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ScoreKeeper Chats With VALKYRIE Composer/Editor John Ottman!!

Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with my second interview with editor and composer extraordinaire John Ottman whose latest Bryan Singer collaboration, VALKYRIE (2008), hits theaters on Christmas Day. I had the pleasure of seeing VALKYRIE last weekend at Butt-Numb-A-Thon X and it was one of my favorite films of the festival. I managed to wrangle a quick chat with a major force behind the success of this movie, John Ottman. To edit a feature film is a gargantuan task. To score a feature film is a Herculean task. John Ottman experienced a feat that very few mortals attempt tackling…the mega-gigantic-gargantuan-Herculean task of editing and scoring a feature film! Is he crazy? Well, you be the judge.

ScoreKeeper: Hey John! Good talking with you again. Thanks for taking time out to speak with me today. John Ottman: Sure. We talked a few years ago about SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), right?
SK: Yes we did. JO: Nice.
SK: Cool. Well, I want to talk about VALKYRIE. I had the pleasure of seeing the film… JO: We are talking about VALKYRIE?
SK: Yeah! JO: Oh, OK.
SK: Did you have something else that you wanted to talk about? JO: No, there’s nothing else going on frankly.
SK: I didn’t think so. I figured this probably occupied the majority of your year. JO: Yeah.
SK: I had the pleasure of seeing the film this past weekend and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. JO: Oh great! Was this that birthday screening?
SK: Yeah, at Butt-Numb-A-Thon. JO: Was the theater good?
SK: Oh yeah. It was great! In fact, Harry paired it as a double feature following Humphrey Bogart’s SAHARA from 1943 about an American tank crew battling the Nazis in northern Africa. Of the entire twenty-four hour festival, this double feature was my favorite. The pairing was brilliant. JO: I’m a freak about the sound and I got a bunch of calls the other day from people who had seen it at a great theater and they were just gushing about the film. Then last night I had a screening and it was only pretty good. The sound kind of sucked and I was like “Oh my God, it really depends on the fucking sound for this film!”
SK: This was at the Alamo Drafthouse. Their sound system kicks ass. JO: Great!
SK: So this is another Bryan Singer film where you, once again, take on the role of the editor and the composer. I’m fascinated by that for a variety of reasons. JO: So is everybody else in my life. [both laugh] Especially the ones I complain to and they are like “Well, you said yes.”
SK: It’s funny, because the last time I talked to you, I found out that that’s not your favorite thing in the world to do. I find it interesting you still continue to do it. JO: Yeah. There’s some psychoanalysis that is definitely warranted. I think it just satisfies my filmmaking needs to really get in there and help have a hand in making it a good movie. But it sure comes at a price.
SK: What was different this time around? It’s familiar people that you are collaborating with, but it’s a very different film. JO: The process was relatively the same except the aura of the film – being different from what we had worked on before – made it feel like a completely different experience for all of us. First of all, that was the first we had ever done a true story based upon very significant historical events. In an oddly similar way to SUPERMAN it was to be reverential to the original material in an almost religious way. For this one we had to be careful with not screwing with history too much while at the same time we had on our hands a suspense thriller at its heart. How far can you push that without belittling the importance of what is being told? That was really the challenge of it. I think that that concern added weight to what we were doing. It was sort of a fear of screwing up history. [both laugh] …and being accurate. Here we were literally in the middle of Berlin shooting this thing where the Germans are very aware of this story. Many of them, to a very detailed extent, know every little facet of the story down to what type of paper lays on the desk. We had to be careful about it because someone would notice. It’s amazing how something that insignificant can become a big story.
SK: I was aware that there were assassination attempts on Hitler’s life but I had no idea the scope and complexity of this particular occasion and how close they really got. It’s a huge and epic slice of the amazing story which is World War II. I was almost embarrassed to not have known that this had happened. JO: Yeah, I’m with you. I didn’t know either. I’m sure my dad did. All of our dads are sort of World War II buffs. Even as a kid I guess I just missed that story.
