X-Men: Days of Future Past made a huge splash at the box office this past weekend (a $111 million splash, to be exact), and if the quality that was put into this film stays intact for all the future films, then there’s plenty to look forward to in the X-Men universe. The film is everything you love about the X-Men movies and more.
A film this good, however, doesn’t make itself. When talking about the original X-Men films, Bryan Singer’s name immediately comes up, but John Ottman should be a name you should appreciate as well. Ottman, who’s worked with Singer on most all of his films, serves as the editor and composer for Days of Future Past and does a fantastic job at both this go-around. Ottman’s worked on several films including X2, The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns, Apt Pupil, and both Fantastic Four films, just to name a few of several.
Ottman spoke to me about how he started working with Singer, the only director he works with as editor and composer, the hardest sequences to put together in the film, and how he manages the process of two very different jobs.
The film and the soundtrack are out now, so be sure to check them out! You can read the entirety of my interview with Ottman below.
You and Bryan Singer have been friends for a long time, and he’s the only director with whom you collaborate with as both film editor and composer, which is quite a feat. How did this all get started and what’s your collaboration
If you want to go way back, it started when we met at film school, when he was a PA [personal assistant]on a little movie and I was helping out a director friend of mine on the project. I ended up coming on and recutting the film, and Bryan befriended me and we started working together. Basically, I would edit his projects that he was working on. Our first feature film, Public Access, the composer dropped out in the eleventh hour and I had been dabbling in music as a hobby. And I said, “Look, I should score this movie. I know these characters more than anybody,” so I wrote the score and the score and the editing were singled out. So when we did The Usual Suspects together, I was like, “I just want to score the movie. I like scoring films,” and he [Bryan Singer] was like, “no,” [laughs]“you’re not scoring the movie unless you’re the editor.” He kind of depended on me in that regard, so the blackmail continues to this day [laughs].
Well, that works out great since you do a great job at both. I was listening to the soundtrack and the intensity in the music parallels the movie. I especially loved “Hope (Xavier’s Theme)” and thought that was particularly beautiful and moving.
Well, thank you! That was the cornerstone for the score for me because Charles Xavier never had a theme and this movie is all about him and rekindling the hope that he’s lost. The hope that his character’s known for. I saw his music as really being the through-line to the movie and so that was one of the first things I ever wrote [for the film].
So when you sat down to start composing for this film, was there anything specific that triggered your inspiration for the music?
Nothing that I went to for inspiration really. It’s surprising to some people probably, but I don’t cut to music when I’m cutting the scenes internally. I wait until I have an entire editor’s cut together and watch the whole film dry, then I add the temporary music, or the temp. score as they call it. Then I sort of sit there and think about what kind of score it needs and then I search for that kind of music when I’m temping it because there isn’t time for me to write anything at that juncture. All I can do is find different scores that are of the ilk that I’m thinking of in my head.
So sitting down to do both editing and composing, because they’re two very different things, do you have specific mind sets when thinking about one over the other?
Survival [laughs]and the deadline on the wall. Those are very inspiring. This one was a darker score and we did want it to be a little more modern than X2 and bring it forward 12 years later filmmaking-wise. So I built in a lot more synthesizers into the orchestra for it. And it’s hard to answer that because this film already has a pre-existing theme that I wrote for X2 that I resurrected, so I didn’t have to think a whole lot about what the theme of the film is going to be, because I had already established it in my mind.
I especially loved the scene with Quicksilver in the Pentagon kitchen. It was very well done.
The idea of Quicksilver came very late in the process because it originally was a different character. So it was a tremendous hardship on the production because it wasn’t planned for until we were in the middle of shooting. So we had to design that sequence and we had zero time to shoot it. The kitchen scene was the last scene that we shot before we packed up and went back to LA.
You can’t tell. The entire shot of him going around the kitchen and the camera
panning around with him is fantastic.
A lot of that was done in post [production]. We just got a shot of him running around the kitchen quickly and then packed up and left [laughs].
Was that one of the harder scenes to edit? Are there any that stand out for you in particular when you think back on all the scenes you put together?
I would say that was a very difficult scene in that it’s really just a guy walking down the hall with a tray and there’s not a whole lot of action that’s occurring. For some reason, you feel excited because of the stakes and what he’s doing and he’s a fun character. To keep that moving and making it feel like there was a lot more than what it was was challenging. But I would say the most difficult sequence for me was the Paris sequence. When I was getting the footage in, I was calling it the “Paris Clusterf**k” because it’s this nine and a half minute sequence in Paris where all these simultaneous things are going on. So, it was a very difficult thing to keep all the parallel action constantly going and when adding the score it was the same nightmare, keeping the whole thing going and exciting. It’s weird, because it’s not an action sequence per se, and the way this movie is is that you’re engaged because it’s character driven and it’s driven by incidental things that are happening to the characters, but you wouldn’t call the Paris sequence an action sequence even though it feels like one because it’s moving so quickly and there’s so many things going on.
That’s true and you hear that in the music because it starts out slow and then gets more intense and moves faster around the two minute mark.
Is it easier for you to compose for a film you know so intimately as an editor? Or do you feel there’s more pressure?
I always say it’s a wash. I know the film more intimately than any composer will know a film and I know the problems it has because I’m a filmmaker, but the time I have to write the score is so little compared to what a composer would have if he walked into a film. So, it sort of evens out for me. There was never a time where I could say, “So long movie, I’m going to go write the score now.” I’m just constantly dealing with a million frayed ends, whether it’s ADR or visual effects issues, or recutting for test screenings, and the countless barage of things that I have to managerially contend with while writing the score. So, I’m never able to shut the door and go into a room to compose, it’s really difficult. And it’s something I worry about from day one when I arrive at where ever we’re shooting, even though writing the score is months and months away, I’m petrified about how I’m going to edit the film and write the score at the same time. It’s something that keeps me up at night until it’s finally written, so there’s a massive amount of release for me when I woke into the scoring session, because the creative aspect is behind me.
You combined themes from past ‘X-Men’ movies. I heard the ‘X2’ theme and Magneto’s theme in there at some point. Was that something you had in mind to do from the get-go?
Yeah. I’m surprised you recognized Magneto’s theme in there. But I touched on Magneto’s theme very briefly in X2, but he never had a full fledged moment thematically in the first movie and so I took that and built upon it in X2. There’s also a tiny little nod to [William] Stryker, who had a theme in X2, so that was fun to bring back. It’s not so inlaid in there because this film doesn’t have as many of the old characters, but it’s much more simpler in terms of themes than in X2, where there’s far more themes for characters. This movie is more of Charles Xavier, Raven, and Magneto. Those are the three prominent themes, in addition to some of the old themes.
Do you any future projects in the works right now? Either editing or composing?
Hell no! [laughs]I think I’m one of the only people filled with dread when their agent calls [laughs]. I’m going to take a break, yeah. This was on the heels of Jack the Giant Slayer, so it was three years of unrelenting pressure, so it’s really surreal right now for me. I’m kind of lost right now [laughs]. It’s like walking out of prison and not knowing what to do.
Is there a moment when you sat back to watch the finished film and thought, “I can’t believe I did all that and that it’s over?”
Yeah. You do watch it and think that. Or when I write a score for one of these films, it’s done so quickly and under such duress that when it’s all done and I listen to it, it’s like, “how did all this get written?” [laughs]