While there may be a big-budget blockbuster on the outside of X-Men: Days of Future Past, there’s a very personal story at its creative heart. It marks the eighth big-screen collaboration between Bryan Singer as director and John Ottman pulling the rare double duty as both composer and film editor. In this new interview with ComingSoon.net, Ottman looks back on a partnership that has lasted for more than two decades, turning out films like The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Superman Returns.
Oddly enough, the only one of Singer’s features that didn’t have Ottman doing both music and editing was the original X-Men. Ottman was, at the time, making his own directorial debut with Urban Legends: Final Cut. The lure of X2, however, brought him back (and, as he explains below, is what really made him an “X-Men” fan). That means that, not unlike Wolverine’s own journey through time in Days of Future Past, Ottman is, with this new film, revisiting a world he helped define more than a decade ago.
“It’s a way for us to go back into the franchise we love and sort of set things the way we like it,” he says of finding a way to unite a massive continuity that already spans seven feature films (and has both an eighth, X-Men: Apocalypse and a ninth, an untitled Wolverine film) already set with release dates.)
Ottman also discusses his and Singer’s love of “Star Trek,” its tendency to be homaged in the X-Men films and how much fun he had getting to play around with it in the X-Universe.
ComingSoon.net: It’s rather unusual to be both the editor on a project as well as the composer, but you’ve done it on a couple of different projects now with Bryan Singer. How did that start?
John Ottman: You mean, ‘Why would anyone do that?’ (laughs)
CS: Well, I know it started with “Public Access.”
Ottman: That’s when all the blackmail began! (laughs) Actually, that’s not true. The blackmail began on “Usual Suspects” because on “Public Access” I was just editing the film when the composer dropped out in the 11th hour when we had a Sundance deadline to meet. I said, “I should score the movie!” because I had been dabbling in that as a hobby. I wrote the score and then people noticed the score and the editing. When we did “Usual Suspects,” I said, “I like scoring films! I don’t want to edit!” He said, “Hell no. You’re not going to score the film unless you’re the editor.” So that continues to this day.
CS: It sounds like you definitely prefer being the composer.
Ottman: I prefer doing film scores, yeah. I can wake up and stay in my bathrobe. Do two or three months on a film. Spend some time in-between. Make some residuals, which editors don’t make. However, having said that, after I do that for awhile, I do feel the itch for having control over something. It’s funny. Film composers used to be these luminary figures that would descend from among the clouds and do a movie because there was a huge amount of respect given them. Now that you have Garage Band and your neighbor’s son has a synthesizer at home, I think the value of a good composer is basically in the same category as craft service these days. (Laughs) That can be frustrating and when I’m the editor of a film I feel like I’m in control of something. I can make something that I couldn’t do as a composer.
CS: “Days of Future Past” is very much a homecoming for the franchise and I’m curious how you feel about that extending personally, returning to a world that you first entered with “X2.”
Ottman: Oh, yeah. It’s definitely a homecoming for me and, I think, for Bryan. I look back very, very fondly on my experience with “X-Men 2.” It was a very exciting time for me. It was a huge, huge movie to take on, but it was also a very pleasant experience. There wasn’t a lot of studio interference on that film. Everything seemed to go relatively drama-free. I remember looking back very fondly upon it. In the process of doing that movie, I just became such an X-Men fan. I really hadn’t been before. Up until I did “X-Men 2,” I didn’t really know anything about the characters. I started researching them and figuring out what their histories were. Just by that alone, I really got into it. Once I had invested myself as both the editor and the composer on that film, I just became immersed in that world. Then that combined with the actors playing the X-Men! I always said, “You could have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen recite the phone book and it will be completely fascinating.” Obviously, it was a no-brainer and I was excited for many, many reasons to go back to it.
CS: Is it a similar creative mindset editing versus scoring a scene?
Ottman: Well, both is telling a story. There’s a lot more agony in editing a film, because you’re just dealing with every conceivable problem and loose end that a film can have when you’re making a movie. Bryan and I have a very great relationship. He gives me a lot of authority in asking for shots when he goes to shoot things and storyboard and so forth. I tend to be a little more involved than another editor might be. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure to keep the thing together at the seams and get back to LA from wherever we’re shooting. I’ve got an invested interest in having a film that works, because I’ve got to write a score at some point and I don’t want a problem child on my hands. Like I said, when we’re shooting a film, it’s in my best interest to anticipate every conceviable problem we might have, because it’s all going to blow up in my face later. This one was probably the biggest challenge I could possibly have because of the intricate nature of this movie, especially in the case of time travel.
CS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like writing music for two very distinct time periods would be a lot of fun while the actual editing between two time periods would be a logistical nightmare.
Ottman: Exactly! You’re exactly right. I’d like to say that the music is fun and it would be if I had more time to do it. That’s the problem when I do these double duties. There’s such a massive overlap between the two that it sort of takes the fun out of any of it because, while I’m trying to write the score, there’s a billion frayed ends on the edit that I’ve got to tend to all the time. I’m never really able to just go into a room, shut the door and say, “I’m going to go write the score now.” It’s a pretty crazy time for me. The time travel thing is really difficult. It’s like a Whack-a-mole game. You solve one problem and you create another. Making a time travel film is as big a paradox as time travel itself.
