An interview with the award winning film editor and leading film composer John Ottman

Renowned for his work on Bohemian Rhapsody, The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Fantastic Four, the award winning film editor and leading film composer John Ottman talks to Mandy News about his career so far within the industry.

4th December 2018
/ By James Collins

How did you get into editing and scoring for film?
From the very beginning I played the clarinet in high school and then I got diverted into film-making. I had a choice where I could take a course in filmmaking or continue in marking band - so I took the filming course and started making movies. Many years later I put together a little mini studio and started re-scoring my friend's student films at USC. It became a hobby while I was making movies.

Long story short, Bryan Singer and I were doing our first feature called Public Access. I was editing the film and the composer dropped out at the eleventh hour when we had a Sundance film festival deadline, so I said ‘look! I should score this movie’. He replied ‘All you do is feel-good music for all those other movies that you do’ and I told him that I can do sinister and dark. I understood the psyche of the character in the movie, as I helped create him. So I ended up writing the score to that film and it got noticed because of the fact that I scored and edited the movie. It won Sundance and the success of that helped us to put Usual Suspects together. 

At that point, I said I didn't want to edit the film I just wanted to score it, and he said ‘Hell no! You’re not gonna score the film unless you edit it as well’. So the blackmail began. Which only makes Bohemian Rhapsody even more unique for me because I only edited the film.

So originally you were down as both composer and editor for Bohemian Rhapsody?
The intention in everyone's mind was that there would be an underscore for the dramatic scenes. But I really had it in the back of my mind that it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t see where score made sense in this film. 

About three-quarters of the way into editing I realised it would be a mistake and took my composer credit off the title sequence I created and decided to use source music, even if it wasn't Queen. When Freddie proposes to Mary or when he’s at home alone I use opera music because he listened to opera. For instance, for the diagnosis, I used ‘Who Wants to Live Forever'. I took out the vocals and re-edited the music so it was almost like a score. I felt it made a pure movie without it being typical film music. 

Where do you compose music?
I have a mini studio at home where I really just do my writing. I've been lucky enough where the budgets for the films I score are big enough to go and record in a studio somewhere. I don’t often need to produce the final product in my studio unless I’m working on a TV show or small budget movie.

How do you manage to be both an editor and composer?
Well, they are both storytelling - one informs the other in a way. It has always come to me naturally, the only way to do it is to immerse myself in the film and make all other areas in my life secondary to it. No movies, no dinners, no dates. I say goodbye to my friends for a year or more, and that’s been the only way I can get it done. So, needless to say, the multiple duties on one film is not something I want to do much anymore - one major task is just fine with me!

Would you say you had a particular style or process with the editing?
Less of a style and more a procedural thing. Every editor has a different way of tackling the scenes. I'm old school because I started cutting on film so I had to imagine a scene in my head before I created it. You couldn’t make ten different versions of a scene and slap it on a wall as you can today with digital editing - I had to imagine the scene I wanted to create and encounter the landmines that I would inevitably encounter.

At the end of the day, I would get pretty close to what I would want. I still work in the same way, and the only way to do that is to watch all the footage - every frame before I cut a scene. That agony pays off in the end when I’m editing the film because I know all the footage so well. It’s a discipline because you’re in the middle of filming the movie and you have floods of questions coming in - everyone needs to know if the scene is working so can they tear down the set etc.…  I just insist on watching everything. As I’m watching the footage the scene is forming in my head, so when I sit down to cut the scene I do it quite quickly. It's not like I'm searching trying to put the scene together and not knowing where to begin - I know where to begin and where everything is. 

I just couldn’t go to bed at night knowing I cut a scene not knowing everything that was there or how the footage evolved during the shooting. Sometimes the first ideas during the shooting of a scene may have been the best.

What advice do you have for up and coming editors and composers?
I actually wrote an essay about it, it’s called 'DO DO DO'.  

Do everything that people come to you and want you to do, even the worst little project - just do it. You will look back and see that one thing leads to another.

I use myself as an example because I went into this business and studied to be a director but when I was asked to edit. I just did it, and then that led on to scoring and then I was asked to direct a movie. So it was a weird path that led me to where I wanted to be in the first place.

Also, working like this can give you a really good attitude about the way your work. I have to see it like I'm going make a project better, to believe in it, or my work will suck. If you have that in mind from the beginning it will continue throughout your career.