: (updated 2009-07-04)
From an early age in San Jose, California, John Ottman began writing and recording radio plays on cassette tapes. John would perform many characters with his voice (and some sound effects), and called upon his neighborhood friends as extra cast members. Film music would always play a dominating role in the stories, many of them written to accommodate his favorite scores.
By the fourth grade, John was playing the clarinet and continued doing so throughout high school. But his real concentration turned from his audio productions to film. He turned his parents' garage into a movie studio, where multiple sets were interchangeable to accommodate a production - invariably some sort of science fiction film. By high school, his films evolved to hour-long productions complete with large sets and lavish scores edited together from his favorite soundtracks. Once again, much of his favorite film music often inspired the scenes he shot.
His efforts gained him local attention on television and the paper (San Jose Mercury), with special attention given to a thriller he shot, this time in his parents' home. A spaceship set wasn't needed, but plenty of dry ice was the order, however.
USC film school became his next stop, where, after already having been a veteran of numerous Super-8 films, he excelled. Ottman received accolades for how well he worked with actors and for how masterfully he edited their performances. It was in this directing course that a graduate filmmaker recognized John's talent and asked him to re-edit his thesis film. John modified the story from raw footage and also designed the film's extensive sound. The film, 'Summer Rain', ended up winning the Student Academy Award. On that film, a production assistant named Bryan Singer noticed what John had done, and befriended him.
While editing films, doing sound design, and holding down a full-time job at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, John built a make-shift music studio in his house with used midi equipment. Ottman re-scored his friends' student films as practice, and as an experiment to see if he could score films. Realizing he had found a true passion, (aside from directing which he chose to put off for a while), he began scoring industrials, short films and writing pieces of music he hoped he could record with an orchestra someday.
Bryan Singer, only knowing John's editing (unaware that John stayed awake into the wee hours each night learning midi gear and composing), asked him to edit a short film starring Ethan Hawke - a childhood friend of Singer's. John ended up co-directing the film (Lion's Den), as well as editing and doing the sound design. During this time, John still held down a full-time at job a marketing association in Hollywood called Promax. Seven years would pass before finally being able to make a living soley in the industry.
On Singer's first feature, Public Access, John edited the picture for three months in the evenings and weekends while at his job at Promax. His effective sequences and editorial montages became the highlight of the picture. Additionally in the eleventh hour, the film lost its composer, and John's time had come. After having heard John's early work, and sensing his passion for scoring the film he had created in the editing room, Singer (leerily) asked Ottman to write the score. Public Access received the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, with the score and editing being applauded in reviews. The synthesis John created between music and image had been born.
With The Usual Suspects, and all future Singer films, John held to his promise that, despite his scoring dreams, he would commit to the months required to also edit Bryan's films. The Usual Suspects released him from his 9-5 job, (a whopping $1,000 a week for editing) and the leery producers gave the go-ahead to have him both edit and write the score for the complicated picture. Through sound and picture montage, (edited in John's living room on an old Steinbeck flatbed machine and a splicer) coupled with his musical vision, The Usual Suspects received widespread acclaim, invariably mentioning the romantic score and inspired editing. John was nominated by the American Cinema Editors and won the British Academy Awards for his editing, as well as a Saturn Award for his score to the film.
After Suspects, actor/director Ben Stiller hired John to score The Cable Guy, which was John's opportunity to weave in his distinctive style within a comedic context. Before The Cable Guy was even done mixing, John was already hard at work writing a huge score for the film, Snow White: A Tale of Terror with Sigourney Weaver. Apt Pupil, Singer's next project, was on the horizon, so John was declared unavailable for months as the film continued to be delayed and eventually fell through before going to another studio. But just before Apt Pupil was to finally begin filming, director John Badham hired John to write a masterful score to his film, Incognito. Incognito offered John a rare blank canvas on which to compose large sequences, some five minutes in length, with no dialog and very little sound design. A film about the mastery of art forgery, John brought film music to a refreshing high in many of the long sequences, blending his neo-classic musical style with the baroque and classical styles of the past. To this day, it's one of John's proudest achievements.
As he finished recording his score for Incognito with the Seattle Symphony, Apt Pupil was already filming. John dove into Apt late as film was piling up to the ceiling. He was faced with a very difficult story to keep interesting editorially. As editor, John created a staggering blend of multi-layered imagery and startling montage. And with his rich, psychological and histrionic score, he created a provocative musical and visual journey through the minds of the film's two characters, played by Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro.
