OSCARS 2019 EXCLUSIVE: Oscar Nominee John Ottman Talks BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

With so many "intriguing" stories - lack of a host, format changes, etc. - centered around Hollywood's biggest night, many folks are unfortunately losing sight of the event's core mission: to highlight the work of its artists.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with award-winning composer/editor, John Ottman, who is nominated, this year, for Achievement in Editing with the biopic, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.  In our conversation together, we chatted about: the daunting prospect of working on a biopic, his process working on the production, the exclusion of editing in the televised broadcast of the awards show (at the time of the interview), and much more.... 

BT: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. 

JO: Sure!

BT: I'll start first by asking, "Was it daunting to learn that you would be working on this project - especially considering the iconic, revered status this band holds for fans?

JO: Absolutely. I'd say there was "a weight on my shoulders" for many reasons working on this film. (Smiling)

BT: (Smirking)

JO: When you walk into a film like this - particularly, one about such an iconic person of such an iconic band, who is held in such high regard - you feel obligated to do justice to him (Mercury). Aside from that, with original band members, Brian May and Roger Taylor, still being around, you had to make to sure not piss them off - with how they're portrayed in the concerts or how Freddie is portrayed (since they're very protective of him). So there were a lot of things to worry about....Besides, I'm a natural worrier (Smiling)

BT: (Laughing)

JO: [In addition to all of that] the film had to do so many different things in the span of 2+ hours. It had to service: Freddie's life, the band's life, Queen's music...All the while, still being interpreted as a celebration of Freddie Mercury. So it was a lot of things to juggle - as most biopics are - in the span of time that the studio was willing...(Laughing)  

...to allow us to have.  I, for example, would have loved to have added another two or three minutes [to do some other things], but "if you walk away with most of what you wanted, then you're successful."  I'd say, we (those of us working on the film) got about 90 % of what we wanted.

BT: Okay.

JO: As always, any film is a give and take with different creatives.

BT: Okay, alright. Now, considering what you just said, you are in a more unique position than most editors, because you're also a composer; in fact, you worked on the music for this film.  Therefore is safe to assume that you were involved a lot earlier in this film's process than what is perhaps the norm with other editors? If so, did the choice of songs featured in the film ever change or was it always decided from the get go?

JO: I came on two weeks before the film started shooting.  So, a lot of the major set pieces were already decided upon...Obviously, in the end [of the production process], timelines got juggled and the story [of the film] was retold in the editing room. For instance, the two concerts [featured] had their order flipped. Also, to underscore certain sequences, I decided to use some Queen music in places where it wasn't planned, such as "Who Wants To Live Forever" when Freddie's gets his diagnosis.  

More specifically, I used this track of Queen to score that scene, and got really effective vocal tracks, so that I didn't have to do much [music] scoring.  It was a sacrifice [not doing much music], but I feel it was the better choice to use Queen's music than to do a score, because it would have dated the film as a "biography of the week." 

My goal was to use music in a way to make the film timeless; therefore even in the scenes where the music would have been underscored, I used opera [music] because Freddie Mercury listened to it.  

BT: Gotcha. Now, in discussing your further your role as both composer and editor, is early involvement with a film always the norm for you - in terms of of your process?

JO: Yeah [it's typical].  With the X-MEN films, for instance, I needed to come on early, to work with the pre-vis (visual effects) artists and the animated storyboards of the sequences that were being shot. When doing those films (X-MEN and other like it), it's kind of fly by your pants situations when they're greenlit, because you're usually not ready - the film get greenlit, then its shooting (even though the script may be finished).  Therefore it can be a hardship on the pre-visualization team and every other part of the movie, because they (understandably) want to know what the hell it is that they're doing or preparing for (i.e. what sets need to be built, what costumes are required, etc.). [So again, in the case of those movies] I come on and design those sequences with the pre-vis artists.  

This film (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY) , of course, wasn't that kind of movie. For example, the only pre-vis moment involved going through the bus at the concert...(Laughing) Other than that, it was basically old school - the movie is shot and the editor figures it out in the editing room. Now, as you mentioned before, normally I edit and score a film; however, after carrying both hats on X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, I told Bryan [Singer] (the film's director) that I would never do that again! (Laughing) The reason being that it was just becoming too much for me [to do both].  For example, I think lost 25 pounds - in a bad way - [working] on APOCALYPSE - writing 120 minutes of music to entire film....It's just something that I can't do anymore.  

Then, of course, he (Singer) presents BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY [to me to work on], and how do you F*#KING say no to that?! (Smiling)

BT: (Laughing)

JO: So, the plan was - as usual - to [aside from working on the film as editor] also score it.  Besides, I took the challenge on because I figured that it did have a score, there would not be much score anyway. Then, as I took the project on, about three quarters of the way through production, I decided that it would be a mistake to score the film.  Producers, Graham King and Dennis O'Sullivan, who worked with me in post [production] agreed with me.....So (Sigh), I took my name out of the title sequence as composer...(Laughing) 

BT: (Laughing) Nice.

JO: (Laughing)

BT:  Now, while we're on the topic of things being cut, recently it was announced by the Academy to cut the editing and cinematography categories out of the televised cut of The Oscars - in the efforts of condensing the time...

JO: Yep. (Smiling)  Just the basic core [of filmmaking]...(Laughing) 

BT: Right?!  It's honestly so weird that this decision was made regarding something that is so intrinsically apart of filmmaking - editing as well as cinematography. 

