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John Ottman on Urban Legend: Final Cut

Interview by Jason Comerford


JC: How did you get involved with the sequel to Urban Legend?

JO: Well, I had done Lake Placid with Phoenix Pictures, and I did Apt Pupil with them, and they got to watch me work on a movie from the ground up, so I got to have a relationship with them over a few years. I went into a casual meeting with them, and out of the blue they whipped this script out, and said "Would you like to direct this?" I said, "Oh, well, what is it?" They said it was Urban Legend 2. I reacted to it like you might react to a Christmas gift your grandmother gives you. I wasn't sure how to take it, because I did want to direct, but I planned to do it after X-Men. So things never work out how you plan them.

JC: Had they seen a demo reel of yours?

JO: Well, they saw me mold difficult dailies, on Apt Pupil, into an artistically successful film. They got the gist that I was a filmmaker at heart. They saw how overly involved I was with the process. Even though Lake Placid wasn't the greatest film, they thought the score really helped the movie. So they felt like, "This is our guy." Also, during the making of Lake Placid, I would put in my two cents. So we formed a kinship in that way, but I was still surprised, because I hadn't planned on doing anything at the time.

JC: You have a background in directing, correct?

JO: Short films and stuff. I didn't know if I'd be a deer in the headlights, but when I got there, it was like the last ten years since USC had never happened. I fell right back into the swing of things. The history of it is, at first I said no, because I was doing X-Men, and I wanted my first film to be something more independent in nature, particularly because of The Usual Suspects. The last thing in the world I wanted was to have people's jaws drop: "This is what he directs first?" But then I read the script, and it was fun, and my agents, of course, were wringing my necks -- "What are you, crazy?" But they made the case for me. They said, "You can do an independent film, which will be gritty, but it won't show all the types and styles you can do. This genre allows you to display that you can do a love scene, a chase scene, suspense. And that played into the things I do -- the editorial background, the music -- Phoenix wanted this to be a more a thriller than a slasher. So I said, "Okay, if you want to make the film that way, then I'll do it." So, as everyone knows, at that time there was no conflict, because X-Men was supposed to be released in December [2000]. So the moment I signed the contract [for Urban Legend], X-Men was greenlit and moved up to July 14th.

JC: What was your position on X-Men?

JO: Composer. At first I was going to be editor-composer, like normally with Brian, and then I told Brian that it would be impossible for me to do in the 11th hour when I was supposed to be writing the score, so they talked about getting a second editor. Then that evolved into me being a "consultant," and just worrying about the score. And Fox basically didn't want to pay me a holding fee, to hold me for sure until the movie was greenlit. So I signed on to Urban Legend, and sure enough, as soon as I started, they greenlit. The frustrating part is, had I not done an extra scene when I got back to LA [for UrbanLegend], I would have finished a month and a half ago, and I would have had time to write the music. But, oh well.

JC: What is the story [of Urban Legend: Final Cut]?

JO: It takes place at the world's most advanced film school, some town, somewhere --

JC: More movie jokes...

JO: Yep. [Laughs] This girl named Amy Mayfield, who's our Jodie Foster / Sigourney Weaver character -- smart, pretty girl. She's always made documentaries; she's never made a narrative film. There's this coveted award called the Hitchcock Award at the school -- if you submit your thesis film to be considered for this award, then you're basically a shoo-in to direct in Hollywood. So to prove to herself she can make a narrative movie, she thinks of the idea of doing one based on the idea of serial killers patterning themselves after urban legends.

JC: What's the connection with the first film?

JO: There's no connection. That's why instead of calling it Urban Legend 2, the decision was made to call it Urban Legend: Final Cut. It has no relationship to the other film, except for the security guard in the first movie, Reese, the Loretta DeVine character. She was the security guard on the first campus, and she was fired, and found another school to work at, which is this one. But she gives Amy the idea, because she picks Amy up one night, while she's going to the library, and she tells her basically what happened in the first movie. And then, of course, people start dropping off like flies, and we don't know why. I think it will be 50-50 in terms of what people think about the actual plot, but I think the plot is more logical and makes more sense, probably because I went to film school. With the first movie, I was like, "Huh? She's the killer because of what?" It was kind of convoluted. Same thing with Scream3. The killer was her brother and... huh? At least in our film, it may be a little cheesy, but it makes more sense.

JC: What was your first reaction to the script, in terms of things you could do with the drama and the characters?

