An Interview with John Ottman by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.82/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
John Ottman’s career as a composer continues to blossom, just as his parallel career as a film editor (PUBLIC ACCESS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, APT PUPIL, URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT) and a film director (URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT) spin off into new but related territories. Through the space of less than ten years, Ottman has amassed an impressive array of composing credits, albeit a majority of what he terms as “quirky” subjects that allow him to appease his interests in music that’s just a little bit off center. His latest work cheerfully embraces that style – the manic arachnophobic thriller from INDEPENDENCE DAY producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS, describes a variety of poisonous spiders that get exposed to a noxious chemical which causes them to grow to monumental proportions. Ottman’s score is alternately suspenseful and comedic, accentuating both the horror and the hilarity of the film’s activities. We spoke to John Ottman on May 3rd, and inquired about his approach to this score and others, and his previous challenges of both directing and composing at the same time.
What can you tell me about EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS? How did you get involved in this project?
I was originally called to score a movie called ARAC ATTACK, and I thought it was a war movie about Iraq – IRAQ ATTACK – and I thought, well, that sounds really ethnic and interesting. Then I found out it was ARAC, meaning Arachnid. I’ve always wanted to work with Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, because I’ve always been envious of the gargantuan science fiction spectacle films that they do, so I wanted to do it no matter what it was, After I saw some of it, I realized it was a little different from what I imagined, and actually it was a little bit of a smaller movie than they normally do, but it was very quirky and it played into that side I’ve developed, that dark, quirky, FANTASY ISLAND / CABLE GUY / GOODBYE LOVER kind of sensibility. It’s a very hard movie to score, because it’s got to be suspenseful but it’s also got to let the audience know not to take it too seriously either. So I tried to give it a personality through the music. We recorded on the Fox stage, which I found absolutely amazing – I never want to record anywhere but there, if I can afford it! So it came out really well.
When you first started spotting this film, what were some of the things that came to mind that you wanted to deal with in the music?
Well, they were spotting it with really over-the-top, goofy music, and that was not working at all. It was almost like making fun of the movie too much, as opposed to having fun with it, and it really diminished the participation in the movie and made it a passive viewing experience, because it was just goofy all the way through. Obviously, if you’ve got giant spiders attacking people, you’ve got to play into the suspense, and it lacked that completely. Then we went the other way, and it was just totally suspenseful; and that didn’t work, so there wasn’t any music that worked really well in terms of a temp score. We finally used WITCHES OF EASTWICK in the final temp, and that was hit and miss, but at least it had that sort of quirky quality. And then we dumped all that and I did my score!
Most composers seem to have a love / hate relationship with the temp score, How did you deal with it, especially in this case, where it had problems as far as working towards what was really needed for this
John Ottman: The biggest problem about temp scores is that if it’s bad and they like it, it takes all your energies to try to convince them that what they have is wrong. And I of course make my opinions well known, so I was always on record as far as letting them know that this temp score was not working at all! After they had some screenings for the executives and some test screenings, they realized, fortunately, that my take on the music was right. Temp scores can be a curse or a blessing at the same time. Typically, I don’t like them, whether they’re good or bad – because if they’re good, you have to live up to them; and if they’re bad you have to convince them that they’re bad. It’s really best if there’s nothing.
How long a time frame did all of this take? How much time did that then leave you to actually compose the score to film?
That’s a hard question to answer because this movie was very effects-laden and was always in a state of incompletion. There were many postproduction delays because of CGI effects, so it really spread out the project. I actually scored a movie, 24 HOURS – it’s now called TRAPPED – while we were in sort of a holding pattern on EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS. That was a quick, 2-week in-and-out kind of process. So it’s hard to say. It was a little bit here, a little bit there, for probably four months,
I wanted to ask how the CGI effects shaped your working process on this film, since certainly they weren’t all done by the time you came into the project to write your music. You were up against those in LAKE PLACID also, I believe. To what extent did the lack of finalized visuals affect what you were trying to compose?
It didn’t really affect things too much. At the very end I would have to add little nuances and tweak it to accommodate some final effects that had been rendered that I didn’t see before. But Dean and his effects team were very clear to me on exactly what I should expect – he’d tell me, “okay, on this shot you’ve got a thousand spiders crawling all over the place.” So if you’ve got a thousand spiders going all over the place, you’re not going to hit every spider and therefore it’s going to be a general mayhem kind of cue you’re going to write. You plug in that general mayhem and, nine times out of ten, it tended to work perfectly over what the final visuals were going to be.
How would you describe the film’s thematic structure?
There’s a general theme for the movie itself, which you could loosely say would be the Spiders’ Theme. I just tried to capture the personality of the movie with that theme. It applies generally to many different things. Then there’s another theme that is the kid’s theme in the movie, but it can also be more generally applied to the people in the film. There’s also a kind of Spider Attack theme I used.
What kind of instrumentation did you use on this score?
It was an 85-piece orchestra. I really enjoyed using the woodwinds in this score more than in many others, simply because of the quirky quality they achieved, and I used the bass clarinet for a brooding cave feel when they go find the spiders’ lair. That was fun to do – I wish I had four or six bass clarinets like Bernard Herrmann, but I had three, and it created a nice cluster of sound for those scenes,
What do you feel was the biggest challenge you faced on this score?
