John Ottman: The Wizard of Light and Sound

An Interview with John Ottman by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.67/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

John Ottman

The more you understand what composer John Ottman is about, the more creative possibilities in making a motion picture begin to seem endless. John is one of the first film score composers in this business to create orchestral scores and edit the film at the same time. To take this one step further, he’s also a technical wizard in the recording studio who can shape and form a score any way he wants. His strength is in this combination of talents.
This composer’s style develops and changes at every twist and turn, with each new project. You can hear him start to evolve on his hauntingly beautiful and very moody score to THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Then step into a dream with his epic Gothic score to SNOW WHITE: A TALE OF TERROR. If it’s a sweeping romantic drama you’re looking for, go no further than his classical score to John Badham’s film INCOGNITO. For those of you in need of fear and terror, Ottman’s Herrmannesque score to HALLOWEEN H20 brings a touch of class back to a genre desperately in need. When it’s time to tell adult fairy tales, you will find the erotic child-like score to GOODBYE LOVER quite satisfying. And last, but not least, comes John’s musical journey into darkness, APT PUPIL. This score explores the depths of depression unlike any he has ever done before. So far, John Ottman continues to score film after film with hardly a moment’s rest. He is undoubtedly one of the youngest composers working this hard in the industry today.

This interview took place over countless months, while many of the film scores discussed were being composed. It’s a wild ride keeping up with this composer’s progress, but a real pleasure to share the film music word of John Ottman with you.

How many films have you been film editor on, as well as scored?
PUBUC ACCESS was my first film for Bryan Singer. Then we did THE USUAL SUSPECTS, APT PUPIL, and coming up next year will be X-MEN. Editing is sort of detrimental to my scoring career because it keeps me out of the loop for six months when I could score two or three movies in the time it takes me to edit one. It enables me to study a film longer than any composer, so I can do a score that’s more developed since you usually have about three weeks to write the whole score. Keeping me away long enough from the scoring process can keep my ideas fresh. When you start going from one film to the next like a robot, you can only start repeating yourself and I don’t want to do that.

Do you have more control over the final score it you’re both film editor and composer?
Absolutely. The editor is the one who shapes the film, so if you’re shaping it and you have a musical image in your mind then this melds together more easily. In terms of rhythm and drawing out the drama, sometimes the editor may be afraid to extend the scene because he’s not thinking musically, but if you’re the composer you can really milk things that an editor who’s not more musically inclined might be afraid to. I believe the best editors are musically inclined whether they know it or not.

To make these editing changes in the picture, do you always have to get director approval?
It depends on your relationship with the director. Fortunately, I have a really great relationship with Bryan, who gives me a lot of creative freedom and authority which enables me to do things like that. If it’s a big studio movie with an editor for hire, it would be next to impossible to do this. I usually edit and score the film at home, so it’s basically just running over to the editing console, changing the cut, having them do a new video copy, bring it up to my studio, and then plug it in to make a change.

Where did you learn how to compose film scores?
By watching the old STAR TREK series! I played clarinet for ten years, but in terms of classical education I basically self taught myself by going to symphonies. I always listened to soundtracks and classical music as a kid and would go to the symphony in San Jose and listen to the pieces I loved so much to learn how this sound would be emulated. Truthfully the original STAR TREK series really showed me how powerful it is to give continuity to music. They would take music from previous episodes and edit it together to work in a whole new way. This is what taught me the effectiveness of reoccurring themes. By today’s standards it’s overly dramatic, but the music was so terrific for that series that’s where music began to excite me.

Do you write out your film scores?
The reason I write all the parts is because I like to present synth mock ups, which have to be completely detailed. With today’s technology, as long as you have a musical sense, you can write the score as long as you have it in your head. If you’re thinking of a flute, you just call it up on the computer and you perform a flute to a click track with the picture. All you have to have is a sense of orchestration and you can do it.

What about orchestrating your film scores?
I orchestrate almost everything because in order for the filmmakers to hear what I’m writing, I want them to hear exactly how it’s going to sound when it’s performed. Every flute trill and string line has to be completely orchestrated, so they can hear exactly how it’s going to sound on the stage. I have an orchestrator who takes string lines, brass lines, and things I haven’t had the time to disseminate, and he indicates where the violas take over and the violins leave off. The main orchestrator I work with is Larry Groupé, who’s also my main conductor.

