Valkyrie / 2008 < Back to Valkyrie page Composed / Edited / Executive Produced

John's Thoughts

The Valkyrie experience was unforgettable, and in the words of one executive, "the book that could never be written." That, of course, is true of many Hollywood productions, but Valkyrie was, well, one of the more challenging, or, perhaps, challenged. The highs were intrinsically tied to lows - which were certainly a test of fortitude. For me, as if the pressures of editing and scoring a difficult film weren't enough, it all coincided with the pain of a dissolving long-term relationship, career stress (from losing scoring gigs), and if that weren't enough, I also lost the friendship of a long time colleague. I guess if a bunch of "stuff" is going to hit the fan, it might as well splatter all at once. You just have to keep telling yourself what mom always said,... "This too will pass." And it did, but it took awhile. Of course, I can only generally, and very editorially, summarize the beats of the saga.


I think it was sometime in April 2007 that I got that call – the one from Bryan when I can tell from his tone there's a looming "editing jail" sentence around the corner. This time the call wasn't too many months after finishing up the long haul on Superman Returns. So I was a bit puzzled. "Please tell me you're just calling just to say hello," I asked. An uncomfortable giggle ensued, followed by, "Well..." At this point I'm sure I began pacing as I listened. He had a script for a little $17 million film that United Artists (Tom Cruise's resurrected movie studio) was interested in making. I lamented about losing scoring work, but, "Oh this is just a little thing – you'll be in and out in six months and then you can go score a bunch of films." Hearing this and then about the subject matter of the script (a 40s thriller about a little-known historical event), plus the fact that Usual Suspects screenwriter Chris McQuarrie was behind the screenplay, the filmmaker in me became intrigued. It would be nice to go back to "our roots" and have the same team (Bryan, me, Chris and DP Tom Sigel) making a little thriller. Plus it would be refreshing to work in a non-effects environment - no green screen and a straightforward linear story. (So I thought ....)


A few weeks later I sat down with the script. I knew the film would be expected to be suspenseful and captivating – a ticking bomb – both literally and figuratively. Knowing the promise it would have to deliver, I was half way through the pages when I literally began to sweat. Scene after scene portrayed older men with confusing names in stuffy rooms concocting convoluted plots via unrelentingly technical dialog. It immediately dawned on me that I was headed for a project that was going to weigh massively on re-conceiving/juggling sequences in post, and of course, the music - more than any other film we'd done. It seemed like an operation as impossible as the one portrayed in the film.

The prospect was audacious: A story with an outcome everyone knew (Hitler wasn't going to die.) And on top of that, the main mission (blowing up Hitler) happens half way through the story. How do you keep an audience captivated to the end after you've kind of "blown the wad?" Then there's the fact it wasn't' the most "PC" holocaust era story to make in Hollywood. Given this, the boldness to make Valkyrie had to come from a belief in the film; one that never waivered. This was a true story that needed to be told, and it was also fodder for a great caper. To make those two sentiments work hand in hand was going to be a coup in itself. I tried to delude even myself it would be possible to accomplish this in the sixth-month "in and out" scenario.

Then came the news that the lead was going to be Tom Cruise. For us and for Tom, the expectations (and nay saying), together with pressures of an already tough assignment, would now be ten-fold. Nevertheless, the intent was to make, as Bryan put it, a "caper." It was even decided that in order to confirm the "independent nature" of the film, we'd shoot in 1:85 (non wide-screen). Shooting in super wide might incorrectly convey that we were attempting to shoot Schindler's List instead of a thriller. So, at the time, this decision was a wise one to confirm this as a smaller "independent" venture.

But since it now starred one of the most famous actors in the world, how could it ever be a smaller film? No longer could Valkyrie be made under the radar and sprung on audiences as a pleasant surprise months later. This was a film that was going to be followed intensely; and therefore the pressure to make it bigger and wider appealing was deep.

How do you make a thriller out of an important historical event without belittling the very event and its figures? Add to the mix that this story is practically a holy one for the Germans. The German's were initially concerned that Valkyrie would be Hollywood's excuse to make a Pearl Harbor out of this historical event. This explains why there was early apprehension, in addition to other controversies. But once the German media and opinion-makers read the script and met the filmmakers, they realized the film was more akin to a Tora Tora Tora than the latter. But for a film to succeed as both an historical drama and edge-of-your seat thriller is tricky. In fiction, (or irresponsible historical dramas) filmmakers can take wild liberties simply to service the suspense. With a true story, the hands are often tied if in fact there's a moral obligation to be accurate and respectful of history. Pushing the limits of a true story without affecting the truth is a tough balancing act that often becomes an albatross.

Fortunately everyone involved in the production had the desire – at all costs (pun intended?) – to maintain intelligence, accuracy and reverence to the historical events. Sticking to these guns paid off in the end in terms of the quality of the film – much to the chagrin of the naysayers. More on that later.


Filming on location in different parts of the world is an experience many don't get to have. But if you're in a relationship, the underlying anxiety can take its toll on anyone trying to immerse himself or herself in a mission such as this one. There's no other way to do it than to dive in completely. For me, when taking on the editing and composing, it's like being hired to solve a long math equation. Constant pre-occupation. Waking thoughts and dreams are consumed. In addition to the myriad duties required to pull off the film, there's the other looming task of somehow writing the score. Let's just say that without Lunesta, it may not have been possible. (I should do an endorsement.)

Berlin is like one enormous construction zone. You can't look in any direction without seeing at least a couple cranes. I kept saying, "It's a great place, but it's going to be really nice when it's finished." The blend of history and modern architecture is beautiful and impressive. It's also a relatively inexpensive city. We were initially put up at the Ritz Carlton for 99 euro a night! The people were extremely friendly, although many of them still smoke too much. In my editing room, the portable air conditioners' intake tubes were attached to my window, which overlooked an enclosed courtyard – where, well, lots of smoking breaks took place. They're not big on air conditioning in Europe either. I couldn't stop imagining in the throws of a 1940s summer, heavily clad military personnel traipsing up and down the non-air-conditioned stairwells and not collapsing from the heat. I also thought about this when visiting Versailles in the summer before going to Berlin. All that heavy multi-layered clothing in that hot castle... But I digress...

