Recently I was lucky enough to get on the phone with Charlie Clouser, a very busy composer famous for his work on the Saw series and Wayward Pines. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview which I let go way over time due to how interesting it was and the fact that I’m a massive fan of the Saw films and just really dug getting to hear his thoughts on the franchise and what we can expect from the next instalment. Over the course of the interview we discussed heaps, such as his approach to music, his past work with bands like Nine Inch Nails and how what you’re good at creating isn’t necessarily what inspires you. Anyway, take a look for yourself.
I’m a huge, huge fan of the Saw films and your work in them. I distinctly remember being thirteen and secretly watching the first one then spending the whole rest of the night listening to Hello Zepp on repeat. Actually, I’ll start off with a question about that; it’s one of those immediately iconic title tracks. Can you talk us through a little bit of your process for coming up with that one?
Well it was definitely an attempt to make one chunk of music that was totally different to the rest of the body of the score. Most of the score through the first half of the movie is just this dark and murky bed. In the very beginning of the film when we first enter the dungeon and they’re trying to figure out why they’re chained up and what this tape recorder is for and so forth, the music’s sort of inquisitive and not happy, but not dreadful. Then as things progress forward it gets a little more sombre and threatening and towards the end of the movie just before we get into the Hello Zepp area the score just devolves into crashing pots and pans and industrial metal and it’s playing out of tempo; just a total mess. And the idea was that you spend the whole movie with this murky thing getting darker and darker then at the crucial moment where all will be revealed through the voiceover on the closing montage I wanted just a total abrupt change of tone and spectrum and everything. None of the sounds used in Hello Zepp were used in the rest of the film, so it was just the effort to have this long descent into darkness and then an abrupt change into brightness as though someone turned the lights on in the music. So instead of big washy orchestral strings I used this small little string quartet that were just sawing away at their instruments to have this very bright and strident kind of forceful and tight sound on the strings and that little clinking dulcimer was the sample I had of a child’s toy dulcimer, and that’s the little jingle that starts the thing. So all those sounds don’t appear anywhere else in the movie and that was on purpose to make that cue jump out and change the tone and signal that we’re into a different mode. Once Jigsaw gets up from the floor and you realise what has been going on for the duration of the movie it’s such a revelation in the storyline and I wanted to reflect that in the music and have a gear shift in that moment.
So that decision to have a break in the music style established for the rest of the film, was that something that came from the writer/directors or was it your own initiative?
Well a little bit of both. In the segment just before the Hello Zepp cue begins, they had all this clattering industrial music, all this really messy stuff. Then they kind of had a moment of silence and this very pretty piece of music. What I wound up with was very different but had a similar gear shift and for James Wan and Leigh Whannell the ending montage was the big payoff. It wasn’t such a difficult thing to plan out and discuss; the only instructions I had there were ‘this is where we need the strong theme; if there’s anywhere where there’s a recognisable theme it should be here.’ But it wasn’t until I started experimenting with the sounds and worked up a bunch of the score for the beginning of the movie that I realised ‘oh, now I can separate this ending segment of the film’. Another thing I wound up doing purely by instinct was putting the Hello Zepp theme in a slightly different key to the rest of the music. That and the difference in all the sounds themselves helped to make it kind of as though you turned a page and turned on the lights. It wasn’t so much of a planned attack as something that just seemed to make sense at the time. Turns out we were right.
It became such a staple going forward over the sequels. Looking back over all seven films now, what are your overall feelings on the Saw franchise?
Well it’s weird because the very first movie was quite different to many of the sequels. In the first movie there’s not all that much torture and traps and violence.
Well you barely see anything.