Snow White: A Tale of Terror

Tell me about this film?
It starred Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill. It was a twenty five or thirty million dollar film that was going to be a big theatrical release. The film needed a distributor and Disney decided to pick it up. They were possibly concerned by the fact that this was true to the original story by being dark and macabre, which interfered with the image of what they want SNOW WHITE to be.
So, instead of a theatrical release, they decided to stick it in the can. Finally it was broadcast on Showtime on cable TV. I think this is some of my best work and it’s a complete musical show piece with nonstop scoring that supports the film from beginning to end. The mix was terrific, I was so happy with my score here. It was 85 minutes and I had a great time with the orchestra in Seattle. We had these choral groups; it was one of those scores where everything went right.

How many players did you use?
I overdubbed strings, which gave me a lot of control on the mix. We had the equivalent of a ninety piece orchestra. In the choir there were 20 men’s and women’s voices that we overdubbed, which gave us the equivalent of 40 voices. That’s the beauty about going to Seattle, you can overdub and there are no penalties or extra charges. You can just record to your heart’s content. You can be really creative up there.

What were those strange Whispering voice effects you integrated into the score?
I was trying to imply that these powers which come to Sigourney Weaver were rooted in some history or were a force that you don’t know about. The mirror talks and in this film there’s this crow which is part of her magical extension. I decided to bring in some whispers through the mirror that’s really controlling her. I was trying to push the edge of what could possibly make it as strange and intriguing as possible. I used these sorts of strange descending tremolo string lines to reflect her descent into psychosis. I used the whispering with these bending string lines, like she’s being controlled by these other forces. We didn’t have a lot of time and for the temp score I took the DA-88 and recorded myself, saying various sentences on eight different tracks. I played them all back at once, so all you hear is this gibberish. It’s me whispering. I also did these growling effects and sampled my voice by playing it out of its natural range. It gave this weird feeling. The choir did some strange choral effects where they would bend their voices and so forth, but any of these strange Whispering sounds were just me.

The film is a period story, but your score really isn’t a period score, is it?
Not at it score. A score’s job is to enhance the drama. This story may be set in period, but it’s the drama of these two characters, its mystery, otherworldliness, and supernatural forces that transcend the period. That’s really what the score was addressing – the mirror and whatever mystery was behind that, but the framework was traditional. When you take a period piece and try to put some modern music over it, that’s always completely disastrous. There was some talk of that, but I brought up LEGEND which had a modern score that replaced a great Goldsmith score. Like this is going to bring in a younger audience? If the score’s working, that’s going to bring in the audience. If the score makes the film work, therefore your audience will respond. Your audience doesn’t watch a movie and respond to modern music. If that’s true they’re not engaged in the film.

Incognito

Do you feel that this is the romantic side to your scoring?
My mission in a score is to always bring in some romanticism, even if it’s a cold film. Even Keyser’s theme in SUSPECTS has a sort of romantic feel. It dimensionalizes a movie when music can exist at more than one level. INCOGNITO could have been very cold, so I really saw this as opportunity to bring in the angst of this artist who’s not at peace with what he’s doing, which is forgery. At the same time the idea of the old art world being involved – Rembrandt and the richness of that – automatically conjures up romanticism.
Also this was probably the first movie I’d done that really had a love story to it. That gave me license to really try to bring in some of that drama. There’s also a father in the film who dies before his son could show him that he could depart from forgery. It was again an opportunity to write something really heartfelt.

What were your themes in this film?
There’s Harry Donovan’s (Jason Patrick) theme, who’s the artist in the film. It’s sort of a blend of European and Americana because he’s an American who goes to Europe. Within his theme you’ll hear the father’s theme emerge once in awhile because of his obsession thinking about how his father will accept him. Then there’s the obvious love theme between him and the girl, that’s on its own and is somewhat Barryesque. Then there’s the dealer’s theme, which is the most like SUSPECTS. This reflects the shifty art dealers in this film who hired him. Then there’s the father’s theme in its own right, which is the oboe and piano. So there’s really four concrete themes, but one last theme was written for the painting itself because it had a history behind it. Every time the painting starts coming to life we hear this theme reflecting the past that he’s conjuring up. This theme, combined with Harry’s theme, is the opening titles. They play over this image that’s being created. You don’t know what it is yet, but it’s actually this forged Rembrandt, it’s being forged by this character. The music intertwines both of those themes.

