Interview With Composer John Ottman

By • February 8, 2011

Among the composers who’ve been chased by international killers, engaged in murderous games of cops and robbers, or have spied on the antics of various psychopaths, John Ottman might consider himself a marked man. Making a hug splash along with film school buddy Bryan singer as the editor and composer of 1995’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Ottman’s way of ratcheting the dramatic stakes up with walls of creeping, orchestra-heavy melody has led his talents to far more visceral ends in the genre with the likes of TRAPPED, CELLULAR and HIDE AND SEEK, topping off his multi-hyphenate hat as perhaps the one musician to carry the triple threat of composer, editor and director on URBAN LEGEND 2.

Though Ottman’s paths may have led to equally intense superhero action on Singer’s X-MEN 2, the monster frenzy of LAKE PLACID, ready-made cult films like PUMPKIN and even the computer animation of ASTRO BOY, it’s Ottman’s lethal prowess that keeps pulling him back into situations few people could hope to survive. Yet, if there’s one man who can weather Ottman’s relentless suspense, then it’s UNKNOWN star Liam Neeson, whose doctor survives all of the time-bomb percussion, car-smashing brass and haunting auras of who-am-I desperation that fills the film’s identity hunt. As Neeson’s seeming doctor violently reaffirms his sense of self worth against a disbelieving city, it’s up to Ottman’s score to provide him with a relentless, yet emotionally-charged engine of intrigue.

If UNKNOWN wasn’t further proof of Ottman’s talent at escalating suspense to the fireball point, then this spring also shows his dexterity at maneuvering about the apartment-based danger that confronts Hilary Swank as a spooked RESIDENT. While he isn’t about to name names when it comes to these films’ big reveals, the conversely good-humored John Ottman now reveals some of his suspenseful bag of tricks- one whose usual suspects are sure to continue growing with the composer’s unmistakably tense approach.

After TAKEN, Liam Neeson established a formidable screen presence that let the audience know he’s definitely not to be messed with. How did you want your score to let the audience know his character Martin could explode into action, even if he comes with the background of being a doctor instead of a secret agent here?

Actually I didn’t want the audience to think anything beyond what the character thought himself. The score’s aim was to get into Martin’s head and experience the world through his eyes. He believes he’s Martin Harris, a biologist, and in love with his wife, Liz. And therefore the audience has to believe this as well. When he doubts himself, so must the audience. And that was the musical challenge.

Could you talk about how you connote Martin’s confusion in UNKNOWN, giving the score the sense that there could be any “explanation” for what’s happening?

The film taunts you to ask questions and make suppositions via Martin’s experience. There never seems to be a plausible explanation for his dilemma. The idea was to establish a familiar musical place and slowly morph it to sound, well, more confused as the film goes on. The story begins with him and Liz driving to a hotel where they’re attending a conference. It’s a long sequence that’s also the first cue on the album, which is called “Welcome to Berlin.” This music is also a place of normalcy for Martin, marked by a piano melody connoting his world and his connection with her. When things start turning upside down, I tried to signify his “confusion” by taking the melody and “stressing it out” with atonal elements. I wanted the music to reflect his bewilderment, yet empathetically. As clues mount, I also introduced a sort of “scattered puzzle pieces” motif characterized by descending chromatic piano lines denoting some weird plot and reinforcing the off-kilter world he’s entered. Many times this motif intersects with the theme.

How would you describe the musical arch of UNKNOWN as its secrets are unlocked?

The core of the music is Martin’s growing isolation. It’s more a psychological score than an action one. The main theme (often heard when Martin recalls memories between him and Liz) slowly gives way to his plight. The second musical chapter is what I call a “somber determination” characterized by celli and brass. Then there’s that chromatic “puzzle piece” piano motif. He also meets characters along the way with their own themes, namely Gina, a Russian girl, and Jurgen, an old East German investigator. Peppered throughout, of course, are driving suspense cues. In the last act, the score overtly shifts to an evil theme, integrating the same descending piano, but now played in a far lower register aggressively and surrounded by sinister chords. All of this reflects a dark revelation for Martin and whom he might be. The actual score is over 103 minutes. I cut it down to about 53 for the CD, as I’m always afraid of an album being too long. A lot of quiet introspective cues are missing from it, and longer cues are edited to be shorter. It’s always a tough call.

At points, UNKNOWN seems to have several layers of music colliding at once. How did you achieve this kind of powerful, near dissonant effect?

My ass never leaving the chair is the answer. The “collisions” are a combination of delicate orchestrations (sometimes the toughest) and synth programming – which takes forever. With that much music to write in just a few weeks, the labor of producing synth tracks can be agonizing. It really eats up composing time. I prefer using orchestra, or orchestra samples, to create layers supported by synth. In the atonal moments, I wanted the dissonance to be “poetic”, so the sympathy would stay with Martin. Without this human thread, the story would just fall flat and just be too cold and alienating.