SK: So strictly speaking in the role as composer now, when you approached scoring this film, having edited it, was that a liability or an asset? JO: I would say it’s a wash in the end. The asset aspect to this is that I’m extremely familiar with the movie in its problem areas and in its emotional needs. On the other hand, when it comes to the execution of writing the score I have so little time because I’m also the editor. I am never really able to symbolically shut the door, sit back, and write the score and not be bothered by the myriad of editorial duties. The film is constantly in flux and I’m always being yanked out of my composing environment to solve some sort of editorial change. It gives me so much less time to actually concentrate on the score so I think in the end it ends up being a wash. In other words, if I were just the editor on a film, I would have hired a composer two months earlier than I ever get as a composer to start writing the score.
SK: Do you feel like the next time Bryan comes calling you are going to once again tackle both roles? JO: I don’t know. Every time I recover from this process, I keep telling myself I must be mad to put myself through all of that. When he comes along with another project I think I’m at that point where I want to get my hands on a movie again. It really depends on what’s going on in my life and how soon it comes. Usually I tell Bryan, “Go away for a couple of years so I can go score some movies” and usually that’s what he does. This time we hadn’t been off SUPERMAN for very long when I got the call and I was like, “What the hell are you calling me about this film already for?” and he said, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be a smaller thing…seven or eight months. You’ll be in and out and you can go off and score movies again.” Of course that’s not exactly what happened.
SK: Well, I hope you continue doing both. I enjoy your editing almost as much as I enjoy your music. If one were to oversimplify the general role of music in film it might be said that it’s a series of tension and releases contouring a narrative. One of the things that struck me about your music for VALKYRIE is that it is all tension. I found myself amazed by a couple of things. First of all, the ubiquitous tension that permeates the film and also how you are able to maintain the endurance of that tension. You can’t just rely on the same tricks over and over again or the tension dies. JO: You very perceptively got on to the hardest part about doing this score…sustaining the tension without having it overstaying its welcome. Then the opposite of that is a problem because if you keep up the same pulsating tension technique for too long it’s going to have the opposite effect than what you are trying to achieve. It will become just a passive experience as opposed to one that is engaged. That was very tricky. If you analyze the movie you realize the music never really stops. The only way around that is the music has to also tell a story in it’s own way. Even if it’s a somewhat non-melodic score as this one is. That’s the art of film music. I think the best film scores, whether conscious or not, when they are taken away from the movie you can sense that they are trying to tell some sort of subliminal story underneath.
SK: The tension in the music creates a wonderful arch throughout the film. It develops and grows from the planning, to the execution, to the aftermath. Did you score the film from the beginning to the end as opposed to jumping around? JO: I always try to score in scene order. It’s telling a story. So if I jump ahead, even though as a filmmaker I know basically where our destination is, it wouldn’t be good for me to do that. I’m not sure how long that arching line is. I score in scene order so I can tell a story as I go along. I may, in fact, do one or two cues later in the film so at least I know where my peak is where the destination is. Then I will go back to the beginning and go in order.
SK: It just seems like with this type of film, you would have to. It would be too difficult to manage the tension if one were to jump around. JO: The other tricky part about the score was the inevitable slow evolution from thriller to tragedy. That had to be done invisibly.
SK: And that tragic element seems to be expressed primarily with a single piece of music which is entitled “They Will Remember You.” If there is finally a moment of release from all of this built up tension – even though it's a tragic release – it’s felt in this piece. Tell me a little bit about it. Was that written toward the end of the scoring process? JO: Yeah, that was written pretty much near the end of the process. You are exactly right when you say it’s a sense of release because there had to be a different feeling as the audience walks out of the theater. Not a depressing feeling but more of an oddly uplifting experience that these guys sacrificed their lives and did something heroic. They believed in what they were doing and they did it. I really had the toughest time trying to figure out how music could convey that general feeling as you are leaving the theater. The problem was that the ending scene is very emotional and orchestral. More of the theme as you walk out wouldn’t have done it. It dawned on me that a total piece, as if from somewhere else, stuck on the end titles would convey that. The problem was though, what on earth would they be saying? I thought if it was German then that would be awesome. Me and a fellow collaborator of mine were struggling as to what on earth they would say until a friend of his found this poem by the German poet, Goethe. It was a poignant allegory to the movie in a “non-on-the-nose” kind of way. It was about the little birds falling silent in the woods. Then the last phrase in the poem is “soon you too will be at rest.” I just got chills when I read that. “OK, this is perfect.” The difficulty then was the melody had already been written and jamming his lyrics into the melody was like trying to get a square peg into a round hole. We ended up having to adjust a lot of the melody to accommodate the lyrics but in the end it worked out.
