Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with “Bohemian Rhapsody” editor, John Ottman

There are very few big-time editors who do double duty as legitimate film composers, but in this Art of the Cut, we’ll be talking to one of them: John Ottman, ACE.  He performed both of these jobs on The Usual Suspects, X-Men 2, Superman Returns, and Valkyrie.

This rare combination of skills was first on display when Ottman edited director Bryan Singer’s first feature, Public Access. At the last minute, the film lost its composer and Ottman took over. Public Access received the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The score and editing both received favorable reviews, leading to the start of not just one career, but two.

Ottman’s latest project is the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Ottman’s musical background made him a natural to edit this film.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Let’s start right off with a discussion of the specific scene above. The cut the studio gave me is not quite the way you cut it in the film, but… did it really start with the shot of the rooster?

OTTMAN: Yes. I thought that would be a great joke.

HULLFISH: What’s the transition there?

OTTMAN: You hear “Galileo” and think it’s a rooster for a nanosecond and that cuts to Roger. It gets a big laugh. It’s actually the start of the second half of the scene. The first half is Brian doing his guitar solos, then there’s a time transition with the rooster into Roger. It’s one of my favorite scenes where I re-organized a lot of improvised lines into a cohesive sequence. And one of those scenes that — from the first cut — never changed. I was terrified that over the course of a year it was going to get f***ed up, but it stayed the way it always was, so it actually got through. Filmmaking is not just filmmaking. It’s all the politics and just praying to God that some things will survive a shotgun blast.

HULLFISH: Absolutely. I didn’t see a composer for this movie. Is there no score?

OTTMAN: I was hired as the composer as well. There’s always an assumption that a biopic is going to have underscore. But we decided in the end that it was not the right thing to do. It was quite a sacrifice for me. Usually what I get for going to editing jail is a score to write. But on this film, we wanted to keep it pure. For some of the emotional scenes, I used some opera music, because Freddie was a big opera listener. So in a couple of scenes, like when he proposes to Mary, and when he has a long phone call with Mary, I had it seem like he was listening to opera in the background. So it fills the purpose of what underscore would have done but makes it more intelligent in that it’s not done with the score, which would have been typical.

HULLFISH: Diegetic music.

OTTMAN: Yeah, I designed the opening title sequence with shots of them getting ready for LiveAid and, well, removed my composer title.

HULLFISH: As a composer and as an editor, talk to me about your feeling about temp score. And do you feel differently about it as an editor than you do as a composer?

OTTMAN: I obviously see both sides. As a composer, it can be extremely frustrating, but as a film editor, it’s one of those things you have to do for a number of reasons. When you present a film to a test audience, it usually can’t fly without a score. My problem is that I’m my own worst enemy because I do such a detailed job doing the temp score that when I have to write the ACTUAL score, I’m intimidated by what I’ve created. So I have to sort of divorce myself from my own work or do something like the temp, but just much better. One of my pet peeves is when temp music is just thrown on to sell a cut and creates an association that’s immediately baked into everyone’s minds, even though the choice of music may be wrong.

One of my agents used to say that every film score is the bastard child of the previous one because you have a composer coming in and he’s told to rip off some badly done temp score. That’s why you hear the same kind of terrible score over and over again. My process is a lot different from most other editors I think. People are usually surprised that when I assemble the film, I don’t do any temping until the entire cut is finished. I’ve been told its ballsy for me to show the scenes dry. But I want to sit back and watch a two-hour movie without score, and if it’s working, then great.

I find that when you’re putting the scene together and throw in music right away, it sells. But you’re potentially prolonging the discovery of problems, masking issues until late in the process. So I think by leaving it dry you’re going to confront your problems head-on and have a much more powerful film. Also, I find that when I wait till the very end to temp it, the temp score is much more organic and well thought out. If you temp as you cut each scene, your temp is going to be a collection of disjointed pieces that get so hacked up there’s no real musical story or point of view and flow.

DF-11915_R2 – L-R: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

HULLFISH: I recently delivered two assemblies without any score, and it’s just a big question of whether the people who have to watch it can handle seeing a film without temp.

OTTMAN: For me, my geeky a reward to myself after editing a scene is I get to do the sound design, and that excites me just as much as writing the score. As the editor, I am really attached to a lot of the sound design I do, so when I come on as a composer I remember that. I never want the music to overwhelm those ideas. For instance, on Valkyrie, I was really jazzed about the teletype machine sounds I really wanted them to be the drive for those scenes. Yet I still needed to write some music underneath. I remember when I walked into the dub, the mixer had the music cranked, and I said, “No, no, no, no.” The music is just supposed to be a subliminal thread. I want to hear all the machines and the rat-a-tat-tat of the teletypes. So I’ve always had that mix in mind, even after I record a score I’m invested in.