Roland Joffe's film, Goodbye Lover, was a strange thriller that needed to keep the audience intrigued while at the same time letting them know that the film's rye sense of humor was to be embraced. John wove a fine balance between thriller and intelligent humor, replacing a score by John Barry which had played the story too straight. It was with Goodbye Lover that John discovered his quirky side of film music: one he fell into very comfortably.
John had forged a relationship with the people of Phoenix Pictures during Apt Pupil. After scoring Lake Placid for the same studio, Phoenix approached John to direct Urban Legends: Final Cut. Having planned to write his dream score for X-Men for long-time collaborator Bryan Singer, Ottman was faced with a hard decision. But X-Men was scheduled for a December 2000 release and it was too early for them to hold John to the production which was phasing in and out of the green light/red light status. When John signed to UL2, X-Men green-lit and later pushed their release to July 2000. The collision of schedules pre-empted his scoring the film. Urban Legends: Final Cut marks yet another record-setting feat by Ottman. This time he accomplished triple duties, stylishing directing, editing and also scoring a studio film, opening at number one at the box office. He recorded the score with the Munich Symphony Orchestra.
When Danny Elfman was unavailable for the new Fantasy Island TV series, John jumped at the chance to keep exploring his sordid quirky side, earning him an Emmy nomination for scoring the pilot. About the same time, director Steve Miner was looking to for a Hitchcockian score for his film, Halloween H20. John relished in adapting John Carpenter's original synthesized theme into a grand-scale piece with a Bernard Hermann flair.
Bubble Boy was a balls-out comedy about a young man who was born without an immune system and has lived his life within a plastic bubble in his bedroom. The funny score managed to weave empathetic themes in the lightest pieces of music. Tracks range from tender and poignant, to twangy and bopping, then sad but triumphant.
Following Bubble Boy Ottman began work on Eight Legged Freaks. The film follows the residents of a rural mining town as they discover that an unfortunate chemical spill has caused hundreds of little spiders to mutate overnight to the size of SUVs. A self-proclaimed 'sci-fi freak' Ottman jumped at the opportunity to score this larger-than-life genre film. Ottman offered a highly accomplished energetic orchestral score which was playful and peculiar, indicating to audiences that this was meant to be a fun ride and not to be taken too seriously. John showed his particular knack at managing to slyly keep a wink in his music's eye without being obvious.
Pumpkin interested John because he loved the script. He soon found out that there was no budget to record a score and that they needed to dub the film in about three weeks. He was on a break during some re-shooting on Bubble Boy. So he resigned himself to living on caffeine and 4 hours of sleep per night for the next three weeks. His music for Pumpkin brilliantly rode one the finest lines John had to ride. The film was about tortured love. Its dark yet moving tones worked perfectly. If too sappy, scenes between a spoiled sorority girl and a retarded boy would be laughable, yet if not emotional enough, the music would wrongly convey some unintentional subtext. As eclectic as the score was, it provided both humanity and irony to the film.
Despite a very small window of time, he took on the project of Brother's Keeper, producing a synth score in one week.Brother's Keeper is about a female detective (Jeanne Tripplehorn) brought out of emotional leave to hunt down a serial killer who ends up being her brother. Ottman was interested in doing a straightforward thriller. The fact that John Badham was the director was icing on the cake for John, given that Badham was one of his favorite people.
Coinciding with Eight Legged Freaks Ottman took on Point Of Origin, a twisting psychological thriller about a serial arsonist and his terrifying six-year crime spree. Ottman responds well to stories that delve into the mysteries of a single human psyche, all the way back to Public Access and as recently as Apt Pupil and even Superman Returns. For Tom Sigel, Singer's DP, Point of Origin served as his directorial debut. Ottman's seductively mysterious score incorporated a jazzy piano motif and odd percussion cleverly featuring a typewriter return and keys to reflect the writer within the arsonist.
Ottman's idea behind his next film, Trapped, was not to score overtly 'evil' or obviously 'suspenseful.' Instead Ottman felt that more effective suspense would be created through reminding the audience of the bond between mother (Charlize Theron) and child (Dakota Fanning). A little-known score with a small orchestra, the music offered a beautiful theme reflecting familial love and yearning.