Yeah, exactly! The actual moment of sawing is very short and it’s all about the anticipation and the dread of ‘is he gonna do it? Oh my god, he’s gonna do it!’ As the movies went on through the sequels they kept having to up the ante each time around and make each one more insane than the last. And to some degree that was probably a response to the type of fans who were really into the franchise and who were like ‘oh man, wouldn’t it be really cool if this machine ripped this guy in half?’ When I’m flicking through them I think the first two are still my favourites because they were more about the suspense and the trickery and the plot than just the brutal torture. Now that they’ve announced a plan for continuing the franchise, I think that we want to return to some of that suspense and anticipation and less of the ‘here’s fifteen incredibly elaborate and brutal trap rooms one after another’. And the directors, the Spierig brothers, who are doing the next Saw movie really seem to have a handle on that kind of approach. I didn’t know much about them when this was first announced, but as I watched some of their previous films I thought that this is a really interesting direction to take the franchise in, because I think they really have a handle on a way to reinvigorate what I think has become kind of familiar material.
So moving away from Saw a bit, a lot of your soundtracks have been for horror films or TV shows. What is it that draws you personally to horror as a genre?
It’s strange, because growing up I was much more of a science fiction nerd than a horror nerd. I have a deep love for certain classics in the horror genre; I’ve watched films like The Shining dozens of times, but that may be more because of my love for Kubrick and his cinematography and pacing and so forth than for a deep knowledge of the genre. So to some degree I think part of the reason I’m so involved in the horror genre is not so much because I’m an expert on the history or various nooks and crannies of that genre, but because the types of sounds and music that I am good at are a natural fit for that world. I’m often faced with, and this is a truth whether working on records of film scores or whatever, many cases where the music I’m good at is not necessarily the music I like. A lot of my favourite films and film scores are my favourites because they’re not something that I know how to do. One of my favourite films is Michael Clayton, which is this very subdued, sort of grown up thriller and the music is amazing and subtle and not forceful and created the mood of tension through the film. I’m well aware of the fact that that’s not the kind of music I’m already an expert at. Looking back, I realise that that’s probably why I like that movie because it doesn’t sound like something I was just playing on my set up yesterday. And I think that was true also when I was involved in records; some of the stuff I was good at was not the same genre as the stuff I listened to or liked. And I think that’s what kind of helps to push your creativity forward; if you just surround yourself with the kind of music you already know how to do, then you’re never listening to stuff that’ll make you wonder how they did that. Being attracted to things outside of your home genre, I think, is very helpful to drive someone’s creativity forward and I think that works with directors and writers and everyone. Look at someone like Christopher Nolan, who has a background in head trip movies like Memento or Inception, but then when he tackles something like the Batman franchise he’s bringing a different outlook to it and the end result winds up being interesting. That’s what attracts me to a lot of projects, that it’s not just something I already am an expert at. But I think why I’m involved in a lot of horror type scores is partially due to the types of sounds I’m good at manipulating. I’ve always been a fan of dark, foreboding dreadful chord progressions and ominous sounds and of course those are a natural fit for the types of films I’ve been involved in. So it’s kind of two things at work at the same time and to some degree I think that helps my scores stand out just a little bit, because as I’m not an expert in the genre I’m not referring intentionally to a million classic scores in the horror genre because my brain isn’t already saturated with that material. So it’s kind of a happy accident because it’s still kind of fresh and interesting to me.
You recently worked on the new horror film The Neighbor; can you tell us a bit about that? We haven’t seen much about it over here in Australia.
That was sort of a passion project for Marcus Dunstan who had directed a few movies that I’ve scored and was involved in the writing of many of the Saw sequels. He came to me and said ‘I’ve got this little movie, if you’ve got a month or two and can knock this out, I’ve had this script under my damn pillow since high school and we’re finally doing it’. And it’s interesting because it wasn’t a situation where the score would call for big epic action. It all takes place in two houses on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the south of America and some bad drug dealers live next door to some people who, as it turns out, are even worse. It was a cool opportunity because there was no need to deploy an epic orchestra or screeching strings; I could use a restricted set of sounds to create a claustrophobic, tense environment without needing to go big. Because it takes place in the rural south on dirt roads and such, I made the spurious decision to have all the instruments be local to the place, so all the sounds were made with guitars and there’s a synthesiser here and there but there’s no big orchestral strings that would sound out of place on a dirt road. As the film gets on some of the guitar sounds get more twisted and more mutilated until I’m probably the only ones who knows that they really are from a guitar. But it was a nice philosophical experiment to try to use those instruments as a starting point and foundation for this murky pulsating bed that the score wound up being. And it also has a very cool performance from Bill Engvoll who’s this sort of G-rated comedian here in the States and he plays one of the very worst people in the cast, a very bad man. When I first saw the thing I remember asking Marcus ‘wow, who’s this actor playing the nasty neighbour? He’s awesome!’ People outside of America probably aren’t familiar with him but here he’s a family oriented comedian who’s very popular in the rural south and he’s not known for being a character actor and playing these heavy parts. I was very impressed by his ability to completely change from a family oriented comedian into this very dark character. So that was also very interesting. And of course the main actor Josh Stewart is also from the movies The Collector and The Collection that Marcus directed and I scored one of them, he’s great at appearing under duress (laughs). He spends most of this movie under extreme duress.