CS: Did you have a particular method for differentiating the scores between the past and the future?
Ottman: On this one, it’s a bit more obvious because, once you go into the ’70s — or the time zone of the past — there’s certain instrumentation that you can bring out to reflect that without being goofy or overt about it. Of course, with the ’70s, I used a lot of analog synthesizers and a lot of guitar and electric piano and so for. I did infuse that — if not subtlety — into the score for the ’70s. The future was then played more dramatically and straight. A lot more orchestrally.
CS: There’s also a couple instances of pop music. Is that something that falls into your purview as composer?
Ottman: Oh, absolutely! It was a thrill to do that, because I think it’s the first Bryan Singer film with pop songs. I always say, even though I’m a film composer, “If you can do it through source, do it through source.” That’s why Tarantino film soundtracks are so brilliant, because 99% of the time, he’ll find source. It just works brilliantly as long as it’s not source that’s forced. It used to be that contemporary films would incorporate modern songs to fill the soundtrack album and the film immediately becomes dated and you can’t watch it ten years later. If it’s used in a timeless fashion — like “The Big Chill” or a Tarantino film or a period piece — then source can always do more than a score can do. I endeavored to put source music in where I could in the ’70s. It also just makes it more fun and it puts you immediately into that time period.
CS: One of the impressive things about “Days of Future Past” is that not only does it work within itself, but it actually seems to go out of its way to fix continuity glitches in the expanded X-Men movie universe.
Ottman: Yeah, it’s a way for us to go back into the franchise we love and sort of set things the way we like it. Time travel is great in that way. You can actually fix some things.
CS: There’s an overt reference to it in this film, but “Star Trek” is something that is very prevalent throughout the “X-Men” franchise, particularly “X2.” Is that fandom something that you share in common with Bryan?
Ottman: Oh, absolutely! Probably even moreso! I’m the huge Trekkie. We both find “Star Trek II” to be one of our favorite movies from a writing standpoint and in terms of character development and the sort of romance of it. That was really a template for “X-Men 2,” that kind of storytelling. We really looked to it as a template or a sort of place to turn for inspiration. I’m a die hard, die hard “Star Trek” fan from the original series on. Of course, when we were doing time travel, the first thing I thought of was that episode where Kirk says, “We can go back in time.” I made sure to resurrect that episode and put that in the movie.
CS: “The Naked Time”!
Ottman: “The Naked Time”! Exactly! I got one of our apprentice editors into the original series. I said, “You’ve got to find this episode, ‘The Naked Time.'” He said, “I watched that episode! It was cool!” I said, “Well, here’s a bunch more you can watch!” He became a fan and then I became horrified that he had never seen “Star Trek II” and I made him go watch that.
CS: I’ve always suspected that the “X2” ending with Jean Grey narrating the speech about mutants was a nod to Leonard Nimoy reading the famous opening monologue at the end of “Wrath of Khan.”
Ottman: Absolutely! You’re right. The score, too, was very much a nod to that, too. I’m very glad to hear you caught on to that.
CS: The other element of “Days of Future Past” that seems like a tricky thing to manage in the editing room is the sheer scale of it. You’ve got such a big mutant ensemble spread across two time periods. How do you go about making sure everyone’s favorite character gets their moment?
Ottman: Well, that was pretty difficult and I knew it would be a problem. It was a massive task and we had to actually cut down some of those moments, which was particularly painful when there were characters that didn’t get a whole lot in the first place. But, for the good of the movie and its pacing, we had to do it. We had to make some very painful cuts in that regard… There were certain points where we were kind of adding stuff as it went along and then it got to a point where certain scenes didn’t make sense.
CS: We already know that “X-Men: Apocalypse” is on the way. How does it change things knowing in advance that there will be another X-Men film?
Ottman: Well, it makes me assess my personal life in a different way. (Laughs) I ask myself, “Do I really want to take any more gigs before jumping back into that again?” It’s such an overwhelming task. I think my knees got weak knowing they were already planning a sequel. It’s exciting. This film almost feels like the beginning of something else.
CS: To what degree does this bigger fictional universe affect plans for any one specific film? Does the fact that Hugh Jackman is appearing as Wolverine in solo films mean that there are other creative forces saying, “Okay, you can have him, but you can’t have him do this or this or this because we’ve got plans down the road”?
Ottman: No, I think we’re all making this up as we go along. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly where this is all going. I think that whatever we do now with a character dictates what the character is going to do later.
CS: Do you think you’ll ever get back in the director’s chair?
Ottman: You know, if I could split myself into three people, each of us would be doing something else. One would be developing a film to direct. One would still be writing scores. It’s all about time. I would love to develop another film to direct. The problem is, it takes so much time that I’m then giving up work that I can’t pass up. Another “X-Men” film comes along and what am I going to say, “No, I’m developing some little movie”? It’s really a conundrum for me. Every time I try to mentally change gears and say, “I’m going to try and direct a little film and just get out of a f–ing room for a change,” one of these movies starts again. The process continues. It really just means having the guts to, one of these, say no to the dangling carrot and going off and just having some fun. But then it’s “X-Men”! How do you say no to that?
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens in theaters tonight!