Interview : Charlie Clouser takes us on the outward spiral from Nine Inch Nails to ‘Saw’

From Nine Inch Nails to ‘Saw’ and plenty in between, the composer of our nightmares speaks to Kyle Milner.

Clouser in the studio (Credit: Zoe Wiseman)

Since the premiere of James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s original Saw in 2004, Charlie Clouser has staked his claim as the creator of some of the most iconic musical scores in horror cinema history.

Given his vital work with industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails (of which he was a member from 1994-2000), it’s perhaps unsurprising that both Clouser and NIN frontman Trent Reznor both gravitated towards the world of cinema. In Clouser’s work as composer on each film in the long-running Saw franchise, as well as the title theme for FX’s American Horror Story among many other film and television composition credits, his background in atmospheric, textural sound design is perfectly suited (but not restricted) to dark underbellies and relentless horrors.

I had the privilege of speaking to Charlie about the bold new direction of the latest instalment in the Saw franchise, Spiral, as well as a look back at his career as a musician and composer over the past few decades.

It seems safe to describe Spiral as a soft reboot of the franchise, right? Not a full re-imagining from the ground up, but it’s not immediately picking up from where everything left off. What were the key elements to you in driving Spiral’s soundscapes into this new direction?

Charlie: Well, I kind of describe Spiral as almost a side street, or an alleyway off the main boulevard that the franchise has been proceeding down. The Spiral timeline can co-exist with the Saw timeline, and maybe both can continue without one upsetting the other.

But in Spiral, since most of the Saw movies take place in near total darkness in some underground, abandoned warehouse or some damp lair, that kind of dictates a certain sonic texture – a lot of reverb, and a lot of metallic textures and clunky sounds that are off in the distance, down the end of the hallway. Since so much of the storyline and action in Spiral takes place outdoors, in broad daylight on the hottest day of the year, that allowed me to use a different group of sounds that feel more bright, and more pointed and drawn from an almost action movie toolbox, as opposed to a straight-up horror toolbox.

And of course, it does get into familiar Saw sonic territory, both in the trap scenes and in the final act of the movie where the familiar melodic themes come in. But it was the fact that it’s sort of this side street against the normal Saw storyline that meant I didn’t have to rely as strongly on the existing melodic and chord structure framework from the previous movies. 

There are characters who are not recurring Saw characters, like Boz’s wife when Chris Rock’s character goes to visit her in the backyard, and they have an emotional talk. So there were these great opportunities to do music that’s still kind of dark and moody, but not the full-strength, ominous darkness of a traditional Saw score. So you had that on one hand, and the action movie aspect in a couple of the longer scenes that take place outdoors, like when Sam Jackson’s character is confronting all the crooked cops after Zeke finds the pig truck.

Those scenes are great, because I could still have an aggressive sonic footprint, but didn’t have to make it have quite a sense of impending doom like so much of the material in the earlier movies was. It was a great opportunity to kind of widen the palette, but not abandon the toolbox.

Clouser in the studio (Credit: Zoe Wiseman)

That was one of the things that was most exciting to me as a fan of the Saw franchise: that it’s a new Saw movie, but it’s taking liberties and stretching out a bit without straying too far from what you come to these films to enjoy.

Obviously, you’ve been working on these films for a long time now.

Charlie: About fourteen years.

Wow, that’s really put things into perspective for me. That is a good chunk of my life – I’m only 27.

Charlie: It’s a good chunk of mine, too!

Looking all the way back to the beginning, do you feel that your approach to composition has changed drastically? As the years pass, you gain new influences, new approaches, new technology – do you feel there’s been quite a change in the way that you go about it all?

Charlie: There has definitely been a kind of progression in the way I approach the scores, but not so much driven by new musical influences for me, or even new technology. I’m mostly driven by the differing styles of the various directors that have rotated in and out of the franchise, and I’m always trying to respond and react musically to what they’re putting on the screen. Whether it’s the cinematography, the production design, the pacing of the editing, the flow of the story, the structure that they’re writing the screenplay to, whether there’s time jumps and flashbacks; all that sort of thing. 