HULLFISH: One of the things that I think is — and you know this is a composer — is that you don’t even necessarily score across a single scene. So if you’re putting temp on a scene before you know what is before or after it, you don’t know how the temp will play across the multiple surrounding scenes.

OTTMAN: That’s the problem with temping as you’re going along because you don’t know where you’re going or where you’re coming from. That’s always been my process since The Usual Suspects, and luckily I had a director with the clout to allow me to do that.

HULLFISH: I know that you mentioned that a lot of editors don’t have musical backgrounds but I found that many of them do. What’s your experience, and why do you find that the two — music and editing — relate so well?

DF-09569_R2 – Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), Allen Leech (Paul Prenter), Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), and Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor) in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

OTTMAN: Good composing is storytelling and obviously editing is storytelling; so, if you’re intrinsically a storyteller and a really good storyteller, then, even if you don’t have a musical background, you’re going to understand the use of music and how to tell a story with that music – the ebb and flow. So I think a lot of editors who really can’t write music are sort of closet composers in a way. And they understand, just as a good composer does, that a truly well-designed story isn’t all climax, but lots of foreplay as well.

HULLFISH: I’m fascinated to be talking to a composer, so do you always temp with stuff from the composer that you know is going to compose for the film?

OTTMAN: For me, I’m always the one doing the composing. I’ve scored a lot of films, but my body of work isn’t large enough or specific enough for a lot of the films I’m editing, so I search through tons of scores. I have temped with my own stuff when I can remember something I’ve done is along the style I’m looking for. Although it’s sometimes hard for me to divorce myself from what the music was originally for, sometimes it just works great to use some music I’ve done from another film even if the context is completely different. As far back as X-Men II I temped a scene with music from Snow White, an old Sigourney Weaver film I scored.

I remember Bryan (director, Bryan Singer) really maligned Snow White, which wasn’t a great film. He loved to malign anything I did for films I did without him. So the irony is that I temped those same cues in X-Men II and he loved them, having no idea where they came from. In a way, those temp cues were sort of an invisible middle finger! It’s all contextual. Many film composers get accolades for terrible scores on great films, and conversely, there’ve been some awesome scores for terrible films that never get noticed. There’s an indelible connection between the two. There’re some great film scores that will never be considered as such because of the film they were on. Jerry Goldsmith was the king of that. He did so many bad movies but wrote great scores for them.

DF-25953 – L-R: Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Gwilym Lee (Brian May) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

HULLFISH: Sorry for not doing my homework, but do you think you landed this gig because it was a very musical movie and you are an editor with a great musical background or was it a connection with the director?

OTTMAN: This movie happened for me because I was always part of the Bryan Singer equation. I actually told Bryan I was never going to both edit and score a film again. After X-Men: Apocalypse I said that’s it. But then this one came along and it was like, “Damn it, how do I say no to Bohemian Rhapsody!?” The pay was crap and I’d have to go to London for a year. But it was a passion project. You just can’t say no to something like this, both as a composer and as an editor.

HULLFISH: You’ve made a couple of remarks about your non-interest in editing. Tell me a little about how you got into editing and why you still might do it other than for a great project like this one?

OTTMAN: For me, it’s just the double-duty. Editing a film never stops until the final day of the final dub, and trying to write and record a score at the same time is brutal. I think I lost 20 pounds on Apocalypse, and not in a good way. It’s just too much to handle both of those jobs. Part of me loves editing because it’s obviously filmmaking and storytelling. But at the same time, for me, it’s such a long haul versus scoring a movie and being in and out of the film in 2 or 3 months. You also make residual as a composer for the life of the film.

DF-26946_R – Lucy Boynton (Mary Austin) and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

There’s almost nothing as important as the editing, so the fact that editors are deprived of a piece of the pie they make is insanity. I also find the lifestyle being in a dark room for a year or more gets me down. It’s just too long to be cut off from my friends and/or partner. And for me, editing a film is like trying to solve a math problem for a year – a never-ending torment. The equation is always in your head. I’ve often solved story problems tossing and turning in bed. It’s the same thing for a score, but at least that torment only lasts for two or three months. Having said all that, if I’m working with really good people and it’s an amazing project, like Bohemian, I might do it again. Never say never, they say.

