John Ottman – Tips from the stars

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I don’t think there was any succinct moment where I decided “I am going to be a film composer”. I started doing it as a hobby and sometimes you don’t intend for your hobby to become a big career. You do it for the joy of it. When I was editing my first feature film with Bryan Singer, our composer fell out in the eleventh hour. The deadline to submit the film to the Sundance film festival was approaching and so I proposed I’d write the score since I knew the characters so well. I’d been writing music and scoring my friends student films as a hobby. So I wrote that score and by the time we were putting The Usual Suspects together, I was on my way to start scoring films.

We have to open ourselves up to as much serendipity as possible … to have an attitude that will lead us to unexpected highs. Here are some of the things that worked for me:

Say yes

I always tell young composers, or young editors/filmmakers “just say yes to everything”. If you don’t say yes you might close off your path to many different options later in your life. Ironically by saying yes to editing and composing projects I was asked to direct a film (Urban Legends) many years later, and directing was one of my career goals.

By saying yes you might end up doing some awfully dumb projects, but at least you’re doing something in the business. You always look back on a career and pinpoint that obscure little project that if you hadn’t done it, your path would have never begun or gone the way it did. It also teaches you early on how to have a good attitude on the things you work on, because early projects may not be that great, but you are going to make it better. That should never change. I know friends who held out and said no to everything because they really wanted to only do one particular job in the industry, like direct. Now they’re 50 years old and have done nothing.

Your mind is your friend

When I work on a film as an editor and composer, the job can span between one and two years. Editing a film is far more than pushing buttons on an AVID. You’re managing the entire thing. Among editing and re-editing tasks (which never stops until the last nanosecond), there are test screenings, looping the actor’s lines, hundreds of visual effect shots to manage, lots of politics debating with the studio, shaping of the film, etc … and for me, all this was happening while I was trying to write the score to the picture. The only way I could do it is saying no to any social life – not going to movies, no dinners, no TV. The movie basically would become my life 24/7. Granted, mine was an extreme situation – with a plate overflowing. I think I lost 24 pounds on X-men Apocalypse and I was biting the skin off my fingers till they bled. And the same thing happened on X-men – Days of Future Past. I remember telling Bryan Singer “I can never do this again”. And then of course Bohemian Rhapsody came along, and how could I have said no to that?

A no brainier tip is to be very regular with your sleep. I set a cut-off time when I have to go to sleep. But once I lay down the hard part is shutting it all off and falling asleep. I sometimes find myself tossing and turning because what I am working on is always swirling around in my head. It takes a lot of practice.

On the other hand I had many eureka moments (both as an editor and as a composer) laying in bed. When you lie in bed your mind often drifts between conscious and subconscious states while the film is swirling in your head at the same time. It may be torment, but you may also solve some problems!

Lose your fear, don’t lose the joy

Working on your first couple films can be both exhilarating and terrifying. We are terrified of approaching deadlines, afraid of getting fired and we want to have people wanting to hire us again. So perhaps early on we may be afraid of being ourselves. For a composer, adhering to the temp score is a security blanket.. But once you lose your fear, you are able to infuse more of your own voice into the project and forge a style of your own, rather than just sounding like everything else.

As your career gets busier and busier, you may start losing the joy it was supposed to be for you in the first place. For me there was no intention ever being a film composer, I just loved writing music and that joy actually helped keep me inspired. I also see writing a score as an escape in many ways, from the awfulness of the world. If it becomes a factory kind of job, you have to step back and realize “hey I got in this because I enjoyed doing it”. Try having a joyful experience as much as possible.

But be prepared that to work in this business it’s not always going to be fun. It can and will be treacherous as hell. Figure out a way to distress other parts of your life to make room for the stresses of your job. Keep your expenses low or responsible. Live within your means.

Defend content, not shape

There are many different approaches to score one scene. And none of them is necessarily right or wrong. It’s whatever you are trying to pull out of that scene that’s important. And when discussing a musical cue or an edit, the subtext of what the scene is really about should be the most concern – not the bells and whistles in your work that you labored over. Is the scene about guilt? Is it about sadness? You might see it as about guilt, but the director may say “no I want the character to feel confused here.” And suddenly you realize there was another way, another approach. Nothing is too precious.

If you write something you really love, you should love it because it effectively conveyed what you trying to emote or do – whether that be emotional or simply pragmatic (like pacing up a scene). Never defend it on how cool it sounds, what a great composition it is, or how flashy the cuts are. Unless it’s supposed to be about the snazziness, the director couldn’t care less. And nor should he/her. 

Pursue objectivity

Being a good filmmaker means being able to step back and compartmentalize one process and see another process objectively. I think a good film composer should be able to do the same. Find people around you who can also give their point of view. God knows there’s enough of those people around. Be open to ideas. Even the janitor walking in the room may have a comment that saves the scene. Your own confidence and point of view is absolutely critical to guide your ship and create your work. But also be open to ideas that may even change your course a bit.

Don’t be obsessed with finding an agent

I know that sounds crazy, but agents don’t care about you until you’ve scored a film that has heat, buzz, or critical acclaim. An agent is rarely going to pound the pavement for a new composer based upon their talent. They couldn’t care less about their talent, all they care about is marketing them on the successful film they did. I—as many other film composers—was thinking “OMG I need to find an agent because then I am going to get work”. But it’s rarely the way it works early on. Just do your stuff, and if you have a successful film or a project you think is going to get a lot of heat, then grab an agent and tell them “hey I’ve got this thing coming out.”

When I scored The Usual Suspects the movie stayed in the can for a year after we finished it. They didn’t know what to do with it. During that time I brought the music to Richard Kraft (co-owner of Kraft-Engel Management) and he said: “look kid, I like this but I don’t know what this Usual Suspects thing is so, you know, do some movies and come back to me when I can make a decent commission off of you.” Then a year later The Usual Suspects came out and it was a critical success. It was actually Danny Elfman that told Richard Kraft “hey there’s this movie out there you really should see.” And so then I got a call from Richard Kraft saying “hey buddy, remember me?”. I was suddenly valuable because I had a film out there he could market me by.

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John Ottman

John Ottman

John Ottman is one of the most unique creatives in the film industry, holding dual distinctions as both a leading film and Emmy nominated composer and a BAFTA and Oscar winning film editor. Ottman has often completed both monumental tasks on the same films. Such remarkable double duties have included The Usual Suspects, X-Men 2, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, Jack the Giant Slayer, Days ofs Future Past and Xmen Apocalypse. He has also held producer roles on several of these films, as well as directing, editing and scoring Urban Legends 2.

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