[Interview - John Ottman]
I recently had the opportunity to meet with composer/editor John Ottman. There was some controversy regarding his latest film Halloween: 20 Years Later (commonly referred to as H20), and we gave him a chance to tell his tale. In addition to that, he has the Roland Joffe film Goodbye, Lover coming out this fall, as well as his next collaborative effort with director Bryan Singer, Apt Pupil where John once again edited the film in addition to his scoring and Associate Producer duties - another record.

Why don't you tell me a bit about what happened onH20?

Well, I was hired to bump up the film to a slightly higher plane. The philosophy was to provide a Hitchcockian score that would be a little more intelligent than the expected horror score. So that's what I did. My goal was to make the film believable so that it would be scarier. I created a new theme for Laurie Strode that developed along with her throughout the film, because she is the real element that pulls the audience along. I also played a lot with "-isms" of Carpenter's themes throughout but in a new orchestral way. That's largely non-evident now.

Everything was approved musically by the director and editor, and I was excited because it would be a great opportunity to show what can happen with a horror film if you use a thoughtful scoring approach, and make the effort.

But the bomb went off when we started mixing the movie. Miramax wanted the music to be more like the obvious music in the temp score, which was very parody-like. We were in a rushed situation where Miramax had a movie with super-high test scores temp tracked with obvious horror music. They didn't have time to test it with my score, of course, so the baby was thrown out with the bath water. Director Steve Miner was shooting another film and the editor was left to anticipate what the higher-ups would want by hiring a barrage of music editors to slice, dice and re-arrange the cues. After a while things were being shuffled for the sake of shuffling. Then "other" music was brought in to supplement or replace my cues. To smooth out the edits between the Scream and Mimic music and my score, they flew Marco Beltrami up to provide synthesized effects, and the score became a mish-mash. So that's the story, in a nutshell.

I heard a quote from an article the other day that I will use forever, [paraphrased], that "every moment in film is now climax with no foreplay". Essentially there seems to be this fear in commercial filmmaking of peaks and valleys, which I think is the key to good film making and enthralling story telling. That's what my score forH20 did, but you'd never know now.

You make a great reference to Psycho in the film. Where did you get the idea?

Well, at least they kept that in! Steve told me if I wanted to, I could feel free and take advantage musically of the moment the Psycho car is revealed with Janet Leigh. So I did a subtle reference, and since the score harkened that style, it fit right in, originally.

You adapted John Carpenter's themes for the movie·

That was what excited me about the project. A) I could let my hair down, B) I could adapt his theme into this epic, sweeping version of the theme, which I thought would be a blast.

Are you planning a CD release?

My only vindication would be a CD release of this score, which is currently held up (as of this interview) by Miramax. There is a huge amount of interest in it, but for some reason they aren't letting it happen. I think this is because it would be a CD that doesn't completely reflect the movie. But since when did every soundtrack album completely reflect the film? Some soundtracks have nothing to do with the film whatsoever! But in one form or another, I have to make sure it gets out there because I really let my hair down on it, and I think people will enjoy it.

H20 was slated to be released in October - if they hadn't pushed the date up, would your score have survived the film?

Hypothetically, if we had the extra time, and they tested the film with the score it would have been a completely different story, and the complete score would be there. But that never happens much and probably wouldn't have. Although I think it would be agreat experiment!

They mixed H20 at Skywalker Ranch in Marin, CA. What did you like best about that?

The Neutrogena soap in the rooms. I use it all the time now.

You wrote music for the computer game "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". How did you approach this project?

How did you know about that? Seems like ages ago. They had five characters in the game. Three main life events happen to each character, so each character had to have three themes - which amounts to fifteen themes. There was approximately an hour and 15 minutes of music I wrote for this CD-ROM game. But it wasn't a totally wasted effort: I do have it as a reference point; sometimes I go back to listen to it for a few ideas - after all, they were my own and no one ever heard them! In Apt Pupil, I took a listen to the German character's music in "I Have No Mouth" and so a little bit of music from the game I guess ended up in the Apt Pupil theme!

You went to USC. Were you in the Film Music school?

No, I was in the Film School. I got into this whole scoring thing on a fluke. My dream was to direct films and hire my idols, like Jerry Goldsmith, to score them. But now if I were to direct a film, I would probably score it. It's funny how things happen in your life. You have one goal: film direction. Now I'm being asked to direct projects, and I don't know if I want to take the plunge and risk making a movie quite yet. The irony is that I'm ambivalent about it. I'm going to try to get my feet wet though. I might direct an episode of "Tales From The Crypt". If it works, then I'll put it on a reel. If it sucks, no one will see it anyway. <laughs> Twenty years ago, most directors used to be film editors. Then we got into this writer-director scenario, and I think that's where things started getting segregated in filmmaking.

