Editing: <I>Bohemian Rhapsody</I>
Issue: December 1, 2018

Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody

John Ottman, ACE, is unique in the film industry, as he holds dual distinctions as both a film composer and film editor. Ottman’s film credits include The Usual SuspectsX-Men 2Superman ReturnsValkyrie,  Jack the Giant SlayerDays of Future Past and  X-Men Apocalypse. Most recently, he completed work on the Oscar nominated film  Bohemian Rhapsody. Here, he speaks exclusively with  Post about his work on the Freddie Mercury biopic.

What were your initial thoughts about taking on this project?

“You immediately feel the weight on your shoulders — it’s daunting. Just the script alone stressed me out (laughs). But it also excited me at the same time because of the subject matter and also because I felt the script would lend itself to a lot of great filmmaking in terms of what I could do editorially.”

Photo: John Ottman, ACE

What do you think director Bryan Singer was looking for in terms of the film’s edit?

“I think the idea editorially for the movie, especially with the concerts, was to try to keep the main storyline alive even though we were taking a departure with a concert. I felt that, for instance, when they first start touring the US, if I just played the concert straight it wasn’t nearly as engaging as when I told a story within a concert. For instance, Freddie at the truck stop questioning his sexuality and also the band crying out all the different cities they were going to — there’s two stories being told in that one concert. And so I felt like, every concert montage or as many as I could, I should be telling a story at the same time. And that was a tricky thing.” 

There were some very intimate scenes, with Freddie and Mary and the band in recording studios, and big scenes, such as Live Aid. How did you prepare to edit these various settings?

“My favorite scenes are those where even though they’re very difficult to do, it’s just when the actors would just improvise and go off script. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when they’re in the barn studio, putting together ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and Rami would come up with a line, but there was not necessarily a return line from the actor. So, I would say at least half of it was just lines they would throw out. Part of my job was to script that out in the editing room and try to make it logical and then put it all together.

“And then naturally the big Magilla was Live Aid and that’s the thing that haunts you — causes you to bite your fingernails the entire year because that’s the thing that has to work otherwise we’re f*&^d. It’s an audacious thing, to end the film with Live Aid, you know? So, it’s got to be amazing otherwise pack up and go home. I knew from the moment we started shooting that that was going to be the bane of my existence for the whole movie and that I was always going to be tinkering with it. It was the first thing that we shot, so literally for the entire year on the film, I would just go to it when I could and mess with it until it ended up being what it is.” 

Any particular editing techniques you used to edit?

“I tend not to bring attention to the editing. Obviously, the editing is the illusion of the movie. This is a film very rich in montage cutting. Where I’m taking a scene that has been cut and integrate it into a montage. For instance, the sequence with ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ there’s a scene where he goes to a seedy night club and rather than play the whole scene out, I created a montage and again, trying to tell the story of how he was crossing over to the dark side of the gay community.”

Did you edit on Avid?

“I cut on Avid cause it’s all I know. I don’t like learning new things.”

What were some of the biggest editing challenges for you?

“Aside from all the intrinsic editing scenes, in terms of the montages, is the overall. A lot of people, when they talk about editing, don’t realize that the editor’s job is to step back and try to assess the story that’s being told and how to tell the story effectively, even though you’ve cut together a lot of individual scenes, is how you are presenting the entire journey of a character and biopics are particularly difficult because you’re talking about someone’s entire life. You can tell that a million different ways, and there are painful things you have to cut in order to condense their life into two hours. So I think that the broader stroke is even more difficult sometimes than an individual scene.”

Did you work more closely with DP Tom Sigel on this film than usual?

“Tom and I probably saw each other more on this movie than any other film. We had lots of dinners together and were constantly talking about the look of the movie or how to pull off certain sequences because this, more than any other film, we had a partnership.”

Did the film turn out the way you had hoped?

“We genuinely got what we wanted out of it; we’re genuinely happy. It’s an audience pleaser. I think one of the big challenges of pulling off this movie was that we wanted it to be for as many people as possible, because that’s what Queen wanted. We definitely tell the story of the dark side of Freddie, but there’s only so far we can go visually because we wanted to bring as many people in that wouldn’t have been able to have seen it if we had gone too dark with it. That’s part of the criticism, that it’s sugar coated, but that was a decision we made. The whole takeaway is it’s a celebration of the band and Freddie and we tell that story.”