John Ottman is best known for his collaborations with film director Bryan Singer, and composing the scores for “The Usual Suspects”, “X2: X-Men United”, “Superman Returns” and most recently “Unknown”. Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with John on his past scores and what he is currently working on.
Mike Gencarelli: What is t he first step you take when starting to compose a film?
John Ottman: First, I take a Xanax and take a deep breath. Or is it the other way around? Kidding aside, at first glance, having an entire film ahead of you can be a daunting prospect. Especially the ones I get, which always require such an enormous amount of score. Composers are usually up against the wall, and are the last great hope of the film; all the other areas of the film are at the exhaustion point and they’ve tried almost everything, or are still tinkering when you come on board. I live with the film for a bit, watch it a couple times, ruminate about it in bed and while driving to the store until a concept or approach comes to mind. I want to crack the sound of the film almost like deciphering a code. But before things have gelled too much, you have to dive in. When I have an approach I discuss that with the filmmakers. The director will also have specific or broad ideas about what he’s looking for. Then there are the inevitable problem areas that the music can try to help or solve in a pragmatic way. My next step is to come up with motifs and themes for the film, characters, situations, etc. This becomes the inspiration and well from which I draw. It’s a lot of work up front to preconceive these themes, but for me it pays off in the end. Just winging it as I go along is much harder, as I’m more in a fog as to what the thematic structure should be for the story. Scoring a film is a bit of both – planning and coming up with new ideas as you go along. But if I have a template ahead of time, those new ideas are going to be more refined, and a better musical story will be told. You have to know where you’re going.
MG: How did you get involved working with Bryan Singer and his films?
JO: I was the editor on a USC student film that Bryan was a PA on. He saw what I had done to the film (I replaced a previous editor), and we became acquaintances. He then got money together to do a short film and I cut and co-directed it with him. We did an industry invite screening with other short films and got the attention of a Japanese company looking to produce low budget features. They financed $250,000 to make “Public Access”, which I ended up editing. When the composer dropped out at the last minute, I volunteered to score the film, which I had been doing as a hobby. Public Access ended up winning at Sundance, and after that the Usual Suspects deal was put together. Bryan refused to make the film unless I was both the film’s editor and composer. In other words, he refused to let me just score the movie. And to this day, the enforced labor camp of editing a project for over a year in order to score it continues.
MG: You have worked a quite a few superhero films (i.e. “X2”, “Superman Returns” and “Fantastic Four 1 & 2”, do you find it difficult to distinguish the sounds?
JO: That’s always the concern going in, but every film has something very different that I draw from – usually the characters’ plights. I can’t score a film unless I approach the music from the point of view of the characters. They are the genesis of everything for me. So even though these films are of the same genre, the music ends up addressing different issues and characters within a super hero context: “X-Men” is darker and more serious; “Fantastic 4”, lighter and more on the sleeve; “Superman”, emotional, even introspective, and grand.
MG: What has been your hardest film to work on to date?
JO: Well, you wouldn’t think so but “Lake Placid’ was difficult because it’s the one score I’ve done where I couldn’t draw from any characters. The humans were cardboard or one-liners (great one liners), and the crocodile didn’t have any history or plight for me to grab onto. So much of the music was just to keep things fun, exciting or scary. There’s basically one major theme that encompasses the mystery, adventure and the crocodile himself, who’s part of that mystery.
MG: Do you have a favorite?
JO: My most enjoyable score to write was “Astro Boy”, and it ranks among my favorites. But also “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was a blast for me to do, and is certainly one of my best. My favorite work always seems to be for films no one sees, or hears. Sigh.
MG: Do you feel that the budget of the film reflects your flexibility with the project?
JO: Well it affects the ease of working on the project, and your writing speed. With the low budget synth- supported scores, it’s ten times more labor intensive because there’s so much synth producing eating into composing time. You spend the bulk of your time finding samples, designing sounds and doing detailed mixes. The sounds you’re using aren’t merely for mock-up purposes, but the final product. The irony is that a lot of the synth work is working samples to sound like the orchestra. When it’s mainly an orchestral recording I can write much faster, as I’m not producing a final product. It’s going to be recorded later. The producers don’t understand that when they pay you less to do a synth score, you’re working at least twice as hard to get it to sounds non-low budget. It’s a double f**k.
MG: Tell us about your latest score “Unknown”? What was the process you used when working on the film?
JO: “Unknown” is more of a psychological journey than action score. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), is a biologist, and in love with his wife, Liz. At least that’s what he believes. Therefore the audience has to believe this as well. When he doubts himself, so must the audience. And that was the musical challenge. The music’s aim was to get into his head and experience the world through his eyes.The film taunts you to ask questions and make suppositions via Martin’s experience. The idea was to establish a familiar musical place and slowly morph it to sound more confused as the film goes on. The story begins with him and Liz driving to a hotel where they’re attending a conference. This music is a place of normalcy for Martin, marked by a piano melody connoting his world and his connection with her. When things start turning upside down, I tried to signify his “confusion” by taking the melody and “stressing it out” with atonal elements. I wanted the music to reflect his bewilderment, yet do it with empathy. I had a personal mission to keep a large portion of the score free of electronic loops. The temporary score was basically a giant collection of flavor-of-the-day rhythmic wallpaper. Even when Martin was alone to contemplate, or lay on a gurney in a hospital, it was synth rhythms – almost to a comical degree. It felt like a TV show. I kept commenting that there was actually an intriguing story under all that noise. The common fear is that without a constant beat, the film will drag. The opposite was true. By breaking it up and stripping out the incessant bologne, the film transformed to something far more captivating. There are, of course, a lot of aggressive rhythms in the action cues, but I tried to keep it sounding organic, or classic. But most of the score is lyrical in nature. It’s a journey.
MG: Tell us about some of your upcoming projects?
JO: I’m off to editing prison for a year and a half for “Jack the Giant Killer”, based upon the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable. It’ll be a big budget motion capture project. MoCap, as they call it, is apparently is an editing nightmare based upon what I’ve seen about “Avatar”. I’m off to London for six months of that sentence in a few days. So I’ll get one score to write in the next year and a half. I don’t know why I do this to myself. At least it will be a score with a good recording budget.