Is there a problem with testing films with an audience prior to their release?

It depends on how much the screenings' results are allowed to influence the future of the film. I think test screenings have largely destroyed the purity of film. It used to be that a studio would make a movie that a director believed in and told a story that was his film. Movies like The Godfather and The French Connection, say. The best films transcend time, and they are as classic today as they were yesterday. The Usual Suspects will be around for a long time, and people will still enjoy it tomorrow because a test audience did not shape it in 1995. A lot of music is changed to be "current" as a result of test screenings, but then people laugh at it ten years down the road. For The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil we did one test screening - after the negative was cut. If there's some glaring thing in it that everyone unanimously hates, maybe we'll change it. But it's basically our movie, this is the movie we're making as filmmakers, and we hope you like it. The purity and uniqueness isn't lost that way.

What is your take on a temp track?

Well, I'm also an editor and believe in getting director and producers the idea of what the film will be like. But in the days before temp scores, you had scores for films that were new and fresh and unexpected. It was part of the magic of film scoring. Today, it's almost dead. I agree that because of test screenings you need to know what the film will be like, and you need music on it. That said, I don't have a problem with temp scoring. If it were only used in that regard, then I would be a champion of temp scores. Unfortunately, they are abused, and have often become an evil thing. But you can't blame the temp scores. The destruction of film music now is not the temp score themselves, but how much demand is placed on making the score sound like the temp score.

So it's great going into a film with a lousy temp score, because you have carte blanche! The temp score for Apt Pupil was the most awful thing you've ever heard in your life, and I'm glad it was. It presented an opportunity for me to prove to Bryan that if I could ignore the temp score, something cool could really happen. This happened only somewhat on The Usual Suspects. We were new to this whole thing, so I erred on the side of the temp score sometimes.

Your score toIncognito has more of a classical feel to it. What sort of research did you do for this score?

The funny thing about that, which makes me feel good, is none. I sat down and just wrote. I guess because I listen to all sorts of music I was influenced by classical music. They had temp-tracked this part of the film called "The Creation" with organ music by Bach which just put you to sleep. So that was helpful in inspiring me to use flourishes. But, whenever I ignore the temp score I end up getting this "classical" sound, which I guess is my style.The Usual Suspects had it, and Apt Pupil has a bit of it too. I don't know where it comes from. I've listened to film scores all my life, and classical music. I guess it's what happens when you're stuck in a panic and you start hitting keys - it sounds classical! <laughs>

Snow White: A Tale of Terror was probably your darkest score to date.

Well, Apt Pupil is probably my darkest score, but no one's heard that yet. But even with all my scores I don't like doing one-dimensional "sinister" cues; there's always more to that in a character. If there isn't, you should imply that there is so that it at least enriches the movie. I saw Snow White as the opportunity to do some sweeping, emotional music. Although it's dark, it's full of emotion.

When your music is used in trailers, are you informed about it?

Nah. I went to go see a movie, and the trailer for Snake Eyes came up and they used music from The Usual Suspects. It's funny because at first, you're like, what's that? Then you realize it's yours! But it was funny because they used my cue, which sounded a bit like JFK, and then they actually used JFK. I think there are six incarnations of that theme out there, but if you listen closely to mine you hear my theme to the film (Suspects.)

For your past few films, you have recorded at a church in the Seattle area. How did you find this church?

It's actually now some sort of women's rehab center (The Saint Thomas Center) that rents out the Church portion for recording. We had a limited budget for the Snow White, and I knew we had to go somewhere other than Los Angeles because there was 80 minutes of music, and it would have been a huge expense. We were planning on going to Munich, but Polygram realized this would be too expensive, so we ended up going to Seattle. My engineer, Tim Boyle, told me that the acoustics in the church were beautiful, and he was right. I was shocked with the sound. Usually when recording a score the sound is a little dead and then some reverb is added in when mixing. But when we recorded Snow White, the moment the first note played, I was amazed how perfect it sounded. It's a beautiful recording environment: you're out of town, in the countryside, and it's a wonderful place. Although, the metal folding chair in the remote truck is an ass killer.

Will you continue to record there?

