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.
MM: A lot of people say that about editing as well, that the less you notice it the better.
JO: Absolutely. And both tasks are, of course, telling the story. I always say the best film scores are scores that, away from the movie you can sense that they’re telling a story and the best film editors are those that are concerned with story. I think the best film editors are closet composers. They may not know how to write music, but I think they have a musical sense because they both kind of interplay with each other.
MM: It seems composing scores is your passion, more so than editing.
JO: Yeah, I love writing film scores. I love writing music. It’s like literally giving birth to something. It’s coming from within you completely. Editing is the most important job on a film bar none, however you’re still manipulating material that’s been provided for you. Not to say that you’re not literally creating a story, sometimes from horrible footage or making performances. Nevertheless, as a composer, I think it’s more personal.
MM: Was the plan always to make Valkyrie the thriller it turned into?
JO: From day one we set out to make a thriller. That was the bottom line. But I would say we got very consumed by the history and very consumed with accuracy, historical accuracy. Living in Berlin and being around the Germans and a lot of people who were very, very, very familiar with the story, it started to become a paranoia we all had—to make sure that we weren’t taking too many liberties and that we were being true to what happened. This is a very, very important story to them. So that became something that really… I wouldn’t say it crippled us, but it often gave us a lot of.. It did at times, maybe. (laughs) It crippled us at times.
It’s hard to make a thriller about an emotional, historical event and not belittle the historical event. And I think that’s why the Germans were really freaked out when they heard Tom Cruise was playing this part because this is one of their national heroes and I think they immediately thought this was going to be Top Gun or something. And it took us to convince them and show journalists there, and fellow filmmakers there, that no, we were being very true to the material.
MM: As an editor do like being on set during shooting?
JO: I hate going to the set. I end up going there quite a number of times because inevitably there are shots I want or I need to let them know if I’ve got all the footage I need so they can tear down a set. So I end up going down there sometimes to do little pickup shots of inanimate objects or hands picking up things, connector shots. And that can be late-night stuff you can do.
But yes, the set is one of the most god-awfully boring places to be on the planet Earth. (laughs) You think watching footage is like watching paint dry, at least something’s going on; when I’m watching even the most boring footage it’s more exciting than being the set.
MM: Do the jobs of editing and scoring ever get in the way of one another?
JO: They always get in the way. If I had a [separate] composer on the films I’m editing [he or she] would have gotten a much longer head start than I ever get. The editing, of course, never ends—especially on a complicated film like this. So I’m literally torn into two people.
When I’m doing both tasks, I really have much less time to actually write the score. On Superman Returns, to anticipate that, I brought on another editor [in Elliot Graham], but on this one I wanted to do the whole thing myself because we were going back to our roots [with] the same team as The Usual Suspects. And I’m a control freak and I really work better being the sole editor, but I knew that would add a lot more hardship to myself. Again, my own fault. (laughs)
MM: What are your plans for the near future in terms of projects?
JO: I don’t have anything lined up. That’s part of the damage that occurs when I’m on a film this long; I don’t have time to go pound the pavement or look for anything. I’ve got to just concentrate on this film. Then part of me is so exhausted when I’m on a film for so long. My agent called the other day and said, “I’ve got something for you.” And rather than my initial reaction being glee, it was like, ‘Ughh.’ I felt my pulse rising for anxiety reasons, and so I realized I need to relax for a couple months.
MM: Sounds like a plan.
JO: Of course then there’s the mortgage and I start freaking out. (laughs)