The Sound Of Violence: An Interview With SAW Composer Charlie Clouser

The composer talks his process, working with NIN, the first time he saw SAW and more.

By Scott Wampler · @ScottWamplerBMD · May 12, 2021, 4:46 PM EDT
Clouser Haken Continuum 2015.JPG
Charlie Clouser, photo credit Zoe Wiseman.

Chances are, if you’re immediately familiar with the name Charlie Clouser, it’s for one of two reasons: his incredible contributions on a series of classic Nine Inch Nails records (including 1994’s Grammy-nominated The Downward Spiral and its follow-up, 1999’s The Fragile), or his work as the composer behind Lionsgate’s mega-successful Saw franchise. Over the course of nine grisly films, Clouser crafted a series of vital audio landscapes that not only captured the grotesquely violent tone of the Saw universe, but accentuated its darkly compelling mythology in every conceivable way.

Simply put: the Saw movies would not be the Saw movies without Charlie Clouser.

Recently, I was given the chance to sit down with Clouser for a sprawling conversation about his career trajectory (which took him from scoring shows like the ‘80s staple The Equalizer to touring with Nine Inch Nails to remixing Rob Zombie to getting an early-morning phone call inviting him to a pre-release screening of the original Saw), the fact that he created one of the most iconic tracks in horror history with “Hello, Zepp” and – last, but certainly not least – his thoughts on Darren Lynn Bousman’s Spiral, a brand new chapter in the franchise which hits theaters this weekend.

This interview has been separated into two parts, the second of which will run tomorrow. For now, please enjoy part one, “The Sound of Violence," which covers Clouser’s years leading up to his work on the Saw franchise, his creative process, and his reaction upon recently revisiting the original Saw in many years.

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I know you worked in scoring for television long before getting involved with the Saw franchise...

Correct.

...But I'm curious about the path that took you from TV, to Nine Inch Nails, and then to working with James Wan on the franchise’s first film.

Well, as a kid, I played all different instruments – clarinet for a year, guitar for a year, in elementary school – but I never practiced enough to get good on any one thing. Drums were my only instrument that I studied seriously, and so drums began getting replaced by drum machines in the '80s, and then drum machines led to sequencers and synthesizers. You can think of those as just like a giant drum machine. You program in the notes you want, and they play back.

So I wound up being kind of like an expert at that sort of technology, the synthesizers and samplers and other ways to manipulate sound, and that's what kind of pulled me into the early work under a composer doing TV scores in the '80s on the last season of the old CBS TV series The Equalizer. That series had been scored by Stewart Copeland from The Police for the first few seasons, so it had kind of an established footprint that had programmed aggressive beats and evil sounds and stuff.

When I worked under a composer, I was fresh out of college, basically, which is where I actually had studied electronic music. So, I had a background in the technology, and when I got brought into that, it was on the strength of my ability to manipulate sounds and to sit down in front of samplers and synths and make the kind of sounds that had the right characters for the project that was at hand. All of that was a similar path to getting involved with industrial/metal acts, like White Zombie and Prong and the like, or eventually getting involved with Nine Inch Nails – it was primarily because I was a wiz at the computers and also had knowledge and expertise in working with all the different synthesizers and samplers that we used. I got brought in to Trent Reznor's world just to do an afternoon's work of sound design, and that turned into almost a decade of making records and touring as the keyboard player in the live band and so on.

Gotcha.

But the thing that kicked open the door was just my ability to not necessarily write a great song, but to create the sounds that had the right character for the song in question. And that was a similar kind of path to getting involved with James Wan and the Saw franchise in general, because when James had his first rough cut of the first Saw movie, he had put together a music score that used not John Williams-y orchestral fanfare kind of music, but used industrial music. At one point in the temp score, he had a ministry track playing out of the left speaker and a track by Einstürzende Neubauten playing out of the right speaker.

He wanted to use an industrial music influence in the score, in other words, and that was a natural fit for me, given my background in making those kinds of records. But also, I wasn't coming in completely cold, because I had worked on TV show scoring for two or three years. My analogy is that I was like the flight engineer in the cockpit, the guy watching the fuel gauges and making sure the engines don't explode. But at least I knew the workflow and the terminology, and I wasn't strictly a refugee from a band. That made that transition a lot smoother than it might have been for some folks who were taking a similar kind of route.

Did James Wan reach out to you initially on the first one? Or was it a thing where you heard that they were in search of someone of your particular talents for that particular gig?

It was funny. It was one of those, I guess, 'Hollywood moments': I had worked with the same music business lawyer for, at that point, 15 years or so, and all he would do up to that point was negotiate contracts for Rob Zombie remixes or whatever. As a result, I rarely spoke to him, except he'd usually call me on my birthday.

So when he called me on a Wednesday six months away from my birthday and said 'Hey, Charlie. I need you to write down this phone number,' I knew something was up, and he, as it turned out, had been representing or somehow working with James Wan and the producers in trying to get a distribution deal or a studio deal for their movie, and he spoke to them, and they were like, 'Yeah. We're looking for a composer that isn't just your normal film composer, but maybe has a background in industrial music and can give us some of those textures.'

My lawyer goes, 'Oh, I know just the guy. He's in an industrial band. He's done that kind of music, and he's also done a bunch of scoring. So he's not going to be standing there wondering how to do this.' It was literally through that sideways channel that he said, 'You need to call these guys and go and watch their movie,' and that was on a Wednesday morning, bright and early. By lunch time, I had seen the movie and was choking on my Egg McMuffin, watching the violence in the first Saw movie, and it was a go.

