John Ottman on the balancing act of editing and scoring ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’

05.22.14 5 years ago

Bryan Singer's “X-Men: Days of Future Past” opens tomorrow. I really liked it. I remain a pretty huge fan of “X2” and think it has a lot of balance lacking in many superhero movies, and this one is very much in the spirit of those early entries. It feels more like a sequel to them than anything, using elements from “X-Men: First Class” to carry the story. And in editor/composer John Ottman, it gets some added continuity with those films as he hasn't been involved with the franchise in over a decade.

Ottman is unique for being both an editor and composer. I can't imagine too many people willingly taking on such separate gargantuan tasks on a film, but he's done them both with equal aplomb. When we spoke recently, talk mostly circulated around music choices, building new material for a new film while calling back to his and Michael Kamen's work on the initial trilogy where appropriate. But in the assemblage, he obviously had a lot to chew on given the time travel aspects on display.

We dug in on all of that, messing with the Fox fanfare and what direction “X-Men: Apocalypse” might take. Read the back and forth below, and be sure to check out “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this weekend!


HitFix: Editing and scoring together, that's obviously a very unique thing to do in this business. How did that start for you and how are you still doing it after 20 years? As in, how has it not burned you out to do both of these things at once?

John Ottman: How do you know it hasn't burned me out? [Laughs.] Well, it started when I was cutting a feature we did together, “Public Access.” It was our first feature film and it competed at the Sundance Film Festival. I was editing the film and at the 11th hour the composer dropped out and we had a Sundance deadline. So I had been doing the composing thing as a hobby and I told Bryan [Singer], “Look, I should write the score to this film,” and his back was against the wall so I scored it. And I guess no one had really done that before and it sort of was singled out at Sundance. So when we put “The Usual Suspects” together I said, “Well, I like this scoring thing. I really don't want to edit the film.” And he said, “Forget that. You're not going to score the film unless you edit the film,” and then basically the same blackmail has continued to this day!

Going back to those two movies, what has been Bryan's philosophy on score? What are his thoughts on how music should work in a film?

You know, I don't ever remember a time where he has sort of given his own personal concept of scoring because he's mainly reacted to what I have put in as temporary music in a movie and then just basically responded whether he liked it or not and whether he's just feeling the scene the way he wants to feel it. I mean I know he has mentioned he doesn't like frilly things in the score. The specific things that I've learned through the years, he doesn't like things that shimmer or things that are like a glockenspiel or a bell tree. He's not going to want that kind of stuff. But other than that I think it really depends on the kind of movie we're doing and how he's just reacting emotionally to what I'm presenting to him.

However, having said that, on this one he did specifically say he wanted something more “modern.” And I think there's some intimidation factor with the new sort of Chris Nolan-esque approach to film, well, to superhero films and to the scores. So I think he wanted to be able to compete with that sort of testosterone-driven kind of scoring. And so I took that to heart. However, we are working with a franchise and a character-driven movie. So I sort of infused that sentiment in, I guess you would say, that “modern” approach in with the lyrical sort of thing that I normally do.

Well, I'm going to get into that in just a moment but I do want to talk about “The Usual Suspects.” I've never actually spoken to you before so now that I have the opportunity, it's one of my favorite movies.

Oh, cool. Yeah, I always say it was downhill from there.

Tell me about that score, which is obviously so iconic, and how did you decide on what it eventually became?

Oh, well that was a concept that I sort of came up with when I temped the movie. I wanted to go against the grain of what what one would think would be in that film as a score. You know, a gritty crime movie, I think at that time, would be sort of the Tarantino-esque approach in people's assumptions, or something very contemporary. And so Brian was on board when I basically temped it with orchestral music and had it be more poetic.

It certainly has a noir vibe to it. It has like a genre element to it. And I've always liked that it has this sort of call-back to one of the tracks John Williams conceived for “JFK.”

Yeah, thanks. It has a noir element to it, yeah, and I should say with some elegance. So when we presented the first cut to the studio they were surprised that the musical approach was in this ilk. I remember specifically sitting out at a lunch table outside with one of the executives plus me and Bryan, and the guy was basically saying he was sort of taken aback – not taken aback, but he was sort of surprised about that musical approach. And Bryan says, “Well, good, be surprised, because that's exactly what we're going to do.” Because once he's reacting emotionally and taken in by what the music is doing for him, he's a grand defender of it.

And then on X-Men, obviously you're bringing back the central themes that were evident in the first couple of movies, but what other elements specifically helped you to shape what you wanted this one to be?

Well, it's a weird score for me because I would normally set out to do an “X-Men” film like “X2.” It was basically just lyrical and build upon character themes that would weave in and out of the film and done in a straight orchestral sense. But when he kind of said he wanted it to be more of a modern approach, it threw me for a moment. But then I just sort of dove in and did what I would normally do naturally with that in the back my mind.

The '70s gave me an opportunity sort of to mix it up a bit by adding some synthesized elements with some analog synths and electric piano and bass and some guitar. But at the end of the day, it's still, to me, a story being told about Charles Xavier. And there's sort of a melancholy, yet somewhat hopeful theme for him that develops throughout the movie and has its big fruition in the end. And so that was exciting for me to have that as a thread.

And then the other major motif in the film is Raven. So she has sort of a four-note motif that sort of went through the film for a while and went away and then came back when she's got the gun at the end and her big decision. It's sort of loosely harkened in this piano piece that's in this montage.

I also like how you get a little bit of the Kamen “X-Men” theme in the Fox fanfare at the beginning of the movie.