So when I look back at the different elements in the Saw scores of different instalments, some of the movies had – especially the early sequels that Darren Bausman directed, he’s the director on Spiral as well – some of those had almost a Gothic element to his visuals. There’s a big tableau of a body hanging, and it’s lit from behind. And I would respond to that by using more grandiose chord progressions, and more epic sounds, and even using choirs and things which wouldn’t have been appropriate – or wouldn’t have felt appropriate – in, for instance, the first Saw film, which had a gritty, almost 16mm feel and a very claustrophobic, closed-in world.

Those big set pieces that Darren puts into some of his movies kind of spurred me on, and I was encouraged by the visuals that he was putting down; to respond to that with those more grandiose and epic, sweeping, ascending chord progressions and things. So I’m always trying to respond to what I’m seeing on the screen.

For Spiral, when I’m seeing scenes in the hot sun like when Chris Rock’s character Zeke is outside the crack house, ready to kick in the door – I would put a piece of music in there that was almost like electro-step. Very active, almost like an action movie, very high-energy and very sharp, pointed sounds and rhythms. Those kinds of musical elements, I don’t think would have worked if we’re creeping down a hallway in one of Jigsaw’s lairs.

So I think it’s great that they’ve kind of kicked open the door and widened the scope of the settings that the storyline can inhabit, because it gives me more freedom to widen the scope of the music that goes behind it.

It sounds like you’ve often been given a lot of creative freedom to work in tandem with what’s going on in the other visual and auditory elements.

Charlie: I’m hugely grateful to the producers and the creators, from James (Wan) and Leigh (Whannell) who created this whole juggernaut, to the producers Mark (Burg) and Oren (Koules), who have been very adamant about basically saying “you’re our guy, so you know what to do”. But that may be taken in context with, “but this time around, we have a different feel”, or “this time around, we want to make sure that we catch this certain aspect to the storyline,” or that we “really accentuate these flashback scenes and will do callbacks to the musical themes that were present when those scenes were originally in movie #3”, or whatever.

So I’ve had huge support from the filmmakers, but also quite a bit of freedom. The only kind of directive I’ve ever been given that seems consistent is “okay, this trap scene needs to be bigger and badder than all that have come before”. So there is to some degree an element of turning up the knob to 11 and seeing if it’ll go to 12. But by this point, we have such a huge volume of thematic material to draw from when there’s a flashback scene or an unexpected reappearance of a character, whether it’s Amanda or Dr. Gordon or whoever might pop up.

There’s always a place to go musically to call back to that and reinterpret an older musical theme in the context of whatever film we’re working on this time around. It’s very fertile ground for experimentation, but also not abandoning the past.

Credit: Zoe Wiseman

Over the years, I assume you’ve developed somewhat of a toolbox that you can draw from. When you approached Spiral, is that something you tried to avoid dipping into too much; did you try to work more with new resources?

Charlie: Absolutely. For Spiral, their game plan was “we don’t want to just crack the lid and blow the dust off the Saw sonic toolbox”, but to establish a new sonic footprint that fits with the story and the visuals and the new characters.

So it’s an interesting change when, later in the movie, we do start bringing in some of those familiar elements. Even in some of the trap scenes in Spiral, which would normally be the most likely candidate to dip into the toolbox, I did use some old favourite tricks – but there was also a lot of new material; new sonic instruments and new ways of orchestrating the whole mayhem that I wouldn’t have done in earlier movies. Because, again, those approaches might have felt out-of-place given the setting.

In some of the traps in Spiral, like the finger trap that’s more traditional and the Glass Thrower towards the end, those have more in common with earlier traps in earlier movies. They take placed in an abandoned warehouse or some darkened room, so in those situations I didn’t stray as far away from traditional Saw trap musical approaches as I did, for instance, the Wax Angie trap which took place in the basement of a police station along, not some mad geniuses’ evil lair. It was kind of in a normal place. There was also this element of Zeke and the other cops running down the stairs and approaching the scene, so for that trap I was using more action movie elements and chugging strings that I wouldn’t have used in a darkened, evil lair.

I was just trying to have my sonic footprint follow the setting of any given scene, and the darker it got, the more license I have to use those grinding textures and the industrial music textures and heavy guitars mixed with screeching strings. Whereas in a more real-world trap like the Wax Angie trap, that’s where I didn’t go as far down the Saw sonic rabbit hole as I often do.