Among the many great places to eat (of course great German food and that awesome mustard), one place became Dylan Firshein's (my first editing assistant) and my favorite. It was this Italian chain (originating in Berlin) called Vapiano. You choose what you want, walk up to one of the cooks, and they make it in front of you. It was really healthy, and there was something very addicting about it. Then we learned it was really taking off and that they planned to open one in Washington DC. Look for it!


Dylan takes out his frustration


Meeting Tom

Bryan knows that my comfort level in meeting famous people has gotten me in trouble by making some off-the-cuff jokes - like limping up to Kevin Spacey pretending I was Verbal Kint at a cast and crew party. That didn't go over too well with Kevin. I guess I can be like Joe Biden. I get it from my dad, who just has no problem being himself. (And I guess it's why I've always liked Joe.) So Bryan was a little apprehensive that at my first meeting with Tom I was going to have some turrets moment and blurt out some tasteless anecdote. So I promised to act lobotomized. Tom walked in the editing room, and within moments I realized this guy was genuine. He had no phony heirs about him, nor any phony heirs to imply he had no phony heirs. Down to earth, he's a big kid who just loves what he's doing and doesn't seem to ever take it for granted. He'll work himself to near-death to make sure it's the best it can be, loves board games (big plus in my book), he's crazy about his family, brings his mom to the set, and, a bigger plus, knows film scores. We sat on the couch as I hummed four different Williams love themes that all have the same beginning. Then we went on about the brilliance of William's score to Born on the Fourth of July, etc. I have to admit that even for me, meeting someone that famous was weird – maybe it was the security guards outside the door. But the person impresses me far more than fame does. And as the production went on, (ok, dragged on) my admiration just increased. Ever respectful of our internal process, he'd sometimes debate cuts. He listened intently and then would give his point of view. I'd think again about his reasoning and realized he knew what the hell he was talking about. The guy's smart and has that "these aren't the droids you're looking for" ability. Basically he's got a great sense of story, and no ego. It was rarely about his performance and always about telling a good story. ... Plus he laughed at my jokes.

The P51

Speaking of Tom, I diverge from the events just to relay a memorable story:

Early on in the production, my parents came to Berlin and visited the Stauffenberg living room set (actually a real home outside Berlin). Tom's a pilot and vintage plane buff; my dad, a World War II plane fanatic. They got into their plane talk, and Tom whips out a picture of his new P51 fighter plane. After my parents left, he walks up to me and says, "When your parents comes to visit LA, I'm gonna fly your dad in my plane." He looks me in the eye. "I'm serious." He then reminds me a couple more times over the course of the next few days. Months go by and Christmas is approaching. I've long since forgotten about the flying-my-dad-in-Tom's-plane thing. And I assume so has Tom. But, of course, my mom hasn't. She calls me a couple weeks before the holidays, "Johnny – now, remember, Tom told your father he was going to fly him in his plane when we came to LA." UGH. The last thing I wanted to do was remind Tom Cruise of a "promise" he told me five months ago in Berlin. I reluctantly emailed his assistant. Tom was in Telluride during the holidays, but arranged for his other personal pilot to meet my parents at his hangar (a sight to behold – That alone was enough for me). Another assistant gave us a tour of the hangar and the other planes and goodies inside. They proceeded to wheel out the P51, gassed it up, and the pilot flew my dad around for 40 minutes. During the flight my dad told the pilot of a near fatal accident he had witnessed at a Reno air show some 20 years prior. The pilot responded, "That was me." For some reason when my dad gets to that part of telling the story of this whole experience, he chokes up. I told Tom how much this meant to him, to which he replied, "Why else would I have all this stuff? It's to be enjoyed." This experience, among others, spoke volumes about Mr. Cruise for me.


Tom Cruise shows a photo of his P51 airplane to Mr. & Mrs. Ottman


Sync to Playback. Sync What?

Speaking of the living room scene, the script called for a waltz that Stauffenberg and his wife, Nina, would dance to when he returned home from the hospital. Here I'm in Berlin with no music keyboard or synth equipment. But we need this piece of music for playback. Tom, ever the perfectionist, wants to take dance lessons with Clarice van Houten (Nina) and practice to the music in the living room scene so that it's perfect. So whatever they were dancing to needed to be the actual piece in the final film. I had a melody in my head, but I needed a mock-up of it to play on the set. I called my cohort, Lior Rosner. "Lior, I need to hum something to you and have you play it on the piano, record it, and email it to me ASAP!" It was a funny phone call; me humming phrases while Lior played them on his piano. Fortunately it was just a piano piece. He sent the mock-up a day later, along with some of his own embellishments. So for a few days, Tom and Clarice danced to this piece, and a week later, it was played on the set over and over as they shot the dance. Bryan seemed unimpressed with the piece at first, and later I realized he was afraid this was some early indication of the score. So after one of our little talks where I re-assure him that a waltz on a record player was not indicative of the style of score I was going to write and that we were on the same page - he embraced it more. I think there's always that little fear in the back of his head that somehow I'm either lying about having a musical plan that's not goofy, or that I've had a musical lobotomy. Fortunately, I was getting other calls from the set that were enthusiastic endorsements of the piece. The dance was beautiful scene, but many months later we felt the sequence sort of log-jammed the drive of the story, and we cut it out. Never knowing if the scene may be put back in the ever-in-flux film (I often referred to as the "editing merry-go-round"), I recorded the piece with the real orchestra when we recorded the score. This became "The Midnight Waltz" on the album. I was hoping this and other deleted scenes would be included on the DVD, as it's always fascinating to show the film making process. But for now, the little piece exists on its own.