Once every couple years, the overwhelming task of both editing and scoring a Bryan Singer film confronts John. For X-Men 2, John did the job that took 5 editors on X-Men 1, and wrote the heralded score for the picture. This was the first time John had tackled both tasks on such a monstrous production. There were about four weeks for him to write 95 minutes of music for a 100 piece orchestra, as well as constantly being torn away from his writing to attend to the myriad of editorial post-production duties as editor.
After X2, John took a break. Joel Silver found John for Gothika. It had been a few films since writing a horror score, so John was inspired by the material. When he realized it was actually more a psychological story, he was even more excited by it and even did a 15 minute demo to picture to get the job. With Gothika, there was no temp score, and John feverishly wrote the score as they would finish editing each reel. He would then present his mock-ups of the score mixed in the Avid as the editor presented the reel to Joel Silver. Joel got an opportunity to pre-view the actual score the same time he was seeing the cuts. This began a wonderful collaborative relationship with Joel Silver.
Next was the action thriller, Cellular. Dean Devlin, who had hit it off with John on Eight Legged Freaks, was the producer. Cellular's post production schedule got extended, so during that time John agreed to write the main theme to Imaginary Heroes, an independent film written and directed by X2 writer Dan Harris. There wasn't time to write the score, so John's friend, Deborah Lurie, adapted his theme and scored the film. John then delivered a heart-stopping action score for Cellular utilizing the full battery of the orchestra, as well as a creative use of electronic phone sounds woven in the score. The most challenging part of the project was keeping an emotional connection between two main characters played by Kim Bassinger and Chris Evans, who are never in the same space.
Before Cellular was finished, Joel Silver contracted John to score Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Robert Downy Junior and Val Kilmer) and House of Wax. The timing worked out, and John began writing one of his favorite scores to date, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kiss Kiss is a tongue and cheek noir mystery by Shane Black. John gave the score a retro-60's edge blended with a seductively mysterious use of the orchestra. The score also gave John a chance to shine in terms of writing sensitive music for the film's heroine, Harmony. The end result was an exciting amalgam of styles. The main titles were animated to his main theme and is one of his most enjoyable title sequences to watch and hear.
Just as John was preparing for House of Wax, he got an unexpected assignment for Hide and Seek, starring Dakota Fanning and Robert DiNero. The timing worked out in that House of Wax had pushed a few weeks, and John delved into an intense few weeks of writing a challenging psychological score for Hide and Seek that had to keep an imaginary character who is never seen scary and alive for the audience. It also had to simultaneously make the audience ask themselves questions about the other characters in the film via an intelligent use of 'schizophrenic' music.
Next, House of Wax was ready to be scored, and Joel wanted a 'big gothic score' for this teen slasher. So John delivered. He assembled a huge orchestra in Seattle, creating dense music rich with pipe organ and choir. John then did a quickie Wendy's ad for the director of House of Wax, Jaume Sera, starring some raccoons hi-jacking a car to get some late night fast food.
When John read the script to Fantastic Four he waged his own campaign to get on the film, as it was exactly what he'd been looking for in terms of tone. He would get a chance to emerge from the darkness of X2 and let his hair down writing a 'fun' comic book super-hero score with plenty of heart. About the same time he found out from director Bryan Singer that Bryan had decided not to do X3, and instead do Superman Returns. John was disappointed that he wouldn't get to write a sequel to his X2 score, and the looming task of the editing and scoring Superman haunted him. The moment the baton was set down for Fan 4, John was on a plane to Australia, where he was already a few weeks behind editing Superman Returns. A year later, John delivered an epic, tear-jerking and spine-tingling score, cleverly peppering in nods to the original Williams music within the two hours of original score he had to write.
As soon as John finished up Superman Returns, he was asked to edit and score a Hitachi commercial for famed director Jean Paul Goude. Soon thereafter, Joel Silver asked John to score The Visiting (currently renamed The Invasion), a body-snatchers incarnation starring Nicole Kidman. Not completed, John's vision is a strange score heavy with tailor made synthesizer textures blended with orchestra. And finally John gets to fulfill his fantasy of writing a sequel to his own music when he begins writing the score for Fantastic Four 2 sometime in January 2006. John has also been commissioned to write a piece for the Young Musician's Foundation, which John supports. His piece, based upon one of his first compositions called The Forest Suite, will be performed by the Young Musicians Foundation orchestra in mid-April of 2006.
Biography by Janice Lester. Last updated 11/10/2006