It seems like your work with the Saw franchise has been challenging in a very positive way – there’s familiar ground, but there’s also always something to keep you on your toes.

Charlie: There’s always a problem to solve. I tried to not allow myself to be tempted to take the safe or easy way out, but to try to find a way to make each of the trap scenes different entities, to keep turning the knob to see if there’s one more notch it can go up. For a lot of Spiral, there was a lot of music in the first third that, on reflection, doesn’t sound like it’s all that strongly related to the Saw universe. That was kind of on purpose, to establish this side street that the franchise has gone down. I don’t know if it’s correct to call it a spin-off or whatever, but to establish a slightly different footprint that’s like a cousin, maybe not a brother to the original Saw landscape.

When you have so many films in a franchise as you guys do, it really must become a challenge to find that balance of retaining what people are drawn to the films for, but keeping things new and inventive and catching the audience off guard. That must be a unique challenge every time you come back to the drawing board.

Charlie: It’s great to have such a deep reservoir of established elements to draw from as needed. But on the flip side of that, it’s quite refreshing to have a new setting to explore musically, and to be able to swerve two tires off the road without completely driving the car into the bushes.

I think Saw lends itself well to that kind of direction. It’s a world where you can explore these different avenues, and entire genres in a way – it’s still going to be a horror film at heart, but I think people oversimplify genre far too much.

Charlie: Right? Because it’s drawing from action movies and detective movies and thrillers as well as the straight-up horror genre, at least in Spiral. So they’re kind of mashing up influences from a bunch of different favourite styles or genres of movies.

Reflecting on your work composing scores for films, which you’ve been doing for a long time now in addition to more traditional musical albums, do you find that your creative process has changed a lot as a result of working in these two mediums?

Charlie: I always draw the analogy that working on albums is sort of like painting a portrait of a person. It still needs to look like a person – you need to get the shape of the nose right and all of that. A lot of the time, even as left-of-centre a band as Nine Inch Nails was, to a certain degree you are still making songs that have a beginning, middle and end. They can’t be 22 minutes long, and they also can’t be 12 seconds long. 

So there’s structural kind of – not ground rules – but structural conventions. Even though we tried to subvert them a lot in the context of Nine Inch Nails, there was still always a question of, “should there be a guitar solo in the middle? How long should it be?”. So you’re sort of getting the shape of the jaw line and the nose just right on the portrait that you’re painting.

Whereas when scoring for film, it’s somewhere between painting a completely abstract Jackson Pollock painting, and colouring in a colouring book. In other words, the outline of the picture you’re going to be painting already comes to you formed in the flow of the story, the flow of the actor’s performance, the rhythm of the editing, and the pacing of what you’re seeing on the screen.  So you’re drawing your timeline of how long a piece of music needs to be in where it needs to shift energy, or where the drums come in, or where the drums stop.

All of that is drawn from what the filmmakers create. So in that regard, it’s like colouring in a colouring book where you’ve got this outline of a clown, and you just have to decide whether you want his nose to be green or orange. And the other end of that is you might have long sequences that are formless and abstract, and the music is floaty and squishy. That’s when you’re getting into sort of abstract art, Jackson Pollock territory where it doesn’t need to look like a person, this painting that you’re creating. 

It needs to be interesting and to serve the story and the picture. But it’s not like a car that won’t run correctly if it only has three tires. If you want, you can make it only have one tire and still function as a vehicle to the story.

What attracted me to working with Nine Inch Nails was that in terms of quote-unquote ‘rock bands’, Trent’s work with the band in general is one of the more abstract and far-out interpretations of that context. There was plenty of opportunity for wild sonic experimentation, wild late nights of studio trickery, but also subverting the song structure. There were many Nine Inch Nails songs that did have giant, long sections with no guitar solo. So there was both a subversive quality to the structural side of it, as well as to the sonic side of it. Both of these were hugely interesting to me. So it was a great opportunity to explore some of that, whilst not veering totally off the rails and making abstract meditation music or something.

One of the greatest strengths of Nine Inch Nails’ music is the ability to craft such memorable, incredible songs in terms of song structure, but also that experimentation you talk about – an album you can sit down to and enjoy, or dance to, but once you put on a pair of good headphones you can feel these industrial textures throbbing in the back of your throat.

