by David A. Koran
SoundtrackNet recently had the opportunity to speak with composer John Ottman about his monumental tasks undertaken for his work on Valkyrie. He discusses his approach to both editing the film as well as writing the score and how this marks a departure from his usual scoring style.
How did you and Brian get attached to the Valkyrie?
It's something that Chris McQuarrie, the writer of Usual Suspects, gave to Brian to look at. That's my understanding. I come into the picture when I get a phone call from Brian saying, "Hey, there's this little script I have. It's this little World War II movie. Don't worry, we'll be in and out of it in six months."They got it to United Artists, and United Artists agreed to make the movie.
It was going to be a smaller film, but then as they started developing the movie they realized the resemblance that Colonel von Stauffenberg had to Tom Cruise. So, the writing was sort of on the wall the whole time. It was the elephant in the room, it was so obvious Tom should play the role. At the point that he decided to play the role, it just got bigger and longer. [laughs]
Given your multiple roles on this picture, and you've worked with Brian in the past, why did you sign yourself up for this monumental task again?
Yeah. That's what all my friends ask me, especially when I complain. And they say, "It's your fault for saying yes." But the idea for this one... it was going to be an in and out, short and sweet gig. I said "fine" because when I do these long hauls with Brian and go to editing jail, I usually say, "OK. I'll go away for a couple years so I can go score some movies." Then this came up pretty quickly after Superman, and I was like, "Well OK. What the hell is going on? Why are you calling me?" You know?
And the promise was, of course, "Well don't worry. It'll be short. You can go back and keep writing music." Of course it didn't end up that way, and by no fault of Brian. It just became a bigger film. So, that's why I said yes.
It sounded like a very interesting movie to do, and something completely different from what we had done before. I liked the story, and I liked the fact that it was a historical movie about a true event. All of those factors got me into it. But again, I didn't know it would be such a long haul.
Did you enjoy the time more when you were just a composer, rather than including the editing duties?
Hell yes. That's a no-brainer. It's nice to have one responsibility on a film.
So over time, are there any tricks you've learned? Do you think the picture comes out better or the score comes out better when you multi-task?
I would say it's a complete wash because, I've said this before, even though if I'm editing the picture, I have a longer period of time to, perhaps, subliminally think about the score. There's really nothing I can do about it because I'm too overwhelmed with editing the picture. Had I just been the picture editor, a composer would have been on a couple months earlier than I ever have to even start writing the score. So, I have very little time to actually start writing the music. Because of that, I would say, the advantage to doing both really sort of balances each other out.
Having said that, the film becomes far more personal to me because I have a hand in making it. I would say it's not a huge boon to do both tasks, but I don't think it's a detriment, by any means.
At least for me personally, it's not an advantage for my own physical health.
Are there any tricks you've learned over the multiple iterations of working in that scenario?
Not really. I mean, I've always been a really psychotically organized person, and I think that if I weren't, there's no way I could possibly handle both tasks. I don't even have a personal assistant. On top of all that, I still find myself at the car wash washing my car and at the drug store picking up toiletries. Sometimes I ask myself, "Why am I doing this to myself?"
What inspired you to take on a full blown choral arrangement like that; did you get help?
I couldn't figure out a way to end the movie when people are walking out of the theater, because that's the end title piece. The movie ends emotionally. If I did more of the same, I felt it would be too much of a downer. There had to be something different about the music that followed, yet it still had to be emotional and somehow uplifting to reflect the heroism of what had just been attempted by these characters and the sacrifice. For some reason I thought, "Well, maybe if it was choral with lyrics...", even if we didn't understand the lyrics. It would feel like a piece of music we put on that could have almost been taken from somewhere else but still giving us that sort of feeling.
So that was the idea. A friend and I had written this melody for the end titles way before my idea to make it choral. So, of course, we had the problem of adapting German lyrics to a melody that had already been written.
We found the lyrics from a German poem by Goethe. Ideally I wanted for the lyrics to somehow be an analogy to the movie. In the lyrics of the poem, it was about little birds falling silent in the woods. The last phrase was the killer for me. It was, "Soon, you too will be at rest," and almost being at peace with what they tried to do. I was like, "That's just too perfect." So we adapted the lyrics.
We had to get help because I don't speak German. So, my conductor and orchestrator in the project had a friend at a university who was a German language scholar. We then found a music scholar that got together with him to basically take this melody and help us adapt it to the new lyrics.
Literally the night before the session, we were extending quarter notes to half notes and adding eighth notes everywhere. I was just afraid the whole thing would end up being a train wreck, but, in the end it sounded fine.
The big test is when the Berlin choir performed it, no one was laughing. So, then I realized, "OK it's working."
Was it the same for that track in the officer's club as well?
No, the officer's club is just an old song that we found that we wanted in the background of a scene. There's a lot of brooding, droning, subliminal music in the score. So, for the album, I just wanted to break it up a little bit by putting some stuff in that made it more of an interesting listen. There's literally 40 minutes missing from the album, but I wanted it to be an interesting listen.