Planes and Soldiers

I remember early on in the production getting second unit footage of Hitler's contingent landing in the Eastern front. It was a surprising orgasm of German fighter planes escorting two larger junkers through the countryside on the way to the runway. It hit me that this was no longer a little independent movie (although it wanted to be), but a film with a scope I hadn't imagined when I read the script. I had assumed that like a cheap Star Trek episode, the external events like planes and tanks would literally be off-screen. The movie wasn't about spectacle. It was about attempting to place the audience in the time period. It was painful cutting down such endlessly breathtaking plane shots to the few that most effectively told the story of Hitler landing. A plane buff watching all that raw footage would feel like I did when Kirk and Scotty flew around the Enterprise for ten minutes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But we had a story to tell about conspirators, not the planes they flew in.


The effort in shooting lots of second unit footage in that vein (like hundreds of extras portraying the reserve army, trucks, exterior city shots, etc), really helped illustrate how the reserve army was jerked around as the conspirators attempted the coup of Berlin a couple times. I was also struck at how good the extras were in the film. It's common that extra footage is embarrassing, and it's all you can do to cut around goofy, over-acted moments. But these guys were as authentic as the tanks they rode in on.


Struck by Nighy

Not being able to watch many movies, I was unfamiliar with the actor, Bill Nighy, except that he played the octopus captain in Pirates of the Caribbean. So how could I end up being star struck by an actor I didn't even know? Well, as the editor, I get to sift through the endless hours and hours of actor performances, nuances, lack thereof, etc. It wasn't long before I was in awe of this man. The film was chalked full of amazingly gifted, extremely professional actors – ironically a few from Pirates. But Bill's performance and consummate artistry really struck me. From the ticks he came up as a nervous wreck general to the humanity and vulnerability he exuded, Bill was always spot on. He's also a super gentle, sweet man. One of my delights was during ADR (looping the dialog) and observing Bill's body gyrations as he said his lines in perfect sync and performance. It was sort of like watching C3P0 do ADR. Totally endearing. Had United Artists been able to send DVDs out to the academy members (no one received any customary DVDs for nominations – about that later), I think Bill might have gotten a much-deserved nomination. It was sad to see so many good things about Valkyrie be over-looked because of bad timing and other factors beyond the film's control. Speaking of which...



Its hard enough to work on a challenging project that's actually shaping up to be a good film - and then read an alternate universe being concocted on the web and media. In the end, I had a real awakening about the state of "legit" media and modern "journalism", and, of course, the insidiousness that can be the Internet. Much of what was being said about Valkyrie was utterly mind-boggling to read or hear about, and yet to say anything to dispel the misinformation publicly would have been stooping to that level and fanning the flames. Biting our tongue was a daily discipline. It's difficult to keep it bottled up and to allow the fiction to flow freely like a forest fire with no fire trucks in sight. And it did. Soon it got to the point where the film's destiny was threatened to be pre-determined by fantastical negative rumors and outright hate.

Who Makes This Stuff Up? And Who Believes It?

We owed a couple scenes we never got around to shooting in Berlin – namely the scene in Africa where Stauffenberg gets injured. Because it was an expensive sequence to shoot, the studio decided we wait until we had a cut of the film to determine whether we really needed the expensive scene. (Even though those of us in the trenches knew we'd need it.) We tried many versions without Africa and another scene (one in a church). It was finally determined that it would best serve the story to finally shoot the two scenes. But now that we were back in LA, this would involve planning, funding and tinkering with the script pages to make sure the scene did the job. Might as well get it right. We realized all this would take too long for the film to make its release date. Granted, when a film gets pushed, you assume the worst. But soon came the "reports" that the film was a disaster and "half of it had to be reshot." This was laughable enough. But the rumors persisted like an infection until there was an accepted notion that the film was a huge bomb – DOA. Soon there were "inside scoops" that we had disastrous test screenings where people were "rolling in the isles." Of course, at that time we had no test screenings of the film. But this fabrication was, of course, believed, and worse, soon being reported by mainstream websites like Fox News. This is when I took real pause about the state of journalism, and was saddened. Legit reporters, from newspapers to cable, were using information from gossip sites like Perez Hilton, of all places, as their source material. I remember ranting to my fellow cohorts that true reporting and investigatory fact checking was dead. When there's an intense agenda for something to crash and burn, made-up or contorted truths will spread. (I see it all the time from "news" shows on "certain" networks). It was like the Twilight Zone - I experienced one reality in the editing room and saw another on the tabloids in the supermarket check out stand, if you know what I mean. Celebrities are used to it, but witnessing it from the inside was sobering. Truly, nothing is at it seems. It sort of reminded of a moment many years ago. I had a Dukakis bumper sticker on my car and pulled into a gas station. The attendant looked at the sticker and said, "That's the guy who let's the murders out of prison, right?" At that moment I realized the campaign was over. The distortion-of-facts smear campaign against him was believed (when in reality the furlow program had been created by the previous governer). As history shows, once a lynch mob fuse is lit, it's hard to extinguish.

Anyhow, months later, we decided to really test screen the film in Henderson, Nevada. It's sort of like trying to find a non-tainted jury pool for a high profile murder. So, despite the fact we knew we had something special, tensions were high. But during the screening, I got the same good feeling I had during a Suspects screening where I could sense the audience was on board. But you never know. ... Then the test numbers confirmed it. And this was an audience as general as they come - a blind test. Normally you pack the theater with your core audience – in this case it would have been heavier in males and slightly older ages. But this screening was the entire spectrum. We then did some tweaks and had another screening a couple weeks later with an audience closer to our demographic. Again the test was a huge success. Elated, UA decided that releasing the film earlier in December would make more sense than Valentine's Day, of all weekends. Predictably, this good news was instantly spun as propaganda - that the move to December was simply a stunt. I thought I'd read it all.


Thankfully, in the end, the film spoke for itself. But the some damage was done: Because it was feared that footage from the film could be subverted on the Internet, the studio felt it would be wise not to release DVDs to academy members before its release. A DVD might get out and a scene could get re-cut and manipulated in God-knows what kind of way and become a YouTube sensation - adding fuel to the fire and possibly affecting the film's performance. So it was the only choice, as painful as that was for everyone, not to send out DVDs before its release. This kept the film from being seen by any academy voters for possible nominations. Therefore it made no sense to do an academy campaign for a film that no academy member could see. Although Valkyrie ended up being exonerated at the box office and averted the knife-sharpening predictions and desires for it to fail, the internet frenzy ended any nominations for the film being possible. Considering the arduous year and half of everyone pulling out the stops in their fields, this was a maddening disappointment.


