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John Ottman: A Conversation with the Film Score Composer and Editor of Superman Returns

July, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus

 

John 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 http://www.johnottman.com.

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.

 

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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 are negative.

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 anywhere.

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 some way.

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?

JO: 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 movie.

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 either [laughing].

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 opened.

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 like that?

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 the score

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 out.

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 think.

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 does.

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?

JO: 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 by ear.

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 not.

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 Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

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 here.

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.



- Jason Victor Serinus -

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