Further Down The SPIRAL: An Interview With SAW Composer Charlie Clouser

The culmination of our two-part interview with the composer.

By Scott Wampler · @ScottWamplerBMD · May 13, 2021, 2:12 PM PDT
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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 exclusive interview has been separated into two parts, the second of which is running today. In part one, “The Sound of Violence," we covered Clouser’s career path leading up to his work on the Saw franchise, his creative process, and his recent rewatch of the original Saw. Today we’re talking about the hummability of “Hello, Zepp," his thoughts on Spiral and his favorite Saw traps.

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Let’s talk about “Hello, Zepp,” which is probably the most recognized track from the entire franchise, and not only that, but it's an iconic horror track. In fact, I would make the argument that it's the most iconic horror track of the past 20 years.

Well, I like the sound of that!

Just going back to the original Saw, using that as the starting point, could you think of another horror movie that's come out since where there's an iconic piece of music like that, where if you hummed it, someone would know what you were humming?

Yeah, and I mean, with the classic horror movies from the '70s and '80s, that sort of approach was a lot more widespread, you know? Everyone knows the Halloween theme, for instance. That's one that you can play three notes of it on piano and people would be like 'Oh, yeah.'

So, my question is: Why do you think that is? Is it a matter of the studio or the filmmaker maybe not being as interested in the score, do you think? Is it that the composers aren't that great? I don't want you to shit talk anyone, but you see what I'm saying?

Yeah. Absolutely.

It's just not common.

Well, I’ll say this: in the first Saw movie, that was very much a conscious decision on James Wan's part and on my part, as well. As we were discussing the approach, my thought was that the movie should start with almost a curious feel. In the very beginning, as Dr. Gordon and Leigh Whannell's character wake up in the dingy bathroom dungeon, they're kind of like, 'Oh, what are we doing here? Oh, what's this tape recorder?' and the music isn't full blast intense darkness from the start. Then as the movie goes on and we follow Danny Glover's character into his insanity and his conspiracy theorizing, things start getting more and more [frantic]. We see characters falling apart as the storyline goes on. We wanted the music to come apart at the seams and to gradually be getting darker and to be moving downward in pitch so that it feels like we're being dragged down with those characters.

Eventually, when we're in the final act just before the 'Hello, Zepp' moment, the score has just dissolved into basically banging on pots and pans and scraping metal, and it's not even music anymore. It's just this train wreck of psychotic noise! Then comes the crucial moment when Leigh Whannell's character, Adam, picks up the little tape recorder and hits play.

That's when the 'Hello, Zepp' theme starts, and that was very much a conscious decision by me and James to make it feel like the score had just dissolved into this murk, and then when he hits play on the tape recorder, it's like the lights get switched on, shining brightly into the audience's face. When that music comes in, it's very different in character to anything else in the movie. It's bright and bold, not huge and, most importantly, it's a simplistic piece of music, because there's a lot that the audience has to pay attention to at that moment.

There's the voiceover narration describing the twist. There's flashbacks and quick cuts in the picture. There’s a lot to pay attention to! And the music couldn't be so complex or distracting that it would lure the audience's attention away from, 'Okay. Pay attention now. We're about to explain everything,' and so I knew that the music wanted to have a certain strident character but also had to be a fairly compact little chunk of melody that could be recognized quickly and absorbed quickly and wouldn't distract from all this information that's flying at the audience. Really, all credit to James Wan for saying, 'This is how I want to approach it.'

What was he like as a collaborator versus, say, [Spiral director] Darren Lynn Bousman?

Well, James is a major aficionado and authority on the horror genre, and his knowledge runs deep towards ‘70s Italian slasher flicks and that kind of stuff. He had such a comprehensive understanding of the genre and how it's evolved over the decades that it lets him kind of make educated decisions in a way that maybe some other people can't, because their knowledge doesn't run so deep, and he's endlessly enthusiastic, but he never gets distracted by some kind of pyrotechnics in the studio. If I play him some wild piece of music that I love and that he may love, he is immediately ready to say, 'That's amazing, but I don't think it's right for this spot in the movie,' or 'We need to think about how that fits in with our larger triangular shape that we're trying to build of the zoomed-out view,' and his visual style, of course, is a little bit different than other directors that came on board in the franchise as it evolved.

