Interview

[Interview - John Ottman]

For many years, John Ottman made a career out of scoring the darker side of humanity, with such sinister scores as Apt Pupil, Urban Legends: Final Cut, and Hide and Seek. Recently, though, there has been a shift in his assignments, from somber psychological dramas to more exuberant superheroic adventures. As of now, he has provided the bombastic and brass-heavy scores to Superman Returns, X2: X-Men United, and the two Fantastic Four movies. With the recent release of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, SoundtrackNet had the opportunity to talk to John Ottman and catch up with the man's changing career.


First of all, how does it feel to be the new Danny Elfman on the block? With X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns, and the two Fantastic Four movies, you certainly seem to have taken over the superhero genre!

Well I've never stepped back and thought of it that way. I think I'd have to do a few more to gain that status - but that would be cool! <laughs evilly> I never expected to be in this niche, although I fantasized about it. If there's a niche to be in, it's a good one for sure. I kind of always knew if I ever had the chance to do these kinds of films, they'd be a place I would feel at home in. For years I was perceived as the ''sinister'' guy, so it's nice to have been able to enter other musical arenas in the past few years. I like to jump around to many genres, as any composer does. But the dramatic canvases superhero films offer are a big change for me and the music seems to come to me naturally. I think one reason is my reverence for traditional film and my being a sci-fi / "Star Trek" freak growing up. These films/shows were rich with character themes, careful underscoring, motifs, etc. I absorbed a lot of those instincts and approaches I guess. The superhero films really let me express my inner kid and let me get it all out, as it were.

Hans Zimmer has frequently been blamed for creating music in groups, but he was actually only crediting a phenomenon which is wide spread and necessary in film music nowadays. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was quite an undertaking in terms of amount of music vs. schedule, I imagine. Who are the people working behind the scenes and helping you deliver all this music on time?

Well, it's whatever works for a particular composer. I think nerds like me tucked away in their little composing rooms are freaked out when they get told that the only way to make it through alive in the modern scoring world is to have a factory produce your scores. For better or worse, I'm pretty much a one-man show. My friends and cohorts roll their eyes that I don't even have an assistant. Sometimes when I'm opening my bills, shopping for groceries, or washing my car, I think to myself, I must look like I've lost my mind. For me, I find myself happier in the end if I handle as much of it as I can. I can't say I'm always happy during the agony of handling it all. I get cranky. I miss the gym and feel like I look like hell by the end of the project! So maybe I'm the fool. But in the end I'm more satisfied with the accomplishment and the product. With the music - as with editing - I just get afraid that if I work too much with other writers that the style that defines me might become a sound-alike. You can usually smell when a style is being copied or anticipated. John Barry, for instance - you just know when it's him or an imitation. There's just that intangible thing that's missing. Besides, film music is the art of how you make visuals, dialogue, and story crystallize. That's purely instinctual. No one writes the same, nor will anyone have the same instincts. It's often discovery. Every composer has a way of stumbling across an idea and bringing it to fruition in a way they can rarely define.

My main helpers are my best friend and orchestrator/conductor, Damon Intrabartolo, and my music editor, Amanda Goodpaster. They're my little family who help me manage the large amount of music on these ever-changing films. And the biggest tool is a giant three-month calendar on the wall showing the target date for recording. Little check boxes are created for the cues, the days I will screen cues, ''catch-up'' days, revision days, etc. I gotta have this visual to strategize how to make it through alive without being caught with my pants down. Planning it out with as much clairvoyance as possible, sizing up the director, the type of film, anticipating re-writes, meetings, re-edits, delays, etc. is the single most valuable thing. Recently I've gotten some help with some synth programming on a couple of cues, especially for The Invasion, which is largely synth. But even that is the same as writing music. It's really helpful for certain cues, but I try to do as much programming as I can.

Did you ever read Fantastic Four comic books as a kid?

I watched Super Friends. Does that count?! No, I really didn't know about it. I did some character research on the Internet when I got Fan 4, and then let the film inspire my writing. I also got a lot of inspiration from reading the scripts - which often doesn't happen for me. But for the two Fan Four films, musical ideas popped into my head when actually reading the scripts.

You enjoy experimenting with live instruments and seeing what kind of unorthodox sound you can get from them as opposed to using synthesizers or digitally manipulating a sound. Did you have the chance to experiment in this way on Rise of the Silver Surfer?

