“X-Men: Days of Future Past” has certainly been cleaning up at the box office after two full weeks with earnings coming in at half a billion dollars worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. The financial success I’m sure takes the pressure off of 20th Century Fox, but the overwhelming consensus from fans and critics is a sure feather in the hat for director Bryan Singer.
Singer’s co-pilot, who can easily be left out in receiving credit for the success of the film, is his number one editor and also composer, John Ottman.
Ottman is a unique oddity in the Hollywood film business. He has the distinct notoriety of being a celebrated film editor who has worked on many top grossing films, but also a well established film composer with many credits to his name including the first “X-Men” and now this additional film in the X-Men saga.
What kind of person does editing and composing; or better yet what kind of crazy person does both? In a rare interview, I speak to probably one of the most unsung heroes in the “X-Men” film production universe, John Ottman.
Allie Hanley: You have the unique ability to score and edit films. Can you speak to me about the amazing skill and how you utilized it for the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past?
John Ottman: I am probably the only person insane enough to do that to themselves but it’s from a long standing, almost blackmail <chuckling> situation, with Bryan <Singer>. He’s almost reticent to allow me to score his films, unless I am its editor as well. It started way back with the film “The Usual Suspects” and it continues to this day.
Allie: Sounds like an intense amount of work.
John: Yes, I only do it for Bryan. It can be a one or two year commitment to edit a film. So it tears me away from my scoring career, but it does lend a hand in helping me fulfill my filmmaker instincts and needs. It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. There is such an over-lap in between the editorial management of a film, and then also going to write its score. There’s never a time where I can just go say goodbye everyone, it’s time to go write the score because of the responsibilities from the editorial standpoint never end; Whether it’s visual set issues or editorial issues for screening, looping the actors lines, or planning pick-up shots or whatever; It just never ends. So it’s a lot frayed ends to constantly be worried about, especially when you are trying to write a score.
Allie: So it’s an achievement to be able to realize both professions so successfully. I’d like to speak to the composing part of your talent. You’ve done a large body of work including “SuperMan Returns,” “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” and “Valkyrie” In that recent body of work which score are you most proud of?
John: It’s funny, the scores I tend to be most proud of, are the ones that nobody ever hears, which is typical probably with my career I suppose. The ones that are closer to my heart are usually the ones that I am just the composer on. For example, like “Astro Boy,” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” –even though that did get sort of a following, And then projects down to the insignificant ones, and probably my favorite was for a film called “Incognito,” which was aptly titled – from a film I did way back in my career. It was a film about forgeries. It was basically a canvas for composers. There were these long, long sequences, of basically a person forging a Rembrandt. There was no dialogue, just essentially these long sequences where I could compose. Obscure things are closer to my heart ironically.
Allie: With online services like Pandora, the availability of listening to musical scores nowadays is easier more than ever. Two that I find myself drawn to over and over again for writing inspiration is the soundtrack from the recent “Tron: Legacy” scored by Daft Punk and Darren Aronofsky’s film “The Fountain” scored by Clint Mansell and collaborators. What are you listening to in the last few years that inspire you?
John: “Talk Radio!” <chuckling>
Allie: Talk Radio, for music inspiration? Ok!
John: No, it’s funny. I mean it’s kind of sad -in a way, that when something becomes your career I associate listening to music sometimes as work. So I end up listening, -I became a news-junkie, end up listening to talk radio. So I don’t really listen to a lot of music but I should probably rekindle that inspiration. I remember back in the ol’days I was the first person in line waiting outside of Tower Records in San Jose to get the first Jerry Goldsmith album.
Allie: People don’t notice the editing in a film unless it’s lousy. Editors as well as composers are the unsung heroes of movie making and rarely get the credit they deserve. It’s the sort of icing on the cake if you will, that no one notices unless it’s somehow made with salt and instead of sugar. In regards to “X-Men” was there a sequence that you are particularly proud that will go unsung?
John: One I’m proudest actually is one where again it’s probably invisible, – to the agony of the editor, but it’s the whole nine minute Paris sequence. I titled it “Paris Clusterf*ck” when we were putting it together. Did you see the movie?
Allie: Yes, I have a review running now, loved it.
John: Well, there’s a lot of parallel action, -you got a guy on the floor who is writhing from being electrocuted, you got Logan freaking out, you have the altercation between Magneto and Raven, you got all these different things happening at the same time. It’s really the editorial agony when you try to cut back to the fight that’s going on, and you try to cut back to this person on the floor, and how much time it’s taking outside… it was one of those things that I knew when the footage was flying in, for which there really was no grand design, that I knew it was going to basically, put me in agony. Then trying to score it was pretty much the same situation. Trying to keep that constant nine minutes going, and making it feel like an action scene, -when really it was just people standing in a room and having some moments with each other.
