“The Nice Guys” starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe opens this weekend, and “X-Men: Apocalypse” next weekend. Both films share the same composer, John Ottman. He’s actually also the editor for “Apocalypse” which in itself is an accomplishment.
John’s talented on both fronts as an editor and composer. Some of his composing credits include “Superman Returns” and “Valkyrie.” From a previous interview I discovered his friendship with Bryan Singers goes all the way back to college.
Interviewing him on both editing and composing is difficult because both are rarely achieved professionally in the film industry due to the technical and creative aspects both require. According to John, performing both can be “life destroying when it’s all said and done,” in a tongue-and-cheek way. Furthermore, doing both means all the aspects of your personal life can suffer. As an example, he shared that all his house plants died while working on both films, and that was a symbol of his personal life and relationships as the work is that demanding.
Allie Hanley: Last time we spoke you had just finished editing and composing “X-Men: Days of Future Past” which I loved, and you had described it as “going to war.” I thought perhaps I had caught you at a bad moment but I had the feeling that your days of editing and composing the same movie were over… And furthermore, I see this month you have two movies coming out, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and “The Nice Guys.” What happened?
John Ottman: Right! <laughing> I always say that I am never going to do it again, and I always end up doing it again. My friends are really tired of hearing me say that, and they don’t believe me anymore.
Yes, it makes me look extremely prolific to have two films opening on the same week but I actually started work on “The Nice Guys” three months before I left for Montreal to shoot X-Men. When I finished it, it sat in post for a while, and it was actually in the can for quite a while (the film is complete and just waiting for it’s date to be released). So, I did end up scoring three reels just for that. Of course, when I was up there (Montreal) shooting, they ended up re-editing so all the reels ended up not working as I had originally composed. I ended up having to rework the themes. We would have Pow-Wows every night when I would get home from shooting (X-Men) at 11:30 and I’d fire up the good ol’ Skype. Sometimes I would use my mobile studio that I brought with me, so it wasn’t like I already had enough to do <laughing>.
I had this idea that I would write the entire score and then go to Montreal, but it never quite works out that way!
AH: There’s a lot of people out there that would love to do one or the other, which do you prefer editing or composing?
JO: Well, I prefer composing. First of all, it’s not 100% life destroying, because you are in and out of it in a number of weeks rather than a year, or a year and a half. Also, you only have one thing to worry about, composing.
I look at my composing peers, who will go through hell composing a movie, and I think, -dude, you only have one thing to worry about, -writing the score! Don’t complain!
As we’ve talked before, doing the multiple of tasks is just too much.
AH: Have you noticed a trend in scores that’s happened over the course of the last few years? For me, I’m seeing more and more techno-like music.
JO: Well, there was a trend that started a number of years ago, to do the sort of wall-paper effect, with strong ostinatos <a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm>, and to be less thematic and more in your face, and more “sound designy;” and that’s a general statement because there are still nice lyrical scores written today here and there.
I would say that is one of the major changes in film music. In my opinion the bar has been set maybe a little lower the past few years. So, now when someone creates a musical score with a little theme in it, it’s like they have created some unique piece of music, but it’s only because the bar has been set so low as of late. So now it’s perceived as something so profound when someone actually writes a thematic score.
AH: I’m seeing more and more sound tracks that sound like techno music at a club. Have you noticed that?
JO: Along with what I was just saying, it’s the wall-paper effect. The back drop to that, is that it’s all synthesizer. I guess, it’s the whole thing about it’s all climax, and there’s no four-play in a lot of scores.
Today, they think everything has to be at the top decibel level for everything, the effects and the music. There’s no longer those peaks and valleys.
For me, part of telling the story are those moments of silence and having something lyrical.
Yes, you are right, and that’s born from budgetary and from things that are synthesized; and also you can push that shit so loud. What’s funny, as that sort of film scoring got more popular and the quality of the television synthesizer work got better and better, -I just feel like, the lines have become so blurred between a motion picture score and a “CSI” episode. So this is where I lament the theatrical lyrical scores that separate a movie from a lot of television.
With that being said, after slamming some scores that sound like that, not every score should be something lyrical or orchestral because sometimes the best choice for a score is to do 180 degrees different from that. So, take my criticism of recent scoring with a grain-of-salt because sometimes one long boring drone of a sound effect, is the best choice to make some scene interesting and that can be better than some orchestral version.
AH: The last X-Men movie you edited and scored was just packed tight with a lot of action scenes. That scene with “Quicksilver” was extra-ordinary. What can we expect this time out?
JO: This one is very different in respect, it’s a more linear story because we aren’t dealing with time travel. But sometimes a linear story is more difficult. You can’t just leave the time frame and go work on something different. This one, unlike the other movies we have done has a very defined villain while the other movies have always been a struggle between Charles and Eric, and their philosophical differences… and sometimes there’s an outside source like Trask in the last movie. But this one has a villain that sort of comes out of nowhere and has his agenda. Then there is the inevitable third act, where the good guys have to destroy the bad guy which everyone knows you are heading too. So that becomes the biggest challenge, because in a film like that, it’s been done so many times. How do you make that final confrontation clever in some way?
AH: Did you do something special for “Apocalypse?”
JO: Yes, I sort of like to score villains from a sympathetic point of view because they were babies and had parents at some point of their life. So I like the music to be born from the mystique around them, or almost from their point of view and that’s what I did with Apocalypse. I wanted the music to be from his point of view. He sees himself as some sort of God from the Old Testament. So I had these religious like chords that are very seductive, and I used those for his seduction… and he has this very noble and conquering type theme that feeds into his narcissism but it’s dark enough where it lets the whole audience in to the fact that he’s a megalomaniac.
Both films are different as night and day but equally good. You can see “The Nice Guys” this weekend, and “X-Men: Apocalypse” next weekend, May 27th wide.