It's pretty straight forward orchestrally. But to off-set that, I used a very boomy synth sound to represent Galactus and the Surfer's board - which helped connect them. I also wanted to modernize the sound of Victor Doom in the film, so I programmed some quirky synth layers to use under the orchestra. I love live percussion, but I used synth güiros for Victor. In this case I found their synthetic sound preferable for him. The synthesizer is a legitimate section of the orchestra. Like choir, synthesizers can push music into another realm if done tastefully - as long as you don't forget the symbiotic relationship with the acoustic instruments and as long as you don't forget just how much the live instruments can do in terms of creating odd colors. That's always the biggest reward.

The way you chose to represent the Silver Surfer and, particularly, Galactus in the movie is probably your first major use of synthesizers in a film score. What kind of synthesizers did you use and how did you come up with just the right sound?

Yeah, Silver Surfer is the first large-scale film where I consciously decided to feature the synth in some areas. But actually I've done a fair amount of synth work in some scores. But my synth work has usually been invisible because I try to make it feel organic. Point of Origin, an HBO film I did, was 100% synthesized. I had a lot of fun with that one. For Silver Surfer I used synth sounds from all over the place, from old keyboards and CD-ROMs to some new ones I found from synth programs such as Atmospheres and Absynth. I actually had purchased the Absynth software in anticipation of The Invasion, a largely synth score. But as fate would have it, some sounds came in handy for Silver Surfer. The most egregious sound is that boomy sound for Galactus. It was a synth sound called ''Sonaris'' which I tweaked a little. It comes out of the sub-woofers in a major way!

Tell me more about the structure of the Silver Surfer theme itself. How did you come up with it?

At least a year before starting the project I was reading the script in a plane on the way to Spain. A little tune popped into my head and became this annoying thing I would hum all the time. But it was crude. When it came time to flesh it out, I took this basic idea and developed it. It needed an intro and some development. It has three basic parts. The intro is the ''mystery'' section, then it moves into the main melody performed in a way that implies inner turmoil, pathos and some long history - ­arranged mainly with strings and woodwinds. Then the third part of the theme is a sentimental section that comments on the Surfer's bond with Sue Storm. The theme then repeats in a triumphant manner to show how the Surfer evolves from tentative and mysterious character to grand and heroic. I'm really not sure how I came up with it. I always say that the sheer fear and pressure always seem to make something come!

Any new motifs you came up with for the sequel?

The Surfer is really the new thematic material for the film. But I altered or amped up many of the motifs from the previous films. I did new variations on the main theme, the love theme is richer than in the first movie, Dr. Doom's Theme is played with in different ways, and Victor's music is modernized with quirky synths.

What is the process like of writing music for unfinished CGI sequences?

Not really that different from live action. You just use your imagination a little more as you score to roughly animated cartoons. But as long as you understand what's going on and the timings are correct, it's just another scene. Unfortunately, these sequences often get redesigned and tweaked constantly. And if you're hitting many of the actions musically, it can be frustrating to keep re-writing! So sometimes it's good to stay away from newly animated sequences until they've had the time to think about them a little more.

Anything else to say about Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer?

Well, it was the first time I was able to do a sequel to my own music, which was a lot of fun. I was very bummed I wasn't able to do this with X3. So it was my second opportunity. Because everyone from the first film was around on this one, the trust was already established, which gave me the confidence to try some new, bolder things. It's so much a better process and product when there's trust.

You stepped in some fairly giant footsteps by taking over the music for the Superman franchise. Did you check out what fans had to say about your music before the movie came out?

I didn't need to. The death threats were already being emailed to me the moment the film was announced. Most the time they were preaching to the choir. I didn't want to abandon the main theme either. I hate it when films and franchises lack continuity! So I was on board with the sentiments of my fellow Superman fans. But there were a lot of dubious fans out there who had, let's just say, very little confidence in me taking over the music. But after a while I had to just ''plug my ears'' to all the requests and get some personal clarity. I had to do what felt right, trust my instincts, and that freed me from the paralysis I was originally feeling from so many emails.

Did the Eric Forman-looking teenager of San Jose who was busy making Super 8 science fiction movies and scoring them with Williams and Goldsmith cues ever dream he would one day be scoring an actual, multi-million dollar Superman movie?

HA! I guess I did kind of look like him, huh! <sighs> Age! No, this was the last thing I'd ever dreamed of doing. My fantasy was to direct films and hire Goldsmith to score them. Never in a million years did I think I'd be doing his job. Life is funny that way. I guess I worked on my music hobby with a little too much zeal.

