Ottman's fascination with film music extends back to his childhood in San
Jose, CA. By the fourth grade, he was not only playing the clarinet but
also creating science fiction films in his parents' garage. As he grew
older, the films became more elaborate, complete with scores pieced
together from his favorite soundtracks.
Ottman and Bryan Singer met each other at USC film
school, where John excelled in directing and editing. While Ottman was and
undergraduate and Singer a graduate student, they both worked on a film
that won the Student Academy Award. Not long afterwards, Ottman ended up
editing, co-directing, and doing sound design for Singer's short film,
Lion's Den. He then edited and scored
Singer's first feature, Public Access.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. A
series of lauded collaborations between Singer and Ottman was born.
Soon thereafter, work on Singer's The Usual
Suspects brought Ottman widespread
recognition. John was nominated by the American Cinema Editors and won the
British Academy Awards for his editing, as well as a Saturn Award for his
score to the film. Singer's other award nominations include a 1999 Emmy
Nomination for Best Underscore for Fantasy Island,
and a 2003 Saturn Award Nomination for Best Music for X2.
Complete information on Ottman's work is available at
The transcript that follows derives from a 45-minute
phone interview with Ottman that took place on June 28, just days after
Superman Returns opened in major
markets around the United States.
Jason Victor Serinus: For the record, how old are
you, and when were you born?
John Ottman: I'm almost 42. George Bush, Ronald
Reagan, and Merv Griffin have the same birthday as I do, July 6.
JVS: I've read several reviews of Superman Returns
– New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Jan Wahl KCBS-AM – and none
were very happy. How have the reviews been down there?
JO: The reviews here are spectacular. Daily
Variety, Time Magazine,
and Newsweek are gushing
over the thing. I get a lot of phone calls telling me when a review
mentions my music. Larry King did [laughing]. The Daily Variety
said my music was better than John Williams'; others spoke of its poetry,
intelligence, and texture.
JVS: The criticism I've read addressed the actors,
characters, and plot. May I assume that the raves you've read concern the
action sequences and special effects?
JO: No. They talk about the emotional aspect of the
film, and the fact that it's more of a love story than an action film. The
differences in reviews are very interesting. I'm surprised by reviews that
JVS: So you're happy?
JO: Yeah. I was happy until five minutes ago when I
started talking to you!
JVS: [Recovering from laughter]. Look, I'm a
performer. I whistled Puccini as "The Voice of Woodstock" in an
Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. I understand how performers and composers
feel when their art is on display and up for critical evaluation.
The New York Times
addressed some of the Jesus symbolism and references to the Bible that are
incorporated into the film. The reviewer thought their presence might
deflect some of the rumors that Superman was designed as a gay character.
It seems that some people are suggesting that
Superman is gay. I read in one gossip column that there's talk that, even
though the actor isn't gay, he's so well endowed that they had to do a
huge amount of work stuffing him into his costume so that some in the
audience wouldn't put all their attention on his crotch.
JO: That's a quintessential example of how the press
creates something completely ludicrous. This all came out of an interview
that the costume designer gave when they were first beginning the movie.
She made a joke that the most difficult part of the costume was figuring
out what to do with the crotch area. Suddenly it went from that to the
press taking off with it, and it became the fact that he was so hung that
we had to digitally reduce the size. It's complete bunk. We just laugh at
it; it makes no sense at all.
Somehow from there, this whole bandwagon thing began,
with all the press talking about Superman being gay. Besides the fact that
he wears blue tights and a red cape, there's no one more straight than
this character. We're continually puzzled why it keeps coming up. Perhaps
it's because Bryan is known as a gay director.
Now it's the kitschy thing to ask. Even Larry King,
when he first sat down to interview Bryan, began the interview by asking
if Superman is gay. It's so silly.
I think every group that not accepted, including our
gay group, wants to embrace Superman as one of their own. That part I
understand. But he certainly is not a gay character. I also think that
there is an allegory to him in a Christian sense will help dissuade any
criticism. It's almost a built-in defense.
JVS: What do you feel about Superman Returns
and what it offers people?
