Throughout the '70s and '80s, just as iconic as any horror film's imagery was its unsettling theme, with the opening music for The Exorcist, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street leaving a major impact on audiences. In the late '80s and '90s, however, the record industry and movie studios began partnering with one another to veer away from unique and disturbing scores and instead put the focus on including songs from popular recording artists, with the films themselves having to find excuses to include the tracks, which would then amplify record sales for these soundtrack compilations. In 2003, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell changed the game in a number of ways with Saw, igniting a franchise whose ninth installment, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, will be landing in theaters on May 14th.
If the film's narrative wasn't effective enough, Saw has arguably delivered horror fans one of the most memorable theme songs in the years since its debut, thanks to composer Charlie Clouser. Having previously worked with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, Clouser embraced his abrasive industrial roots to create a chaotic and punishing score that heightened the disturbing nature of the premise, including the well-known "Hello Zepp" closing track that has become a horror touchstone. Clouser's contributions to the franchise have been so important, he has since gone on to craft the score to each entry over the course of 18 years.
Ahead of the release of Spiral, ComicBook.com caught up with Clouser to discuss the creation of its iconic theme, evolving the scores over time, and his unexpected dream projects.
Header photo courtesy of Zoe Wiseman/Lionsgate
ComicBook.com: With your experience in the music industry and through the '80s and '90s and your work with Nine Inch Nails, was scoring the first Saw just a unique challenge or was scoring a horror movie something you had always dreamed of doing?
Charlie Clouser: A little bit of both, because even before I wandered around in the record industry for 15 years, the very first job that I ever had where I was being paid to make music was working with an Australian TV and film composer in the late 1980s as the third man on his three-man team scoring the last season of the original CBS TV series The Equalizer, which now is movies and a new reboot of the series. That wasn't exactly horror, that was crime, drama, and action. But the approach that we took, my job in that small army, was to do the sound design, the programming of all the synth sounds and to do all the drum programming and "scary noises." There was definitely some roots in what I did in that which translates into the horror genre. There was a lot of sort of evil noises. It was a very '80s TV show, but there'd be an alleyway with fog and headlights shining through the fog as the bad guy comes.
There was something in common with the kind of stuff that I'm doing now, but a lot of the sound design and the programming and the stuff that I did on record albums, whether it's Rob Zombie's kind of terror-core metal or the ultra-evil weirdo remixes for Nine Inch Nails and stuff like that ... there was certainly my taste and tendencies in how to design sounds and put together a track which had a lot to do with the same sonic vocabulary that you'd use in a horror movie.
The way I came into the Saw franchise was that they had apparently, James Wan and Leigh Whannell had, when they were starting this thing out, it was a small indie horror movie, it wasn't this global juggernaut and they had put together a temp score for their rough cut of the movie that had, not orchestral, thematic, John Williams kind of movie scores, but had very sound designy, dark music, as well as some industrial music tracks, like, towards the end of the film and their temp score. At one point they had a Ministry track playing out of the left speaker and Einstürzende Neubauten playing out of the right speaker because they wanted the sense of really brutal, industrial chaos. So that was a natural fit in the sense that I had experience making those kinds of records, but also I had some background in scoring. So it wasn't a stretch by any means, everybody thought it would be a good fit, and it was.prevnext
"The Lights Have Been Switched On"
John Carpenter has said on countless occasions how he came up with the iconic Halloween theme because he could do it fast, cheap, and he remembered his dad teaching him 5/4 time. That's how he's been explaining it for 40 years, not this long and thought-out process. For the "Hello Zepp" theme, can you recall your process of coming up with it, whether it was like Carpenter and it was just something that struck you or was there a lot more experimentation and development?
Well, it wasn't like pulling teeth by any means, but there was a very conscious plan that James Wan and I came up with, which was that the score for the main part of the movie wanted to start out with curiosity and not too much evil and then descend more into darkness and things get worse and worse in the score until just before the "Hello Zepp" theme starts up as we're in the final act of the movie, the score dissolves into basically banging on and pans and scraping metal sounds. The music has just become utterly desperate, much like the characters, and the conscious decision was that when the ending reveal montage begins, when Adam picks up the tape deck and pushes the tape deck and it says, "Hello Zepp," at that moment, we want it to feel like the lights had been switched on brightly.