You’re currently working on Wayward Pines as well?
Yeah, that was a project where M. Night Shyamalan found this series of books that detailed this story and thought that the material was appropriate to make a series or a miniseries out of as opposed to a one shot movie. So it came out of his camp and one of his lieutenants was kind of behind the wheel of the thing, so I didn’t have much interaction with Night himself. But it was interesting because I kind of came on to the project almost at the last minute when they were doing the first season and as such kind of started scoring the first couple of episodes without knowing the broader story and the destination that it was gonna wind up in. When I first started it seemed like something kind of similar to Twin Peaks, where there’s this creepy little mountain town where everyone is in on something and its gradually revealed what that is. Of course, that’s what happens but what is revealed is epic in scope and crosses thousands of years of human history. I was not instructed that this was going to occur until I was an episode or two in which had an interesting side effect where the first few episodes have a more innocent tone and a different approach. As it turned out, me being in the dark about the overall scope worked to our advantage because the score that I wound up with for the early episodes would not have been appropriate for later but it created an interesting shift as time went by and many of the musical themes are consistent throughout but the intensity level at the start is very different to what it wound up becoming as the stakes get raised across the course of the series. So we’ve done two ten episode seasons and the story might continue. It’s up in the air whether they’re gonna do a third, but in the original book there is enough raw material that has not been used up yet. So we may see another batch of episodes.
I’ve actually not seen Wayward Pines, but you make it sound awesome.
Well there’s some great casting; Matt Dillon is the primary lead throughout the first season then we have various appearances from people like Terrence Howard and Julliette Lewis. Those are usually my favourite kind of actors, people that just ooze personality and just have a great sort of richness to their portrayals. I’ve always liked Matt Dillon’s work and Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard are just fantastic, quirky and kind of unsettling to watch at times. The series is anchored by Toby Jones and Melissa Leo who are just fantastic in a different way and add a level of sombreness and gravitas to the storyline across multiple seasons. So it came out pretty good! I was sucked in and was really glad to be involved and I’d be really happy if they figured out a way to do a third season.
You’ve got a background in work with bands, including Nine Inch Nails. Personally, do you prefer that kind of work or composing?
In my work with bands I was always sort of a lab rat where they’d be like ‘hey man, can you cook up some crazy synth and drums for this half-finished song?’ Then I would scurry off to my little hole full of equipment and spend many long nights by myself putting stuff together. So I was always more suited to that kind of solo approach than sitting around the campfire and jamming out with the boys. So I think that’s why I kind of moved to film composing because that’s very much an appropriate approach. Slide the movie under the door and six weeks later I’ll slide the score back under the door. It kind of suits my personality to work in that mode where I can sit with the picture and try a million different things until I find the right approach.
You’ve got the new Saw film coming up; what other projects are on the horizon?
There’re a couple of things kicking around that I may see if I can squeeze in before Saw. If Wayward Pines comes back I’ll have to start that in February or March. I’m actually already starting fiddling around with Saw, trying to reboot the music in the same way they’re rebooting the films. I’ll be meeting with the directors soon, who’ve already started shooting.
Yeah! And apparently I’ll be meeting up with them to see a rough cut of some of the footage before Christmas. I think they’re on set right now. Of course it won’t be in theatres until next Halloween, so for once I won’t have to do the whole score in five weeks. So I’m probably gonna start on that in the next month or so.
Charlie Clouser, thank you very much.