JO: For me, the favorite part of the movie is that
it's a love story. It's all about a man trying to find out how he fits
into the world. He feels like he's an outsider and doesn't fit in
As a composer, what I sank my teeth into more than
anything was the emotional story that's the main drive of this movie. For
me, Lex Luther serves as a device for the suspense element of the movie;
the real story is a love triangle. I think the picture is rather elegant
in that way. It's what kept me going emotionally.
JVS: As a gay man, do you relate to the love story?
JO: I don't think any gay person can say they can't
relate. I think in the back of everyone's minds they're an outsider in
JVS: When did you start writing the score? Did you
have to wait until the whole thing was put together?
JO: Yes. I had to wait until we put a cut together
that we pretty much liked. At that point, we're still always making tweaks
to it. But that's when I feel it's time to make the transition.
JVS: The total amount of time you spent writing the
music, from start to finish, was how long?
JO: I think I had two and a half months to write. I
wish I would have had more time, but in terms of film music scoring,
that's a pretty good amount of time.
JVS: When did you finish the score?
About a month and a half ago. I also edited the movie. I spent about nine
months editing the movie. You edit as you shoot. Way back in June of last
year, we started shooting. When we returned to LA, we continued to edit
for a few months until we got a cut that we were relatively comfortable
with. It was only then that I could begin writing the score. That overlap
period was probably the hardest on me, because I had both caps on.
Actually, the editor's cap is one I never take off. But to go ahead and
write this behemoth of a score, which is two hours of original music, is
always this looming task that I have ahead of me when I'm editing Bryan's
I try to stay in the zone and focus on the score, but
as editor, I'm always pulled away for some reason, whether it's for an
executive screening or editorial or acting issues.
JVS: That seems incredibly difficult.
JO: Sado-masochistic. And I'm really not into that
JVS: We'll write that down. Are you single?
JO: No. You're talking to me as we have furniture
wrapped in plastic and dust and we've just moved into the house I've been
building for two years. We've been together three and a half years. We're
registered domestic partners in California, which means you assume all the
liabilities of marriage but there are none of the benefits.
I finished writing the score a little less than six
weeks before the movie opened. The final sound mix took about three and a
half weeks. We finished dubbing the movie less than a week before it
JVS: Do you have a break before the next project?
JO: I thought I was going to. You know how moving is
the worst thing on earth. I went straight from finishing the dub to
moving. At the same time, my agent called and said, "There's a Hitachi
commercial that wants to be scored and edited. It's a quick gig in and
out." I really didn't want to do it at first, but I relinquished when I
learned how much they'd pay. I figured it was new stuff for my studio, and
I'm moving into a house which is the classic money pit situation, so I'll
take every job I can get.
Then I go into another project. Yeah, I'd love to
relax. I always do this to myself. I don't know what the psychological
reasons are. I always seem to get into a comfortable situation where I
could probably retire if I just stayed simple; then I go and do some crazy
thing like building this monstrosity of a house. I always keep myself in
this perpetual sate of having to work to survive.
JVS: Are you Jewish?
JO: No, but many people think I am because I'm a big
complainer. I'm the classic is the glass half empty kind of guy. But I'm
not a hypochondriac.
JVS: I'm sure there are projects you've worked on
where you've loved the story and loved the script, and others where you
haven't felt any big emotional tie to the story. What do you do in a case
JO: Most of the time I'm not the editor. I'm just the
composer. I try to write a theme for the movie that inspires me. From that
theme I draw a lot of the score. So if I can excite myself about the theme
I've written, sometimes even if it's a bad film, I get a kick out of
trying to see whatever I can do to make the movie seem better through the
music. I'd rather be in a better film that I embrace emotionally, but when
I do get on a project like that, I just use my music for inspiration. I
create my own musical story that you can actually take away from the movie
and listen to on your own. I think those are the best scores when you can
do that. When I walk away from a film that isn't great with a score that
is, I feel I have an emotional attachment to it in some way.
JVS: What do you think of your score for Superman?
JO: I thought that no matter what I did, I was going
to be fed to the lions, because there's such a huge fan base of the
original John Williams score. As a fan of the original movie myself, I
would also be on pins and needles wondering if someone had screwed up the
entire Superman world.