What was it like when Damon picked up the baton right before conducting the Main Title piece for Superman Returns?

Just before the baton went into action you could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. Was it going to sound like we remembered? Had Williams planted some booby trap in the music so it would sound like a train-wreck if he didn't conduct it? Bryan (the director) was so petrified he had us all freaked out that at any minute he would explode like a bomb if it weren't right. I was ready to run. He sat right behind Damon with me watching the back of his head from the control room - just waiting for a supernova. But then the moment the music started, there was immediate relief. He turned around and put his thumbs up. WHEW! My heart's pounding just recalling all this. Ugh. I'm having a post-traumatic flashback.

Is there a reason why you chose not to use Williams' Kryptonite or Heritage Motif in your score?

We found that literally recalling the themes didn't always work in the context of a new modern Superman film. The basic foundation of the main theme was a must. But we wanted the Kryptonite, for instance, to have a far more unsettling and ominous feel. And as brilliant as Lois Lane's theme is, it felt dated for this particular drama and place in her life. So I found ways to nod to the original and weave it in my new material for her. It was a challenge to keep the continuity from the first film alive while also evolving the score into a new film. But I really tried to keep the Krypton heritage alive - for instance when the Fortress of Solitude is revealed.

A brief word on X2: X-Men United. What part of the project was the most fun for you as a composer?

I had a great time with that score. It was a lot of pressure, but there was such an excitement for me not only because it was a large-scale project, but I really fell in love with the X-Men world. How do you top those guys? They're so rich and multi-dimensional. I can't recall one particular part that was most fun. It's often the little subtle moments in the score that I remember being really happy with, which, for me, exemplify the power of film music in terms of defining characters. Little moments that could feel innocuous without underscoring often become the most powerful. There's a scene in the X-Jet where Magneto asks Pyro's name. As Pyro talks, his theme comes in as he manipulates his little flame. It began with a sort of vulnerability. But as Magneto passes the lighter back, Pyro's music swells subtly with male choir signifying a sort of "passing of the torch" and foreboding things to come for Pyro. He's clearly crossing to a darker side. I remember writing that little cue at 3AM and just knowing I aced it. Not many people notice those little moments. But those are the ones that get me most excited. Then I look around the room during a scene like that and wonder, "did anyone notice that at all!?" The other part I remember being jazzed about was being allowed to think outside the box for the White House attack. Scoring the scene with action music just reduced it to another action scene. Then for the heck of it I put in a recording of Mozart's Requiem. It didn't quite work literally, so I spruced it up, adding percussion, anvil hits, etc. It ended up being an odd but aggressive piece of music which also added a huge scope to the sequence. I justified the use of it because of Nightcrawler's religious and German roots.

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Bryan Singer and you have been working together for many years now. How has your working relationship evolved over the years? Do you still lie awake at night before the big music reveal in anticipation of what his reaction is going to be?

Oh yes, I always do. But, of course, over the years, the trust has built. But I always fret! The good thing with Bryan is, I can present a mock-up that sounds a little rough. As long as I promise it will sound better and describe how it will be, he trusts me and lets the creative process happen. This way I can concentrate more on ideas and writing than spending hours polishing a mock-up. He's not a control freak about little nuances as much as he is about the general emotional idea. He trusts me to ''get off'' on the nuances - as long as I don't use too many bells. He hates sparkly stuff - so I keep it out of my mock-ups and then sneak them into the final recording where they sound far less intrusive.

You are no stranger to score rejections: it happened on Cruel Intentions and Night at the Museum (and also partly on Halloween H20). Alan Silvestri was taken off Pirates of the Caribbean, Mychael Danna off Hulk, Howard Shore off King Kong - the list goes on. Do you think this phenomenon is getting worse than before or is it just that we are hearing more about it now?