The analogy I often make is that it's as though, for the whole movie, you've been watching a fight from across a dark parking lot. There's six guys, and it looks like they're beating somebody up, but you can't really tell. And then at that last minute in the movie, all the lights come on and all those dudes who were beating somebody up turn to face you, and I wanted it to be a very big contrast between what had been occurring throughout the movie and this final ending montage, reveal moment. So, on purpose, I used sounds that were not drenched in reverb like so much of the rest of the score was, and it's this little string quartet. It's not a big lush sound. It's these scrapey violins and cellos that are mic'd very closely and in your face.prevnext
Also the key of that piece of music is a shift from what's used throughout the rest of the movie. We're really wanting to make an impact sonically and to be simple and bold and strident. But because that segment in the film is also where there's a voiceover, there's Tobin Bell's character narrating the reveal, and there's all these quick cuts of the picture where there's flashback segments edited in. It's a lot of information for the audience to absorb, so I knew that piece of music had to be simplistic in construction so that they wouldn't be distracted away from watching and listening to and paying attention to what's on-screen. It wanted to have an impact, but it had to be digestible with a third of your brain. That's why I knew it had to be a simple little phrase that was hypnotic and could repeat and build without being some fantastical musical journey that would occupy all of the viewers' CPU time to digest.
Those were my signposts and the actual writing and production of the track was actually very quick. When you have enough of a framework, a conceptual framework like that ... with those parameters in place, I literally wrote the main part of the track in like an afternoon, and then finessed it through the next day and built the quiet violin turn-around section in the middle. Then on the third day, went and recorded it with real string players, and that was a wrap. There was obviously some late-night programming time with my circuit-bent drum machines to make the little glitchy percussion sounds, and there was a bit of production tomfoolery, but it wasn't endless revisions going back and forth trying to find the best solution. Because we had this conceptual framework that, in his infinite wisdom, that James had said, "This is how I think we should approach it." His knowledge of the genre and his concepts for how to approach those kinds of things also were hugely helpful just in terms of conceptual guidance and framework.
Similarly in the movie Dead Silence, which was another James Wan production, I had started at the beginning and it was fumbling my way through the first act and trying different things. He came over to listen to some music and he, in his infinite wisdom said, "I think what you should do is write that final piece of music at the end of the movie," and that's the big, thematic, memorable musical moment. Then you can extract from that the raw material to inform the earlier parts of the score. You can hint at these musical themes and gradually it will come together in this big finale. And, of course, that's, I'm sure, what every film music student learns in their first semester, but I was never a film music student, so a lot of this was learned at the elbow of James and his massive pool of knowledge of the genre. I mean, he's deep into the culture of Italian slasher flicks from the '70s and everything, so his knowledge in that genre runs a lot deeper than mine does, and it was a huge help to have him give a conceptual framework on how to approach some of these musical problems.prevnext
"It Ain't Over Yet"
Obviously no one saw this gruesome indie film becoming a franchise with the ninth sequel starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, and there were definitely times where the series felt like it had ended. In those lulls, after you had a few years of distance from your work on the series, were there points where you had wished you had gone in different directions with the score? Not so much things that you regretted, but things in hindsight that you wished you had taken a different approach to?
Not that so much as being glad that, in all the permutations of the lists of characters and the variety of offshoots of the storyline that, for instance, now with the latest release with Spiral, that's an opportunity to get out from inside the dark dungeons. Many of the movies took place entirely, like, underground basically, where it's always dark and it's all rusty metal doors and clanking, hissing pipes and stuff like that. So we went way down into that world. Of course, working with the different directors that rotated in and out of the franchise, they have different visual styles. My musical approach tries to fit their visual style. Darren's visual style sometimes has a gothic element to it where you'll see a body hanging, backlit in a foggy room with beams of light coming from behind it.
That kind of scene will tempt me to use an epic choir sound or something, which I wouldn't have used in a different scene that was put together by a different director, but in Spiral, a lot of the action takes place, not in some dank dungeon, there's even scenes that take place in daylight and outdoors, which is, like, completely out of character compared to some of the mid-franchise films and those kinds of scenes give me the opportunity to do more energetic music that's not just clanging pots and pans, but that has an element of energy that isn't appropriate in a trap scene in some dark room. A lot of trap-type scenes in some of the mid-franchise movies, they were awesome fun to do, and it would just be this industrial music beatdown with metal guitars and program drums and just total mayhem.