It sounds like an overused line, but for this movie, it was just riding the line the right way, and then dealing with the sheer amount of music. It was probably about 80 minutes of score.
You have built up a reputation, as a composer, anyway, of films that are either dark subjects, such as SNOW WHITE, HALLOWEEN H20, and quirky subjects, and I you seem to combine both of those worlds…
Right. That seems to be the sort of specialty niche I’ve put myself into, and I feel very comfortable in that dark yet quirky world. I tend to like movies like that because I can put my sense of humor, which tends to be a little wacky, into my work, which makes it fun. If I have to play it straight, it’s a little hard to be reserved,
How does a film such as PUMPKIN, an unusual love story, play into that sensibility?
PUMPKIN is definitely also riding a line; in fact PUMPKIN probably rode the finest line of the year. It’s about this uppity sorority girl who falls in love with a retarded boy, and it really could be laughable if the music was too sentimental, but if the music were too disturbed, it would be too screwy. It had to explore the humanity of the film without making it into a joke. The film’s a very strange movie, that’s what I liked about it, and so the score’s very eclectic. I also have this very stuffy sorority music, which is really outwardly pompous and is very funny. It’s a mixed bag, which I really loved. I know people might think I’m crazy – but I really loved the movie, and I totally loved the script so I did the movie for next to nothing. I spent all the money on the orchestra, so I think I netted $1.000 on the film, but I just wanted to do it.
How would you define what you do, musically, to ride that fine line? How much of that is instinct, how much of it is craft?
I don’t know. It’s like the process of writing music – you really can’t define what you do. You get to the keyboard and you sit there and your fingers start working and you kind of fiddle and experiment. With PUMPKIN I had created this love theme that became the skeleton of the music for the two characters, but then I needed something to incorporate into that theme to give it some distance. At its basis, it’s pretty, but then I had this droning violin line that repeats over and over to pull you away a little bit, to make it not so sappy. But I don’t know how to explain what goes on in the brain when I do that!
How closely did you generally work with your directors on films such as EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS?
I always work really closely, because I always want to go to the scoring session with them having heard every note I’ve written, down to every flute trill. There’s absolutely zero surprise when we come to record. I think Dean was actually shocked when we got to the scoring session, apparently he can be very pernickety and he can cause many delays on the scoring stage, because I think in the past he hasn’t heard detailed mock-ups. His producer told me this was the smoothest scoring session they’ve ever had because, basically, he was just hearing the synthesized renderings orchestrated. If you can wean them on a real good sounding synthesized mock-up, you now have created the new temp score, then if that’s what they’re getting in the scoring session, in most cases they’re not going to argue about it. They’re going to love it.
So the effort that composers are now required to put into the mock-ups, which are becoming pretty expected now, winds up paying off in the end?
Yeah. It really depends on the composer and his or her relationship with the director. But I think you’re right, more and more, it’s really the way to go. Personally, I could never sleep the night before the recording session it I didn’t know that everybody has heard the score already.
And it certainly beats getting your score thrown out at the last minute.
It is a lot more work, because if you’re going to do an extremely detailed mock-up, where not one thing is a surprise, then you’re orchestrating the whole score yourself, and that’s essentially what I do; so it’s a hell of a lot more work on the front end, but it saves you a headache on the back end. Sometimes there might a fluke, where you give them a mock-up, everyone loves it, and then something weird happens like in H20, where all of a sudden, out of the blue, someone from the very top just makes some weird decree, but that’s unusual. If everyone’s heard the mock-up, usually you can save yourself that…
What’s the story there on H20, anyway?
Oh, that was very complicated. Basically, I had done my mock-up, the director and the editor loved them, and then the director left to start filming LAKE PLACID, so he wasn’t at the dub. The only person there to run the show was the editor, which was fine, but then they had a very strange situation where the effects mixer was also the music mixer. Now you never have that! If you’re going to have only two mixers, usually your dialog mixer is your music mixer, and your effects mixer just does effects. This effects mixer, who was this woman I wanted to strangle, was so used to her sound effects, and she was basically deciding how to weave the score under the effects and then sort of build the score in certain places, like she was the composer, but I had already done that! So Miramax executives wanted to see a videotape of the first couple reels of the mix, and you could barely hear a lot of the music, which had been very pounding, aggressive music, but they couldn’t hear it. So they deemed immediately, “Omigod! It’s an emergency! Throw some of these cues out and put in what we had in the temp score!” The temp score, obviously, worked well since it had garnered high test scores; so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and I understand that, but what really kills me is they never got to hear what I really did. So then the baby was thrown out with the bath water because there was no director there to do anything about it. It just started falling apart from there and a cancer started growing throughout the process, they started pulling music cues, and pretty soon the links between my score and the temp score were not working, so then they had to fly Marco Beltrami in to create some links between my score and the other scores with a synthesizer.
That explains why the soundtrack album on Varese Sarabande doesn’t have a name association with the film.
