before I put them together. It’s sort of lost art in the digital world work where someone can quickly slap up ten versions of a scene. But I find films now often lack a point of view from the editor. I think painstakingly watching every frame of footage before cutting it makes you visuallizing the scene beforehand, making for a much better movie.
SFF.) What tips do you have for prospective editors who would like to work on feature films?
J.O.) One tip is that film editing is often far more diplomacy and politics than one might think. All of this, of course, depends on the relationship with the director and how much power they give you. Sometimes directors are completely hands off, or sometimes a director is very engaged. Either way, being able to defend and intelligently explain as a storyteller why you believe certain things is a crucial skill set – whether you’re talking to your director, or producers and executives.
After test screenings, executives will give all of their notes, and it becomes a system of bartering, politics, and passionately defending the things you believe in without sounding defensive. Again: diplomacy. I will also say that there is often, too, an immediate propensity to dismiss all of the executives’ notes as being dumb. So the editor and filmmaker must always have an open mind. Everyone has good ideas buried amongst the bad ones.
SFF.) Do you have any collaboration which was the most influential in your career and why?
J.O.) Well it goes without saying if I hadn’t done The Usual Suspects, my career wouldn’t have been jumpstarted like it was. So that has to be the most influential collaboration. Amazingly, we didn’t have anyone to answer to. Somehow Bryan had final cut, so we just made the film we wanted to make with no interference.
SFF.) You have set THE USUAL SUSPECTS to music and editing. A film that was made at a time when filmmakers could be experimental again like in the 70s. Many thrillers were made at that time, which skilfully played with the actual elements of the thriller. Looking back, how do you feel about this time?
J.O.) It was a great time of independence where we could do what we wanted pretty much. It’s interesting you mention the 70s, because even though Suspects was a film made in the 90s, both Bryan and I were fans of 70s films and were heavily influenced by those raw sensibilities, gritty reality, great dialog and emotional truth and depth they had. Believable character arcs and a real emphasis on quality script writing was more common then. The best films of today rely on this cornerstone, and far far too many have forgotten it.
SFF.) I felt your editing of THE USUAL SUSPECTS was a combination of political thrillers like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and trickery comedies like THE STING. How exactly did you think about editing this film? What was the intention behind it?
J.O.) I had no real stylistic game plan. The bottom line was just telling a great story that grabbed the audience though the characters and the plot. The intricacies of the story dictated that I would have to jumble timelines and use montage for clarity and intrigue. I don’t believe in masturbatory editing for the sake of flashiness and showmanship.
It has to be organic to the story in the same way a camera move should be motivated by story, performance or emotion. So in that regard, I think my instincts, as you alluded to, were very similar to the thrillers you mentioned.
SFF.) We all have our favorite movies. Mine is PHASE IV for example. But which movies do you really don´t like and why?
J.O.) That one freaked me out as a kid! If I remember, it was sort of like Andromeda Strain, but with ants. I love dry classic science fiction. I should’n’t mention my least favorite films by name, but I find myself being angry toward many present-day films, only because we seem to be making them for spectacle over a good story. There used to be for more time and effort put into the script because it wasn’t as easy to change things in post, especially visual effects. The action always had something to do with the characters of the story, or their goals. That’s why the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark is so damned satisfying, or Sean Connery chasing a drug dealer in Outland. Things had to be visualized and painstakingly planned.
A prime example of this is Empire Strikes Back. It’s certainly a popcorn movie, but it’s also a dissertation on how to make a masterful film. When watching the action sequences, we have to remember there was no previz then; only sketched storyboards. And there was no going back and redoing things substantially. There had to be faith in the story, and therefore a lot of attention spent on the script. I saw Empire 13 times in the movie theater when I was a kid. And now? I haven’t even bothered to see the latest Star Wars film because I’ve been so disheartened. In the same way Empire taught us how to make a perfect movie, some of the later films in the franchise are examples of everything that’s wrong with popular filmmaking today: sloppy writing, cartoon characters, muddled or no emotional truth, stories with no clear-cut character goals, and spectacle over substance. It’s very sad.
SFF.) Do you know which movie is my Guilty Pleasure? EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS to which you also contributed the music. I love this movie because it praises the genre and at the same time it is ironic. When you look at your work, you can see that you have also set music to a lot of genre films. Do you have a weakness for genre films?
J.O.) I don’t know, they certainly can offer great expression for the composer who can be more overt with the score. So they are fun in that way. You can wear your emotion on your sleeve. For that movie, I got to be unhinged with the orchestra and write thematically. But the bottom line is I just like a good story. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a genre film or not. It’s just that, like I said before, you can let your hair down more with genre movies as a composer.