Sure, there's plenty of that in Spiral, but there's also this different flavor that would not have been appropriate in many of the earlier films. I'm glad that, after the first movie, it ends with such a twist ending and a sense of finality that I thought, "Well, that was amazing, but there's no way they'll ever be able to do a sequel." That's why I'm not a screenwriter, because they obviously found all these other hooks and ways to extrapolate from the characters and create a never-ending tableau of offshoots. And I bet that it ain't over yet, that's my bet.prevnext
Stepping Outside Their Genre
When rumblings of this new sequel started to spread, hearing that Chris Rock had pitched the story and was going to star in it, it seemed so absurd to horror fans that it couldn't have been real. Had you also been hearing those rumblings and were just waiting by the phone, or had Darren brought you in early on to let you know he wanted you for Spiral?
Oh, no, I heard about it right from the get-go. It's been the same producers, Mark Berg and Oren Koules, for the entire run of the franchise, so before any rumblings hit the street, I usually get a ping from them going, "Hey man, clear off your desk and get ready 'cause it's about to fire up again." When I first heard that, I was glad to hear that Darren was back on board to direct this one, and when I first heard that the life cycle of Spiral involved Chris Rock going to the producers and to Lionsgate and saying, "Hey, I've got an idea for a way to approach this thing without it just being Saw 9," I was like, "Fantastic," because I love, first of all, when an actor who you think of as being in a certain genre steps completely outside that.
And Chris is playing it dead serious. This isn't like Beverly Hills Cop where Eddie Murphy's just riffing and everybody looks like a chump around him because he's so slick and funny. And, of course, being Chris Rock, yes, he throws off a few one-liners and they're tasty, but it's definitely not 48 Hours or Beverly Hills Cop. It's not that kind of approach at all. He's playing it completely straight and he's great.
I love seeing actors that you think of as comedic actors, like Adam Sandler had a few turns like that where he plays it completely straight. Even Andrew Dice Clay who was in that one Woody Allen movie in a small part, but I love seeing people out of character, doing a great job and adding more depth to the personality that you thought you knew. I was definitely aware of the rumblings of this thing, right from the get-go and was just ... I couldn't wait to get my hands on it and get my eyeballs on it.prevnext
Having scored eight Saw films, I'm sure with each installment, there's some muscle memory of developing the score. With Spiral serving as somewhat of a reinvention of the franchise, surely you had to offer some new perspectives, so what was the biggest challenge with this or what obstacles popped up that you weren't expecting?
I knew that, because it's "From the Book of Saw," there will be some musical themes that do need to appear at certain points in the film, but since it's not centered on the actions of the character Jigsaw, and it's not centered in some evil lair or dank dungeon that he's built, it wasn't so much a challenge as a relief that I didn't use any of the musical themes and sonic footprints that I've used in earlier movies throughout the entire thing until, of course, things are revealed at the end and then some familiar sounds and familiar themes start to creep in.
It certainly wasn't a challenge or difficult, but it was a conscious effort of like, there are many themes in the earlier movies, which are tied to a character or a place or a situation. I could hint at them by just playing a little three-note melody or whatever. In this film, there weren't. I wanted to avoid doing that until the big payoff, so there's a very different sonic landscape, partly because it's outside the normal Saw film, but also because of the settings. Again, I respond very much to what I'm seeing on the screen and that informs the type of sounds I use and whether they're dark and dirty and drenched in reverb or whether they're brighter and harder and more percussive.
It was definitely a case of, for an hour and 15 minutes of this, I'm not allowed to use any of this whole sonic vocabulary that had been established for 18 years or whatever. That was, in one sense, it was much like the guidance of doing the first movie, it was, "Here's a game plan and here's a conceptual framework." I picture it in my mind, it's like being given a coloring book when you're a kid, the black lines are already drawn out. You just have to decide whether the clown's nose is going to be green or orange. When you have that kind of conceptual framework, it makes coloring in the clown's nose that much easier.prevnext
Amplifying Without Distracting
To circle back to earlier, scores from the '70s or '80s can stand on their own as albums, completely detached from the movie it's a score for. What is the process of creating an entire score that amplifies the impact of the film's visual elements, while also wanting to, as a musician, create an album and music that a fan can listen to outside of the viewing experience?