Right, which is really a shame. A lot of people have wanted to get the score but they don’t know where it is because it’s not called H20, it’s called ‘Portrait of Terror’, and how would anyone know? That’s really too bad.
How would you contrast your experience with working with editors and directors with being an editor and director yourself? Going back to THE USUAL SUSPECTS and especially in URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT, where you did the whole show, Is that both a challenge or a good thing, in terms of the overall musical experience for you?
I’m really on the fence about how advantageous it is to be the editor and the composer. In one way, the plus is, naturally, I know the film more intimately than anybody on the planet, and I’m going to produce something maybe a little deeper. But the big minus is that there’s no time to write the score. As you know, the composer’s brought in a couple of months before the editor’s even done with his cut. With any of Bryan Singer’s films, I’ve never had more than two or three weeks to write the score, so it’s a killer. I think it’s a toss up, actually. Bryan, of course, is adamant about me editing the films when I score them for him, because he feels he gets a better score that way, and so there’s a little bit of blackmailing going on – he dangles the carrot and says “you ain’t gonna score this movie unless you edit it!”
But as far as directing and scoring – I don’t know. That was very difficult. I was suddenly thrown into the position that directors are in, which is one of complete insecurity. I had temped the movie, amazingly, with other sound tracks, and it was working great, and then as the director, I was terrified to go away from the temp score. The composer side of me wanted desperately to change it, but the director in me kept telling me no! So I was very schizophrenic. It was very difficult for me to have the courage to pull myself away from my own temp score and do something different, and in the end, I think I did. I pulled myself away although there are some cues that you can definitely hear that remain from the temp. But I got away with that since the film was sort of “homage” to other films anyway. When I used a cue from POLTERGEIST, for example, I didn’t want to change it much because I thought it was kind of cool to have a riff from POLTERGEIST. It was just fun to do. Some people have maligned me for it, but other people have got it.
Horror films have developed their own language over the years, as far as what people expect or what composers do in terms of creating music for horror films. You’ve got this whole legacy of horror music going back to the ‘20s, and you’ve got what modern audiences want with various stingers and electronics and with action scores. What works for you to create horror in a film score?
My philosophy is that, no matter what the movie is, you pull from the main character of the film. To me, the more the audience identifies with a character and the more they believe the situation, no matter how outlandish it may seem, the scarier it’s going to be. That was my tactic in H20. The whole score, the core of it, was Laurie Strode, the character, and her growing through the film to the triumphant ending. I felt I created a musical story where you’re pulled in and you actually believe the ludicrous world that you’re watching. I mean, if you’re watching a movie and you really don’t believe the scenario that you’re in, then you’re less able to be scared. That’s always been my point of view, and therefore my music tends to be less over-the-top for horror movies, and if that experiment is allowed to shine I think people would see how effective that can be – but unfortunately in the case of not seeing the whole intact score to H20, we’ll never know.
And tying that in with something like EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS, where you’re also dealing with some humor that’s either inherent in the story or the visuals – you’re trying to embellish that aspect in the music and keeping that other line going…
Right. The difficult thing about EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS or a movie like LAKE PLACID is that there really are no characters. The ones they have are really cardboard figures, and there’s not a central enough character that takes you from A to Z in the movie to pull from. In LAKE PLACID there are no human characters to care about, there’s just a crocodile. Now, the crocodile doesn’t even have a problem. If the crocodile was dying, or was from another planet, or something, then maybe I could pull some drama from its character and then make the film more interesting, but when there’s absolutely zero backdrop to any of these characters, it’s a very difficult thing to come up with thematic material for me. EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS was a little different, but only because the spiders had such a quirky personality that I was able to do this theme that applied to them, even without them having any inter-strife!
Now you’re looking ahead to do X2, the sequel to X-MEN, Where do you stand on that right now, here in the beginning of May? You’re getting ready to go up and do the editing, right?
Yeah. My musical brain isn’t going to be put together for a couple months as far as my take on it is concerned. I haven’t even read the script, so I don’t even know. All I can say is that I tend to want to go away from the typical superhero comic book / fanfare kind of score, and do something a little different, but still push the buttons, because it is a popcorn film. I just think that maybe that’s what needs to happen, because there is a sort of pathos to the X-Men, it’s all about the inner turmoil about being different and the beauty of being different at the same time. But of course you can’t compose a real downer score for a movie that’s a comic book film, so that, again, is going to be another fine line, in and of itself.
I would suppose one of the other challenges of doing a sequel, such as H20 and, in a sense, URBAN LEGENDS, and with X-MEN and X2, is you have this whole cultural history of the first firm and the Marvel comic book it was based on and a lot of people have grown up with… there’s almost this expectation that people may have towards the film and its presentation. Is that difficult for you to come up against or accommodate?
I try to ignore that and just take the movie that has been created before me and just do what I can do. If I start thinking about all the other stuff it’ll just freeze me up, out of worry! We just create something in the editing room and I’m going to compose music that will create that world, and of course I’m going to learn as much about the characters as I can… I’m just starting from scratch. I’m not even going to listen to the other score.