John Ottman on the balancing act of editing and scoring 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'
Bryan Singer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" opens tomorrow. I really liked it. I remain a pretty huge fan of "X2" and think it has a lot of balance lacking in many superhero movies, and this one is very much in the spirit of those early entries. It feels more like a sequel to them than anything, using elements from "X-Men: First Class" to carry the story. And in editor/composer John Ottman, it gets some added continuity with those films as he hasn't been involved with the franchise in over a decade.
Ottman is unique for being both an editor and composer. I can't imagine too many people willingly taking on such separate gargantuan tasks on a film, but he's done them both with equal aplomb. When we spoke recently, talk mostly circulated around music choices, building new material for a new film while calling back to his and Michael Kamen's work on the initial trilogy where appropriate. But in the assemblage, he obviously had a lot to chew on given the time travel aspects on display.
We dug in on all of that, messing with the Fox fanfare and what direction "X-Men: Apocalypse" might take. Read the back and forth below, and be sure to check out "X-Men: Days of Future Past" this weekend!
HitFix: Editing and scoring together, that's obviously a very unique thing to do in this business. How did that start for you and how are you still doing it after 20 years? As in, how has it not burned you out to do both of these things at once?
John Ottman: How do you know it hasn't burned me out? [Laughs.] Well, it started when I was cutting a feature we did together, "Public Access." It was our first feature film and it competed at the Sundance Film Festival. I was editing the film and at the 11th hour the composer dropped out and we had a Sundance deadline. So I had been doing the composing thing as a hobby and I told Bryan [Singer], "Look, I should write the score to this film," and his back was against the wall so I scored it. And I guess no one had really done that before and it sort of was singled out at Sundance. So when we put "The Usual Suspects" together I said, "Well, I like this scoring thing. I really don't want to edit the film." And he said, "Forget that. You're not going to score the film unless you edit the film," and then basically the same blackmail has continued to this day!
Going back to those two movies, what has been Bryan's philosophy on score? What are his thoughts on how music should work in a film?
You know, I don't ever remember a time where he has sort of given his own personal concept of scoring because he's mainly reacted to what I have put in as temporary music in a movie and then just basically responded whether he liked it or not and whether he's just feeling the scene the way he wants to feel it. I mean I know he has mentioned he doesn't like frilly things in the score. The specific things that I've learned through the years, he doesn't like things that shimmer or things that are like a glockenspiel or a bell tree. He's not going to want that kind of stuff. But other than that I think it really depends on the kind of movie we're doing and how he's just reacting emotionally to what I'm presenting to him.
However, having said that, on this one he did specifically say he wanted something more "modern." And I think there's some intimidation factor with the new sort of Chris Nolan-esque approach to film, well, to superhero films and to the scores. So I think he wanted to be able to compete with that sort of testosterone-driven kind of scoring. And so I took that to heart. However, we are working with a franchise and a character-driven movie. So I sort of infused that sentiment in, I guess you would say, that "modern" approach in with the lyrical sort of thing that I normally do.
Well, I'm going to get into that in just a moment but I do want to talk about "The Usual Suspects." I've never actually spoken to you before so now that I have the opportunity, it's one of my favorite movies.
Oh, cool. Yeah, I always say it was downhill from there.
Tell me about that score, which is obviously so iconic, and how did you decide on what it eventually became?
Oh, well that was a concept that I sort of came up with when I temped the movie. I wanted to go against the grain of what what one would think would be in that film as a score. You know, a gritty crime movie, I think at that time, would be sort of the Tarantino-esque approach in people's assumptions, or something very contemporary. And so Brian was on board when I basically temped it with orchestral music and had it be more poetic.