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John Ottman is one of the most well-known film composers in Hollywood. Thanks to his cooperation with Brian Singer, he had the opportunity to work on blockbusters such as "Superman Returns", "X-Men 2", "Fantastic Four" and "Valkyrie." In most of these projects he was not only composing but also editing. To many John Ottman's professions, you can add also directing ("Urban Legends: Final Cut"). Despite the sheer volume of work, the composer agreed to answer some questions specifically for readers MuzykaFilmowa.pl. We proudly nvite you to read John Ottman's first Polish  interview.

Łukasz Waligórski: How did it start? Why did you decide to be a composer? Did you want to score movies from the beginning? 

John Ottman: I never planned on becoming a composer. That's how life often is; you do what you least expect. I wanted to direct movies and hire my idol, Jerry Goldsmith, to score them.  I went to film school, and after I graduated I continued to edit small films and I also wanted to try writing music for fun.  I bought a bunch of used midi equipment and taught myself how to sync the midi gear to videotapes.  I then took some of my friends' student films and re-scored them.  I realized I had a knack for it, and I continued to do it for fun. I then began writing music for small things like employee training videos and such. When Bryan Singer and I were doing our first feature film, "Public Access", I told him I really just wanted to score it.  But he had a composer already.  So I was just the editor.  But later the composer wasn't working out, we had a deadline for the Sundance film festival, and I ended up writing the synth score.  From that point on, I realized I loved writing film music, and the rest is history.  The only problem is that when Bryan does a film, he refuses just to let me score the movie unless I am also the editor.  This keeps me in editing jail for a year, and I lose a lot of scoring work!

A composer, an editor and a director in one - is it easier for you to gain a job in Hollywood? And are you often being asked to do more than is in the contract because of your skills and experience?

Well, the more things I can fall back on, the better I guess!  I come to a film with a well-rounded background and tackle a film and it's problems as a filmmaker more than just a composer.  So I think my opinion is listened to.  I often realize I have a unique opportunity to be able to get a project off the ground if I want to, but then I ask myself if I really want to turn my life upside down and stress myself out more than I already am.  It's a question I keep asking, so I keep staying on the fence regarding directing again.  I do miss it though.

Your relationship with Bryan Singer seems to be significant in your career. Could you describe first time when you met him? Was it "Lions Den"?

We met on a USC thesis film called "Summer Rain".  Bryan was a production assistant and I was helping the director on the set that day.  He cracked some joke, which he rarely does, and I was the only one who laughed.  The film wasn't working after it was shot, so I replaced the editor and re-edited the film, telling the story in a different way, utilizing voice-overs I wrote, music and sound effects.  Bryan watched me take the old film apart and make a new one.  The film unexpectedly ended up winning the student Academy Award.  After that, Bryan had a short film, "Lion's Den", which he wanted to make.  It was about a bunch of guys in a diner coming back together after their first semester of college.  He wanted to try and be Woody Allen and act in his own movie, which was a mistake.  We had to get him drunk just to be able to relax and "act."  So then I ended up co-directing the film with him, as well as edit it.  But he had a composer – the one who didn't work out on our feature.

Ben Stiller's "The Cable guy" was your first contact with comedy. Is this genre easy to score? Is it true, that writing and recording this score was a nightmare?

Every genre has its challenges.  I tend to get darker comedies that ride a thin line between darkness and light. This is a very difficult balance to achieve, but for some reason it comes to me naturally to write this kind of quirky music.  It's sort of like "intellectual comedy music." The bottom line is that I try my best to write the score from the mind of the character, as warped as this mind may be.  With sinister or goofy characters, there's a lot more going on in their background and psyche to make them who they are.  In "Cable Guy", I tried to find the inner child in the character, which added depth to him and his actions.

Yes, the recording of the score was a nightmare because of massive and constant re-editing of the picture as we were scoring.  This was before the era of digital technology, so that added to the slowness of the process.  On top of that, we'd be through a cue on the stage, and Ben would suddenly have a new idea, even though he had loved the synth mock-ups.  So we'd have to stop and I'd brainstorm at the piano with my orchestrator as the clock was ticking.  I had once read about the nightmare Goldsmith had on "Star Trek The Motion Picture".  It sounded so scary I was scared to get into the business.  And then on "Cable Guy" all the same stuff happened to me. So it was a good inauguration!

Why you didn't score "X-men"? You've been scoring all Bryan Singer's movies for over 20 years, but not "X-men". And why Bryan chose Michael Kamen?