I therefore felt a lot of pressure to preserve that
which was holy. At the same time, I needed to write something new, and not
just regurgitate the old. It was a fine line trying to explore new ground
while at the same time giving nods to the original thematic material.
I really felt I wasn't going to make anyone happy,
and that I was just going to be maligned. So I couldn't have hoped for
anything better than to come out of it with people pretty much embracing
JVS: How did your colleagues feel about it? Were they
giving you strokes, or were they just being polite and nice?
JO: Oh no. I'm so, so flattered that they're just
going crazy about it. I guess all that fear and paranoia on my part paid
off, because I guess I just put a little extra into this. Of course, I
always do anyway, even if it's a little project, because to me, every
score is my last because I have that whole negative attitude about
everything. I try to give my all. It was the pressure that was on everyone
connected with this movie, whether your Brandon Routh trying to play
Christopher Reeve, or you're the Director trying to preserve Richard
Donner's world, or me trying to fill John Williams' shoes, or you're the
writers trying to fill the previous writers' shoes. Everyone felt this
extreme pressure to do what was best, or the best they could. In a strange
way, I think some of those older personalities of the past somehow
channeled themselves slightly through everybody, and what came out came
JVS: When you edit, are there complications? How do
actors feel when they discover a scene they've spent hours upon hours
perfecting and filming either cut to a few seconds or scrapped entirely?
JO: Unless they walk away and start slamming the wall
with their fist in private, they seem to me to understand. They get it.
It's unheard of, but Bryan brings them in. If he likes how some sequences
are being put together, during editing he'll actually bring actors in to
watch the scenes. That really isn't usually done, because it can
psychologically mess with an actor. But he does it. I think it's because
if he feels good about the movie, he wants there to be an extra enthusiasm
on the set. He'll bring them in, and he'll warn them ahead of time, "Hey,
we've cut this thing short." They'll understand and even be relieved, I
I think the actors usually look fondly upon the
editor. It really depends upon the editor as well, and how well their
performances shine. Of course, most times too, it's the editor who makes
the actors a hell of a lot better than they ever were in the raw material.
I think that a lot of the time, they're very thankful for what the editor
JVS: You don't shoot in sequence, do you?
JO: No, not at all.
JVS: When I sit down to write an article, even before I
write my first word, I look at my notes or look at the subject, and I
wait. I need to have some kind of coherent overview.
Sometimes I'll wake up at 3:30 AM and say, "I've got
it." In those instances, I'll grab the laptop and sneak off into the other
room to write. I need some kind of overall vision, so that the individual
parts work to create a whole. But if you're shooting everything out of
sequence, how do you maintain that overall vision? Is there ever a time
when you edit all the parts, put them together, and then find yourself
saying that you wish you had retained something you've cut?
JO: That of course can happen. But editing is always
in flux. In instances where you're not happy, you sit back and start
massaging the movie with those things in mind.
When you're editing out of sequence, you end up
having to do the same things the actors do. If they're starting a scene
that's three quarters through the movie and they haven't even shot the
first three quarters yet, they have to tell themselves where they are in
the story, what's happened beforehand, what are they feeling now based on
what's just happened to them which hasn't even been shot yet. Then of
course they have to confer with the Director, who reminds them, "You've
just been put through hell, you've just escaped from this and you just
came up through water and this is where you are now in the story." It's
the same thing.
You have to become really familiar with the story and
the script before you begin editing a scene. You have to know where you
are. Before editing, I always have to ask myself one thing: what is this
scene about? On the surface level, there may be some action happening, but
I always have to ask myself what the scene is about under the surface.
JVS: I know that sometimes, when I have to meet a
specific word count for an article -- especially when different papers
want different length versions of the same article -- I may spend an hour
writing and two and a half hours cutting.
JO: It's different with film music, because you're
writing music to the actions on the screen. I'm a slave to what's
happening on the screen. Every musical nuance has to match what's
happening. If someone walks through the door, I have to shift the music at
a certain point. By default, when I'm done, the music fits the movie like
a glove. There's never any excess unless, after I'm done, they start
cutting the film down. Then, as with your job, you have to make those
painful decisions about how to edit the music down. The difficulty with
music is that if you're in the middle of a particularly rhythmic passage,
editing it can prove really difficult.