Halloween H20

How did you get the job to score this film?
The director and editor liked my work from SUSPECTS and they had this idea to elevate a film that’s normally in the schlock category to something that’s a little more classy while, at the same time, maintain its visceral horror. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this sort of thing… I needed to have some fun with something, plus the thing that excited me most about the project was that I could take John Carpenter’s theme and make a huge orchestral version of it, like Bernard Herrmann meets John Carpenter.

What was your approach to scoring a psychotic picture like this?
I always approach everything from character and that’s the only thing that can guide me. If there’s nothing there in the character, I’ve got to make something up that I feel is in the character to guide my music, otherwise I’ll be at a loss as to what to compose. The major theme in the film, besides the main John Carpenter theme, is one for Laurie Strode, who’s the character that Jamie Lee Curtis plays. I see film scoring as a journey. Any score to me needs to tell a story. If you tell a story effectively it’s going to be even more scary because you’ve pulled the audience into a world that they didn’t expect to really believe. If they have sympathy for the character and believe the situations, they’ll be even more terrified when things happen to those characters.

Previous HALLOWEEN films have had primarily electronic scores. Why did you take a symphonic approach to this film?
My impression of the project was that it was going to be this big event film, which was going to carve out a niche for itself as being the twenty year anniversary of HALLOWEEN. By doing so, the whole scope of it was going to be larger, giving rise to an orchestral score, which is what turned me on to the project. I thought this would be so fun to do orchestrally, it would really show what could happen if you do a thoughtful yet scary score on a horror film. That’s what everyone else thought they wanted as well.
As it turned out, in the eleventh hour, the legs got shaky, people got scared, and before there was ever any chance to test the film with a real score, the temp score became the crutch. Cues were being sliced, diced, and pureed left and right just to make it like the temp score because the test screenings were great. During the course of composing the score I kept calling them saying “Are you sure this is what you want? I’m really going Hitchcockian here.” “Oh yes, that’s exactly what we want.” In fact the word “Hitchcock” was used many times during our meetings. When they finally heard all the cues, they loved all of them. I was excited to actually have accomplished the feat of doing this big orchestral score and have it be on, of all things, HALLOWEEN. My titillation with the project was to see that happen, as a film score collector and a person who loves HALLOWEEN, I thought it would be a fun thing to see. I think the final product is an amalgam of that idea and whatever else they’ve done in the mix.

How long did it take you to write and record this?
It was the shortest time I’ve ever had to write a film score. They hired me eighteen days before we were to record the score. It was around seventy minutes of music. It was insane; usually I can score a movie in three weeks, but not seventy minutes in eighteen days. This was one of those situations where I never left my chair, to such an extent that when I’d get up to get a drink, my legs were shaking. I literally didn’t leave my house for weeks.
The orchestra turned out to be the equivalent of eighty pieces, but we had twenty strings which I overdubbed. We had about a total of forty instruments in the orchestra. It went remarkably fast. We knew that we had a short amount of time and we’d have to be more organized than ever. So we recorded this in three and a half days. It was quite amazing that we got through it!

What was your biggest challenge?
It was to convey the visceral sense of the story, make sure the scares are there as effectively as I possibly could in a more intelligent way. I think I pulled that off, but that ended up being something that was unexpected to them. They wanted to go for a sure thing, bonks, bangs, cracks, and shrill stingers are a sure bet in those regards. Although, I didn’t think they were effective because I thought they were laughable, yet those are what ended up winning in the end. I did what I felt was pushing the envelope of having a score that had some intelligence, but also still worked on a functional level of conveying those scares. The challenge was making the audience believe what they’re watching, to such an extent that the scares are even scarier. That requires music to set you up and travel along with you. If the music is going to be chopped up, diced, and sliced like hamburger meat, then that intent no longer works.