Well, Night at the Museum was barely underway before Alan came on. The director had his heart set on him from day one and when he realized he could get him, he did! It was a bummer. I was excited to do it. But yeah, re-scoring is far worse today. It's often political or just born out of insecurities, test screening interpretations, and second-guessing. Sure some scores don't work or the film changes substantially and the score no longer is appropriate. Or, as in the case with Hulk, I understand the composer was given a direction from the director that freaked out the studio. So you never know, but far too many scores are irrationally replaced as the result of a film having its own problems and the score becomes the scapegoat. The score is one of the last things that can be changed, so it's focused on as holding some impossible hope for the film, yet it's also blamed for any of the film's shortcomings. For instance, there was a lot going on behind the scenes with Cruel Intentions: back room music deals with record labels, producers' political agendas, lack of trust, and insecurities. (Can an orchestral guy do a hip synth score?) The nail in the coffin for my score was one arbitrary test screening. It was a song-driven film, and their first test featured hugely popular songs they could never afford. But the object is to test as high as possible. The musical score was merely a thread between these well-known songs. One of the focus group questions is to rate the music - as if the kids are commenting on the score with that question. It's their favorite songs they're commenting on. So naturally this question tested high on the screening. Later they had a screening with most of these songs stripped out in lieu of lesser-known ones they could afford. By this time, a synth mock-up of my score was included. The test scores dropped a bit, as did the ratings of the music question. What a surprise. Then everyone panics, and babies get thrown out with the bathwater. I was one of the babies. A book could be written about all the insane things that go on in terms of score politics, but it would have to be written by someone who doesn't need the work anymore.

Once your score is released on album, it gets reviewed on a number of websites by people who (myself included) don't always have a thorough musical education or a deep enough knowledge of the industry. Is there something you would like to see changed as far as reviews of film scores go? Is there something bothering you in the way reviews of score CDs are written?

We have to remember that film music's craft is to bring the most out in a film and support the story – that's its magic. If it's interesting on it's own away from the film, that's icing on the cake. So it's really impossible to judge on a CD whether a score is any good or not. The music can be awesome on the CD and not work for the film at all. A CD can be judged as a listening experience or to comment on the actual composition that's heard, but that's about it. I try my best to edit and organize the cues for the album to be as interesting a listening experience as possible. I wouldn't change anything in reviewing CDs, but I would hope that reviewers try to save themselves the embarrassment from making baseless assumptions about the process they weren't part of. It's not often. But one time a reviewer for Gothika brought up the fact that the film was "obviously" temped with some cues from scores I had never heard before. Better yet, the film had no temp! I wrote in a vacuum as they edited the scenes. I guess something I wrote sounded like a score the reviewer knew. I was incensed when I read this at the time because of what readers might think based upon the bogus assumptions. But heck, when I read stuff like that now I just have to laugh.

The "journals" you post on your website detailing the work that goes on behind the scenes on all of your projects are always fascinating and usually very funny. What does the pharmacopoeia of a successful score composer look like these days?

They're the G-version memoirs. The tell-all book will have to wait. Well, I'd say any composer working on enough projects has inevitably encountered the same challenges and bizarre situations. There needs to be an annual bitch retreat for composers, kind of a healing experience for us all to share in. We've all been abused in some way and we should all hold hands in a circle.

What is the best place you have recorded a score so far?

Every place has characteristics I like, so it's hard to say what the "best" is. Some stages have a tighter sound, which is good for the definition of fast music, and others have a sound better for a spatial experience. And every stage is different in how warm or shrill the sound can be. I feel comfortable at the Fox stage because I'm used to writing for it. When you get to know a stage, it affects how you orchestrate - especially how you mark dynamics for the sections. I know what I'm going to get there. For me, Fox is sort of the best of big and small morphed into one: it's not too live and not too dead, not too bright, nor overly warm. But I just recorded The Invasion at the Eastwood stage at Warner Brothers with a smaller ensemble and I was really pleased with the sound. It's a pretty warm room. I tend to like the control that deader rooms give me: I can add reverb later or not. So they'll never sound too washy. Having said that, it has also been a pleasure recording in unique environments like the church in Seattle or the performance hall there. Although I do like that tighter sound, it nevertheless is thrilling to record in such massive rooms. The stuff just sounds great right away.

In my review of Superman Returns, I mentioned that the strong human element of your music would hopefully prove to be a door-opener for more dramatic and heroic projects. Is this a path you would like your career to take? What other genres would you like to tackle as a composer?

I'd be very happy continuing in that direction. Characters and their plight really inspire me. No matter what genre, almost every film can benefit from music that comes from the characters - even comedies. If I'd just learn to stay away from editing jail I could be available for more of these opportunities. In a couple weeks I'm off to Berlin for a few months to start editing Bryan's next project. It's a World War II thriller, so automatically it will be a new genre for me to score. It would be fun to do a very minimalist score with a small ensemble or a simple love story. And naturally the wet dream score for me (and probably any colleague) would be an emotional film like Dances With Wolves: long notes over sweeping vistas.

If you were to describe "the John Ottman sound", if there is such a thing, how would you do it? What are the "-isms" of John Ottman?