Well, it's an interesting topic, that's very perceptive of you, because a lot of times when I'm listening to other scores that I like, there's often, and something that I sometimes aspire to is, a lot of times the scores that I like, there's very little actual musical data in them and that's because they're staying out of the way of the dialogue and the story and the action. And they're not trying to signal too much to the audience and a lot of times, I've seen a movie that has a score I like and I'll then go and listen to the score in isolation, I'll think, "Oh man, I wouldn't have been able to keep my foot off the gas that much."
And that's something that, obviously, there's a lot going on in a Saw movie. So a lot of times I do have to resist the temptation to just put the pedal to the metal, but again, I use a couple of conceptual framework guideline things to help me navigate that. For instance, in a Saw movie, there's a lot of ... not so much elaborate chord changes, but compared to some other scores, there's a lot of movement in the bottom end. Like the root notes, the left-hand on the piano, isn't just staying in one place. That's just a tendency I have is to want to keep that moving.
In a Saw movie, I'm always moving downwards to try to have this feeling of the bass notes are going [deeper] and it may be, not even something that's noticeable by the casual listener, but it, I hope, contributes to some sense of you're being dragged downwards with the characters as things get worse and worse for them. The music is moving downwards and it's endlessly getting deeper and deeper. So having vague conceptual guidelines like that can help me add the amount of calories that I like to add to the music, without it being some melodic fanfare that requires that people pay attention, because there's a lot of times when there's just too much going on, the music can't require that the viewer pays attention.
I admit to being sort of handicapped from my years of making records, because I want a piece of music to still sound like a complete and enjoyable and interesting thing, even when it's separated from the film. I recognize that's a tendency that I should try to wean myself off of because that's where you get into the danger of making the music too much, it's doing too much, and it just needs to be a drone through this scene or whatever. But I still have that enjoyment in making a piece of music sound enjoyable when it stands on its own, separate from the film, so I try to temper those two arguments as I'm working.prevnext
A Step to the Side of the Mayhem
You've worked with so many artists and scored movies and TV, is there a project or franchise or collaborator that's still on your bucket list? They've even done re-scorings of things like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is there a movie or show you'd do anything to contribute to?
It's funny, the kind of movies and scores that I often love are probably not the kind of thing that the producers or the directors or the audience would ever think of me as a candidate for. Movies like, remember this movie The Girl on the Train with Emily Blunt? Psychological thriller. I remember watching that and thinking that is just a cool movie, and I really loved the score and I looked it up and it was Danny Elfman, which is out of character maybe for what people would expect that he would do, but it was just a great. Very subtle and full of attention, but not pyrotechnics, there was no flashy stuff. I remember seeing that movie and thinking I'd like to get on board with some of those, less sort of evil genius causing mayhem kind of movies, and more psychological thrillers. Of course, Saw movies are psychological thrillers in one respect, but I remember that movie Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve, which Jóhann Jóhannsson did the score for.
That was another one I saw and thought, "Fan-freaking-tastic," this weird, cloudy kind of score. I loved the movie, again, a psychological thriller, loved the movie, loved the score. I remember having a conversation with my agent after I saw it. I said, "Oh, I saw this movie that didn't set the world on fire, but it was really, really cool and had this score," and, foolishly, I said something like, because it wasn't like some Marvel mega tent-pole movie, "It's probably nobody in town wanted to score these kinds of movies." And my agent was like, "Son, everybody in town wants to score that. That's exactly the kind of movie that everybody wants to do because it's such a fertile ground for experimentation. You don't have to out-Alan Silvestri Alan Sylvestri, it's not the final theme to Avengers: Endgame or whatever." It's those kinds of movies that I'm always hankering to find a way into, because they're not that far off from what I already do, and I already have a vocabulary in, but are just a step to one side from the mayhem of the Saw franchise.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw lands in theaters on May 14th.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.prev