This question, I'm convinced, can never be effectively answered. But I diverge here for a little snippet on the craft. Why? Well, I guess it's an opportunity to shed a splinter of light on the monumental importance of a job understood by few. Examples from Valkyrie can perhaps be a rough tutorial on some of it. To most, "editing" implies making something shorter. While that's certainly a facet of the art form, it's only a tiny function of the editor. Without going into an entire dissertation on what an editor actually does, the editor is basically the final story-teller/writer of the film, and his or her duties often expand far beyond just managing footage on a computer, depending on his/her relationship with the director. I often try to sum it up to people by telling them to imagine the position of a magazine or newspaper editor. Among myriad of duties an editor has on his/her shoulders, the bottom line is that the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of feet of footage, is in this poor soul's hands to mold smoothly into an involving story, create great performances, shape the characters, etc. It's really quite impossible to make the process tangible enough to explain. Unfortunately, generations have been weaned on that disclaimer before a TV network airing of a film: "This Film Has Been Edited for Television", reinforcing the misconception that an editor's job is just to "take things out." This is as true as it is that an orchestra plays the score off stage while a scene is shot.

Not Just "Bing Bang Boom"

Valkyrie is a good example of how scenes are often constructed to be longer and far more dramatic than the footage was designed for. We call this "protracting" the action – to make it feel like a lot more is going on than really is. One example, of many, is the scene where Stauffenberg leaves the bomb in the hut to kill Hitler. If you look at the footage in the sequence, it's shot pretty straight-forwardly. It would have been easy to just have Stauffenberg walk into the hut, leave the bomb, walk out, and boom. But this is the moment everyone's waiting for. It needed gravitas and suspense. In such a case, the editor is faced with designing a story within the story based upon what he has, or ... what he wants. Everyone works differently. For me, I write out a sort of script the way I would like to see the scene yif I had my way. (This comes from the days of cutting on film, where there wasn't the ease of just shuffling shots on a computer until something kind of worked. You had to envision the scene ahead of time with the general footage in your memory. I still think it's the best way to keep a "vision" alive in the cutting. This discipline can be agonizing, but it's well worth the effort. It's sort of like the agony a composer goes through writing his themes ahead of time rather than winging it as the score's being written. It's a lot of work, but makes it easier to design a better score.) Anyhow, then I try to manipulate the footage as much as I can to tell the story the way I saw the scene in my head.

When the attempted scene calls for shots that I don't have, the decision is either to make due by revising my mental picture and create as many illusions as I can, and/or create place cards (slugs) describing the shots that I'd like to have, ie, "Close-Up Stauffenberg: Hangs Up Phone." Just how extravagant these "pick-up shots" are depends on what is realistic budget-wise and/or just how impactful the idea may be. In addition to simple inserts for this sequence, I also really wanted some larger pieces. For example, it was never scripted to show Eddie Izzard's character (Felbgeibel) actually making the call to get Stauffenberg out of the hut, nor his reactions to witness Stauffenberg leaving the hut, etc. Not only would this add more suspense, but also the more material I had of another character's simultaneous and nervous actions would help me extend the scene and make it more heart-pounding. So while still in Berlin, we called Izzard back (I don't remember if he flew over from London or the U.S.) for an early morning shoot on a soundstage. We had him for a couple hours before he had to fly to Los Angeles to do a stand up show. As I mentioned, Felgeibel is supposed to call the conference hut to get Stauffenberg out of the meeting. An added benefit to shooting this was a small mis-direct in the sequence by not showing what Felgeibel actually tells the conference hut receptionist. The receptionist answers, "yes, sir" and leaves the room to get Stauffenberg. Eddie holds the phone saying nothing, looking a little duplicitous. When we cut back to the reception desk, I digitally zoomed into the phone receiver left by the receptionist on the desk, – perhaps Felgeibel has betrayed Stauffenberg.

Who knows? Tiny moments like this are yet another page to turn in the over-all suspense. We also shot Izzard reacting to Stauffenberg from a fake "exterior" window built on the soundstage.

I then had him run down a hall of the Wolf's Lair set to use at some point after the bomb goes off so that there would be more parallel action to cut to when Stauffenberg is getting away. (This replaced my slug, "FELGEIBEL RUNS DOWN A HALLWAY". It greatly enhanced the suspense, and also helped us bring Felgeibel into the communications room (as if the hall connected it).

Originally we filmed a creepy shot of Hitler emerging from the smoke after the bomb goes off as Felgeibel calls the conspirators in Berlin to tell them what's happened. (As was scripted.) He has a horrified reaction as he sees Hitler limp out of the hut.

But later we decided it best to not see Hitler emerging at all, and instead have the call from Felgeibel be garbled on the other end – thus placing the audience in the same uncertainty as the characters.

To end the sequence, I held on Stauffenberg in the car as long as I possibly could to personalize the success of what he thought he accomplished. Then by dropping out the sound and scoring it with emotional music instead of "get-away" music, the gravity of both the feat for his country and himself is felt.