This is your third “Euro thriller” score after INCOGNITO and VALKYRIE. What do you think these locations bring to your music?

I think INCOGNITO was the only one where the setting affected the score overtly, as it was all about art history and from where it sprung. It really depends on the film and the story. The European influences in Incognito just felt right to me – especially since the score was very classical. But VALKYRIE was a straight thriller and I didn’t want to lapse into Germanic music as might be expected. Unknown is all about what’s going on in a guy’s head and has nothing to do with the setting. I thought going too Euro would be cliché, and worse, confuse the story.

After going for the minimalism of VALKYRIE, was it a treat to write such a brash score like UNKNOWN?

It was fun to let loose in those bigger moments using my instincts of my roots and combining them with some modern rhythms. But the crux of the score is subtle underscoring that surreptitiously carries much of the film. I had a personal mission to keep a large portion of the score free of electronic loops because the temp represented to me what’s wrong with so many current films of this genre. And, well, it pissed me off. It was basically a giant collection of flavor-of-the-day cliché rhythmic wallpaper. That lazy approach shows little confidence in a film and also makes it feel like a TV show. Even when Martin was alone to contemplate, or lay on a gurney in a hospital, it was synth loops – almost to a comical degree. I kept commenting that there was actually an intriguing story yearning to be heard under all that noise. The fear, as always, was that without a constant beat, the film would drag. The opposite was true. By breaking it up and stripping out the incessant bullshit, the film transformed to something far more captivating. Indeed I did a lot of aggressive rhythms in the action cues, but most of the score is lyrical in nature. It’s a journey.

There’s also surprising tenderness to UNKNOWN. Could you talk about the score’s more empathetic side?

Martin is in love with his wife, Liz, yet she claims not to know him. Worse yet, she’s married to a man who claims to be Martin. The score is more about what he’s going through than what’s around him. The memories of his experiences with her are what keep him focused and grounded, so he believes. Therefore I wanted a longing quality in much of the music. Aside from the main theme, there are other motifs that reflect Martin as a lost man. Later he meets another woman, Gina, with whom he forms a partnership. She has her own emotional back-story.

What’s the importance of a musical pulse to suspense thrillers, especially with UNKNOWN? And how did you want to achieve it here?

Are you asking me to rant again! There are often more ideas and concepts in thrillers than action, so the music has to take up the slack. But the mistake is thinking a beat is always the answer. I usually try to design subliminal movement with soft moving strings lines or basses so that music is moving but not in an obvious way. I call it “churning.” But there are inevitable sequences that need a propellant to keep them exciting. The car chase, for instance, was a scene that demanded, well, drive. The temp was a well-produced drum loop cue. But for some reason the scene, despite all that musical frenzy, was a drag. Watching it without the temp I realized it was really far less an action scene than one of horror. This black car is trying to run them off the road. It’s about fear. So the cue ended up being more ominous, with slamming orchestral drums and brass scoring the moments where this car is going to try to kill them. Orchestra is not always the answer, of course. It can be just as bad and cheesy as synth fusions. I guess it’s all about taste and how not to make it sound dumb.

UNKNOWN is your seventh score for producer Joel Silver after such pictures as KISS KISS BANG BANG, GOTHIKA and THE LOSERS. What’s it like working with such a notoriously demanding filmmaker, and what do you think he hears in your music that makes him keep coming back to you?

Despite that he scares me, he’s really a refreshing producer in that his musical sensibilities are rooted in the traditions of film music. Just when I think he’s going to want the flavor-of the-day score, he surprises me. He wants thematic stories told. “Melody melody!” he always says. And that’s a relief. He’s very smart musically, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can read him well. He also loves film scores of the 70s and believes things have become generic. So we share the same musical religion. When I blow it and he makes a comment – always very few words – I feel embarrassed because I immediately know he’s right, and I know what to do. He wants A LOT of music in his films, which makes it extremely challenging. The more music you write, the harder the task of keeping it fresh and evolving. You really have to plot out where the score is going. In the end of the day he’s pragmatic and supportive.

UNKNOWN is also your third movie with director Jaume Collet-Serra after HOUSE OF WAX and ORPHAN. Could you talk about your collaboration?

I love Jaume. I like that he tries not to sell out. He’s a man of even fewer words than Joel, but I get the gist of what he’s looking for based upon those words. He then gives me the freedom to come up with a musical game plan. I think Jaume understands that creative juices flow the more I’m having fun. It’s hard to be creative in a negative environment. I’m negative enough as it is for my own good. When we were finishing up Orphan he was talking about the idea of UNKNOWN, and from that moment on I really hoped I’d be able to do it, not only because the idea sounded compelling, but because Jaume’s a joy to work with.

