The music of Valkyrie – Interview with John Ottman

We've been waiting this year for a new score by John Ottman and finally at the end of December it will come out to underscore the new movie called Valkyrie directed by his long-time collaborator Bryan Singer. This time they've produced another serious work: the film focuses on a major internal enemy of Adolf Hitler named Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise). He smuggled a bomb to the headquarters of Hitler on the 20th of July, 1944, but the assassination attempt failed and he got executed. We had an opportunity to make a quick interview with John Ottman (who also was onboard as an editor on this project) about this work.

You have worked together with Bryan many times. Could you tell us more about this partnership? How did you meet with him?

We met at film school over 20 years ago. It's hard to believe it's been that long! I was helping a director friend of mine on a thesis film at USC, and I met Bryan on the set; he was a production assistant on the film. I ended up re-editing the film, so Bryan got to see me deconstruct the original version of the movie and re-tell the story in the editing room. From there we did a short film together (I co-directed), then I edited and scored his first feature (Public Access) which won the Sundance Film festival in 1993. After that we put together The Usual Suspects. We have a partnership where he trusts my instincts. In the early years we sort of formed each other's sensibilities and "taste". So there aren't a lot of conceptual disagreements. It's boiled down to a lot of trust where he often lets me alone to bring forward my vision of the scenes he shoots.

Your most recent film together is Valkyrie. What can you tell us about the score? What was the first idea, how did you start, how did you build up the mood and the instrumentation of this music?

Upon first reading the script, and even in constructing the story in the editing room, my initial thoughts were to be very spare with the music. We didn't want a glossy Winds of War Hollywood film. We wanted it internal and realistic. But later we realized that Valkyrie is, at its heart, a suspense thriller. After I cut the film together (with no music), I found that the score needed become the very pulse of the film – and a lot of it! It's rarely overt, but rather subliminal and throbbing. It eventually transitions to an emotional finale, which was tough to do without being obvious about it. The score is initially more modern in nature to go against the expected type of music for this genre. It's a blend of orchestra with subtle synthesizer tracks to provide a more contemporary edge. The orchestra is light on the brass, with no trumpets. There are some massive percussive sections, but I didn't want to use typical snare drums for the military. Instead I layered roto toms, slapsticks, bass drum, taiko, a log dropped on the floor, and tree branches to create a cacophonous pounding effect. As the film progresses, the orchestra becomes more traditional and emotional. 

How much music did you write and which orchestra did you use for the recording?

There was about 100 minutes of music performed by the Seattle Symphony. The end title piece was masterfully performed by the The Rundfunkchor Berlin with Mezzo Soprano: Sylke Schwab. On the heels of an emotional conclusion, end title music has great ramifications on how a film will be remembered as the audience exits the theater. There had to be something different from the scene preceding it, reflective and somehow uplifting. A purely instrumental approach didn't seem to rise to the occasion to convey what the film was about. I realized that a choral piece would stand apart as a poignant resonance. But what would the choir be saying? Any lyrics would have to be an allegory to the film. A friend found the poem, Wanderers Nachtiled II by the classic German poet, Goethe. The poem talks of birds in the forest falling silent, with the last phrase being, "soon you too will be at rest". The simplicity of the lyrics gave me chills. I don't speak German; so adapting the lyrics to the melody was difficult, requiring some German language scholars to ensure it was making sense. As it turned out, eighth notes had to be added and quarter notes stretched to accommodate the lyrics correctly, mere hours before the recording session.

During the editing of Valkyrie, did you already know what kind of musical approach you were going to use for specific scenes? Is it helpful to you as a composer to edit the movie as well?

From the very beginning I think we were all on the same page to make sure the score wasn't cliché. But I was concerned, given this sentiment, that I wouldn't be allowed to integrate my style of film scoring which is rooted from the sensibilities of masters like Goldsmith. I really wanted my natural instincts to blend in with the modern concept. Fortunately, I realized that all four "filmmakers" on the film –- Bryan Singer, myself, Chris McQuarrie (the writer) and Tom Cruise – worship the films of the 70s. It was the heyday of film music for our generation; therefore I was allowed to do what comes naturally to me and avoid synthesized drones, and instead push the envelope by telling a little musical story. It's not always an advantage to be the editor because of the limited time I get to actually compose. But there were so many editorial changes during the writing of the score (and after) that it was good I was there to make sure the music was always working. Additionally, I was scheduled to record the score before we finished shooting additional scenes we hadn't got around to shooting, such as the scene in Africa. So I had to read the script pages and compose a long cue with multiple phrases to edit into the film. There was also a scene in a church that had to be composed before it was shot.

What's your favorite moment of the birth of the music and why?

I'd say when the real choir was added to the end title piece – it just became orgasmic. We were in Seattle recording the orchestra, but in the early morning, we had the choir recording session in Germany. So I had to get on my laptop to attend the session via ichat. The problem was that there was no internet connection in my hotel room. So, outside the hotel on a cold patio, I "attended" the session. But I couldn't hear it very well. When we got the tracks delivered to LA for the music mix, I couldn't believe how beautiful it sounded. Those Germans can sing!

To know more about John Ottman's work, please visit the composer's official website.


Special thanks to Melissa McNeil
December 20th, 2008

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