Allie: So that stand-out scene of the film was when Quicksilver aides Magneto. He runs sideways around the room, and changes the trajectory of the bullets. Tell me about the challenges of putting that together with all those special effects being incorporated.
John: Well the biggest challenge is imagining what all those things are going to be on the screen because there is nothing there for the actor visually. So sometimes they’ll stick crude things in there or the special effects people incorporate crude animation so we can roughly imagine the visualizations in there. Then we can kind of tweak the ideas of what’s going on. I really need to give kudos to that scene mainly for the slow-mo, to the visual effects team, because that was a naked template for them to make sense of.
The entire Quicksilver sequence as a whole was a challenge too. The sort of interesting thing about it, and the entire movie, is that these scenes which might be categorized as action scenes, aren’t really action; they’re just exciting to watch, but you really wouldn’t call them an action scene. If you really look at the sequence, it’s just Quicksilver walking through the prison with a tray of food <laughing>, and yet something is just really fun about it. That’s where the challenge of keeping it editorial and musically amped up and fun.
Allie: When you are putting a film like “X-Men” together are there times when you see parts of it and think this is going to be the best part of the move, or other times when you are like this part really stinks?
John: Yes, a really good editor has a little bit of clairvoyance in terms of what’s going to be a great sequence and what parts going to be a problematic one. And which ones you are going to get by on just the skin of your teeth. I particularly have to force, or put myself in the situation, when we are shooting, to see what’s going on because I have to score the movie. So I can’t afford to come back to LA when we sort of finish the film up, and have a problem child. I have to sort of anticipate every situation so it doesn’t blow up in my face later. So I have to say, Look this scene doesn’t really work. We have to do something else, because I don’t want it to blow up in my face later. We won’t have the time to come back and reshoot it, or the time to fix it later. So I say, “I beg of you, reshoot something now -please.” It’s sort of self-interest, but I see the problems coming down the road.
Allie: What’s the relationship like when you can tell a director “hey this isn’t going to work” and they listen to you, or is that standard in the industry?
John: I’m not sure if that’s standard but after having such a long-standing relationship there’s a huge trust that goes on; But I pretty much have a greater authority than with some other editor because I have a twenty year relationship. So he grants me the authority to generate shot lists and story boards, and to work with the preconception artists. That also just adds pressure upon my shoulder but it also gives me the clout to go to him and say “hey, I think we have a problem with this sequence” and he can go an rally the troops to make it happen.
Allie: Since you do both compose and edit which do you prefer?
John: Well I think I would go direct something and then compose the score. That was my original intent when I went to film school. I did direct something a long time ago, -a teen horror film, but mainly I would like to get out of the damn room <chuckling>. And not be sitting in a dark so much. Even if I could direct some movie, -even a small one for the fun of it. The problem is, you can’t just say I am going to direct a movie tomorrow. It takes development time. And when we emerge from one of these sagas I start developing the mind-set that I am going to go, and develop a movie, but by the time the thing gets underway Bryan dangles a giant carrot, – here’s an enormous movie you can go score, and I grab the carrot. So the trick is to really learn at some point how to say no, so I can go enjoy myself somewhat, and develop something. I’ve been doing them now for some years and sometimes you just want to change it up a bit.
Allie: I hear you wholeheartedly. You really haven’t had the opportunity yet, because let’s face it, those carrots are huge!
John: Right! Editing a film is like going to cinematic war. And frankly, the editing guys I work with, -my team- and my junior editor I hired, when I say goodbye, -you just cry, because you really have gone through a lot together, and you feel like you have been on the front-lines.
Allie: How much time did you devote to editing “X-Men: DoFP?”
John: Well for this one, from production to the end, was a year, which was fast. For “Jack” it was two years on the project. Sometimes, if it’s a problem movie it can go on even longer. I feel sorry for editors but it’s basically life destruction from the time you get on, to the time you get off.
Allie: It certainly takes a lot of dedication to see the project through from what you are saying. Looking at your body of work, you have quite a few titles that are science fiction/fantasy. As a child, were you a fan of stories that centered around super powers or the fantastic?
John: I was always a science fiction fan. I am a huge fan of the original “Star Trek” series and that really guided me a lot in terms of my musical sensibilities and how to score films. Bryan and I both really are fans of Star Trek. We used Star Trek 2 <The Wrath of Khan> as our template, or a well too draw from, and or inspiration to sort of guide us. We always saw that film as a great film in terms of character development and the romance of it. So I was always a Star Trek fan but never really a horror fan. Not because I get queasy or anything, but because I don’t think they go far enough. I want to see someone’s head explode more often <laughing!>.
If I am going to go to a horror film, I want it to be a horror film damn it! <laughing>
I was never particularly into that genre. It never really fascinated me in anyway. I was much more into the bright and shiny world of Star Trek. The unlikely scenario where we did the right thing, and everyone survives and everyone gets along with everyone.