My, What Beautiful Hands You Have

Picks-ups can be asked for during shooting if the editor can already see the need. The editor's always getting calls from the producer: "Can we tear down the set? Have you cut the scene?? Do we need anything??" Many times these calls come before you've barely had a chance to get the scene assembled, let alone receive the footage in order to make the determination to "strike" a set. Therefore some of the pick-ups are decided upon months later as the cut comes together and the editor and filmmakers fine-tune the story. To shoot these pick-ups, a specific day(s) is set aside, and pieces of the original sets are re-constructed in a soundstage. Backtracking to another scene – when Stauffenberg and his assistant Haeften assemble the bombs in the back room of the Wolf's Lair offices, the shots of their hands were shot frenetically, sort of in a roving camera. In the cut it wasn't entirely clear that they A) were making two bombs, and B) that Haeften ends up putting his bomb in his case when they're interrupted. So, I put in slugs that we'd shoot later. One was: "CLOSE UP HAEFTEN PUSHES PIN INTO HIS BOMB. CAMERA PANS LEFT TO STAUFFENBERG'S HAND ON HIS BOMB." When Haeften has to leave the room and stand outside staring at the other officer, I placed another card: INSERT: HAEFTEN SQUEEZES HIS BAG, HANDS SHAKING." This would help reinforce that he has the other bomb in his bag. When you finally go shoot these shots, of course, you don't always have the actor. Tom was always available even for the most mundane inserts, but the actor who played Haeften (the endearing Jamie Parker) was in London. No need to fly him out for a couple hand shots. So Bryan stood in for Jamie's hands. Not the best hand match in the world, but in the context of the scene, it was seamless.

Yes! An Ear

Of course, it's always preferable and rewarding to find ways of manipulating material to avoid shooting picks ups – and it often results in something far more interesting: In another moment of the hut scene I wanted it to look like Stauffenberg was aware of the call off-screen and bring our attention to the faint ringing he was hearing from the other room. I remembered a problematic extreme close-up of Tom's face for another part of the scene. While they were adjusting the camera and focus, Tom inadvertently turned his head, exposing his ear for a second. An ear shot! That's what I wanted. So I digitally slowed down and reversed this shot to look as though it was specifically designed to show him "hearing" the phone – by reversing it, it began on his ear, then moved toward his face – which, of course, added style and another page in the story.

In this same scene, to reinforce the geography of Stauffenberg and Hitler's spacial relationship to one another, I wanted to show Stauffenberg lowering himself to set down the briefcase with Hitler in the background. He only did this in a close up angle. But we had him in a wider shot coming back up after moving the briefcase later in the scene. By reversing the shot it looked like he was putting the briefcase down, thus allowing us to see his proximity to Hitler earlier in the scene.

Tap Tap Tap

When Stauffenberg actually leaves the hut, it was all about organizing the cuts from inside to outside in order to extend his walk as tensely as possible. To all of this, I added a subliminal heartbeat getting more rapid, and of course, the score. The final moment before the bomb goes off was a trick as well. Rather than just have it go off, I was looking for a way to create a pregnant moment before it exploded. – We all know it's going to blow. But not being sure when adds to the tension. I remembered another camera repositioning moment as it was aimed on the wide shot of the conference room and swung to the right, "off the set" toward the windows. I thought it would be a great way for one final "swing back" into the room if I reversed the shot and slowed it down to look like a purposeful "reveal" from the windows into the room again. I had saved a brief grab of "Hitler's" fingers tapping the map from earlier in the scene. As his hand come down in a wide shot, I cut all the sound to the scene, cutting to a close-up of the tapping fingers and recorded the sound of tapping paper. To extend even more, I then showed the back of him (slowed down and zoomed into), then again cut to his fingers tapping on the table. BOOM! It really helped the "I-know-this-thing's-gonna-go-off-any-second" feeling.

 A trusted editor also shouldn't feel inhibited by the script's dialog. In the case of the hut sequence, there was an officer spouting gibberish to Hitler about the state of the troops, etc. There was coverage of him saying the material on camera – although most of it was played off screen. But when the scene was extended, I needed him to say more stuff to fill the space – the gibberish had to drone on. In cases like this I would write and record myself spouting temporary dialog to be off screen. When the scene was finally in shape, the new lines had to be inserted in such a way that I could editorially return to the general's face as he finished up a sentence. Later, the writers would fine tune or replace my dialog, and then we'd ADR the actor saying the old and new dialog to be seamless. The same process occurs when adding lines for actors behind their backs, etc. I usually try to do my best impression of the actors until we get them to replace my voice. I did a great Bill Nighy, but my Tom impression was always lacking.

An editor may have no idea what he ate for lunch, but he's gotta have a good memory of all that footage, down to the most insignificant camera bobble or glass on a table. A minor example (again, among many) comes to mind: There's a little moment when Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) is confronted by Mertz (Christian Berkel) and Olbricht (Bill Nighy) in his office, telling Fromm that Hitler is dead. I remembered some footage from an earlier scene where Fromm's assistant is sitting outside Fromm's office looking behind himself hearing Fromm being chewed out by a general. So during this later confrontation in Fromm's office, I cut to the assistant as if he were overhearing this crucial information. Unfortunately, the door behind him was closed, and in the current scene, the door was supposed to be open. So my wiz-bang assistants digitally superimposed an open office door blurred out behind him to imply he was hearing this conversation. (These temporary digital "fixes" - rashes of them - then get refined later by the visual effects department.)

Additional moments like this simply add to the character's motivations and underlying logic of the story. Since this character ends up freeing Fromm, I wanted to imply he knew more than was scripted. So the editor's job is also to find as many ways as possible to enhance character believability and their actions.

Another weird example is when Stauffenberg and Olbricht first come to Fromme's office. After a ballsy comment from Stauffenberg, Olbricht give him a funny look, but his look only occurred in a wide shot of the two of them, and unfortunately during his look, Tom began his next line. I wanted a pause. So in the Avid, we replaced Tom's head from another part of the scene where he's just looking forward.

Another digital trick was added later to the Africa scene to reinforce that the military division in Africa was German.  What originally started out as a simple crane shot introducing the troops, later became a close-up on a cgi German flag, digitally racking focus from the flag to the wide shot of the troops as it cranes down. Again, a little visual effects touch that one would never expect to be there.

Films are chocked full of seemless tricks like this, and even now when I watch the film, I will have forgotten about many of them myself.


Happenstance can also be the filmmaker's best friend. In The Usual Suspects, the actors got giddy in the line-up scene, so I integrated the "bloopers" within the scripted material to give the scene a realistic feel. In Valkyrie, there was a moment where Tom - only able to use one hand – could not get the "ticking" bomb in the bag. Out of context it was funny he couldn't get it in, but I realized that in the scene it would be an agonizing moment for the audience. I stretched it out as long as I could and then used a close shot of him from another take where his elbow hits the table. By making his elbow hitting the table a "bang" sound, this became a little tense moment.

