Interview: John Ottman, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" composer

by Garrett Tiedemann, Special to Minnesota Public Radio
June 19, 2014

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Composer/editor/director John Ottman is no stranger to film, and no stranger to director Bryan Singer. The two have worked hand-in-hand crafting some of the most important Hollywood productions of the last few decades, including The Usual Suspects (1995), X2: X-Men United (2003), and Superman Returns (2006). This year they returned to the world of X-Men, with Ottman both scoring and editing Singer's acclaimed new film X-Men: Days of Future Past. I spoke with Ottman about his work, both Past and present.

With the new X-Men film, how did you first get attached? Was it as editor? Composer? Or both?

No, it's sort of a foregone conclusion that I'm part of the filmmaking equation with Bryan Singer. So, the moment he heard [director] Matthew Vaughn had dropped out and [Singer] was engaged with possibly [directing] it I knew we would probably go straight into that from the two-year nightmare we were finishing up with Jack the Giant Slayer.

And X-Men seemed to happen really quickly once he was attached.

Very quick. In fact, it was actually supposed to come out in June. The Planet of the Apes was supposed to come out when we came out, and they flipped them. They had more work to do on Planet of the Apes and we were in good shape.

That's right, I thought it came out sooner than initially marketed.

Yeah. It cut three months off of our schedule, which made things far more difficult — not editorially, of course, but for the score and for visual effects. Everyone was completely accelerated.

So how do you start when you know you are coming in to do both composing and editing? Do you have to actually compartmentalize your work, or do you have a pretty even flow between the two?

No, I have to force myself into compartmentalization, but it's very difficult. I'm so haunted by the score from the moment we start shooting the movie because I'm worried about when I'm supposed to actually go and write when the management of the film never ends for an editor. But, I just try not to think about it and just deal with making the movie first. I don't really start writing the score until well after I have my cut together.

It's surprising to most people that I don't cut to music at all — I cut dry. I don't like the music to be a masking of issues a scene might have that will reveal themselves later and blow up in my face. I like to take every problem head on, so I like to watch the whole film dry — with nothing — and then I temp score it.

I love doing sound design, so my reward after doing a scene is actually to do all the sound design, the ambiences, whatever is in the background. I like creating that sonic world. But, it's true, if you watch the whole thing without music and it's working then you've solved a lot of problems already and the music is just going to enhance it rather than rely on it. When you first put music on a scene everyone thinks it's great and they forget that the scene has a big problem, and I cannot afford to have things blow up in my face later. I have to have a film that works really early on because I have to write the score. I cannot have a problem child.

Are you able then to effectively apply a lot of what you are doing with just the sound effects to how you are composing the score? I'm imagining you take all that into account determining what you need to do.

Yeah. An example of that in the extreme is Valkyrie where I really wanted the film to feel raw, as if you were there. I didn't want it to feel Hollywood-polished. I had done so much work with the teletype machines and the rat-tat-tat of all the machinery, so I designed the score to be buried within the effects and just be a pulse for a lot of it. I think the mixers were surprised — I directed the final dub — how much I was intertwining the music with effects as opposed to putting it on top of them. But that was the feel I wanted to have.

Do you generally do that or is it a case-by-case basis?

Yeah, it depends on what it is. If it's a big, huge, emotional moment in the movie, of course the music is going to be on top. It's all about clarity of storytelling, because you know in all these movies the sound effects are at 1,000%, the music is at 1,000%, and there is no clarity of anyone having a moment. I'd rather it just be effects or just be music, or of course a happy medium. If there are no peaks and valleys in the story, I just zone out and turn it off.

What I always say is a lot of the films seem to be all climax and no foreplay. And after a while I just can't take all that climax anymore.

It's such a product of a post-Michael-Bay world where everything starts at 100 and goes from there.

Yeah, and the problem is the films do well and they just reinforce that that's what the audience has to have — because I guess they feel if there's a moment of silence the audience is going to run out of their seats. How about having confidence in your movie?

With this new score it seemed like you worked to blend what you did for X2 with the work Henry Jackman did composing First Class. Is that accurate? Did you try to bring these two worlds together that had already been established?

