Hey people, Steve here with an interview with John Ottman, editor and composer for films such as Valkyrie, Xmen 1 and 2, The Usual Suspects, Urban Legend 2 and many more. The interview is broken up into different chapters given the length of it. I believe the man who keeps our noses to the grindstone will be publishing it in daily increments for your enjoyment! Bon Appetite!
Here’s Part II
How he got started:
Steve: So how did you begin? How did you start out with your career doing scores, how did it come about?
John: Ah well, where to begin. It started out more as a hobby really, I was going to film school, to direct, as everyone wants to in film school. I started buying used equipment from this thing called The Recycler here, it was sorta like the Craigs List on paper where youd find used equipment. I started getting into the world of MIDI technology around 87 – 88 and would get out the manuals for this equipment. I got an old Hammond keyboard and some sound modules and started teaching myself how to work this stuff. A couple of my friends, I asked if I could use their student films for training, so I stripped out their scores which were horrible ones that a student wrote, and I used them as practice to write music and I started realising I had a knack for it.
Steve: Ah ok?
John: Anyhow to cut a long story short, I was editing Bryans first feature film public access and the composer dropped out at the 11th hour and I said Id been doing this as a hobby and I could really write the score and he said Oh cmon, its a feature movie and its sinister really dark film and all that music youve been doing is happy and fluffy.. and I said I could do dark, really, so then I write the score, it goes really well, it won the Sundance Film Festival and then of course we saw the symbiosis that occurred between me being the editor and the composer. So he said on The Usual Suspects he wasnt going to make the film unless I did both jobs and ah, he told me youre not going to do the composing unless you do the editing, so to this day the blackmail continues! Thats pretty much the way it goes, and the joke of it all is I kinda got pidgeonholed as most composers when you have one success you get pidgeonholed as the dark sinister composer as I did, as thats how I started, and it took me a while to branch out and do other stuff. So things like, cutting to now, Astroboy is great for me as its light and happy, joyful kind of music!
Steve: Well speaking of Astroboy, the shows kind of a cultural phenomenon. The fact is it stretches back close to 50 years nearly?
John: Yeah I guess so, and its even before my time even, so I never really saw it as a kid. I knew of it, so when I got the book to orientate myself with the series, I remembered it but never really saw it as a kid.
Steve: Well yeah, I mean my older uncles watched it in its first airing, the black and white one, I watched it in the early to mid 80s, my sons now 5, he watches the new series they made (on cable).
John: Oh they made a new series???
Steve: Yeah a couple of years back, around 5 or 6 years ago, it was actually pretty neat, wasnt bad actually. There you go thats three generations watching it! How did you approach it? Youve said the score will be a lot lighter than your other movies.
John: Yeah well Astroboy is very… its for younger, how should I say it, its for kids?
Steve: Yeah of course, its true.
John: Yeah its a very innocent story, it sorta reminds me of Pinocchio, this kid gets killed and the father wants to rebuild basically his son again and create a mechanical version with the same memories, the robot has the same memories as the son and is unaware hes a robot. He just wants to be loved by his father and those around him and accepted. Its a very endearing and very innocent story so theres nothing super dark about it, well ok theres a couple of dark scenes in the world theyve created. Never the less, for me, its a world of light and joy and fun, I seriously needed that after a long haul of dreariness and just the world I was in on Valkyrie.
Steve: Have you seen the final cut of Astroboy without the music?
John: Ive seen a cut of it as Im scoring, the cut remains pretty much the same, I mean they make some times, but I havent seen the way through but I havent seen the finished product all the way through. When youre filming animated movies, theyre always… um… theres certain bits that are finished and certain bits that arent, its all scatter boarded with ah, shots that are still being worked on, still being fully rendered, shots that are rudimentary.
Lets talk Valkyrie:
Steve: Are you sick and tired of talking about Valkyrie? Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about it?
John: Valkyrie was like going to war! Itll stay with me forever, its good therapy to talk about it! *laughs*
Steve: *laughs* Valkyrie from what I could tell, was plagued with problems from the beginning just to get it made!?
John: Well yeah but the thing is, it was also plagued with problems it didnt have. I mean, the most frustrating thing on that film is it was always a really good film and as you know Im very frank, if it was a horrible movie we were trying to make better Id tell you… but it was actually a really good film from day one, and youd read on the internet all these things these people, they wanted this film to spectacularly crash and burn for whatever their agendas were, it was really hard to work on a film you really believed in then read on the internet the crap that was made up, and believed of course because all you have to do is lodge one rumor bomb and people read and start to believe it and it festers. We just had to learn to hold our tongues, because if you try to counteract every rumor out there, you stoop to that level and it starts to sound more like propaganda so we decided to sort of shut our mouths. It was difficult to listen to all of that…
Steve: Yeah of course! Well, my point was more along the lines of stuff Id heard Tom Cruise talk about specifically. I think there was actually trouble just getting permission to shoot in Germany in general?