Adding Meaning to Death

The final execution scene in the film was another example of how editing can "poeticize" an otherwise grim scene ... (I could spend seven pages on this one sequence, but I'll spare you.) By intercutting key dialog that the characters had said in the film and "scripting out" the shots to tell a visual and aural story, (and scored with an emotional piece of music) a simple execution becomes a poignant and oddly "heroic" emotional sequence. The sequence was supposed to end with Stauffenberg's lifeless face and then crane up to see Berlin once again being bombed at night. But it felt unsatisfyingly cold and less personal to Stauffenberg. So I had no way to end the scene for the longest time. Having the ending unresolved ate away at me for a couple weeks until I sat myself down and asked myself what may be going through Stauffenberg's mind at the very end. That would, of course, be his wife and family. There was a scene earlier in the film made into a sort of flashback where Stauffenberg says goodbye to Nina, who has the children in the car. In that scene she looks at Stauffenberg, kisses him, smiles, runs to the car and drives off. It hit me that this would be the perfect symbolic image to end the movie with. So for earlier in the film, I cut out the ending of the scene where she walks away to the car. In the execution I resumed the scene as she smiles, runs away and drives off. As the car goes into the distance, Stauffenberg looks down in the foreground. I slowed down the shot so that his looking down took on the feel of bowing his head, becoming the last image of the movie....

But getting the execution scene to this point was a job that started long before it was finally edited. Much of the original footage was destroyed in a bad chemical bath in a photo lab in Germany. The execution location is holy ground, as it was the actual place the conspirators were executed. Therefore, getting the permission to shoot there was a highly controversial and difficult task. So when we saw the dailies come back looking grainy, dark and pulsating with a foggy haze, it was, well ... just another day on Valkyrie. Fortunately we got the location back again (a BIG deal), and because I had spent so much time in the editing room trying to salvage what was undamaged in order to come up with a temporary scene, it gave us the opportunity to get more shots we probably would have had to shoot as pick-ups months later. I had all my slugs ready to go. I'll never forget that reshoot night. Here was our final chance to get the scene, knowing we could never come back to this location again. There was already a palpable and emotional weight on everyone's shoulders not only because of the nature of the scene, but because we had until dawn to get what we needed. Tensions were high. It was freezing – (ironically the execution actually took place on a summer night), yet I was on the hot seat, being looked at with that question – "Are we getting it all?" We eeked out the shots all the way until we could hear the church bells ringing and this otherworldly sound of morning birds. Seconds later the night was gone, and we had to stop in the nick of time. It was pretty miserable, and reminded me of why I like staying away from the "glamour" of the set.

The Jerry Maguire Sequence

Conveying an army taking control of a government is an esoteric notion that's impossible to visualize. Knowing this, the idea (I forgot who's – I think Tom's) was to shoot a menagerie of shots of Stauffenberg on the telephone keeping the coup together in a bustling office that would be intercut with random second unit footage of soldiers. This would help aid the audience's understanding of what was happening on a broad scale. Filmmakers have to be able to quickly refer to sequences in a film, so we called this the "Jerry Maguire sequence"; and later making sense of all the helter skelter, non-continuity footage was enough for me to consider taking up heavy drinking. I remember being faced with hours of random shots and mumbo jumbo lines, and exclaiming out loud, what the **** am I gonna do with all this?!" And soon I realized one more element was necessary to clarify the events: I needed personnel in Stauffenberg's office marking off the secured sections of Berlin on maps to help clarify what they were accomplishing. The only way to effectively design this massive montage was to actually shoot the missing map material instead of inserting cards. So I had my assistants get a video camera. In the editing room, we put up a big phony map of Berlin.

I got the production to send the uniforms used in the film, and had my assistants Dylan, Andrew and Nolan suit up, gave them clip boards and pens, and shot a bunch of frenetic footage of them marking off areas as they criss-crossed the shot, thus helping to create the "busy" office. (Dylan was a perfect fit in Tom's actual uniform from the execution scene – squib holes and all.)

Dylan                              Nolan                              Dylan and Andrew at an effects review

We laughed that three Jews were playing German army personnel. Months later we replaced the shots that I videotaped with real shots on a set with other actors and a real map – although Nolan was back and ended up in the scene. This time they used crayons, which seemed odd, but according to the German consultant on the set, this is the way they would do it.

In the end, with sound design, music, adding titles over the exterior shots of city sections being taken over, and some added lines, you really got the feeling that the conspirators might just pull it off; It allowed the drama of the coup attempt to be protracted and played out as a major sequence, rather than just a beat in the story. Of course, if you really look at it, it's basically Tom on the phone, guys marking a map, and soldiers storming buildings.

I've barely scratched the surface. Let's just say film editing is more than the tap dance number the academy did one year at the Oscars to explain editing to the world. UGH.

(Tidbit: In the opening scene with Tom in the tent, an officer walks up and says, "Colonel Stauffenberg, Sir. The general will be here in four hours." That amazing audio performance was yours truly.)


During pre-production for shooting the Africa and church scenes, there was a window of opportunity to go record the score that I'd been writing the previous couple months. To digress, I remember when I finally made the shift to go home and write, and how much I missed the guys in the editing room. (And I miss them now.) Composing is even more solitary than editing – especially for me in that I have no music assistants of any kind. Dylan (my first editing assistant), Andrew, (my second/visual effects editor) and Nolan, (our apprentice), were three amazing geeks always around in the other room to keep the inherent humor of the experience in check. In the same room was the hardest working post supervisor on the planet, Isabel Henderson with her loud cackle that reverberated through the hallways.

