Any moviemaker would jump at the chance to work on a Bryan Singer movie. However, editor and composer John Ottman, who has cut and scored every one of Singer’s flicks excluding only X-Men (which Ottman declined so he could direct his debut feature, Urban Legends: Final Cut), does not greet each opportunity with glee. In fact, he refers to going to work on each movie as going to “editing jail.” He says this in jest… well, mostly in jest.
So when Singer called up Ottman to ask him to work on his latest picture Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise and reuniting the creative team behind Singer’s breakout feature The Usual Suspects (with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, writer Christopher McQuarrie), Ottman obviously accepted, if not a bit begrudgingly. Shortly before the movie’s December 25 release, Ottman talked with MovieMaker about the movie and his career.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): What were your intentions for the Valkyrie score?
John Ottman (JO): I wanted it to be modern yet an orchestral suspense thriller. Because at it’s heart, no matter how much of an historical piece it is in the backdrop, it’s basically a thriller. That’s the way it’s being marketed because that’s the way it is and that’s how the score is. That being said, the challenge of the score was to have it slowly lapse from a thriller into a tragedy—which it is—without feeling like it’s tacked on. So the score slowly evolved into the tragic end of it to come.
MM: You mentioned it being marketed as a thriller. The marketing has been sort of public for this movie. There’s been a lot of…
JO: There’s been a lot of bullshit about this movie. (laughs) It was actually one of the most interesting films to do, I was really having a blast doing it when we were seeing the footage and so forth. And then you start hearing this crap on the Internet and it’s very frustrating because I don’t have the right to go out and counteract it on the Internet. [The studio would] probably shoot me if I did. And they were saying, “Let’s be above the fray and not get down in the dirt with these people, these gossip sites.” So we just kind of let it go.
I felt like I was reliving the Dukakis campaign again, where all that crap was being said about Dukakis and he never said anything! (laughs) It was very frustrating, but you got to just keep doing your thing and hopefully it’ll go away. But it just started festering and I discovered that the Internet is one of the most hateful things in existence. It’s basically for sex and hate. Because I’d read the stuff and think, ‘Where’s this coming from?’
MM: The score is subtle and atmospheric; it doesn’t overwhelm the dialogue or any of the action.
JO: Well that was the idea behind the music, was to become literally the pulse of the movie. When I was putting the movie together, I don’t like to temp with anything [musically] until the very last second, so it was completely dry.
MM: That’s how you always do it?
JO: No. I did it for X-Men 2 and I did it for this one. I did it that way for Suspects as well. Superman Returns we temped while we went along and I hated it. But Bryan was so freaked out about me not using the John Williams theme—he was terrified that I wouldn’t do it—that we temped with stuff. And I’m like, ‘Don’t worry.’ (laughs)
But I hate doing that. I love cutting the film without music because one of my favorite things to do as an editor too is to do sound design, and [not using temp music] keeps me objective.
When we were putting Valkyrie together I thought, ‘Eh, maybe this thing will need 20, 25 minutes of music max because it’s really the gritty, realistic kind of thriller.’ As we screened, I realized the more pulsating stuff we put in, the more kickass the film became. (laughs) So there’s 100 minutes of score now and it never ends.
However, yes, the score was designed to be rather subliminal and to be intertwined with the sound effects and the dialogue. So a lot of times you don’t realize it’s there. That’s the power of film music. Composers would sometimes love for their music to be all expository, but sometimes the most powerful music in the world is music you don’t even know is there.