JO: I thought, Okay, this script allows me to make the film a little more sophisticated than you might expect, make it less of a slasher film, more of a thriller, more of a young person's Hitchcock film, which was what turned me on about it. Editorially I could do the stuff that I do -- montage, the Hitchcock thing -- but as I predicted, in the end we had to dumb it down a bit, to fit into the genre. So that was the challenge -- how to have the best of both worlds. I'm pretty happy with a lot of it, because we were able to preserve what I had done by having another scene in the early part of the movie which was more like the other film. Basically, we have a really disgusting sequence we put in the beginning of the movie, which the kids love -- it's the bitter pill to swallow for those who want something different to follow, but if you can get over that hump, you end up with a different movie afterwards. We'll see what happens, and frankly, I admit that the early scene is a guilty pleasure that I love to watch. [Laugh]

JC: So when you're writing the score -- I think I read an interview with you once where you said you cut and then compose to picture, to your final cut. Do you do the same thing when you're directing?

JO: It's really the same thing. I'd like to say, "Oh, no, I have this preconceived notion of everything," but you don't. As a director you're trying to do the best that you can in that phase, and as an editor I disassociate myself from being a director. And it's the same with directing. I don't have a huge overall plan.

JC: Did you occasionally find yourself setting up a shot, an angle, and thinking, "What if I put in a nice horn trill here?" or something like that?

JO: There's a couple of instances where I knew that I needed to milk a camera move. I knew where there was going to be a seminal moment in the movie, where I wanted the score to have its big moments. There's a couple moments like that. The porthole sequence in The Usual Suspects was like that -- I have one in this film where there's a shot of a tower, and a long panning shot, and she's running, and in the editing I just played it out, knowing that it would be a big moment for the music.

JC: Technique-wise, did you want to accentuate a particular approach, given the musical style established by things like Scream and The Faculty?

JO: Oh, totally. [Laughs] Maybe this is my last laugh in the [Halloween] H20 fiasco. I temped a scene in this movie with this big, driving piece from H20 that was sliced up in the final version -- it works so well. I wanted to show that you could do a horror movie, and score it more thematically.

JC: Did you see this as your revenge for H20?

JO: No, but it is funny that I put that piece in, because I ended up doing something very much like it in this one sequence, called "A Tunnel of Terror". So anyone who's familiar with that score [H20] will recognize it immediately. So I thought, Hey, what the hell, I'll show how it can work. This time, I was the director, so the score stayed on. But it's tough to write a score for these kinds of movies.

JC: There's a lot to go up against. I think audiences are a lot more savvy -- they sense it when a cue comes in, and they think, "There's a bad guy around the corner." How do you write around that kind of thing -- do you think, "How can I scare them, as opposed to, how can I trick them?"

JO: The challenge is this: How do I make sure they're scared, so that the film fulfills its reason for being; so that it makes money; and at the same time, do a score that's not obviously clunks and bangs and booms. How do you do both at the same time -- how do you walk away with having a score that isn't caricature-like? And that's a lot more work, to think about how to do that. It's frustrating to write scores for these kinds of movies, because you want to develop themes. I write thematically, and there's no time to develop a lengthy theme in this movie. The main character, Amy -- she has a moment alone for, like, ten seconds. So there's no time to go anywhere with her theme. It ends up being this motif on the piano that you hear over and over, to drive it home. So hopefully when someone leaves the theater they got the idea that there was this character named Amy that you could identify with musically.

JC: Did you want to try and use the Herrmann technique of building something big out of something basically very small?

JO: Yeah -- you know, a movie's a land mine. You have these ideas of things that you want to do musically, like taking a motif, having it get bigger and bigger, developing it, milking it do death, having it take different shapes and forms. But depending on the shape of the movie is what limits you in terms of what you want to do with your motifs. So in this case, I'd say that the motifs are more subtle than I'd like. But we had introspective scenes, such as one where Amy was looking at a picture of her father, mourning his death, because it's her backstory. It was this long, drawn-out shot of her looking at a photograph, so I was able to play her theme, but we ended up cutting the whole thing out! The audience didn't care! [Laughs] But we'll put it on the DVD. And I did this love scene between the two main characters to resolve the relationship at the end of the film, and that was gone too -- the kids just want to see someone die. I think, in the end, it does what I was hoping to do, in that, if you can separate what the type of film it is from the work that you see me doing, and that's my hope, and then at least I think I've shown that I have a competency to do the same thing on a higher level.

JC: That's what I liked about the Laurie Strode theme from H20 -- getting into the psychology of the character more than you would expect.

JO: Yeah -- and I was able to do a whole hell of a lot more with hers than Amy's. And that was my frustration -- the irony! -- because in H20 I was able to base the whole thing on her character, and it's exactly what I wanted to do with this film. But because of the way the film happens to be structured, there's very little time spent alone with this character. So I guess it's like half of a Laurie theme.

JC: Wasn't Neil Moritz, the producer of Cruel Intentions, one of the producers on this film?