JVS: What happens if you're in the throws of
inspiration, when all of a sudden the door shuts, and you realize that a
theme either doesn't work or you're going to have to compress it? Do you
go through those struggles?
Constantly, constantly. What happens on many films when I'm not the
editor, where I have far less control, I'll be writing the music for a
scene for a couple of days, and they'll call me to say they've just
changed the scene. They send me a new copy after I've already written the
music. So you're sometimes constantly chasing your tail.
You may have to make a conscious decision to edit the
music later in the computer, screw it for now, and move on. Then you edit
it in the final dub stage.
JVS: In one sense, you have let go of expectations in
order to do this.
JO: That's exactly right. My idol Jerry Goldsmith,
this luminary film composer who died a couple of years ago, always said,
"Once you conduct your score and deliver it, you've got to let go." That's
because they will destroy it [laughing]. You have to let go or it will
emotionally kill you.
I've done a couple of films, one of which is
Fantastic Four, where I scored to a
very long version of the movie. They recut the movie after I scored it,
and it was though the music went through a Cuisinart. When I watch that
movie, I have to turn it off because to me, it's so chopped up globally.
JVS: You've scored so many movies and won a number of
awards and nominations. Who knows if you'll become the next Bernard
Hermann or John Williams? Do you have the original scores that you wrote
before the films were cut?
JO: Absolutely. That's one of the reasons I don't
like scoring for synthesizers, even though they've a very legitimate
section of the orchestra nowadays. The problem is, for posterity purposes,
years from now, when I'm dead, if they want to re-perform music from a
movie and it was half synthesized, the synthesized parts will not be
there, and it'll sound terrible when the orchestra tries to perform it
unless someone goes back and tries to transcribe all the synthesizer parts
JVS: Either that, or they have to find the same make
synthesizer that you used, or it won't sound the same.
JO: Right. The other thing is that when you lay down
synthesizer parts, you rarely ever write down the notes or have any music
prepared. You pre-lay those tracks down prior to going to the orchestra.
So there's really no record of what you really did. That's why it always
rubbed me the wrong way. I had this psychotic notion that someday down the
line, someone will try to perform the music with an orchestra and it will
sound like a nightmare. So I try not to use a lot of synthesizers.
For me, because I'm not a technical person, it's
actually more time-consuming to lay those synthesizer parts down than to
write for the whole orchestra. The orchestra is going to re-perform the
whole score anyway. So I get really sloppy in the way I lay down the
synthesized rendering of what the score is going to sound like. But if the
synthesized parts of the orchestra have to be the final product, then it
takes a lot of time on my part. And there's inevitably always
synchronization problems between the synthesizer and the orchestra. It
ends up a real pain in the ass.
JVS: Do you have favorite scores that you've done
that you'd recommend to readers?
JO: My favorite scores are often ones that no one
ever hears. That's typical; it's the little goofy movies I do, like the
one that came out a few months ago, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Very few people saw the movie. But it was not only one of my favorite
gigs, but one of my favorite scores. It was such a fun movie for me.
There's really obscure stuff that no one has seen. My
favorite score I've done of all time is the film Incognito.
It remained as such because it was never released. Jason Patrick is an art forger, and there are these long, five-minute sequences with no dialogue
or sound effects. It's really a musically driven movie that shows the
process of forging great art --- Rembrandt.
For me it was expository music and like being
commissioned to write a symphony. It was really crushing when the film
wasn't released. I did the score with the Seattle Symphony, conducted by
my best friend Damon who has been my friend for 20 years. That's what
makes my job fun; I get to work with friends.
JVS: When you're not immersed in composing, what
music do you listen to?
JO: The sad thing is, and this is so typical of
people whose hobby becomes their job, is that I don't listen to music
anymore. I listen to talk radio as my escape. When you do music all day,
and I want to sit down and relax, I don't listen to music because I hear
it in a different way than others. I'm critical of it, or I'm resentful if
I hear some horrible soundtrack for a movie that I wish I could have done.
I actually get stressed out when I listen. Or I'll listen to a classical
piece of music and start analyzing it.