Having to be in two or more different places at a time, I had to devise a writing schedule and game plan to get through the project alive and not compromise the creative process. If I used the Africa/church pre-production/shooting time to go record the score, then by the time I was finished, I would be have the music monkey off my back, be on hand to edit these new scenes and see the film through uninterrupted. To do this, I would need to score Africa and the church scene before they were filmed. I'd done this with a scene for X2, and simply followed the story on the script pages, writing more music than would be necessary – music I could basically edit with - long phrases, rests, hits, etc. For the church scene, I reprised a somber string version of the end title theme, as a sort of foreshadowing. In addition I wrote some "suspicious music" based upon paranoia that occurred in the church – ending in a big musical moment where the camera was supposed to crane up through a hole in the ceiling, revealing a bombed out Berlin. Well, the actual scene didn't really end up as dramatic as I had imagined, but I had a long piece of music I could edit with. It was a welcome exercise to just write to images in my head as opposed to picture. Both the Africa and church cues were not included on the album, but you can check them out here, below. Naturally, while mixing the music, I was getting dailies from the Africa set sent to me to look at on my laptop so I could answer that inevitable question, "Do you have everything you need? We have to leave the location forever tomorrow."

Ode to Expedia

One of the more memorable Valkyrie moments (well, one I can talk about) was when we had to go back to Seattle to record the final bit of score. My conductor (Pablo Heisenberg), music editor (Amanda Goodpaster) and I arrived to the hotel late in the evening to discover we had no reservations. Somehow Expedia dropped the ball. As Valkyrie luck would have it, (we would always say, "that is so Valkyrie") the entire city was booked because of two large conventions. After a couple hours at the front desk computer searching for other hotels, it was revealed to us that there was one place available: The Baroness. It was downtown, convenient, and "near" the hospital. At about 11:30PM, we were oddly dropped off at the emergency room of the hospital. Low and behold, a few feet to the right was ... the Baroness, neon light and all.


John waits for a hotel room                         Lo, The Baroness awaits!

The Baroness is a "medical hotel" for family members of the ill and recovering patients needing to be close to the hospital. We found the obscure entrance to the hotel – sort of a low profile door entering into a little hall with vending machines. On the small manual elevator door was a notice about early morning jack hammering and roto hammering that would occur. The notice was kind enough to delineate both types of drilling.


The view from the Baroness


My room was termed a "sleeping room" - about the size of a large closet, a fan that didn't work and a bed a foot shorter than I am. But we were just glad to be in some sort of structure for the night, and decided to go find some food. "Just down the street" became a 15-minute walk at midnight to find an IHOP. As we walked by numerous hotels, we would get out our cell phones to check availability. I remember us finally sitting at our table in silence, looking as haggard as the homeless people around us. I just started to laugh, and it became infectious. No words were necessary, just laughs. But the story doesn't end. Not only did we have a couple days of recording ahead, but we had to be up at 5AM the next morning to have a recording session via IChat with the choir in Berlin to sing the end title music.

The Internet didn't work in the hotel rooms (big shocker there) so we dragged ourselves down to the "lobby" which was attached to a small coffee shop. I sat on a couch in the lobby, "attending" the Berlin choir session. Soon my talking into the computer became distracting to the patrons, so we were asked to sit outside at a freezing table. Soon we were moved up into another hotel room to complete the session. I think back and laugh about the audacity of holding a choir session via IChat, and also auditioning mezzo sopranos to sing this crucial solo - all from a lawn chair on a patio.


Recording the choir in Berlin via iChat in Seatlle

The Music Approach

I've noticed that CDs (those albums you hold in your hand to read liner notes, see pictures and such) are disappearing in favor of online downloads. In realizing this, I figured I'd repeat here much of what I put on the liner notes for the album and embellish in areas I was unable to for space reasons. So forgive me if you've read some of this:

Simplicity and restraint was the self-imposed discipline that would work for Valkyrie. No trumpets, very little brass, and simple repeating lines. The concept was to take a modern approach to avoid clichés oft associated with World War era film music while also keeping the traditions of classic scoring alive, which I love. Considering this modern approach, I was concerned that I wouldn't be allowed to integrate my style of film scoring. Fortunately, all four "filmmakers" on the film - Bryan, myself, Chris McQuarrie (the writer) and Tom Cruise – had one thing in common: We worship the films of the 70s – and the masters who scored them. So then I knew I'd have license to do what comes naturally to me, avoid typical drones, and push the envelope by telling a musical story. Never did I imagine there would be 100 minutes to write. (64 min. on the album.) But once you light that musical fuse on a film like Valkyrie, it's hard to put it out. Unfortunately the scoring budget was designed for that old $17 million film that we were supposed to make, which got us a small chamber sized string section and not many days to record. (More on that in a second.)

The album exposes details not heard in the film because the score was intentionally designed to often be mixed under effects as a subtle thread. It was my concept to heighten the realism of the film by allowing the natural sound design (that I also like to help create) to be heard. Quietly twisting under words and bringing out story subtleties is difficult music to compose. This sensitive type of scoring requires very careful mixing in the final dub. A cue that's slightly too loud will no longer work; but too soft, the scene becomes passive. Fortunately, as the editor, I was there to be the fox in charge of the chicken coop – to make sure the balance was as intended.

Even though much of the music was designed to be atmospheric, I wanted even the most delicate textures to tell a subliminal story. Even in protracted tense scenes, a tender, sometimes painfully quiet yet lyrical orchestra was the idea – as opposed to a drone or some sort. This approach helps the audience feel there's a lot more going on under the surface – because there is. One example is when Stauffenberg brings the re-written Valkyrie order to Hitler's residence for him to unwittingly sign ("Getting the Signature"). The scene is over six minutes of dialog. The music had to sneakily pull the audience along as Hitler gets closer to signing the order, the cornerstone of Stauffenberg's plan. Recording in the chapel at Bastyr University in the thick of the woods (about 40 minutes outside Seattle) can be a beautiful acoustic environment, but it comes with its hazards – especially with very quiet music. When the sun sets, the windows begin to crack. So there had to be many takes on the quiet cues. To give the illusion of a larger string ensemble, the strings were recorded two or three times (doubling and tripling). This, of course, tripled the likelihood that the windows would crack, someone's chair would creak, a foot would hit a music stand, or a page would be heard turning. And all of it happened. Fortunately with pro-tools digital editing, you can piece together a cue from multiple takes. Just as with everything in film, the score itself can be an illusion as well.

