It shouldn’t have been too surprising that John Ottman won this year’s ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film Drama for Bohemian Rhapsody. Equally it shouldn’t be at all shocking that he is nominated for his first Academy Award in Film Editing for that film. If anyone would know the challenge of turning around a troubled ship, it is Ottman’s fellow film editors — and, in perhaps the year’s most extraordinary achievement in film editing, Ottman was integral to helping save the embattled production of the Queen biopic after its director Bryan Singer was fired with about 20% or so of the principal photography still to be finished. Circumstances surrounding the firing, not creative, are still foggy depending on who you talk to, but Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish the shoot, although he chose not to challenge Singer’s sole directorial credit and is listed as an executive producer instead.
All of this left Ottman, who has worked on virtually every Singer film since they were in college, either as editor or composer or both, to pick up the pieces (literally) and bring it home in the editing room. Perhaps the industry accolades from his peers respect this achievement in helping to craft and save a film that has gone on to be one of the year’s biggest hits with more than $850 million collected worldwide, two Golden Globes including Best Picture Drama and five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and front-runner Rami Malek as Best Actor. For Ottman the recognition is a cherry on the sundae considering the journey to get to this point.
“Like I said in my [Eddie Awards] speech, I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person. So I’m always surprised when something good happens. What’s the phrase? ‘Expect the worst, be pleasantly surprised’ — anyway, something like that,” he told me when I caught up with him the day after the Oscar nominees lunch this month. “It would be quite a story when it’s all written, but there’s only so much I can really talk about. It is the surrealistic nature of actually many films, if you really look under the hood. There’s something surreal in all the making of all movies, but I think this one will be quite a victory in a way whether it wins [Oscars] or not.”
Ottman’s career is unique in that it has been cinematically tied (but only in that way) to the ever-controversial Singer’s since they met in film school and he was helping out a friend’s thesis project. Singer was a production assistant on that movie. One thing led to another, and they wound up co-directing what he terms as a “Diner-esque” 25-minute short with Ethan Hawke called Lion’s Den that led to funding for the first feature on which they worked together, 1993’s Public Access, eventually a winner at Sundance. Ottman was editor on that one, and when the composer dropped out at the 11th hour, jack of all trades that he is, Ottman filled in, being perhaps the first to both regularly edit and score feature films simultaneously.
The next movie on which they collaborated was The Usual Suspects, which went on to win Oscars for Kevin Spacey’s supporting turn and Christopher McQuarrie’s script. Ottman only wanted to score it, but Singer insisted he also edit, saying Ottman would never score a movie of his unless he he also was the film editor. “It was really blackmail,” Ottman laughed, but he has done every Singer movie since except the first X-Men because he was off directing Urban Legends 2. Bohemian Rhapsody is likely the last , at least for a while, for reasons you can well imagine. Anyway who knows where Singer’s checkered career is headed at this point? ( A planned return as director of Millennium’s long gestating Red Sonya is on hold). Ottman will only tell me he will never share dueling duties of editing and scoring again in any future Singer film. New horizons await.
The fact is Singer’s eccentric work ethic has led to a sometimes rocky production history on many of his films, and thus a very unusual working relationship with Ottman. “I guess when you start making films together, your sensibility and your taste kind of rubbed off on one another,” Ottman said. “So I think where one leaves off, one begins, and then you begin to have a shorthand, and then the shorthand becomes shorter and shorter, so it allows directors to depend more on the person who’s in the editing room, and they get to enjoy their life a little more. You get to a point where he just trusted that I would take care of things.” He was unable to go into details regarding Singer, or any of the sexual abuse accusations against the director that surfaced again in an artice in The Atlantic clearly timed to hit as Oscar nominations were announced. Actually it originally was planned for Esquire around the fall debut of the film, but they declined to run the article, so it was delayed. Fortunately Singer’s travails haven’t harmed the artisans like Ottman who worked so hard on this film. He and others will be sitting front and center at the Dolby come Sunday.
So with all the turmoil surrounding Singer, why did he do so many films for him? “It’s weird. It’s a double-edged sword. … I like being in control of a situation, and as a filmmaker, the fewer cooks in the kitchen to drive me crazy, the better. So I enjoy that part. It’s the long-haul nature of it. … For me, normally, I was doing both editing and the scoring on one movie and sometimes managing the whole thing, so that’s the negative, you know, ” he said, adding that due to the timeless nature of Queen’s story, he backed away from scoring this one and instead used smart editing techniques. “So I just literally keep it pure with Queen’s music. I just needed to do something that you can watch 20 years from now and not feel like it was dated. So that’s why in the scenes that would have had underscoring, I used opera and then I took the track from some Queen music I took out like Freddie’s vocal tracks with [‘Who Wants to Live] Forever’ when he goes to see the doctor — scored that sequence by editing mood music, and taking out the track with the score.”