Well, I won't say I was overly influenced by the First Class score except that First Class, because it was done by Hans's guy, was more of a modern score — he comes from that school. Bryan rarely ever gives me marching orders; however, he did want it to be "modern" and compete with the Nolanesque feel out there, and I was pleading with him that this was X-Men and it's a character-driven film, so it became kind of a fusion of the two sensibilities. I would say it became a fusion of the two styles; however, I kept my sensibilities in terms of scoring characters with scenes and so forth. And so there is a lot of synthesizer in the score, which is unusual for me, and makes the writing process ten times more laborious actually because the final product is coming from your studio rather than just writing for an orchestra to play later.

Of course, the seventies gave me a great excuse to bring in some analog synthesizers, electric piano, bass, and the guitar for that period.

That was one of the things I really picked up on. Is this the first time you've brought a lot of the electronic music and synths in? It seemed like those elements were more prominent here than in any of your other scores I've heard.

[Among scores I've done] with Bryan, probably. I've done other scores that are very synth-heavy, but for us it was a departure. The other departure for us was using source music [music heard coming from a source in the film, such as music coming from a radio, rather than a score laid over the film], which was a blast to do. I'm a huge believer in source music — if it ties into the time period of the movie, rather than just to sell an album or something. I always say if source can do it, do it with source, don't do it with score, because there is no way a score will be as poignant as a source piece if you find the right piece of music and it's justified by the time period — such as the Quicksilver kitchen moment.

One of the things I have always noticed, by the way you compose, is you seem to have a solid base in classical and opera repertoire. Would you say that's accurate?

The opera part is interesting because I don't really listen to opera, but the classical is understandable because I immersed myself in classical as a kid. I was a very strange, nerdy kid. All I listened to was film scores and classical music. In fact the way I got into classical music was I went to Tower Records one day and I asked the guy in the classical section to give me every symphony that sounded like a film score. So, he got me into Holst and Sinfonia Antarctica and Dvorak's ninth. So that got me really jazzed into it. And then of course I started expanding into that world. I discovered Dvorak so then I went to the other work that he had done, and then I went to Debussy, so on and so forth.

Then the way I would learn is I knew the pieces so well I would go watch them be performed at the San Jose Symphony, where I grew up in San Jose, and I would just internalize what I was hearing in my head versus what I was watching out there. That combined with, ironically, watching the original Star Trek series and [learning] how to use motifs over and over again in a show brought all this together, and it just became natural for me to write for picture.

Do you generally write to picture when you're actually sitting down to write?

Not when I am doing my scenes. I have to do a sketch of what my scenes are so I know the well from which I'm drawing. Otherwise I'll just be in a fog; I'll be lost writing the score. I don't know how composers just jump in to write when they don't know where they're coming from. I have to establish those things for me first. And once I've established those things then I start writing the score to picture. Of course all the things you hear in the movie are done to picture.

I love the way you used electric guitar, in some ways very evident as guitar and then in other ways more as atmospherics.

There's a lot of guitar I did with distortion and synthesized guitar — actually using the pitch wheel of my keyboard. Doing things with the guitar, I don't know if it can do it or not, but I left those parts as synthesized patch and a lot of the fun stuff that's actually missing from the album. I had to cut something out because there was just so much music. For the sentinels of the past, in the 70s, I had sort of these analog synths and weird guitar-distorted sounds for that.

How did the introduction of electronics impact the composing of the other instrumentation — if at all? I've always particularly loved your use of brass and percussion, but the way you used them in the score did seem to evolve and work really well with the sound elements brought in to make it more "modern," as you said Singer wanted.

In the creative process, one sound will inform the other. When I'm pre-laying my synth sounds, I may have an idea of how an orchestra instrument can color one of the synthesizer sounds to create an interesting texture. Of course, it works in reverse as well. When I'm mocking up an orchestral piece, an orchestral instrument like a trombone may inspire me to color it with a synthesizer sound. It's always hard to remember what came first, the chicken or the egg. Creating a modern soundscape within a score is extremely labor-intensive, and actually more complicated than writing a purely orchestral score. The synth elements have to be found, manipulated, mixed and polished in the studio. Tremendous time is spent producing, versus actually composing.

Was any groundwork laid in the score for Days of Future Past in anticipation of the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse film?

The idea for an Apocalypse movie didn't come until very late into the post-production of this film. There's really not much of this film that would foray into that storyline except the characters we already know, plus some new ones. I think Apocalypse is going to be its own new story that falls into the X-Men world unexpectedly.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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