It looked lame, so I said no.  Just kidding!  Of course I desperately wanted to do it.  I finally got Bryan to allow me just to score the movie instead of edit, because I was busy directing "Urban Legends 2". So the plan was for me to score "X-Men" when I was done with post-production on my teen horror masterpiece.  Then suddenly the "X-Men" schedule got pushed earlier and I couldn't do it.  I even tried to put my post-production on hold while I went to score "X-Men". But the production company for my film said no. So then I was in the dubious position to help Fox come up with candidates to score "X-Men".  I loved Michael Kamen, but I felt he worked too differently from me, and that it would be a bad match; so I told Bryan he should choose someone else.  But because of Kamen's relationship with the producers, and Bryan's excitement that Kamen worked with famous artists such as Clapton (like who cares?), he chose him.  It just wasn't a match, and the process was beyond nightmarish for Michael and Bryan, not to mention the editors.  After that film, Bryan told me he would never do a film unless I was doing BOTH the editing and the score.  UGH.

On "X-men 2" you were an editor and composer? How did you do that? Was the situation of you being the editor helpful somehow in writing the music?

I look back and have no idea how I pulled that off!  On the first "X-Men" there were five editors working around the clock.  On "X2", it was just me trying to put together a very complicated story laden with visual effects, and I had to write a huge score to boot. Nuts.

Michael Kamen is a legend. Was his score for "X-men" somehow important for you during composing the "X-men 2", or did you want to it your way from the beginning?

Well for many reasons, mainly miscommunication, Michael's score wasn't embraced, so I was free to do what I wanted.  I really wanted to define the franchise on "X2", hoping we would do "X3" and so on.  I liked where Michael was going with the main theme, but it seemed like a fragment. So I adapted similar ideas into my theme.  I was depressed when we didn't do "X3".  Not there's just no cohesiveness in any of the films now.

Temp-track is something normal in Hollywood, but "Gothika" didn't have one. How did you get in to this movie and was it like scoring it?

It's funny you bring that one up because I remember reading a score review which ripped into me because the reviewer seemed to "know" how the film was temp scored.  I laughed because it didn't have one.  I got the film by writing a demo to picture.  They gave me a scene and asked me to score a couple minutes of it.  For some reason I totally got inspired by what I saw and I ended up writing a 15-minute demo.  They liked it, and I got hired.  They brought me on before they had a chance to temp it.  As they edited the reels, they would give them to me and I would write my synth rendering to the reel.  So I really enjoyed that.  I had a similar situation with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and other Joel Silver films. I just have so much more fun when I'm given a blank canvas.

Most of movies you score are horrors and thrillers. Why is that? Is it because you choose this kind of movies, do they choose you? Aren't you afraid to become "horror-guy"?

I take what I can get!  I love departing from that genre and love doing something like "Astro Boy".  But work is work. I can rarely choose what I want, unfortunately. I hope I've done enough other genres not to be pigeonholed as the horror guy.

If not "horror-guy", then maybe "comic-guy". You scored "X-men 2", "Fantastic Four", "Superman Returns" and "FF: Rise of the Silver Surfer". How could you describe musically this genre? Is it always about themes?

Well these films were certainly all about themes.  I'm a thematic guy and believe in themes and using the score telling a musical story.  This is becoming a lost art, and I'm trying my best to keep it alive.

I need to ask specifically about "Superman Returns". I mean… what John Williams did for "Superman"  was amazing. Did you feel that pressure, that you're facing legendary theme and whatever you do, won't be good enough for fans?

Let's just say I was practically getting death threats on the Internet from die-hard fans telling me to use the original theme.  I had always intended to use the original theme but people would email me to beg me to keep the theme alive.  They would also ask why I was doing the score and not John Williams.  I don't know how so many people found my email address!

It got to a point where I finally stopped worrying about what everyone else wanted me to do and just did what I thought was right.  It was crippling my creative process and I was completely hung up on trying anticipate what everyone else would want. So, I said to myself I would just walk into it like I would any other film and score it with my own sensibilities.  Otherwise it's going to sound like I was imitating someone else and that's the worst kind of score when it's not coming from within the composer.  And I can hum any moment of "Superman" because it's part of my psyche, so it was very easy to intertwine it with my own stuff.  So what came out of it was a very personal score that sounded like me but also gave the nod to Williams and that was the only way I could get through it and score it effectively.