HULLFISH: So you convinced me. So can you teach me to be a composer so I can get out of this racket?

OTTMAN: Ha. Well, it’s not like it used to be. Before the crash in 2008, composers were paid a filthy amount of money — even for low-budget movies. Then there was a major correction and fees dropped substantially. Still, your time spent for the money is often better as a composer than as an editor. However, having said that, there’s a lot of satisfaction being the editor, because you’re at the top of the totem pole. You have a lot of control, including over that composer. So there is the comfort of being more in control of the film, and money isn’t everything. It’s whatever fulfills you and your need to express. Very few of us got into this because of the money.

HULLFISH: As you’re trying to get inspired are there any books or music or other media that inspires you?

DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

OTTMAN: It’s terrible. I’ve become so jaded. I used to be the first guy in line at Tower Records waiting for the latest Jerry Goldsmith album. I had huge excitement about listening to anything he would write, or John Williams, or James Horner – the masters and mentors I grew up with. I would put their music in the films I made. I learned by doing that, but one of my greatest muses was the original Star Trek series of the sixties. I grew up on that as a kid with the reruns in the 70s. They could only afford to score every few episodes. So they would reuse a lot of the music.

The music editor was really one of the unsung heroes of that series and it gave the series this amazing coherence because of the reuse of some of the motifs and themes that were really intended for one episode. But their re-use throughout the series really taught me the use of motifs and themes and how to score scenes. To me, the sensibilities used in the original Star Trek were the same sensibilities as the masters. Because I was so young and such a sponge, I think that formed a lot of my scoring approaches. Later, I discovered Jerry Goldsmith with Alien and Star Trek: the Motion Picture and became a massive fan.

HULLFISH: Was there vinyl of original Star Trek series? How did you listen to that? Just on the TV?

OTTMAN: The original series didn’t have vinyl, so I would literally record the episodes from a handheld cassette player held up to my TV set and I just listened to those episodes all the time. Therefore the music became part of my soul.

DF-07600 – L-R: Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), and Gwilym Lee (Brian May) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

Only recently — I think five or six years ago — they finally released all that music, after 50 years. The union deal in the 60s was that that the music could never be heard by itself and the tapes were supposed to be destroyed. But they were preserved! And so after 50 years, they managed to legally release them all.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little about editing on this film. In the one scene that I was able to pull from the studio, you said was pretty heavily re-edited by the marketing department from the way it was in the movie. Were you messing with time in the way it appears in that clip that we talked about at the top of the interview?

OTTMAN: That sequence when the band is putting together BoRhap in a studio barn out in the country was exciting for me but also a nightmare because it was 60 percent improv by the actors. This improv, in the dailies, made little narrative or structural sense. So my task was to take all that banter and arrange it into a script in the editing room. I could have easily dismissed some of the improv moments and cut them out. But I was determined to preserve them. I also used the passage of time and a couple ADR bandaids to get away with it. That was one of my babies and I was so worried it would be a target because it was long. God forbid you have a scene that lasts more than two minutes. So it was one of the scenes that remained unscathed from the studio shotguns through the year.

HULLFISH: Editorial is a process. As you said: it’s a math equation that you’re trying to do for a full year and you don’t always solve it the first time as you did with that scene.

O_162_wem_0010_comp_v119_02,1160 – L-R: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

OTTMAN: Well, solving the equation within each scene isn’t as much as an issue, but put together as a whole? That’s really the equation you’re trying to solve. With the scenes themselves, you’ll know right away if there’s a problem, so you’ll fix that. Yeah. The thing that’s a torment for me is the whole thing.

HULLFISH: It is interesting how you feel like you can solve an individual scene immediately but then the scenes have a new life when they’re joined together and you’ve got context, right?

OTTMAN: That’s exactly right. The best scene in the world may not survive the film or it will have to be hacked up to be able to fit in with the equation of the whole film. The Mike Myers scenes were probably twice as long in the initial cuts. There are lots of jokes and different moments I wish were still in there, but for pace and for the scenes not overstaying their welcome — too much of a good thing can be boring to an audience — I had to take some of the bits out.

I’m generally happy with the film in terms of having to take things out which I wish were still there. But we always lament things that were cut. In test screenings, the audience seemed to want more instead of less, so it was a battle I often had with the studio to let the audience have more. But the studio is, of course, always terrified about run-time. This is often such arbitrary bullshit. In the end, I think we got most of what we wanted, but there’s always things that you wish were in there.