The motifs are brief. For Hitler, a quick unsettling orchestra cluster, with a simultaneous heart beat and metallic twang keep his disturbing presence alive. Plot-orientated sequences were driven utilizing an "echoing" bass pizzicato and violin ostinatos motif underpinned with synthesized elements, one of which was, well, my mouth. I couldn't find or design the chugging sound I was hearing in my head, so I literally whispered "chug a chug" into a mic and then placed it through a filter. It became part of the rhythmic texture in some cues, i.e. midway through the cue, "Bunker Bust." While editing another scene where Stauffenberg and his partner build a bomb in a back room, I was in a rush to temp it with something. So I grabbed that microphone, yanked out a pad of paper and tapped on it with two fingers. I put this on two tracks in the Avid, delaying one a few frames to create a delay effect. What came of it was a little drum loop. Of course, we all got used to it, and it was used in the final score behind the orchestra. (Late in the cue, "July 15".) Another brief motif suggests the weight of the mission via dark string chords "modernized" with a drum loop ("To the Berghof"). Larger cues utilized balls-out drum concussions using tree branches, a log dropped on the floor, taiko drums, bass drum, slap stick and timpani. Percussionists love slamming stuff, and I think they enjoyed themselves. I love recording live percussion. There's just nothing like it reverberating around a room. (Besides I hate programming synthesized percussion – it's such a pain in the ass.)

The ultimate destination for the score is the final scene ("Long Live Sacred Germany.") The most weighty exercise was to make the gradual transition from thriller to emotional tragedy, being mindful not to "Hollywood-ize" this historic event. This emotive cue had to feel like a pre-existing piece placed over the scene, ala Adagio for Strings, yet it had to morph with the changing events on screen. Peppered within this cue, as well as other cues in the score, are subtle nods to the end title piece, "They'll Remember You," which is the music honoring the conspirators.

What Are They Saying?

On the heels of an emotional ending, end title music has great power and responsibility on how the audience will be left with the film. There had to be something different from the emotional scene preceding it, reflective and somehow uplifting. A purely instrumental approach didn't seem to rise to the occasion and would feel too much like what just preceded it. As I struggled with the piece with my co-writer, Lior Rosner, it hit me that making it choral would help it stand apart as a poignant resonance. I wanted lyrics, not oohs and ahs. But what would the choir be saying? Any lyrics would have to be an allegory to the film. But God knows I can't write lyrics. Then we got lucky. A friend of Lior's found the poem, "Wanderers Nachtiled II", by the classic German poet, Goethe. The poem talks of birds in the forest falling silent, with the last phrase being, "soon you too will be at rest." I got chills and we began adapting the melody to the lyrics. There was one problem: neither of us spoke German. We thought we had done a bang-up job, until I presented the mock-up to Bryan one night. As fate would have it, he was with a German friend. After the piece finished, the German guy looked confused and frustrated. Clearly, what sounded good to us didn't make much sense to him! We had split up language phrases and stretched out words as to sound awkward to anyone speaking the language. We were so concerned that it sounded musically beautiful we had no idea we were trying to jam a square peg into a round hole linguistically. This of course caused alarm bells to go off, and I re-assured Bryan that the lyrics would be fixed and passed through linguistic experts so he didn't ever have to worry about Germans having a problem with it. So we did just that to save the piece. My conductor contacted German language scholars, and we put our heads together to ensure it was making sense with the melody. As it turned out, mere hours before the orchestra session, eighth notes were added and quarter notes stretched to accommodate the lyrics correctly. Just in case, we also recorded a purely orchestral version of the theme with a solo cello carrying the mezzo-soprano's lines. It's an interesting rendition of it, but there's no comparison to the choir. In the end, the German choir (Rundfunkchor Berlin) gave it their seal of approval, beautifully singing the piece, featuring mezzo-soprano Sylke Schwab – all monitored via IChat from the lovely Baroness.


Life is full of irony. I tend to get grumpy at premieres because the theaters chosen are often not good for sound, and everyone's so loud you can't hear the film or the nuances. Why anyone would go see a film at a premiere is beyond me, aside from the party afterward. It never sounds the way it was intended. I always ask if they can rig a volume control for me at the premieres. Because the main premiere was in New York (in a performance hall for dancing – not exactly a movie theater), my parents couldn't make the trek. For personal reasons, (in the aftermath of my break-up) I needed to get out of Los Angeles. So my parents and I met in Vegas for a non-traditional holiday. My mom was obsessed with one thing: Seeing Valkyrie. So we're sitting in the theater, the film comes on and the MGM Lion opens its jaws. But the roar is, well, more of a whimper. I knew right away this was going to be two hours of pure torture if the sound wasn't at proper levels. Valkyrie depends on the sound design and music to keep the tension under the skin. Like a total psycho, I high-tailed it out of the theater, grabbed some girl with a walkie-talkie, and they kindly adjusted the sound to my liking as I stood in the side of the theater. So I knew after that screening, there was at least one theater in the world playing the film at its correct volume! It was a digital theater, meaning the film looked exactly as intended. There's nothing you can do to screw up a digitally projected image. It's going to be in focus and look perfect. But there's no similar fail-safe standard for the sound. The trailers they were showing were perfectly clear and loud, but the film itself was set to a sleepy level. I strongly believe this has a tangible impact on an audience's experience of a film such as Valkyrie, where quiet subtleties in sound help create that experience. When these nuances fall just below an involving threshold, the film is at risk of becoming more passive. I guess most films are so one dimensionally loud and lack fine subtlties in sound, that if they're a little lower it's not such a big deal. But for the few that utilize quietness and surreptitious sound design, a sound setting just a couple DB too low can destroy the experience.

Well, that's the cliff's notes version of the year and a half on Valkyrie. I leave proud of what we all accomplished in pulling it off and hope it gets a good place in the lexicon of film. If I had it all to do over again, um,... let me think about that one.


John Ottman
Los Angeles, CA
October 2009