John Ottman
John Ottman

While he considers himself a composer, it’s hard to ignore John Ottman’s achievements in film editing. But he edits only for director Bryan Singer, whom he met at USC Film School. Ottman’s cut all Singer’s films—except for X-Men (due to a scheduling conflict)—including the Sundance-winning Public Access, The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and X2.

MM caught up with Ottman while he was finishing up the scoring for this summer’s Fantastic Four, and just about to fly to Australia for the upcoming Superman Returns.

Alison Veneto (MM): What is your working relationship like with Bryan Singer?

John Ottman (JO): As much as I have at times resented that he can be off partying or at endless social events as I sit with the ball and chain around my ankle, I realize I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would hate it more if he were breathing over my shoulder. So he visits every few days to see cuts. He lets me pick takes because him telling me he likes one over another may limit some vision I have of the scene; he wants me to be as objective as possible and tell the story in a way he may not expect.

MM: At this point in your editorial career you’ve only edited films for Singer and yourself. Would you edit for someone else?

JO: Well, you never say never. But, um, never. If my scoring career took a nosedive, it would be a good back-up job to have in my back pocket. But I just love writing film scores and, frankly, editing a film for a year causes me to pass up a lot of scoring work, which is frustrating both creatively and monetarily. I end up unavailable for relationships I’ve established. Besides, editors don’t make royalties for their work, which I think is insane. The writers, producers and director do, but not the guy who it all boils down to? It all collapses without the editor.

MM: You’ve done the music for all the films you’ve edited. Do you think about that in the editing process?

JO: I’d like to say I’m this genius who is hearing the score take shape in my head as I’m cutting, but it’s not the case. I think I subliminally make room for big musical moments and, by nature of telling stories musically, it influences the drama behind my editing. But I wear an editing hat for a few months and then there is this gray transitional area (the most agonizing) where I have both hats on. For a few weeks I’m able to mostly just wear the composer’s hat.

MM: Do you find it’s harder to cut something with an ensemble cast like The Usual Suspects or something more intimate like Apt Pupil?

JO: Ensemble is harder, for sure—especially if many characters are in the same scene. You want to keep them all alive in the room. I really want to keep driving home their personalities and utilizing their reactions in fun ways, which is a lot of decisions to make while allowing the flow of the narrative to be clear. The only saving grace is that you certainly have more options to cut away to when in need.

Having said that, just having two characters in a room can be a challenge in keeping the scene interesting and engaging. Even the slightest eyebrow movement can make the difference.

MM: What leads to your choices in editing—the actor’s beats, the shot choice, the script?

JO: Well, it’s always a bit of all of those. But I would say that, editorially, I’m often most inspired and guided by the eye movements of the actors. How they look and focus on their counterpart inevitably inspires my cuts—or lack thereof. Also, if an actor is weak, this issue takes editorial precedence over all else. I’ll redesign the logic of a scene if I have to just to get a performance to work better. If a character feels phony or forced, I feel I’ve failed in my mission, no matter how exciting the scene is itself.

MM: Who are some influences for you in your editing?

JO: I can’t say I really have a succinct influence, except for what I may have absorbed watching Empire Strikes Back 12 times in the theater when it came out, and watching every Spielberg film over and over. Those are great editors to absorb! When I began editing myself, it was just instinct.

Once this began, I did take notice of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. In a scene outside the courthouse in The Usual Suspects, I had a cigarette continuity nightmare that I ended up completely ignoring in lieu of just making the scene flow emotionally. Months later I remember watching Goodfellas on TV and realized Thelma had done the same thing with a telephone and a cigar. So I felt in good company.

I’d say I get a lot of my sensibilities from the era of filmmaking I like best, which is the ’70s. I tend not to like editing masturbation, where you show a car exploding from 17 different angles for a minute. This just immediately takes me out of the scene in terms of “being there.” Over-editing also tells me that the filmmakers are less confident about their story and material and need to distract us from the truth by making the film feel snazzy. Just tell the story. I love montage (obviously), as long as it’s a way of communicating something that couldn’t be said better any other way. It’s a taste thing. But the bottom line is the more believable you can make a situation, the more you’ll keep the interest and respect of the audience.