John: Yeah, well I think originally the Germans, they thought we originally were afraid that wed make a hollywood, turn it into another action film out of a very revered, a very holy story for them, or make it into another Peal Harbour…
John: We were sort of setting out to make more of a Tora! Tora! Tora! than a Pearl Harbour. I think we did. So finally once some key German opinion makers got ahold of the actual script and met with the film makers, they realised hey these guys want to make a film thats actually reverential to this event, they were a lot more comfortable with helping out.
Steve: If its any compliment to you, Bryan, Tom and everyone else involved in making the movie, I actually missed it in the cinema when it was out here but I recently rented it on dvd a week ago. It was amazing. Ive watched movies before where they try to get you to sympathise with German officers and Nazis in the past, they very rarely are successful. Valkyrie however hits on a lot of levels, its, I mean, what was it like when you work on say, Stauffenburgs attempt on Hitlers life, one of the big events of WW2 from the German point of view, how does it feel scoring something so set in legend?
John: Well it wasnt just scoring it but editing it, there was a huge amount of weight on my shoulders cause this is the moment with so much gravity that everyones waiting for in the movie, the challenge of this film was musically and editorially, was if this big events going to happen, literally half way through the movie how do we keep people interested for the second half of the movie? Even reading the script I was like How are we gonna do that???. I mean why would they keep watching it if the guy didnt die? I mean if you rewatch that sequence where he walks through with the briefcase and puts it down, the footage couldve been straight forward, he couldve walked in and walked out and blew him up, but my job was to protract that, to make it as long, agonising and nail biting as possible, to stretch it out five times as long as it really probably was, to make it exciting. I mean this is the big moment, weve got to milk it you know? So I recommended we shoot more stuff with Eddie Izzard, you know, where he makes the call, Stauffenburg watching out his window, then hes running down the hall whilst Stauffenburg is getting away so it would sort of, create that parallel action, it was quite a feat just editorially to create that sequence.
Steve: When I was watching it, I know history, I know he unfortunatel y failed at it, but Im sitting on the edge of the seat anyway!
Just how accurate can the Internet rumors be?
Steve: Now, moving on from it a little, IMDB.com is never an accurate source of information.
John: No, never.
Steve: They currently list you as doing the scoring for Man of Steel, also read something where you said until thats locked in stone, its not set. Im gathering thats not accurate at this point?
John: No its not accurate. Theyve also got me up for something for which Im flattered, called Marvels : The Avengers or something for the longest time, I dunno where that came from at all. I was thinking Cool I better call up Marvel and tell them Im scoring the Avengers!
Steve: Hey I wonder if John Favreau knows youre doing it! *laughs*
John: Oh is he doing the avengers?
Steve: I believe he is? I believe hes meant to be directing or theyve at least extended the offer to him? I think well definitely have to put this part up to definitely shut a few people up!
Steve: The one movie I was a bit disappointed that you and Bryan werent able to return for was obviously XMEN 3.
John: Oh yeah dont get me started! As proud as I was of the work we did on Superman Returns and the work we did on it, I was upset we didnt get to return for Xmen 3. When I got the phonecall from him, my jaw dropped and I wanted to throw the phone on the ground. Xmen 2, as hard as it was to do, it was such a fun movie to do as I love the characters so much. We had such little interference from the studio actually, with Xmen 2, I think because Bryan was involved and was their star director, and they let us do our thing. Musically, I laid all these seeds to grow into Xmen 3, all these scenes have like a rudimentary beginning in Xmen 2. Like Jean Grey, I had a whole plan for the whole Dark Phoenix thing. So when we just kinda left it, for me I hate it that theres no musical continuity between the movies, it kills me to hear a score that his little or nothing to do with mine for the third one, not blaming the composer of course, but just because I like continuity between the movies, especially all the work Id done to create all those themes, of course then I get thrown into ANOTHER movie which has a theme from another composer! You know, unlike some composers, I like to keep those themes alive until I, I, did my job to keep the continuity in that one!
Steve: I think I once heard an analogy once for comparing Xmen 2 to Xmen 3, Xmen 2 was like eating this giant steak dinner with all the great side meals you can have… Xmen 3 was like the next night going and eating MacDonalds. *laughs*
John: *laughs* Exactly!… maybe I shouldnt say it but thats a pretty good analogy actually! Its hard because you take on this world and you become a part of it you know and ah, those characters are such great, like I say they could just read the phonebook and youd still be enthralled with the characters!
Steve: Definitely, of course!
John: So it kills me on many levels we didnt do it. And I think Bryan, Ive since been able to lament and open about that to him, I even read in an article he said he wished he had of done Xmen 3…
So that concludes my rather lengthy interview with Composer and Editor John Ottman, the interview itself was much, much longer than youve read here, the audio will be available in the near future to listen to via download.