Yeah. I'm sure I'm the evil composer for doing it, but I'm thinking of my product being heard. The players in Los Angeles are amazing, but because of the Union, I can't release any scores of mine unless the movie does an outlandish amount of money. And even when itis released after recording union, it's hacked up because they can't afford to release the entire score. Why would I put all this time and effort into a piece of music and have it not live on? That's why I go non-union. By going non-union, I can overdub my strings to sound five times as big as they really are, but you can't do that here because the cost gets prohibitive. This way I get total string control on separate tracks and can actually cut my string section down because I'm over-dubbing it. We call it "stacking". I like to experiment on the stage, and you can't do that here much. Snow White and Incognito would never have been released - in fact none of my scores would have been released, if I went with union players. Cable Guy is an example of that. From the point of view as a composer, my interest is that I want every person to hear every note. If they aren't going to hear my score, I'm going to record in a way that allows them to hear it - and if that means leaving L.A. to record, I guess I have to do it. No offense to the L.A. players, I just hope they see my point of view as a composer.

Apt Pupil has been done for a long time, and it's coming out this October.

I hope it's a good omen. The same thing happened with The Usual Suspects: we recorded the score, and the film was released one year later. With Apt Pupil, we recorded in October 1997, and it will be out one year later as well, the 23rd. The reason it took so long is that the studio really believes in the movie. We expected them to release it in March or April, just to get it out there and make its money, but they really love it. It's a difficult film to market, so they need the time to get it out correctly. I mean the title of the film is tough enough!

You have a film coming out this fall, called Goodbye, Lover. John Barry was initially scoring it, how did you come on board?

I'm not sure how they found me, but I got a meeting with everyone at Regency and they liked my angle on what I thought the score should do. I pow-wowed with Roland Joffe and he seemed to trust my filmmaking instincts on what the score needed to do. Then Bryan Singer made a very kind call on my behalf as well, and I was hired. Also one of the Regency executives, Alexandra Milchan, had stopped by as we were mixingApt Pupil and heard the score and met me briefly, so that helped their confidence level. I love John Barry's work, so it was quite intimidating to replace him, until I got my feet wet. The whole tactic behind my score was to let the audience know that they could have fun. It's a sexual-thriller-comedy, but the comedy is so subtle in the movie that you're not sure what to make of it. By the end of the screening, the credits were rolling and people were then realizing, "Oh, I was supposed to have fun?" So the music's job from the first frame was to let them know, "Yes, this is a thriller, yes, it's dark, but don't take it too seriously". I really had to ride the line more thanCable Guy.

As an editor and composer on The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, do you find yourself editing to fit the scoring?

No, I would edit the film, and then score to the edited film. InThe Usual Suspects, there's the plane sequence, which I think might be the only time I edited to a click, but that's a rare case. The other edge of the sword is that I'm so tired by the time I'm supposed to write the score that I'm afraid I might be too burned out to score it! My personal secret on Apt Pupil was that I had no idea what I would do for the score. I would get phone calls from Phoenix executives while editing telling me how excited they were for my score, but I had no idea what I would be doing for this movie! Probably because nothing worked for the temp and I knew it had to be something completely original - and what that was going to be I had no idea, except that it had to be an amalgam of feelings, like1941 meets 2001.

What are you working on now?

Cruel Intentions. It's a modern telling ofDangerous Liaisons starring Sarah Michelle-Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phillipe. For the past four months it's been this dark, classical edgy manipulation score they wanted me to write. Now in the last two weeks they want it to be a hip-hop score and I've become a fish out of water! But I'm exploring a new side of me that I'm glad I can show, but don't know if I want to do it again. The last thing I want to be typecast into is hip-hop music!

I'm also working on the theme for the new "Fantasy Island" television show.

What's the current word on X-Men?

Well, the current state of it is uncertain. Bryan is currently attached to direct, I'll do editing and music. As far as I know, they're slated to start filming in March, I'll know more as time goes on. The thought of being enslaved in an editing room for months is horrifying, so they can take their time! I haven't thought about themes or anything. Bryan hums the theme from the animated show, and I tell him "No!" I would not use it. It's not big and epic enough for the movie. Who knows? I'm too busy trying to be "hip" right now to think about it!

John's scores toIncognito and Snow White: A Tale of Terror were released this summer. Hopefully a score release to Goodbye, Lover will be out around the films release this fall. A score release to Apt Pupil is expected to be released by RCA around the time of film's release. As forHalloween: 20 Years Later (H20), only time will tell.