It's the same with movies. Having been a film editor,
I'll go to movies and watch the projection of images in front of me rather
than being immersed in the movie. I still like going as an excursion, but
it's too bad that these things have become screwed up for me.
Instead, I've become a news junkie.
JVS: So you relax listening to Rush Limbaugh?
JO: Oh yeah. He's my favorite [laughing]. Be sure to
put a "ha ha" after that.
JVS: Do you scream at him while he's talking?
JO: Yeah. It's difficult to avoid listening to
conservative talk radio, because that's pretty much what it is. But I do
like hearing both sides of an issue. As angry as I get at the Sean
Hannitis of the world – he's like the squawk box of the Republican Party –
if George W. Bush went off and murdered a 12-year old, somehow he'd make
it okay -- you still gotta hear how a lot of the country is thinking.
By listening to both sides, I realize is that nothing
is black and white. All Republicans are not out to kill all gay people.
Part of the problem with having a younger boyfriend is that he thinks
everything is black and white. When you get older, you realize that it's
JVS: What kind of music were you raised on?
JO: My parents didn't consciously raise me with any
type of music. I was a Star Trek
geek from the moment I popped out of the womb. I watched all the re-runs,
and started getting into how they are scored. When the movie Star Wars
came out, it opened my eyes to film scoring. I started collecting John
Williams and Jerry Goldsmith scores dating back to the '60s, and became a
freak about collecting Star Trek and classical music.
To this day, I have no idea who the most popular
group on the radio is. All I know is film music and classical music. I
grew up in San Jose. I'd go to the San Jose Symphony, and learn how my
favorite pieces got constructed. My favorites were Dvorak, more modern
composers who are more film music like – Holst, Debussy, and Stravinsky,
Rimsky-Korsakovä The first time I went to the San Jose Symphony, they
played Debussy's La Mer and
JVS: Is your partner involved in the industry at all?
JO: He's not. He just hears all the complaining and
rolls his eyes and sometimes shuts his ears. He's a student who has taken
some time off to take care of getting the house built. He's 28, and in a
very different place in life than me at 41.
JVS: So here you are, a 41-year old man with a
partner who's younger than he is, in Hollywood, in 2006. I know that there
are still young opera singers who are lesbian or gay but afraid to come
out. Is there any big deal about coming out in Hollywood these days?
JO: I haven't encountered any problems at all in my
world. I even sometimes forget how lucky I am to be in an industry where
no one gives a damn about your sexual orientation. I'm not the kind of guy
who walks into a room and says, Hi, I'm John, I'm gay. Sometimes it's only
halfway through a project that someone will discover that I'm gay. But no
one cares. I have no problems telling people. No one cares.
My conductor Damon Intrabartolo is a little more
flamboyant than most people. Everyone knows he's gay, and no one cares.
He's a kick in the pants. He's on the podium crackin' jokes all the time –
half of them gay jokes – and the orchestra members, most of whom are
probably straight, are laughing their heads off. When we're in town, I
think people look forward to having a session with us because we're such a
fun team to work with. We're also extremely focused and professional. The
whole gay thing never really crosses my mind during my time on the job
JVS: Have you encountered actors and/or actresses who
won't come out?
JO: I haven't encountered them personally, but I do
know that they exist. It's because of obvious reasons. I can exist in my
world behind the scenes and the general public isn't going to protest the
movie because they find out that the composer is gay. But a lot of actors
who may up for leading straight parts fear that the audience won't take
them seriously if they know that they're really gay. Especially if they're
up for a love story or action movie, they want to leave their options open
to be the next Tom Cruise.
It's a sad commentary on society when you realize
that you can't leave someone's personal life behind when you go watch a
movie. A gay person can play a straight person, and vice versa.
JVS: I was stunned when I learned that Will of Will
and Grace is straight.
We've covered a lot of territory. What more do you
want people to know about you, the film, or film scoring? What more do you
want to share?
JO: Oh boy!
JVS: Some people leap at this opportunity to not be
directed by the interviewer.
JO: I'm just a humble guy who wants to keep working
and express myself musically [laughing].
Music for me is really an escape from all the painful
parts of life. When I sit down to write film scores, it's often an escape.
I put a lot of my own psyche into my music and hope that, at the end of
the day, people respond to it in some emotional way.