Yeah, I was going to tell you a little news item I found yesterday. The German "Max Planck Physics Society" wanted to highlight the Chinese on their newletter and use a Chinese poem. Well it was that finally a student who had actually read the Chinese said that it actually wasn't a poem, it was an advertisement for a brothel in Singapore.
So, I was kind of curious if you had help with German, because you ended up picking this beautiful lyric and may realize later it was not what it intended to be.
Yeah. We has a similar problem, but not to that degree. I had a German guy listen to it early on, it's very early incarnation. He understood it, but he had this puzzled, confused look on his face because the words were broken up so awkwardly. I wouldn't be able to tell, but it was almost like, [singing] "I'm gooooooing to the store." So it didnít quite make sense. So we had to sort of figure out a way to make the meter make sense to the Germans.
I noticed the score grew from the romantic period of the classical music for the composition. Where it was set in time, the rise of the Nazis, Romanticism was kind of coming off it's peak just before the story took place. Was that a conscious decision to work towards that style?
No. Film music by it's nature kind of goes towards that style when you enter a lyrical realm. So, that's the direction the score ended up taking simply for emotional reasons. But, most of the score actually goes completely against that, because we just wanted to make it... at it's heart, it's simply a suspense thriller. World War II is just a backdrop. The biggest mistake would be to do music that was trying to sound like the period and have to deal with the "war scores" as opposed to a score that's really just trying to make it as intense as it can be.
I think by making the score that way too, it was making the comment that I wanted this movie to feel different then you might expect and a little more modern. At the same time, now I'm completely contradicting myself, classic in the way it's scored.
In other words, if you look at the poster of the movie and the movie itself, the filmmaking... it's sort of a throwback to the movies of the 70s, we hope, because that's the movies we admire and adore the most. Brian, Chris McQuarrie (the writer), Tom Cruise and I, when we were talking about our favorite films; they all end up being from the mid to late 70s. The same with the film scores that we love.
So I've always sort of taken that sensibility with me when I write scores. That's sort of always where I learned what I did... from that era on film composing. Yet, I find a way to keep those sensibilities applied to the films I score now, but keep them updated for today. Valkyrie was just another example of that.
You mentioned also there's 40 minutes of score missing from the album release.
What the 40 minutes is a lot of, again, is the low end suspense under the surface kind of stuff. You know? There's actually some big stuff too I had to cut out. I wrote a lot of music for Africa, because I had to write that music before we shot the scene just because of scheduling purposes. So I wrote a bunch of stuff. There was a church scene that we hadn't shot yet, so I wrote a bunch of music for that. I have this thing; if it wasn't in the film, I didn't put it on the album. That's some pretty cool stuff, but you have to make these table decisions when you put an album together.
What was I going to fix? The waltz on the album was actually a scene we cut from the movie. It's the only scene on the album that was cut from the movie. It was so different from the rest of the score that I just decided to put it on there just to break things up.
My last favorite film waltz was the Goldsmith scene from The Boys from Brazil, which there's screwy resemblance to Valkyrie with the Germans and Nazis. You think it's mandatory that all films with Nazis in Germany must include a waltz?
Right, exactly. That's the rule. Right. [laughs]
Did you at least enjoy the exercise of throwing something that's strictly there as an example...
It was fun, because for this waltz we had to shoot to playback. We were on set, and there was a scene where Tom's character dances with his wife in their living room. They needed music to playback to, but I had no equipment with me in Berlin. So, I had to sing the piece to a partner of mine, Lior Rosner in LA. He transcribed it and added his own flourishes. Then we sort of put this thing together, and he sent the synthesized rendering back to me. That's what we played on the set for them to dance to.
So for the longest time, it was in the film. We ended up cutting the scene. We cut the scene even before we recorded the score, but we had already done the work and it was a cute little piece of music, so I decided, "What the hell, let's just record it."
Then I thought, "Why don't we record it because maybe in case we put the scene back, or maybe it'll be on the DVD." Who knows? It was just supposed to be playing on an old record player, so it's supposed to be all scratchy and tinny anyway. But, I thought just putting the whole "balls out" version on the album would be fun to do.
You've mentioned about the tact taken with the score, because there's an underpinning of suspense and intrigue. You've done suspense and intrigue a lot before. Was it very easy to slip back into that thinking for this film, and just jump right in?
Well, yes and no. I fall into that somewhat easily. At the same time, I did have to acknowledge that it was a realistic piece, so I had to be conscious of the fact. So, I didn't want to go all out crazy film score-ish with it because then the intelligence would be sort of pulled back a bit or compromised. So I just consciously made the decision to make a lot of it low key and intertwining with the sound design.
I guess the biggest trick was to have so much music going without really feeling there was a lot of music. It was far more music than I had ever imagined I would need to write for the film. I thought maybe it would be 30 minutes of score for the entire film, and it ended up being 100 minutes because we just found that the score itself just became the heartbeat of the movie and just couldn't stop.