Goodbye Lover

How did you happen to replace John Barry’s score to this film?
My understanding is that it was scored and they had a test screening, then they reedited a lot of the movie. The movie was so severely reedited, that even if they had kept the original score, it wasn’t really working anymore. I don’t even know if Barry was available to rescore this film. The score had to let the audience know, subconsciously, that they were allowed to enjoy this movie. I took a more quirk and sexy approach than had been done before, that’s what needed to happen.

Did you ever hear any of his score?
I heard the Opening Theme and that’s all I wanted to hear. If you hear too much of this you could start getting influenced and I wanted to do something 180 degrees from what he had done. I think they were looking for something totally different and that’s what I delivered.

Do you like scoring this kind of erotic mystery film?
It was different for me. It was fun to tell the string players to be as erotic and as sexual as they can. I put a lot of chromatic sexual things in the music. The other departure for me was putting some really hip drum riffs in with the suspense chase scenes which was very different. I had a lot of fun doing it; again it was a thriller score that had to tell the audience that this wasn’t to be taken too seriously, while at the same time not being comedic. That was the challenge. There’s a lot of underscoring which was extremely difficult. If you stepped a little too far one way it would ruin the scene. Yet, the music was required to really carry a lot of the dialog.

How do you interpret sexual moments or erotic scenes when you’re scoring a picture?
That’s definitely something I can’t explain. It’s funny because you have these sex scenes in the movie and you’re exposed because people are seeing how you interpret sex. Of course it has a lot to do with the characters in the movie too. The main character is this sassy, playful, innocent yet perverted character. That comes through in the sex scenes, which makes it overtly erotic here. How do you explain that? It’s not necessarily what I hear when I have sex, but it’s definitely what I hear when I watch these characters have sex. Again, the score’s intent was to let the audience have fun. I think an audience inevitably has fun when they watch something like that and you’re just overtly being very sexual with the music.

Did this take you off guard?
I did a scene in SNOW WHITE where Sigourney Weaver was mounting Sam Neill. That exposed me to overtly scoring a sex scene, of course that was very dark. The funny thing about the recording studio we were in is that there was no discreet communication between me and the conductor. When I pushed the button and talked, it was to the entire orchestra. So when I would describe sexual scenes or get erotic here, everyone was hearing me! This was a good thing because conductors want to talk in strictly technical terms; they like to convert what you’re saying into strict musical terms. I think it really helps when you talk to an orchestra in that sort of light. They can put their own take on it and I think they added personality to the score. When you’ve got forty strings there and each of them is giving their take on sex, it helps a lot.

Apt Pupil

This is the third film you’ve scored and edited for Bryan Singer… When did you score this movie?
We scored APT PUPIL during October 1997, but it won’t be released until October, 1998. We had the same situation with THE USUAL SUSPECTS; it was released one year after the scoring.

What was the size of your orchestra and choir here?
I did some overdubbing again, so it became the equivalent of about seventy pieces. There’s no choir, but there is a choral moment when the main character, the Nazi, dies. When I scored the scene there was so much going on, a cacophony of sound with all these protesters outside the hospital. The score and all the mayhem of the sound effects were not working together.
So what I did is integrate the protesters outside into the score. When you hear these protesters saying “Extradite, Extradite, Extradite,” suddenly the score comes in and then the word extradite becomes a choral moment in the score. It was the last thing we recorded, a couple of producers, me, a couple of assistants, we were all screaming in the microphone with the click track “Extradite, Extradite,” so we are the choir in the film during that scene!

Because of your relationship with the director, do you feel this might be your most developed score?
I had more freedom on this score than I’ve ever had with him because I’d finally gotten to a point where he trusts me. He can go to bed at night and sleep better, knowing that I’m probably going to do something that he’s going to like. I implied to him a lot that if he’d just let me ignore the temp score in this movie and let me do my own thing, he’d get a much better score.
In my favor, fortunately, the temp score was hideous. Nothing that existed on CD would work for this movie. It was such a strange movie that nothing I could find to temp it with would work. I had to create something totally new. I’ve grown a little bit, so maybe my scores a little more sophisticated, but it’s a whole different kind of score. My style is different because it’s not overt action scenes; it’s a very personal movie. It’s more character-driven than SUSPECTS ever was because that had overt action oriented scenes and more fantastic characters, where APT PUPIL had to be a little more realistic.