Darren's visual style almost has elements of a gothic nature. He would construct set pieces and light them in such a way that you might see a body hanging in a foggy room with beams of light coming from behind it, almost like that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Sergeant Pembry is hanging up on the cage. That kind of visual style would then coax me into using a different musical approach that fit with that image. In some of the sequels that Darren did, I would use choir sounds and other kind of gothic, epic sounds that I wouldn't have used in the first movie or in some of the others that other directors did, because those kind of sounds fit with his visual style, and that's always what I'm trying to respond to is what I'm seeing on the screen and make sure that the music kind of feels like it's a family member with what we're watching, and not running against that in any way.

Which of the trap sequences were your favorite to write music for?

Hm, let's see. One of my favorites, which was also one of the grossest ones, was the pig juicer, which was just so fun to score. It was really long, and I put all these metal guitars and stuff in it. That one was a fun one.

Another good one was the breathing trap, where the two victims had to hold their breath as long as they could to prevent the blade or whatever it was from coming down. That was also quite fun to score, because there were all these moments of silence where the music would be all big and crazy, and then as they breathed, they'd take a deep breath and try to hold it in, and the music would suck down into almost nothing. Then, when they can't hold their breath any longer, the music would just explode again along with them. So that was a super fun one, too.

But of course, the trap that still gives people nightmares, me included, is the needle pit. When she falls into that pit of hypodermic syringes, that was just so ... You can feel it, y’know? That sequence was also fun to score, because it has these scraping violins and all these ugly sounds that were thin and needling in their sonic texture, trying to fit with the vibe of what was on the screen, again. That one, I can still replay from memory pretty much involuntarily.

How did it feel, returning to the franchise after all this time – and with Darren helming, no less?

Like a familiar and slightly worn sweater! It felt great coming back, getting back on this horse, and I wouldn't be surprised if that horse ain't dead yet. There's still a lot of life left in the old nag.

Speaking of which, there's a lot of curiosity about the new one, not only because it's coming back after a long period of time, but also because the film came together on the back of a pitch by comedian Chris Rock. What’d you think about this turn of events, upon hearing about it for the first time?

My first reaction was, 'That's awesome.' I love when actors play against type. Chris Rock is probably not the guy you would have thought would go to Lionsgate and the producers and say, 'I've got an idea for how to flip this script and how to expand on the universe you guys have created without just making Saw IX,' you know?

Obviously, he's a fan of the franchise and of horror movies in general, which you'd think, 'Really? Chris Rock?' Well, yes, because he has a deep knowledge of this franchise’s storyline and characters and was able to find an off ramp, a sort of side street, to this whole world that they've built over the series and to create a new kind of off-shoot direction. Also, his performance is awesome! It's not Chris Rock cracking wise as the bodies fall around him, at all. It's him playing it dead serious, and the dude has serious chops and serious range.

How knowledgeable do people need to be regarding Saw mythology heading into Spiral? Do people need to revisit the franchise going into this? Are there certain chapters that they should rewatch beforehand?

That's a good question. I mean, it stands alone, and what it has in common with the earlier movies is, yes, there's a big twist ending, and yes, some people get hurt. But unlike most of the other movies, it doesn't take place entirely in some dank dungeon somewhere, and a lot of the scenes are in the outside world. Some of them are even daylight, which never happens in a Saw movie!

I noticed that in the trailer! Love to see some horror in the daylight.

Right? But, no, it doesn't require a PhD in the Saw franchise in order to appreciate Spiral, but anybody who's seen any one of the previous films will understand where it's going and where it's coming from. There's a bare minimum of callbacks to previous movies. Not so much, 'Well, if you didn't see Saw VII, then you're never going to understand what's going on in this scene.' It's not that at all. [Spiral] really wants to stand on its own and possibly be a new side street to the franchise, one which might have more than one alleyway on it. Who knows? We'll see.

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If you missed it, you can read part one of our exclusive interview with Charlie Clouser here.