JO: Yeah, and that was quite an irony. So we ultimately had to bury the hatchet. But Neil ultimately came to my rescue, though; I wanted to film a scene in LA, different from the one the studio wanted to shoot. He helped in getting the studio to let me film the scene I wanted. He came to bat for me.

JC: Where was the score recorded?

JO: Munich. We had 70 minutes to record, and 30 hours to do it in. The scoring budget for this film was less than half than it was for the first film. And it's not easy stuff -- it's very frenetic action stuff. That was really frustrating. It wasn't the group -- the group was great. The problem was, I was in a panic the whole time: "We've gotta move on! We're not going to make it!" My biggest fear was that the music would not make it to Munich with us, and sure enough, when we got there, the music wasn't in the cargo hold of the plane. And we were recording the next day. At four in the morning we finally got all three of the boxes in Munich, but they got there one at a time. I wanted to kill someone in LA.

JC: On this type of limited time schedule, did you need to use more orchestrators?

JO: No, I usually orchestrate most of it myself. My orchestrators usually disseminate string or brass lines but I write every part, just for my own psychology. When I get there, I want to know exactly what I'm going to hear. But it was hard, because of the jet lag -- there was nine hours difference, and I could barely talk. It was like I'd had a stroke. But most of the tension was just from wondering if the music was going to get there the next day. And that's when I realized that package deals are really dangerous -- what if the music didn't come? I'd get sued, or something, because there's no protection. If the production was paying for it, then, oh well. But that was a wake-up call for me -- I don't think I'll ever do package deals again.

JC: Given that the flux of horror movies seems to have run its course -- particularly with the huge success of something like Scary Movie -- what was your response to that kind of obstacle?

JO: Well, my first response was, "Do you guys really want to make this movie? Who's going to want to go see it?" I said that the only reason that people might want to go see it is if I made it different. I really thought that the young crowd would want to embrace something that was a little more intelligent. I thought a young audience on the fringes would go for it -- people who saw things like The Usual Suspects. If I made it something a little more intelligent, it might work for both audiences -- obviously, it can only get so intelligent, because it's Urban Legend 2, let's face it. [Laughs] But I thought that if I could push the envelope, then I could expand the audience, and make it something different. I don't know if I was successful or not -- we'll find out in September.

JC: When does it open?

JO: September 22nd.

JC: And what stage in post-production are you in?

JO: We just finished, last Friday night, on our final sound mix. We're just doing color timing, marketing meetings, and giving away plotlines. The trailer basically gives away the whole opening of the film.

JC: Do you have any projects coming up?

JO: No -- I've turned a few things down. I feel like I may have driven a nail into the coffin of my scoring career, and it's frustrating, because when you're on a film as a director, you're gone for a year, year and a half. And I still want to score -- I love writing film music, and there's so much more that I want to say that I haven't been able to. I'm hardly the kind of guy that does five movies a year, so I still have tons of ideas that I want to get out there. It's frustrating to have them all bottled up. At the same time, I do want to continue directing. But to find the right project I have to sit on my hands for a while. Something different, but -- anything. Anything that's good. [Laughs]

JC: Between directing, editing, and scoring, how was the experience overall?

JO: Brutal. We were in Toronto for five months, and it was 20 degrees out on a lot of all-nighters. The directing part was fine -- it totally came naturally to me. That's why I went to film school in the first place; I clicked into directing mode, wrote my shotlists -- it was not a big challenge for me. It sounds conceited, but I knew what I wanted to do. It's the editing discipline -- I knew how to exactly how to design a scene, exactly what to shoot, what not to shoot, exactly what I needed. The hardest part about directing is fighting -- with the studio, getting your way, waging battles. Casting was a huge battle. I'm not the kind of person that's used to fighting anyone, but I learned I had to choose the battles to win, and plan the battles to lose. That's half of directing. And one battle I knew I had to win was casting, because we had unknowns, and it had to be who I wanted. So that was bloody at times, and it really takes a lot out of you. One phone call to three executives can be ten times more exhausting than an entire day of shooting.

JC: Now you just have to worry about the dreaded test-screening process...

JO: We did all those already. They're great. We had one great one, one okay one, and we had a really great one. So you never know. I'm always quick to remind all the executives, when we have a test screening, that I heard The Sixth Sense got a 44, which was a dreadful test screening, and Austin Powers got a 33, which was the worst test screening anyone's probably ever had. And both those films made a huge amount of money. This wrestling movie that came out recently -- Ready to Rumble -- got a 95, and it tanked. If all the audience agrees that there is one thing that needs to be changed, then tests are valuable. But all the other minutia -- where one audience member raises his hand, says, "I thought such-and-such," that gets exhausting. Then it becomes a problem with producers with agendas, using those results to fight for one little thing that he wants to do. They're only valuable if they're not abused. But all in all, I can't complain. There was a real harmony with my producers. I had a lot of support.

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