Did German waltz music influence your opening cue?
I first looked at the scene and all it’s imagery from the holocaust. The obvious thing was to do a German waltz, but I thought it would work better to be combined with the theme of the movie. So within the waltz there’s this clarinet line, which ends up being both Dussander’s and Todd’s theme. Todd sort of becomes Dussander in the story, so you really couldn’t create two entirely separate themes. It was the same with SUSPECTS; one theme reflected all the characters because they were all conjured up from one man’s story. There’s this cat and mouse thing, so their themes become one. Todd ends up becoming an apt pupil of Dussander at the end of the movie he becomes evil. So when you hear the theme at the beginning of the film it reflects Dussander, at the end of the film it reflects Todd.

Your score here is less classical and more ambient than your other scores. Why?
For a large part of it, it had to be that way. You want your music to be expository, but you’ve got to service the film. There were a lot of scenes where these sorts of visions would occur. You had to be ethereal, hold back, and not be too overt. You needed to add to the reality of these hallucinations and visions. You’re right; it’s more of an ambient score. It’s the kind of score that really is much more interesting with the movie than on a CD. That’s the kind of score it had to be, aside from the overt thematic material. I think people will see this movie, get the score, and then enjoy it. As usual with film scores, it will remind them of what they saw and actually enhance the music. This is unlike INCOGNITO where you don’t even have to see the movie and the music is so expository that it’s just fun in its own right.

The Future

In which direction do you feel your career is going?
The irony is that I got into this whole mess in the first place because I wanted to be a film director. I sort of took this unexpected side turn into film scoring. Because I love film scoring so much, my dream all along was to direct films so I could hire my idols to score them like Jerry Goldsmith and other composers I love. Somehow I ended up doing it myself. The long term aim is to still direct, but this sidetrack of composing has been so fulfilling to me because I love writing music. I’m sort of now ambivalent, yet at the same time I should continue my goal to direct and score my own films. It’s a time where I probably want to continue scoring for a little while and then feel more conformable jumping into the director ring. I do have a project in development to get my feet wet.

What is your dream score?
My dream is of course to do a DANCES WITH WOLVES or an OUT OF AFRICA type of film. These kinds of films don’t come along very often at all. To do a big sweeping romantic score is my dream. I always end up in these dark twisted screwed up stories, however, a couple of times in SNOW WHITE I saw the opportunity to use this pastoral theme for Lilly’s music. That’s why this film really excited me; it was my opportunity to show that I should be doing big epics. Unfortunately it ended up in most cases on a three by five box in someone’s house on a two inch speaker. That’s the tragedy of it all.

What are your future plans?
The X-MEN project will start filming around March, 1999. I’ll be doing both the editing and scoring on this film as well. It will be the fourth film I’m doing with Bryan. This is a live action interpretation of these comic book characters. It will be a hard thing to pull off because with those sorts of things it’s very difficult to please fans that are so passionate about it. I liken it to STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE, when that came out it was like a religious experience for me. To me that movie was the fate of STAR TREK, and I was so concerned all the way down to how the transporter room was going to look. You know, don’t mess it up! I think X-MEN fans are going to be the same way. Yet the problem with X-MEN is that you’re adapting something which could actually be ludicrous on the screen. People in leotards and capes could be silly, yet the film is not silly. It’s as serious as the fans take their comic book. How do you pull something off like that? Live action without being laughable. I think that will be the challenge and in order to do that there has to be changes in the comic strip itself, in its design. You’re going to piss off some fans, some fans will understand, and you can’t have the all the characters in the movie the fans are going to want, so it a big uphill battle. It’s about a one hundred million dollar film; it’s going to be huge. This massive thing is a studio project, unlike the other films Bryan and I have done. There’s going to have to be a point which we’ve never explored before, which is a second editor at some point. You know how much music will be in a movie like this? I’ve been through that before as a composer on THE CABLE GUY where you’re scoring on one stage when they’re mixing on another stage, that’s the way it’s going to be. It will be very trying, to say the least.

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