Haha, that’s great!

Of course, they were under some severe time constraints, as always seems to be the case, but I managed to jam out the score for the first Saw movie in something like five weeks or so while juggling a couple of other [projects]. I think we were in the process of recording the vocal tracks for the Helmet album Size Matters, which I was co-producing with Helmet’s Page Hamilton, and that was taking place in one room at my place, and meanwhile I was in the back room writing out the score for the first Saw movie.

And next thing you know, you’re scoring the entire franchise.

Yep!

When was the last time you actually sat down and watched the first movie?

Actually, just a couple months ago. It was interesting, because the first one's a little different to many of the others in the series, and when I'm speaking to people, they say, 'Out of all this, nine movies, which one should I watch?' I tell ‘em to watch the first one, because not only does it kind of establish the world and the characters and the storyline, but it also has a different texture and tone visually and musically than a lot of the others. It's darker and more subdued and more like a psychological thriller than it is a violent torture/gore fest, which some of the sequels became.

But that first one is kind of a unique, weird little island in the franchise. The second one then is another kind of standalone thing that felt very different to many of the sequels. Then on three through seven or eight, they took on ... Well, it kind of went down a particular kind of rabbit hole of the trap scenes getting more and more elaborate and the different visual styles of the different directors that came on board throughout the franchise. But I watched the first one just recently, and it still has a special place in my heart.

I rewatched it just this morning and was really struck by it. I mean, I was struck by a lot of things, like the realization that it was 17 years ago when this thing came out…

I know!

I was also somewhat taken aback by how young Leigh Whannell looked in it! He looks like a baby, which is fun, and I had totally forgotten he's doing an American accent in it...

I know. He's just great!

But mostly I was struck by what you're talking about: that it's not really of a piece with what the series eventually became. How did you feel about the ways the franchise changed over time?

Well, I certainly understand why they did lean heavily into the elaborate trap scenes, because those tend to be the big, attention-getting moments. After working on the first one and seeing its twist ending, I thought 'Well, that's a wrap. There's no way they could make a sequel.' That’s a done deal! I was pleasantly surprised to see how they were able to expand on the storyline and the Saw cinematic universe, or whatever you want to call it, to continue and diverge from the world that they built in the first one, and as those trap scenes got more and more elaborate and more of a sort of featured part of the franchise, I had no problem with that – partly because they're super fun and sometimes challenging to score.

Each one has to be different to all the others that came before, and I have to create a world of sounds and rhythms and so on that are of a piece with that scene and that scene only, but also up the ante each time. So each trap has to be more insane and have more insane music than the previous one. By the time we get nine films in, it's definitely a case of, 'Well, I can't do that, because I did that in Saw IV, and I can't use this kind of sound because, oh, that was the trap in Saw V.' It's always a challenge to find a new approach to how to deal with those scenes musically without just retreading familiar ground, and because the score in those types of scenes is so heavily dependent on a unique set of sounds, there's always something new that has to be built out. In that way, it's kind of fun. It's sort of like building a whole series of tree houses, but no two of them can look the same, you know?

So where does the creative process begin for you on each new movie?

It does take a little bit of planning, and if you just start at the beginning of the movie and go from there, work in chronological order, you can paint yourself into a bunch of corners. So it's sort of like there's a macro view, a zoomed-out view, and then a zoomed-in view, and the first way to approach it is kind of take the zoomed-out view and try to think of the zoomed-out shape of the thing, where the peaks and valleys are going to be, and to try, especially in the case of a Saw movie, to create this sort of big triangle shape, this big crescendo. It starts off at one level, and it's going to need to keep getting bigger and bigger until some final, ultimate culmination towards the end. But within that giant rising slope of density and action – and of course within each individual scene – when you zoom in a little bit, it needs to have its own kind of triangular shape of building to some eventual conclusion when the trap closes, so to speak.

Then there's also a sort of sense of climbing the visual rhythm, and many of the films were all edited by the same person, Kevin Greutert, who actually directed one of them, and he has a very rhythmic style of cutting picture so that a lot of my time is spent at the very beginning of the process with watching individual trap scenes and literally just listening to a metronome click at different tempos against the picture and finding the 'tempo map,' if you will. A lot of times, the trap scenes want to feel like they're speeding up, so the music is actually getting faster and faster as it races towards the conclusion. It can take a lot of late nights in front of the computer just typing numbers into a list of tempos synchronized against the picture and finding where it looks like the picture is dancing to the beat that I'm synchronizing.

It's not magic [or] rocket science, but it does take some intuition and some experience to manipulate those tempos so that you can have this thing that starts off at an intensity level of eight and goes to an intensity level of nine and then eleven. You want it to feel like it's speeding up in the same way that the picture makes you feel like things are speeding up, because I never want the music to sound or to feel like it's running counter to what you're seeing on the screen.

That's a bit of a tap dance at first, but once that map of the tempos and the feel is mocked up, it’s sort of like a coloring book. That's the black lines of the picture of a clown on the placemat at Chuck E. Cheese. Once the lines are in place, then all you have to do is decide whether the clown's nose is red or blue, and if you take the time to get the black lines, the wire frame, kind of stable and erected so that it stands so that it won't fall over, then the rest is fun and much simpler if you take that time to frame things up correctly and get satisfied with that.

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Tune in for the second part of our exclusive interview with Charlie Clouser, “Further Down The Spiral," tomorrow.