I can’t think of a more enjoyable WTF? movie than ORPHAN. What was your reaction to the movie’s big reveal, and how did you want the music to play such a ludicrous premise without tipping over into camp, or playing it too seriously?

Ludicrous? Why, what do you mean! Well, you know, my job is to try and figure out the best way to make it feel not silly and more enthralling. No matter how I feel about the preposterousness of something, I have to get into the mindset where I take it seriously. Otherwise I’d be unable to get the music to a place that gives the scene the illusion of plausibility. Like you implied, it’s really a tricky balancing act. A little too far and it becomes parody, and not far enough and it feels less confident in its audacity. But ORPHAN’s no different from anything else in that the more you get the audience to feel for and believe in the characters, the more shit you can pull off.

This spring you also have THE RESIDENT coming out, which is the second movie after LET ME IN to represent Hammer Films’ rebirth. Could you tell us about its conversely “enclosed” score to UNKNOWN, and what it’s like being part of Hammer’s hopeful second coming?

The director Antti Jokinen said he wanted to hear things he’s “never heard before.” That both alarmed me and excited me that he may embrace out-of-the-box stuff. But the score’s mainly emotive in a screwy way. Max, The bad guy is really messed up. Of course I find those kinds of characters fascinating! There’s always more behind the darkness. I wanted a sad theme for him, which oddly made him far more disturbing. He’s a conflicted character – always the best to work with. One of my favorite scoring moments is when he’s watching Swank’s character get it on with her ex. Max’s mind is a tempest of clashing thoughts – his screws are going loose. I literally integrated clanks, rivet sounds, wood hits and weird techniques with the bass and celli while the piano played his sympathetic theme. Juliet and the film itself have a very minimalist mysterious theme that I took a chance on. The Resident wasn’t the easiest experience, however. I walked into a shit storm between the director and the producers. I tried to stay neutral and listen to what both sides wanted. It’s sort of like living at home when your parents are fighting, or worse, not talking to one another. I thought the film was going to DVD, so I’m glad it’s going to make it to the theaters in some sort of run.

No matter the story, your scores always seem to have a distinctive “voice,” especially in your use the orchestra. How would you describe your orchestrational approach?

Thanks for noticing that. I just sort of do my thing and try to divorce myself from the temp whenever possible. That just leaves me to my thoughts and my fingers on the keyboard; and it allows me to see the film objectively. Other than that, I think it’s hard to define how we do what we do. My sound isn’t conscious. It just comes out based upon my sensibilities and taste. Because I endeavor to tell everything inward going out, perhaps that’s what makes my voice. I just want to get under the surface when writing, and I relish in coming up with orchestral layers to convey moods. The orchestra is my comfort zone and inspiration. The irony is that with these recent LOW budgeted scores, much of the laborious synth work is simply to get the music to sound more orchestral or organic.

Do you prefer being a simultaneous editor and composer, or is it more creatively freeing just having to deal with the music?

I edit Bryan Singer’s films at gunpoint, as most people know. Why would any sane person leave their field for a year and half and go to editing prison and juggle two massive overlapping tasks? Therefore I’m clearly not sane. Both friends and executives have asked me if I’ve seen a psychologist about this. The only advantage is that I’m in charge along with Bryan, so there’s less creative bullshit. I also try to make a really good film to score, as it’s going to be my only one that year. I’m not sure it’s worth giving up all those scoring assignments. So to answer your questions, I much prefer just being responsible for the music. I do feel much more free.

UNKNOWN is the first, full-fledged mystery thriller you’ve scored in a while. Do you think this is the genre you will always be pulled back into after making such a splash with THE USUAL SUSPECTS? And how do you think UNKNOWN stand out among all the suspenseful films, and scores you’ve been a part of?

I really enjoy this genre as long as I’m allowed to stay true to what I do. I hope filmmakers will want to pull me back into it! Yeah, at times I did have a little SUSPECTS déjà vu when writing UNKNOWN, and it made me realize I do have a certain way with this genre, even though I may not be conscious of it. Unknown is a good mystery and I hope it’s a film people remember as a fun outing. I’m not really sure where it will stand among my other scores except that I have some proud moments among the 103 minutes of score, mainly for what the music did for a particular scene, etc. I’ll wait for the brutal film score listeners to decide, although I won’t be logging on to read them!

UNKNOWN opens this Friday. Then On March 3rd, discover the identity of UNKNOWN’s soundtrack here, and listen closely on March 29th as Ottman lurks about THE RESIDENT’s DVD apartment here.

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