HULLFISH: Do you remember what your first cut was compared to what the final film was?

OTTMAN: The first screened cut was about 2:20, plus titles; so that would have been a 2:25 movie. We ended up at 2:15 with titles. Although the relative length didn’t change much, internally, sections of the film changed – rearranging the deck chairs. My initial cut before we screened was 2:35. But I anticipated immediately what was going to have to go. So I just threw it out before we even screened it. My first cut could have easily been 2:50, but I made decisions early on not to include certain material, knowing it would never survive, nor shouldn’t.

DF-08022_08003_R2_COMP_CROP – L-R: Tom Hollander (Jim Beach), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), and Aidan Gillen (John Reid) in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

HULLFISH: I just delivered a first pass of a film to the studio and we discussed whether we should cut out the stuff that we know has to be cut out now or should we let them do it.

OTTMAN: There’s a sort of genius in that. Maybe I should learn that lesson, because over the years — in order to accommodate my writing the score for the film — I’ve always cut really really tight, anticipating everything that is going to go and getting rid of it right now because I cannot have a problem-child later in the process. I have to score a film that is basically done. So my processes has been to cut those things out as early as possible. We can always put them back. The problem is — like you’re implying — is that if you have a really polished first cut, they’re going to start hacking the good stuff.

So delivering a fine cut can be risky, because that version of the film stays around for a long time and their guns are pointed at it … pointed at a good movie, and they’re going to f**k it up by blasting good stuff. But if you give them a movie with a lot of fat in it, you can help aim those guns in the right direction. So there is a genius in that approach, I guess. Having said that, I don’t think I can help myself, because you also want to knock it out of the park on the first screening to produce lots of goodwill towards the movie. So you can’t win!

HULLFISH: That’s where I take my ego out of it. I know that it’s a process and the things that I know should be cut will eventually be cut.

You mentioned rearranging the deck chairs. What were some of the things in this movie if you can do it without spoilers that needed to be rearranged and why were those decisions made? What happened when you rearranged those things?

DF-02815_r – Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

OTTMAN: I would say that most of it was in the first act of the film, trying to lay the groundwork of the band before their first big concert. There’s a lot of ground to cover and although I felt like the audience always wanted more, everyone, including part of me, wanted to get to where they’re finally on their way. And so there’s a lot of things with Freddie and Mary and their relationship to establish. How do you get them meeting and moving in together so that we can get on with the band story? How do you get a manager to notice the band’s work and get them into a studio and work on the first album and then have a big manager see them working and get them on the road? So all that stuff was probably the biggest area of rearranging and truncating and trying to figure out ways of getting through it.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about your approach to editing. Do you watch everything before diving in? Do you just dive in? Do you use selects reels?

OTTMAN: I’m a huge believer and soapbox lecturer on watching everything — as agonizing as it is. You have a flood of new footage coming in. You’re feeling the pressure, and so you just want to start cutting. Maybe it’s because I come from the old school where it was all on film and I had to go through all the footage and make my notes or remember it all. I just come from that school where you watch every damn thing. It pays off in the end. The analogy for me is when composers just start writing the score without writing the themes first, your score is going to be a lot harder to write. You have to know where you’re coming from and where you’re going. It’s agonizing to sit there — right out of the blue — and write these themes. But it’s going to help you in the end and make it a hell of a lot easier to write the score.

The same with editing. How could I go to bed at night, having cut a scene knowing that an amazing moment – even an eye blink – may have been missed — which could change the whole scene? It could be the inspiration for all of the other moments in the scene; so I have to watch everything. I really can’t cut a scene unless I’ve seen it all, and it’s horrible because I sit there as more dailies are pouring in but when I finally do cut the scene, I cut so much faster. As you know — and I’m sorry to go on and on about this, but I feel really passionately about this — in the old days, you couldn’t just start cutting. It was too laborious, so you had to imagine the scene in your head beforehand and then it was basically a process of hitting landmines and the reality of NOT being able to do the scene you actually had in your head; but at least you had it in your head, and not just slapping stuff together because it’s so easy in a computer. There has to be a point of view. So by watching everything, you start thinking about the scene so much it will start formulating in your head. So when you cut that scene, you actually have a game plan.