SK: If you are trying to explain to a general audience member about the complexity of capturing a very specific human emotion with music, I think this piece would exemplify success in achieving that goal. You have to find a degree of emotion that is more than just happy/sad. The emotional “colors” found at the end of this film are very complex and very specific. The music reflects it so well. JO: Thank you for noticing that. A lot of times it really just depends on the movie. You can throw almost anything at the credits of a film…It can be the song they are trying to sell for the album or it could be just something to break it up as the audience walks out. For VALKYRIE no matter what I would put there it had a profound effect on how you felt leaving the movie. It is literally just on the heels of this very emotional scene. It was very tricky.
SK: I’m always interested in exploring roads not taken and so I’m curious, since the title of the film is VALKYRIE, and the fact it takes place in Germany, and there is even a reference of the Wagner opera in the film, were there any thoughts or notions of composing the music in a Wagnerian style or incorporating any elements of that? JO: No. Bryan initially gets freaked out that I’m going to go off on some ridiculous tangent with the music. I have to reassure him that I still have my faculty. Very early on he was very concerned about not doing any cliché music for the period. He didn’t even have to get halfway through a sentence. I already completely agreed with him. It’s a thriller first and a World War II film second. That was the idea – to go more modern with the score. I reassured him this was not going to be WINDS OF WAR The other thing was that Tom Cruise, Bryan, the writer, and I were pretty much all in the same age group and we all think that movies from the era of the seventies were the hey-day of movies and the hey-day of film scores. I knew pretty much we were all on the same page and I could do my thing which pretty much comes from that era. My music training or inspiration comes from that type of classic film score writing and I tended to just do that instinctually and then update it for today so it doesn’t sound dated. Then by adding subtle synthesizers and so forth it gave it that combination of vintage seventies score and something new.
SK: Tom Cruise is the executive producer on this film. How involved was he in both the editing and the scoring process? JO: He was extremely respectful of the filmmakers because I think that that’s one of the historical tenets of United Artists…to give space to filmmakers. He gave us a lot of latitude and a lot of space. He is also a great filmmaker himself. He’s got amazing instincts for telling a story and so in the end, he would have his point of view and sit there in the editing room like any producer would. I really admired him quite a bit about how adept he was at storytelling and taste. It was never about him or his performance. It was always about the story. He was an excellent partner in the process.
SK: Now that the year is over and VALKYRIE is behind you, I guess you are going to “go off and score some films and stay away from Bryan Singer for a little while." JO: I’ve got to pay my mortgage!
SK: What do you have coming up then? JO: I’ve got nothing right now. After something as long and intensive as VALKRYIE, I’m pretty much picking up the pieces of my life and trying to give meaning to my life again. I wish I had a gig right now I could tell you about, but I’ve got nothing going on. It’s weird.
SK: Well John, I wish you the best and I appreciate your time. JO: I appreciate the interview.
SK: Alright man, I look forward to talking to you next time. JO: OK. Thanks.
SK: You take care. JO: Bye.

On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to thank John Ottman for taking the time out of his currently-not-so-busy schedule to talk with me. I’d also like to thank Melissa at Costa Communications for her assistance with this interview. I enjoyed VALKYRIE quite a bit and have been telling folks to go check it out. For those who take a keen interest in film scoring it’s certainly an interesting study of how you can create and sustain an almost constant tension throughout a movie while not getting stagnant. For everybody else, it’ll be a very enjoyable movie. This is probably my last interview for 2008. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ve got a busy slate for 2009 so look for some new friends and old acquaintances throughout the year. Thanks for reading!


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