SFF.) I am really into science fiction (or fantasymovies in general) because I think, that those kind of movies are the best way to show actual political and social events. For example SOYLENT GREEN or SILENT RUNNING. Do you believe that these genres can transfer something to the people? Would it make sense to return to this tradition in today's difficult socio-political times? The transport of overcoming social problems through entertainment films?
J.O.) My favorites as well. And science-fiction is one of the premier genres that makes us think about our society, and inspire us to be better. An analogy would be the original „Star Trek“ series, where many of the episodes were allegories to events happening at that time. The Klingons were actually invented to represent the Russians for an episode where starfleet and the Klingons were vying for control of a planet that represented Vietnam. The show was also inspirational, offering a hopeful view of the future. Current films show the future as dystopian and depressing.
It’s no wonder there’s a loss of hope. We tend to emulate the things we see in entertainment. So it’s really unfortunate that most modern popcorn movies don’t strive to positively inspire us, or give us warnings in these ways. Even the original Planet of the Apes had some profound social commentary in its subtext. It’s theme of subverting facts and truth is even more prescient today than it was in the 60s. But another reason film’s arent as unrestricted to send these messages is because the markets and profits are wider now, also relying on China and Russia; so it’s very difficult to have a mainstream event film with an anti-authoritarianism or civil rights message, for instance.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
J.O.) I’m a place in my life where I want to explore new territory and, additionally, not be couped up in a room all day. There are a couple films I’m trying to get off the ground to direct, but that’s always a crapshoot. For the last few months, I’ve been a consulting producer on season three of „Star Trek Discovery.“. That simply means I’ve been overseeing the editors. For season 4, I’ll be directing an episode. If it goes well, I’m hoping I can foray that into directing more episodic television, specifically moving around in the „Star Trek“ universe. That would be fun for me. And the time commitment to direct a TV episode is about two months.
That way I can move onto another one, or take time off. It seems a better lifestyle than I have had the last 20 years. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for another scoring assignment, but it has to be something that full fills and gets me excited. There aren’t a ton of movies out there that lend themselves to the types of thematic and psychological scores I love writing. But you never know.
SFF.) Hand on heart: Which film would you have liked to be involved in?
J.O.) Xmen 3 comes to mind. For Xmen 2 I had planted many thematic seeds to grow in X-Men 3. The intention was for them to blossom and develop further. And as a filmmaking partner in X-Men 2, I believe my involvement in Xmen 3 would have garnered a competely different movie. The filmmaking sensibilities and emotions I brought to X-Men 2, along with Bryan Singer, would have folded into the next film. Unfortunately, much like Dark Phoenix, Xmen 3 was often a joyless and humorless slog, with strange moments that often felt like a betrayal of the characters, and leaving the viewer cold.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult project you were working on and why?
J.O.) That’s a tough one to answer, because when I was doing double and triple duties on so many Singer films, I would often lose nearly 20 pounds just from pure exhaustion and not eating. Managing the films from beginning to end was a total life commitment; sort of living in a wack-a-mole game of trying to solve multiple problems.
But I would say, as a composer, The Cable Guy was a great challenge indeed. Ben Stiller, the director, thought that the composer should be on from the first day of shooting. And while that has happened, it’s not commonplace. The nice thing is that I didn’t have to copy a temp score. I just wrote original music as they edited scenes together. The first cut of the film was 3 ½ hours long, and I had written nearly 3 hours of music. Then, of course, the cut kept changing because they were trying to redefine the movie from being too dark to goofy. My score always stayed in a sort of quirky dark emotional tone, but I was always re-writing to fit the new picture.
Years before I had read about the nightmare scenario Goldsmith faced with Star Trek the Motion Picture, and I felt like it was living it on my first big movie to score. These were the days before digital editing, and I didn’t believe in ghost writers. So it was harrowing when I would be recording with the orchestra, and then the editor would walk in the room and say that they just recut the scene – again! So I had to go scramble at the piano with my orchestrator try to come up with solutions on the fly. To make matters worse, Ben Stiller was so used to the synthesized mockups that he initially rejected the sound sound of the actual orchestra. In the end of the day, with the movie being cut down and songs being integrated, there ended up being about 20 minutes of score in the film lol. Not going to the final sound mix was another learning experience. When I went to the premiere, I was horrified that the score was nearly completely buried under sound affects. Hard lessons!
SFF.) Dear Mr. Ottman. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
J.O.) Thank you. It was fun to go down memory lane!