JO: I feel that Cuaron said it best (paraphrasing), "there have been films without sound...masterpieces without people even, but there has never been a film...

BT: ...without editing. (Laughing) 

JO: ...a photographer and an editor.  I mean, they are by definition film itself. So, I'm so glad that he (Cuaron), [Guillermo] del Toro, and others have piled on [to comment and perhaps help change this decision].  However, even if nothing is done about this decision, the silver lining is that it has brought about awareness to how these crafts are.  As a matter of fact, it's something that the Academy is supposed to promote and educate on. For example, I remember that one year - many years ago - I was horrified when there was an opportunity - during an Oscar telecast - to explain to people what film editing is and nothing was done....because no one really knows what film editing is.  Most assume that it's a just a person who comes into a film - that magically go assembled - and removes things.  

BT: Yeah, no...(Laughing)

JO: The word edit implies "remove," I think, for people. However, what folks don't realize is that they're the architect of the movie.

[Going back to the opportunity missed by Oscars] If they took the opportunity to show people "under the hood" [of this this craft], I feel people would be interested - in just a two minute segment - to know what it's like to edit a film, what that means. Instead, that year (I'm referring to) there was a "tap dance" number to explain film editing. That moment horrified me, because it goes back to the fact that - The Academy, being a little bit of a victim here - ABC- the network - is overlord. Ninety seven percent of The Academy's money is given to them by ABC - based upon its telecast.  Therefore ABC is the only turning the screens on to The Academy and pressuring them to do whatever they can to shorten the show.  Now, the decision that The Academy came up with, of course, is not a good decision, but - while not defending them - they were faced with a hard decision. Since they (The Academy) didn't want to eliminate any of it categories, so in order to protect all the categories, they thought of this scheme in which they would remove the live broadcast for these categories.  Yes, we're (those of us in those chopped categories) told that we will be on TV - you'll be taped and apart of the broadcast),  it is insulting because it inevitably lessen those categories [not televised] in relation to the others [that are televised].  

Its really about the nominees being given "their moment."  More specifically, "the walk to the podium" is a moment for that person and the labor they gave as well as "their speech" - which, by the way, is edited.  Now, if The Academy or ABC, I should say, could ensure that the speeches would not be edited down (as long as they stayed within the time frame that it's given) then I would feel a bit better about the decision - not completely, of course...

BT: (Laughing)

JO: ...but even that has not been promised.  As a matter of fact, if anyone says anything critical about the decision they will be edited - whereas one wouldn't be edited if it was live....Anyway, I don't know what's going to happen, but it's really a manifestation of the desire to turn it (The Oscars) into an entertainment show when it really is supposed to be a show honoring those who have worked so hard [in all the categories]. 

BT: Right, exactly.

JO: So, I think, in the future, it should be on Netflix possibly - they do have a contract with ABC...It (the format change) shouldn't be done under the pressure of this ratings bulls&*t.  Also, I really don't want to say this, but the difference in time of editing out these categories is maybe 7-10 (as most)...

(Continuing) I don't think we need to hear a speech from the head of The Academy or the accountants who come out and explain the voting...We don't need all that stuff.  I don't know if they're going to do it this year, maybe they wont, but the fact that there having no MC saves time as well.  So, it will be interesting...(Laughing)  

BT: (Smiling) That it will, that it will...Sorry, I had to ask.

JO: Yeah, man...

BT:  I mean, I'm in the same camp as you where I remember saying (when I first heard it): "Are you serious?!" (Laughing)

Alright, before I let you go, I wanted to revisit your mention earlier of working on the X-MEN films, because as you know, a little studio was acquired and all its said [superhero] properties.....

JO:  Oh, yeah!

BT: ...properties, by the way, that you were involved in, will now be under a different house.

JO:  Yeah.  

BT: So, with that being said, have there been any conversations about keeping some of the same team [from the 20th Century superhero films] to work on the [superhero] iterations (being rebooted into Disney's MCU) down the pipeline?

JO: I haven't been privy to any myself. I mean, given the course of making the film there was a lot of anxiety and sadness over at Fox when this [Singer matter] was occurring, so I wanted to give it (the film) "a shot in the arm" for the people at Fox. In the middle of shooting, for example, with "all the stuff" going on, Fox was like: 'What the hell is going on over there? We got to see something..."

So, I sent them an early assembly [of the film], and they were so elated - tears streaming - that it gave "a huge shot to the studio" (regarding their belief in the film) and gave them a lot of confidence going forward.    

BT: Oh sorry, this is in reference to the superhero teams of the XMEN and FANTASTIC FOUR joining the MCU - since you edited and provided the score for many entries in both franchises. 

JO: Oh, right!! Well, it is weird for me to not be involved in them now.  After working on a movie, you always have a semblance of ownership over it or connection to it, so to suddenly have that severed...I mean, I was busy on BOHEMIAN RHADSODY, so I couldn't have done DARK PHOENIX...

Maybe I should have....

(Laughing) Anyway, it will interesting to see it (and others), but also a little sad in a way, because you want to be apart of that universe that continues on. 

BT: Okay, sounds good. Well, John thanks again for your time, congrats on your nomination, and I look forward to speaking with you about your next project.  

JO: Cool, thanks!

**NOTE: The categories mentioned in the interview as being excluded will now be apart of the broadcast.

The Oscars airs tonight on ABC at 8pm EST/5PM PST.

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