At the same time, as threatening as the fans were, I could completely relate to them because not only was I a huge fan of the Richard Donner version (and didn't want to disturb that world)  I also likened them to how I was prior to the first "Star Trek" movie.  I would go to "Star Trek" conventions and grill the actors with questions about what the transporter room looked like, what did the Enterprise looked like, etc. I was completely concerned about my entire world being destroyed by the making of a movie that could have potentially ruined "Star Trek" for me.  So, I completely understood where the "Superman" fans were coming from…but at the same time, you have to embrace the new a little bit too.  And in retrospect, I believe that one of the problems with "Superman Returns" is that we were all so concerned, almost in a religious way, of preserving the Donner version that the film was inhibited from evolving.  It was almost like a love letter to the Donner world, which is fine and good, but I think the next generation needed something newer to see.

Did you have chance to know what John Williams thinks about your score for "Superman Returns"?

I have no idea if he even saw it.  I know one time he met my conductor at a dinner and told him he liked my music, which thrilled me.  But who knows if he was referring to "Superman Returns", or anything for that matter!

How did you get into "Astro Boy"? Could you describe working on that score?

I got a call from my agent telling me there was a movie right up my alley called "Astro Boy" and that they wanted to meet with me.  I immediately got excited because it would be a fun thing to do after a year and a half in the ultra-serious, heavy anxiety-ridden trenches of Val Kyrie.  That year also coincided with some bad stuff in my personal life.  So I really needed to do something "happy" and innocent, both for my musical satisfaction and more perhaps for my own psychological needs. It could be a total breath of fresh air healing air. The smile on my face Astro gave me was a sign I was really stimulated to come up with something new again. Just as importantly, the small behind-the-scenes gang (director David Bowers, producer Maryanne Garger, editor Robert Anich Cole, and music supervisor Todd Homme) were kind, wonderful, "happy" and ego-less. And that that alone was enough to inspire me even more. I feel like I really made new friends on this movie. Even though we had to get through recording 90 minutes of complex score in 5 days, I remember actually enjoying myself at those recording sessions from start to finish – and that's a first.  I even invited friends and family to the sessions, which I never do!  All in all, a really memorable time with a dream-come-true orchestra at Abbey Road. It doesn't get better than that.

In "Astro Boy" you created themes for almost every character. How do you find this leitmotiv compositional technique? Does it fit only particular genres like comedy or comic adaptations? Could it work in horror?

That was the fun behind "Astro Boy" because I could wear the emotions on my sleeve and write clear themes for the characters. That method comes to me very naturally, as it is more musical and fun – both for me, and the audience. A lyrical score helps creates a world for them to experience. For horror, it depends on the kind of film. In most modern horror films, overt themes can feel dated and cheesy. But smaller themes, or motifs, are certainly something that I believe in for horror – that familiar riff or sound that, when you hear it, creeps you out – a sound that means the bad guy is in the room, etc. Having said that, if an audience believes in the characters, the more scared they'll be when the character's in jeopardy.  And themes can really connect an audience to a character, like in "Orphan", where I wrote a theme for the mother and the daughter. It sort of brings some reality into the world, which I think makes it scarier.

Which one of your scores are you extremely proud of and which one (if any) you recall as a failure?

That's hard to say. There are moments in all my scores I'm proud of, but as a whole, "Incognito", "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "Astro Boy", "Goodbye Lover" and "Apt Pupil" are my favorites.  Isn't it funny that most of those bombed. Usually my best work no one hears!  I'd say my least favorite was "Lake Placid" because there really wasn't any character beside a crocodile I could base a theme on. I had to just do a theme for the picture as a whole, and for mood, etc. But it was still a fun score to do and it worked for the film. Composers have to throw themselves into everything they do, no matter how goofy the circumstances.

Are you familiar with polish film music composers?

I have met Jan Kaczmarek on a couple occasions.  I love his music. It's refreshing to meet other composers who are less about synthesizers at heart and pure music first. I ended up alone in a restaurant in Tenerife during a film music festival when Jan and his wife walked in. We ended up having a great dinner together with wonderful conversation.  Jan and his wife were trying to help me think of ways to find a boy friend. It was very sweet of them. I miss them. I'm hoping our paths will cross again. I'm still looking for suggestions.

If not a composer, you would be...?

Well we know the answer to that – I'd be directing.  If just gotta make the move.  It's always my torment.  If not that, I'd like to be one of those talking-heads political pundits blabbing on the talk shows, or even a talk show host ;) 

Thanks for all answers and your time! Good luck with new projects!

Author: Łukasz Waligórski


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