He was thrilled with the ACE Eddie honor and Oscar recognition because it was clearly not based on politics or cronyism but rather, as he told me, on people who are really passionate about their work and recognizing other people’s work. Key to his success on Bohemian was establishing the trust factor with producer Graham King and his partner Denis O’Sullivan. “They had already seen my assembly, which was pretty extensive,” he said. “By the time Bryan was fired, there was already a really great trust factor going. I mean, the biggest challenge really is to service so many things for a movie where the running time is going to be around two hours-plus. Biopics are hard in general because you have to service someone’s entire life, but this one had the added things of the band story as well, as well as it being a celebration of Queen’s music. So I had all three of those things to service and then, at the end of the day, have you walk away feeling like it was a celebration.” Ottman added that it was a “ballsy” thing to basically end the film with the Live Aid concert and follow rolling titles.
“I knew if that thing wasn’t cathartic and moved people, we were f*cked,” he said. “So again, I referred to it before as the Death Star Sequence for Bohemian Rhapsody because it basically bookended with it. Everyone talks about it throughout the film. Are you going to Live Aid? Did you hear about Live Aid? It’s like such a buildup to this thing, so that kept me tossing and turning for an entire year because it was the first thing we shot.”
As for working with Singer’s replacement, Dexter Fletcher, it was a different experience than he’d ever had as an editor. “He was there for a short time because obviously he wanted to come in and go over the scenes that he’d shot, and you know, it was the first time I had ever worked with another director as an editor. … He would come in, and he just obviously wanted to see what I had done with his scenes. He also shot a couple of sequences in the recording studios — not the early ones, but the ones sitting together, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘We Will Rock You,’ — just when they’re kind of talking about putting the songs together, and then he just wanted to get a general overview of how his scenes were being integrated in the film. And he had his notes on the flow of the film and then he went off to do Rocketman.” That’s the upcoming Elton John biopic that hopes to capitalize on the enormous worldwide success of Bohemian, which has become the most successful rock movie ever made.
Bohemian wasn’t the first Singer film where Ottman had to pull yeoman extra duty. On 2008’s Valkyrie, he would deal with star/producer Tom Cruise and screenwriter/producer McQuarrie in the editing room when Singer was — mostly — off elsewhere at that point. “Yeah, it was sort of a rotation. Tom would come in and see what I had done and spend a week with me, kind of checking in the editing room, and then Chris would come in and check what Tom had done,” Ottman said. “I would always stay with a table full of chess pieces, but I’m barely moving them. Chris would see what Tom had done, and he would make a couple little tweaks to what Tom had done, and then after a while, Bryan would come in to see what Tom and Chris has asked him to do, and he’d put things back. So they would come back and sensed that he had put things back. I remember sitting and weeping. Literally, I would cry because I couldn’t finish because it got to the point where the changes I was making were not really making any difference one way or the other, and we were sort of a rudderless ship going in circles.” He noted that everyone including Singer and “your mother” could walk in and make a comment and it might change something. In dealing with this kind of situation and others like on subsequent films, Ottman came to realize the importance of an editor in keeping it all together.
“I think they looked to me to guide the ship and defer to my passion and my storytelling instincts, and then everyone sort of tweaks what I’m working on,” he said. “But I tend to lay it out and make a passionate plea for certain things, and I think even Bryan says that i he can tell if I’m flying off the handle and pleading, that i’m usually right. He could tell if I’m faking it or not, just how passionate I am about something.”
Ottman had special praise for the star on that project. “I didn’t know Tom Cruise, obviously, and he just was a really great filmmaker. I told him he should be a director because he had a really good instinct for story. He rarely come in the editing room and talked about his performance. He sort of trusted that you were doing the right thing with that. He was really more concerned about the story arc and really good at it.”
Ottman has tried to define editing but finds it isn’t easy. “So when someone asks what is film editing, and I try to explain this to somebody, you really can’t because no one really understands what film editing is,” he said. “I would just say that imagine a newspaper editor or magazine editor, and it’s sort of the same thing because it’s not someone who’s sitting there at a typewriter. They’re sort of in charge of the whole thing and that’s kind of how I try to explain it in a nutshell for people.”
With various credits including 57 projects as composer, 12 as editor, 4 in a producing capacity, 2 as director and many other achievements with not any of those job descriptions (he probably also could become a therapist, considering the rocky road of his filmmaking experiences), where does Ottman see himself going next, win or lose, on Sunday? Getting back seriously into directing is something he says he wants to explore, but temptation to “do it all” is an impulse he has to control. “You know, sometimes I wish I could split myself into three people because I love doing so many different things,” he said. “And you know how it is — you stay with one thing too long, and then you get an itch. You start itching to do the other thing, but then you do that, then you want to go back to the other. But having said that, I mean, I’ll always love writing music. How can you not love writing music and going to a scoring stage? So I never want to give that up. I always want to do that.” A man for all seasons indeed, including Oscar season this time around.