O_163_wem_1360_comp_v003_01,1159 2 – L-R: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

There are other reasons I do it too. Through the course of shooting they may start changing things, maybe reconceiving the scene or lines; so the later dailies reflect all of those revisions, but sometimes that very first incarnation was the best thing to do for the film. If I just start cutting from the end, I’ll never know what the evolution of the shooting was. People think I cut fast, but its only because I’ve been cutting in my head for hours and watched every frame.

It also gives me a confidence that the scene is as good as it can be as far as takes and moments. We can re-arrange it. We can shorten it. But other than that, this is the best material there is and I can say that with confidence.

HULLFISH: I completely understand. There are Oscar-winning editors, though, who start cutting without watching everything and only once they have a structure of a scene, do they go back to examine all of the dailies, so that they are informed when they watch the dailies by the structure they’ve created — and sometimes further viewing means that structure has to change. Everybody is different and that’s is why I love talking to so many editors. Any other tips?

OTTMAN: To me, the audio performance is just as important as the visual performance. So a lot of my notes are about an inflection that was cool, but the visual take was wrong. So for me, one sentence could literally have five different audio takes in it. I can’t live knowing that there was a really cool nuance (in a bad visual take) that I could use. That’s one of the major things I like doing, even if it’s a syllable.

HULLFISH: I’m the same way. Usually, you can stick a different take in someone’s mouth even if they’re on-camera, without even having to play the line over their shoulder or off of them completely.

How did you come by your dual career? The only other composer/editor I can think of is Joe Walker.

DF-11526_R – Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) and Gwilym Lee (Brian May) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

OTTMAN: Well I’ve told this story a few times… how do I make this long story short? I was cutting our first feature film, Public Access (1993, directed by Bryan Singer), which won Sundance. While I was cutting the film, the composer dropped out and I had been doing music as a hobby. I’d been doing these employee training videos for, like, Quickset Lock Company, which was all this really feel good music. But Public Access was about a really dark character, so I went to Bryan and I said, “Our back’s against a wall. We’ve got Sundance coming. I can write the score.” He said, “ All you can do is this flowery happy stuff,” and I said, “No. I can write dark.” And I knew the character so well.

One of the problems we had with the original composer was that it was just really obvious sinister music. It wasn’t psychological. I knew it was about the psychology of the character, so I wrote that score. The editing and the score were both mentioned in the reviews. And so when we put The Usual Suspects together, I didn’t want to edit and I just wanted to write the score; but Bryan basically blackmailed me and said that if I wanted to write the score, I had to edit the film. And here I am back with BoRap, but the irony is that I just did the editing, which is a luxury for me, despite all the drama on this film and how difficult it was, to only worry about editing the movie. There were times when I could literally relax a little bit.

HULLFISH: To jump back to something you mentioned earlier: is a theme different than a motif?

OTTMAN: Well a theme is like a Motif Deluxe. A motif is like a piece of a theme. A good theme has a beginning, middle and end. Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

(sings the opening couple of bars) That’s the A part. Then (sings the B part) Then it goes back to the A part, so it’s satisfying. Well, the motif of that theme would just be the first four or seven notes (sings them).

And you’d hear those notes in the motif throughout the movie. It’s like a theme fragment. We don’t really have many scores with themes anymore or if they do, there’s only room for the motif, because they move so fast that you don’t have the landscape.

DF-12022 – Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

You don’t have Dances With Wolves moments or Out of Africa moments where you’re just listening to the theme as you’re panning the countryside. If you gave many new composers long scene like that, I don’t know if they’d know what to do. They’d really have to think out a theme. An example I always give — can you tell I’m a Star Trek fan? — is that in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there’s a six-minute fly around the Enterprise, reintroducing its grandeur and the hope it represents to Kirk and the audience. But Goldsmith basically had to sustain that scene for six minutes. I don’t think many new composers, in this generation, would know what to do.

HULLFISH: When did you come over from cutting film to digital. And how did that go? Have you always been on Avid?

