POZNAN, POLAND—John Ottman is a traditionalist. The composer for such films as “XMen— Days of Future Past,” “Superman Returns,” “The Usual Suspects,” “X2: XMen United,” and “Apt Pupil,” writes scores in the style of his musical heroes, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.
Here at the Transatlantyk Festival in Poznan, he talked to attendees about the emotional points film music should hit and lamented the lack of finesse in so many of today’s scores. Ottman is unique among composers in that he serves not only as the scorer for Bryan Singer’s films, he also edits them, which severely limits the amount of time he has to score. He recently emerged out of a three-year work jag that included working on “Jack the Giant Slayer,” “X-Men—Days of Future Past.”
My colleague Kris Tapley interviewed Ottman about “Days of Future Past,” in May so I decided to do a quick lightning round with him on different topics. We were both very jet lagged and kept laughing at our difficulty concentrating, but he came through like a trooper. And one thing he made perfectly clear: Just don’t visit him during a scoring session.
What’s the hardest scene to score?
A fight scene is one of the hardest scenes to score, for me, at least, because you have to search for what the scene is really about to be motivated musically and yet people are just hitting each other. If you can find out what the scene is about underneath the action that is going on, it’s easier to write music for it, but
some times you just have to go for what’s on the screen and that’s the toughest for me because I’m always motivated by things within the character.
What’s the easiest scene to score?
I would say a creepy scene, someone walking through halls and something’s going to happen. You’re really just suspending the moment.
What’s your favorite creepiest scene you’ve scored?
There are many moments in “Hide & Seek,” a movie I did which I’m very proud of. I’m very thematic, so there was a character called Charlie, who was [the main character’s] imaginary friend and I used string harmonics to create this “Charlie’s Theme,” so when he’s being talked about, it’s very creepy, even though in a strange way, it has a personality to it, which is probably what makes it creepy.
How hard is is to tie in your theme with a well-known existing theme by another composer, such as in “Superman Returns,” when you go from your theme into John Williams’ “Lois Lane" theme during the flight scene?
Frankly, it was a lot easier than I thought to weave in the Williams’ stuff into the score for “Superman Returns,” probably because the themes from his score are so iconic, that you just hear a fragment of them and you recognize them, so all I had to do is throw in a note or two of one of his themes within mine and you understood I was giving a nod, so I just basically find out whatever key I’m in and throw three notes or two notes from either the “Superman” or the “Lois Lane” theme.
Who’s your favorite “X-Men” character to write for?
Xavier. On “Days of Future Past,” it was the first time he’s had a theme in the franchise because the movies have never really centered around him like “Days of Future Past” did. It’s all about rediscovering the hope that he lost, so it was gratifying to be able to do a theme for him.
We saw some old footage today from when Patrick Stewart and Bryan Singer came to the scoring stage for “X2" Do you like it when the actors stop by?
It’s always unnerving for me when anyone comes into the scoring session. My team knows me very well and they know that the day that supposedly someone might come, I’m very cranky and very irritable and everything ticks me off because all I’m doing is staring at the door the whole time because every time the door opens I think [someone] is walking in who is going to screw up my entire day [laughs].
What’s your favorite scene you’ve ever scored?
It’s naturally from a film that no one ever saw, which is usually the case. One was a movie called “Incognito,” which was aptly titled because it remained as such. That movie was a rare opportunity for a composer because it was long, long sequences, some five or six minutes in length, without any dialogue and very little effects. It was showing how a guy would forge art. It was a composer’s wet dream, There’s an almost six-minute sequence where Jason Patric basically forges a Rembrandt and the whole process of how he goes through that process, the real paints, the metals he melts down to make it authentic.…It was a lot of wasted passion because it went nowhere.
You brought up today how scores have changed and are much less subtle. How have expectations changed in terms of what is expected of a composer?
I think the bar has been set so low that I think the expectations aren’t very high, frankly. And it’s sort of depressing because when you’re on a movie, you get so much pressure from everyone because they’re all terrified and scared and so then the music’s suddenly important. [laughs] It’s not important until it comes down to it. Even though they’re all very on edge about it, I think if I just hashed out some string astinados [repeated patterns] and it worked because it’s something new, they’d all love it. I really could just do that and it would be signed off on, but I can’t bring myself to do it because I want to do more than that. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on today.
It starts with the temping, there are so many of those kinds of scores out there now— it’s sort of the sound that’s out there— so an editor throws that onto a movie, suddenly there’s an association with the visuals and everyone just instantly can’t imagine something different. Then the poor composer comes on and if he’s not really an opinionated composer, he’s just going to do that and so then that score goes out there and that gets temped in the next movie and it basically becomes a circle that doesn’t stop.
You’re a descendant of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Is that traditional style getting lost?
Well to be thematic doesn’t mean to sound dated. I think that’s the fear— if we’re thematic, we’re going to have a score that sounds cheesy, and that’s not true. You can be thematic and still be relevant in today’s scoring styles. It doesn’t mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and just thrown in repeat bars after repeat bars. You can actually find a way to be lyrical in a more modern sense. It just takes more work.
Do you think scores are getting dumbed down?
Yes. There’s a whole “South Park” episode where James Cameron finds the bar and raises it, well the bar just keep going lower, lower. I don’t think modern film scores are quite as bad at Honey Boo Boo, but sometimes I feel like we’re going there.
What can you say about “X Men: Apocalypse?”
The script is just an outline right now. There are some ideas, but obviously I can’t talk about them, except it’s about the apocalypse (laughs). And all my favorite characters are back, including Quicksilver.
You also edit Bryan Singer’s films. You recently came off three years with out a break. How do you decompress?
The 15 hours a day, 7 days a week just stops and suddenly the freedom you’ve been seeking you have, and then I’m lost. I’m like a drunk person who’s not drunk. Typical me will see the glass half empty. I realize the sacrifices I made because when it all stops and I’m left with my free time, I realize I only have two friends and I don’t have anyone in my life because it’s all about my work. So it’s sort of sobering when I finish one of these projects to realize how much you don’t have in your personal life. That’s what I’m sort of dealing with right now.
What was the hardest score to write?
“Jack The Giant Slayer” was the hardest time I’ve ever had in terms of cracking what the theme was of the movie because I broke my own sacred rule: never start a film score unless you've established your themes first. I always write this sort of overture before I start the writing of the score, otherwise I’m lost. I was [in] a fog every time Jack cam on the screen. I had a temporary place holding theme for him, but I never really liked it and not until I stumbled across something in reel 5 where he’s walking over to his horse, did I realize "There’s the theme right there.” Unfortunately most of the score had been sent off to orchestration. I had no time, but it would be wrong to just have it as it was, so I went back and re-scored every moment that was with Jack and then, only then, could I write the big rousing version of the theme because it was Jack’s theme.
What’s the one score you would take with you to a desert island?
The “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” of course, because I’m the ultimate Trekkie of the original series. When I say original, I mean the ‘60s, not “The Next Generation.” Even though that theme was used on “The Next Generation,” I associate it with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which was like the coming of Jesus Christ to me. The score is super thematic, it’s deep, it employs many modern sounds. Despite the fact that Goldsmith was traditional, he was always trying to find ways to be with the times that were, so he’d bring in the blaster beam, that thing that was the new thing and some of his efforts had dated themselves, like in the ‘80s we used some of those electronics, but Star Trek remains timeless. That Blaster Beam thing, a lot of the water phone sounds they use and so forth. you combine that beautiful sweeping version of that theme over the most beautiful thing ever created by man— the Enterprise— and it’s just complete, absolute orgasm.