Bryan Singer’s go-to editor/composer, John Ottman, when he was left on his own without a director when Singer was fired by Fox, helped transform “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the surprise hit of the awards season.
And, after winning the ACE Eddie prize, Ottman now becomes the Best Editing Oscar frontrunner. Of course, it helped having a tour de force performance by Rami Malek as the iconic Freddie Mercury, who’s the favorite to win Best Actor.
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“We banded together with all of the high drama to make it work,” said Ottman, who was assisted in the editing room by producer Graham King and partner Denis O’Sullivan. “Even when I’m working with Bryan he likes to leave me alone to do my thing,” he added. “He’ll usually go away on a vacation for a number of weeks as I’m shaping the film and come back and look at what I’ve done. In this case, he just didn’t come back.”
The editorial challenge of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was balancing the Mercury and Queen stories while exploring the larger cultural aspects of the singer’s closeted gay life and contracting AIDS. And, crucially, utilizing as much wacky humor as possible. However, one pivotal decision by Ottman was not composing a score because he didn’t want to step on Queen’s music.
But most of all, the editor was blessed with the inspired casting of Malek, “who worked hard to find his groove as the iconic rock star after doing all of the research and studying his idiosyncrasies,” Ottman said. “We were also helped by the fact that we shot the Live Aid concert first by necessity because of the shooting schedule for weather purposes.”
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It had the fringe benefit for the actors to know where they were going, especially Malek, who reverse engineered his performance. “It showed immediately that they were all clicking. And it was great that we shot that first because we could just tinker with it for a year,” Ottman said. “That sequence, which I called ‘The Death Star’ sequence, kept me up at night because if we didn’t get that, we were screwed.”
The Live Aid sequence was long, at 13 minutes (though the actual performance lasted 20 minutes and the complete sequence will appear as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray/DVD). “We went through many iterations to make sure it had the right emotional, cathartic drive,” said Ottman. “I didn’t want to follow the original performance in any way, I wanted it to be as if you were there, seeing it from a personal perspective.”
And the editor had the benefit of Queen choosing the order of the songs really well, starting tenderly with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” then kicking into higher gear with “Radio Gaga,”‘ and triumphantly ending with the Queen anthem, ‘We Are the Champions.”
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“The chords really get to your heart strings, and it’s Freddie’s last sendoff,” Ottman said. “And the way I would cut to his [former girlfriend] Mary [Lucy Boynton] and to his [boyfriend] Jim Hutton [Aaron McCusker] and the crowd, played off of that. He was one with the audience during that song. There was also a moment when Rami looked to the camera, so I slowed it down and cut to his mother [Meneka Das], because I felt like he’s looking somewhere, and it became a really devastating moment for some people.”
Then, when cutting the scene with the absurd recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” when Mercury implored drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to go higher and higher singing “Galileo,” Ottman made great use of the improvisations (“My balls are in my throat”).
“It was like organized helter skelter,” Ottman said. “But it was one of the sequences that I was most protective of because I was in love with what I had done. I wanted to keep everything the actors were doing, with though it didn’t necessarily have a narrative logic to it.
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“So what you do is rewrite it out like a script in the editing room. I could retain the script lines and then, by adding a log line or an answer to a joke or faking a reaction shot, I built it as though it was really happening. But I was terrified the studio would blow it apart, but it was an audience pleaser that it stayed intact from its first assembly.”
By contrast, Mercury’s hilarious battle with EMI exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers) about turning the experimental “Bohemian Rhapsody” into a six-minute single presented a different kind of editorial challenge. “It reminds me of my ‘Usual Suspects’ days where you have multiple characters in a room and there’s great casting and you just wanna keep everyone alive there,” said Ottman.
“I had a lot of coverage, so I just cut to different reactions without it being robotic like a ping-pong ball. Scenes like that are agonizing and a blast at the same time. Again, it was that organized helter skelter that was so much a part of this movie.”