OTTMAN: My switchover to Avid was kind of a crazy story because I cut Usual Suspects on film and then I was cutting our next movie, Apt Pupil (1998) and I’d cut about a third of it on film. I was so overwhelmed by the amount of footage coming in and I recognized that stylistically the film required lots of interesting visuals, over-lapping images and so forth, that I thought I had to go to Avid. And it was this crazy process because they had to conform all the scenes I’d cut on film into the Avid. And all of the hacked up mag had to be deciphered and transferred and synced to re-conform all of the sound. It was this massive task. They were really worried about me using fade outs and fade ins and super-impositions because all of that then had to be done optically. And I said, “Don’t worry. I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

DF-10193 – L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Joe Mazzello (John Deacon), and Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

But that film just was that kind of movie and required that kind of stuff, so the opening title sequence was two and a half minutes of multiple video layers — like five and six layers deep, and you only get so many passes with the optical and that’s it. It cost something like twenty thousand dollars. So I went nuts with the Avid. For me, as long as you started on film and you have that sensibility and discipline, then Avid is a godsend and you never go back. But in the early days of digital editing, you could always tell what was cut digitally and what was cut on film because most of the film editors had no idea how to work an Avid or Lightworks and so you had computer guys editing movies and the editing was terrible. Bryan and I would go to the movies and we’d be able to tell: that was not cut by an editor. That was cut by some guy who knows how to run a computer. Eventually, the film editors moved to Avid and brought that sensibility with them that they already had from film.

HULLFISH: Anything about this movie in particular that you want to talk about?

OTTMAN: Well two things: First, I felt like I was back in my “Suspects” days because this film has multiple fun characters with good dialog in a room and you’ve got to keep them all alive. While one character is talking, as soon as your brain is wondering what the other character’s thinking, you’ve got to go to that character or the other guy over here. It’s really fun. It’s also agonizing. It’s also very satisfying. It’s an art — as you know — keeping all the characters alive in the room without it being cutty or disjointed. I love that challenge. The other challenge was the concerts, of course. In the first major concert, I found that within 20 seconds it was a little boring simply cutting the concert straight because you’re like, “What’s the story being told here?” I found that the concerts could never be completely independent of the overall narrative of the movie, which you felt so strongly. So I made sure that every concert had a story to tell.

For instance, this first concert in the U.S. where they played Fat Bottomed Girls was all about going from city to city to city and also a glimpse into Freddie’s sexuality. There were lots of takes of the actors screaming “Hello Philadelphia!” “Hello, Atlanta! etc” Thank God, because I used all of those things as the story. And the other story in that sequence was Freddie at a truck stop talking to Mary on the phone. This trucker stops on his way into the bathroom and he gives Freddie a look, and this is the first glimpse into Freddie being conflicted sexually. As the concert is played I was able to sort of start telling that story within the concert as I crosscut. So that suddenly made that concert fulfilling.

DF-14964_R – Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury) and Gwilym Lee (Brian May) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

With Another One Bites the Dust, there was a whole scene where Freddie had gone to a gay bar and was experiencing the seedy side of the gay scene and I decided to integrate that into that song. As that song kicks in, we get glimpses of the scene from the nightclub that I had cut out of the movie; so when you emerge from that song to go to the next chapter in the film, the character’s gone someplace. It was also a time-saver because I didn’t have to play out that walking-through-a-bar scene. I’m proud of those moments. And of course, the big torment, for lack of a better word, was LiveAid. That’s the Death Star sequence of this film. Pulling that off was that thing I worried about from day one. I wish it was a little longer in the final film, but the politics had to land in a place we could all live with. I’m cutting an extended version now for DVD and have restored some amazing moments that I had to lose.

HULLFISH: And did those moments need to go only because of time, or because you felt you were losing your audience?

OTTMAN: Both. From the studio standpoint, it was time. They were very worried about the audience wondering, “Why am I watching LiveAid?” You know that Freddie has AIDS, so it has this whole emotional subtext. It’s his swan song, a celebration in a way. So we literally just created our version of LiveAid. It needed to be long enough to be cathartic and satisfying – it’s the end of the film. It was also very tricky, in that if you sensed things were being truncated or montage-like, the sequence would collapse, losing its real-time experiential quality. The goal was for the audience to feel immersed, and frankly, exhausted at the end. Otherwise, it would never have the cathartic and emotional resonance required for its success. Either go for it or not. No guts, no glory. We actually did screen a version with LiveAid being three minutes longer. But the studio was dead set on it being shorter and were cocking their guns and taking aim on moments in We Are the Champions that would have ruined the end of the film. So in an agonizing Hail Mary moment, I just lifted a section of Radio Gaga in order to save LiveAid. Basically, I had to push that gun to another place that I could live with being blasted. These are the things you gotta do!

HULLFISH: Thank you very much. It was wonderful talking to you.

OTTMAN: Thanks. I enjoyed it.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.


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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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Wonderful interview. I enjoyed hearing the perspective from both composer AND editor. Enlightening stuff!