I think many film score buffs could identify if a score is mine. But it's an intangible thing for me to describe. Goldsmith was incredibly prolific in many different styles and genres, but I always knew when it was a Goldsmith score. I do stumble across my little ''isms'' as you say. I recognize little riffs I do, like little chromatic flourishes I end up doing on the piano, and I laugh and realize that's just me being me. Damon will roll his eyes and refer to these as another ''John moment.'' Then I think of my ''mentors'' in the business and remind myself that they all had them too. Then I feel better! It's what makes us us–-a little scent, as it were.

Tell me a bit about this thing called "Sharffen's Journey". Who is Sharffen?

He's a piece of chocolate! I wrote this piece for the Young Musician's Foundation to perform for a fundraiser. When I wrote the piece, I felt it represented a journey of some sort. But I had no idea what to call it. Damon and I were in this place called Pete's Coffee. Damon was complaining that I had to come up with a title for this piece ASAP so it could be sent out for copying. He was fed up with my indecision on a title. So we're at the check-out counter and there's a basket of candy bars labeled "Sharffen Chocolate". "There - it's Sharffen's Journey, how's that?!", he exclaimed in frustration with me. "Fine, fine, that sounds good", I replied under the pressure. So the piece, I admit, was named after a chocolate bar.

Your latest project is a movie titled The Invasion. The studio was apparently not satisfied with the original cut of The Invasion and brought in the Wachowski brothers for rewrites and director James McTeigue for reshoots. How did this affect your job as a composer?

Well, it was always going to be an odd amalgam of synthesizers and orchestra. I originally said the score should be as if Bernard Herrmann and John Cage had a baby. The film is weird and I wanted the music to try and be just as weird and as non-clichéd as possible. The biggest challenge was having the monkey on my back for so long. I think I was on call for a year. The editorial approach to the film was always changing and I had to wait for the re-shoots. One version was full of flash-forward cuts - you'd see things happen before they happen. In some of these scenes, I wanted to try and hit the cuts. Over the course of this year I had written the majority of the score, but it all had to be re-adjusted to the new picture, along with new cues for the latest added scenes. As I finished up Silver Surfer, I had two weeks to get all that music redone for recording The Invasion. So I feverishly revised it to the cut. Then, after recording the score, the studio decided to go with a straighter editing approach, removing the flash-forward edits. So the music will have to be edited - have fun, Amanda. With weird, atonal scores, it's far easier to edit the music without sounding like something is wrong with it. "Weird is good" is the rule. So no matter how you edit it, it will still be, well, "weird." It's definitely a change of pace, mainly atmospheric and "effecty." It's not an extremely melodic score, nor did it want to be. So this was against my normal grain, but it's what worked best for the movie. It will be interesting what the CD response will be! I took some chances and just had fun in some areas, like the end titles. I came up with a strange quirky melody as I programmed the synth tracks and tried not to over-think it. Then I supplemented it with the orchestra. I enjoy listening to it because it's so different for me. I hope others do as well!

In closing and since you might never make it to James Lipton's Actors Studio, I will give you the opportunity to realize a fantasy of a great many people. I would like to ask you ten questions adapted from Bernard Pivot's questionnaire from Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. Ready? What is your favorite melody?

The theme to an old western called The Wild Rovers by Jerry Goldsmith (his daughter sung the lyrics).

What is your least favorite melody?

Anything from Ladyhawk using a drum kit.

What turns you on as a composer?

When a cue sounds so good right away that I know it will be a snap to mix. I dread mixing.

What turns you off?

When synth tracks are out of sync with the orchestra for cosmic reasons I never seem to understand. Also when I have computer crashes or problems that make no sense. Makes me want to cry and I begin to think God is telling me to find another line of work.

What is your favorite musical symbol?

The repeat bar - I wish I used it more but I feel guilty.

What musical sound do you love?

The celli.

What musical sound do you hate?

Damon hitting his baton on the stand by accident during a perfect take.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Doctor, but I just can't get past the needles and blood.

What profession would you not like to do?

Sparkletts guy. My back hurts just watching them. Plus I'd look bad in those shorts.

And if Heaven exists, what cue from a score of yours would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Cue #1 from the Eight Legged Freaks soundtrack. In some unexplained way it might be oddly poignant - especially considering Jeff Bond referred to it as "Jewish Spider Music." I've never heard it the same way ever again!


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is now playing in theaters and John's score is available on Sony Classical record. The Invasion is slated to open in theaters on August 17 2007. No word yet on a score release.

Special thanks to John Ottman and Dan Goldwasser.