But, if you literally keep it going at one level, without telling a musical story, it can have the opposite effect. It's basically going to make it a passive experience for the audience. So the trick to keeping all that music in the movie and making it interesting for the audience, is to really concentrate on telling a musical story as much as we can, and not just rely on putting your finger on a drone sound and calling it a day. Because even though that might work for the moment, collectively it's going to bring the film down. So, even in these long dialog sequences, where the music is playing for five or six solid minutes under a scene, it's really got to be telling a story.
That's really difficult to do with an orchestra. It's easy to do with a synthesizer pad, but when you use the orchestra playing quadruple pianissimo, it can be really a very tender, difficult thing to do. So, I guess that was one of the biggest challenges.
You've been scoring so may of these blockbusters and hero flicks with these really strong themes, and they're attached to characters. With this large cast of characters already in this film, and a very intricate but kind of straightforward plot, did you have to hold yourself back? Did you approach writing the music differently?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, again, had this been a superhero film, the music would often be more overt and maybe have more succinct themes and so forth. This is an ensemble piece and so you can't have every little character have a theme. It's very much like Usual Suspects, where there's basically one overriding theme that is reflected in all the characters in the movie with the exception of a few other motifs. In Valkyrie, it's sort of the same thing. I mean, there's a motif for when they are plotting. You always hear this low altos on the strings. Whenever they're talking about the plot or when things are unraveling you'll hear that. So, there are some things that I tried to design to bring things together in terms of having the score be the thread.
Because it's not a superhero film, and it's more gritty reality, sometimes the score had to be a little more invisible and by doing so be a little less melodic. It's probably one of the least melodic scores I've done with the exception of where it ends up heading.That was the other challenge, to make that ultimate evolution from suspense score to tragedy. The scores both serendipitously become more emotional as it goes along.
So, there's then something that is not as theme driven then, for the casual listener, what would you hope they would take away from this score? Are there any particular pieces you're extremely proud of?
I don't know. I hope a listener would recognize the detail that can be incorporated in a seemingly simple score. Having said that, actual restraint is what a composer has to make himself do.I think it's often a very simple score. There's a lot of repeating lines, and again it's just something that happened to work for the movie. Film music is a really interesting animal, especially, the album versus the movie, because on the film, you do what you have to do to make the film work. I found by being very simple, this time around, did way more for the film than had I been more complicated with the score. Now, when you take that and put it on a album, then sometimes it's not the most interesting listen, so I'm hoping despite that, people still enjoy the album.
Imean, even though I had set out to make this a really modern score, I originally thought, "Oh, this is going to be 80% synthesizer. It's really going to be just a drone." But as I started writing it, I started just infusing what I normally do, and it became a lot more orchestral, and again 70s driven music, than I had anticipated, which actually made it more fun and rewarding for me in the end. So, I'm happy with what I was able to push music-wise.
I heard a lot more use of the really heavy brass than you've been using in the past. You've cut a lot of gentle, subdued scores, even the superhero ones. You had Superman's theme, but it wasn't as ostentatious as something strong can be. When do you finally realize the power from an instrument, then people just stick to that, you know?
Well, it's also that the power of the instrument when's the music is more simple. It's amazing. This is again, it's a simpler score. So, when the brass actually kicks in, it's got this fused power to it because the music that I wrote on this is just very simple orchestrationally.
What was probably your most enjoyable experience?
My most enjoyable experience? That was probably on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It's this little movie that no one saw, of course. Those are normally sometimes your favorite experiences. It's always depressing when no one actually sees the film. I had a very good time on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it's one of those experiences where I can't even recall any drama. I just wrote the score. There was no temp to contend with. I just sort of just did my thing, and it was a "lovefest" from day one, we all had a good time. I had a blast writing that score, because there was no sort of darkness over me at all. It's one of those movies where you see it again, and it's even better every time.
Shane did a good job.
Yeah, he really did. He was a really great guy to work with, because he just was easygoing, trustful, and there was no psychosis or fits. It was so nice to be in that environment.
Do you have any upcoming feature projects you can let us know about?
No, I have nothing right now. It's funny, after being through such hell for a year and half. I got a call the other day from Richard Kraft about a potential gig. My first reaction was dread and anger. It's like "wait a minute. Why am I reacting this way? I should be relieved and happy there's potential for another movie." That tells me something... that I just need to, physically and mentally, relax for just a few weeks.
But, of course, you know what'll happen. It's a typical freelance situation. Once I start relaxing, I'll start freaking out that I'm not working on something. So, hopefully something will come up pretty soon, but there's nothing lined up yet.
So you've got a lot more experience now, and you've worked in just about every genre when it comes to films. What would be your dream project to work on?
I'm still waiting on that Dances with Wolves movie. Big vistas, long notes. That's my dream film. I'm speaking for probably many film composers, but it's that whole Barry-esque, kind of Out of Africa kind of movie that Iíd love to do.
Thanks to Costa Communications and John Ottman for their time and assistance with this interview.