Oh, well there's a story behind that one. So I had done that on “X2” and during the scoring session, I remember the way we recorded it was that we played in the fanfare through the headphones to the orchestra and then they looked at their sheet music and they played [the high note from the theme]. And when they played it they all laughed and clapped because they thought it was awesome. And we all thought it was awesome. And then the memo started going back-and-forth throughout Fox. And they put the kibosh on it because they said, “Well, you just can't mess with the Fox logo. You just can't do that.” And I came up with many examples of how it had been messed with through the years, at least visually. So this time I decided, “Okay, I'm going to get everyone used to it by putting that in the Avid on the Fox logo when we do our screenings. First I played it really low so everyone just kind of didn't realize whether it was part of it or not. And then I sort of kept bringing it up in level. And [Fox Production President] Emma Watts loved it. Every time she heard it, she loved it, so I knew that it was probably going to get through [this time].

Now you weren't a part of the first “X-Men.”

No, I was off directing a teen horror movie so I couldn't do it.

I'm nevertheless curious about building a theme for this franchise. What was it Bryan was looking for with that? No one is going to sit down and say, “Okay, how do we make this iconic,” but it is a superhero movie and that's sort of a trope of that sub-genre. A definitive theme.

Well, when I did the “X2” theme I was inspired by what Kamen had done because I felt like he had an idea there that was never really fleshed out and was like a fragment of a theme. I felt like it was missing the second half. So that's kind of how I came up with the “X2” theme, was by first listening to his and then sort of expanding on it and then making it my own.

And even with the “modern” directive, what was the thought process on mingling that theme with the new film. Because we're also dealing with a story extension of “X-Men: First Class,” and Henry Jackman obviously had his own thing going on that one.

I really thought hard because Bryan was afraid of it. Again, he's desperately afraid of feeling like he's some dated director by going back to some traditions. I tell him it's all about the movie. If the movie's great, people are going to embrace it. And I'm not trying to say my theme is as great as “Star Wars” but it's not like John Williams changes his theme on those when they do another movie. Theme continuity is very important. I'm a big believer in that. It's why I used John Williams' theme for “Superman Returns” and didn't go off and do something else, because I just felt it seemed right to have continuity. It was fragilely accepted by Bryan because I think he was afraid of feeling, again, too dated by reusing a theme that was used 11 or 12 years ago, whenever it was. So I told him it's all about context. If we do a really cool movie and it's somewhat more of a modern score, that theme is going to be now associated with a newer film.

And speaking of that continuity, I didn't have a chance to go back and listen to anything from “First Class” before speaking with you, but was there anything from the Jackman stuff that was reconstituted or used in this?

No. Well, there's a funny thing that happened on “X-Men: First Class.” There's a Magneto theme he had, but the funny thing is that's actually based upon my Wolverine theme from “X2.” My only assumption is that they temped with “X2” score and there was a bit of the Wolverine theme in there and then he took that and made a big bombastic version of it for Magneto. So when I hear that theme, it's strange for me because I'm hearing a big, giant version of Logan's theme. And I already had sort of a motif for Magneto in “X2” that I kind of barely touched on in that film. So I sort of made a little more of it in this movie, and in my own brain, put his theme back to where it makes sense with me. But, you know, maybe I'll get skewered by the diehards who are wondering where his theme is from “First Class.”

Of course, on top of everything, you're editing the film, too. We haven't even touched on that, but what was a fresh challenge on this movie that maybe you hadn't dealt with before?

Well, I guess the obvious challenge with this one was the whack-a-mole game of time travel logic or illogic, however you want to put it. And that was the endless merry-go-round of indecision from everyone involved. I just spent so much of my time exhaustively trying to build consensus and have an opinion and basically get everyone on board for a direction we had to go. Because you could go in a million different directions based upon time travel. And, you know, we would solve one problem and create a much bigger problem. Like I said, it was a whack-a-mole thing. We just had to sort of keep whacking the mole until we found the smallest mole that popped up and live with that one.

Ha, that's an interesting way to put it. Well next up Bryan will obviously be bringing in the mutant Apocalypse with “X-Men: Apocalypse.” I imagine that will create a whole new, fun opportunity to develop a character with music. There's obviously no movie yet, but has he had any conversations with you about that yet?

Very little conversation except they're just basically working with a basic concept now in terms of piecing the major beats of the story together. He and the writer have just said it's going to be big, big, big. Frankly, when I heard they're already planning the sequel, my knees got weak. Sometimes I just want to put my fingers in my ears and not listen, like, “Okay, there's no sequel, there's no sequel; please no.” You talk about the burnout factor, it's like, I just need to smell a few roses before even considering going back into the hellhole.

Do you know what specific Apocalypse story they might be using as inspiration? There are so many good ones to choose from. Most are assuming it will be “Age of Apocalypse.” That would leave you with your hands full, given the alternate timeline stuff to play with.

I know they wanted to call the film “Age of Apocalypse,” but they couldn't because there's some other film coming out around the same time called “Age of” something and they didn't want to make it sound like the exact same title. They decided that would be lame so they just called it “Apocalypse.”

Yeah, I guess there's “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

I know that there's like this giant, hard-bound book that I saw them going through in my editing room a few months ago. So I think they're taking all that to heart. But as to which one it is or which combination of stories it is, I have no idea.

Well, I'm looking forward to it. And again, congratulations. It was nice to finally catch up with you after being such a fan.


“X-Men: Days of Future Past” hits theaters tomorrow.

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