Charlie: Those were the type of records that most intrigued and interested me before I was involved in making records; those slightly more experimental albums that had unusual structure in terms of their timeline, but also had wild sonic experimentation. So that’s why I’ve kind of favoured anything from Pink Floyd to Talking Heads, and pretty much anything that Brian Eno worked on; Roxy Music and art-rock kind of acts that had more free sonic and structural experimentation going on.

It’s great that you’re still able to scratch that itch in the film world. I love speaking to people involved in composition, because it’s such an involved process the whole way through. 

Charlie: It’s a lot of what I enjoy about it, and a skill that I try to remind myself to develop. A lot of it is a reactive process. Even though I might be stuck in my studio all by myself with a copy of the movie, it still feels like a collaboration and some kind of dance performance between me and the filmmakers. Whether it’s the actors, the editor, the director, the production designer or cinematographer, by necessity it needs to feel like a collaboration even if due to scheduling or COVID we’re not actually in the same room for every minute. It still needs to feel like we’re all working towards the same destination.

I’m fascinated to see how much that will develop in the next few years. With COVID, people have had to make these temporary changes to how they go about collaborating, but a lot of that may very well become long-term. People have become a lot more comfortable working together on Zoom and such, and while it might not be the exact same experience, it can work well enough.

Charlie: I did see a fascinating piece on how Trent (Reznor) and Atticus (Ross) completed the recording of the live orchestra for their score for Mank, which was not a synthesiser movie score at all. And it had to be done during COVID lockdown, so it was very involved logistics on their part. 

In terms of recording, each musician recorded their individual parts for the orchestra at home, by themselves. Then Trent and Atticus received all the files and assembled them into what, for all intents and purposes, feels like a small orchestra playing in a room together, which is a huge feat of production logistics and filling out FedEx air bills to send microphones and equipment across the country. But it’s also a feat of artistic clarity that they were able to not let the weirdness of the logistics sidetrack their view of the goal.

When I listened to the score for Mank, to me it sounds like a classic Bernard Herrmann movie score that’s taking place with a small orchestra in a reasonably sized room. It sounds like everybody’s in the room together, even though that never happened in real life.

For how crappy a situation this is for everybody around the world, it’s incredible what comes out of it in terms of ingenuity and trying to make things work, because you have no choice but to make things work.

Charlie: Yeah. My studio is located next to my house and I don’t have a big crew of assistants and interns. The situation with the COVID lockdown didn’t completely upset the apple cart for me the same way it did for a lot of higher-level film composers who may have a dedicated studio with a staff on hand. So I’m sure there were restrictions and inconveniences that they’ve had to deal with that I probably did, because my operation is more compact.

Of course, all my friends in bands in and in the live touring industry, the wheels came off their car for this past year in a big way. So it’s nice to see now with vaccination rates going up and infection rates going down that there’s some murmuring of the live touring industry getting back on its feet. There are some tours booked for the fall, so I’ll be excited to see my friends get back on the road so they don’t succumb to cabin fever.

When we first went into lockdown here in New Zealand in March last year, I had about seven dream concerts lined up. I had tickets to all these bucket-list shows, and one-by-one they all got cancelled or postponed. So hopefully some better times in the music world and world in general are ahead.

Charlie: The only two that I had tickets for that were cancelled were Kraftwerk and Roger Waters. Those were both bitter pills to swallow. I’ve seen Kraftwerk dozens of times, but it’s always awesome. And I’ve seen Roger Waters quite a few times as well, but for me, a Roger Waters show is definitely bucket-list territory – a crawl through broken glass to get to the concert kind of thing. His tour was postponed, and the gig that was supposed to be in September of 2020 is now September of 2022. 

So I have another 18 months to wait, but I’ll be there. I don’t care what I have to go through to get there. It’s funny, my wife and I were scheduled for a trip to Australia and New Zealand, and our departure for Los Angeles was scheduled for two days after lockdown eventually happened. If we’d made that flight, I’d still probably be stuck down under. We’d be trapped. 

But we travel to Australia usually at least once a year, and this time we had a side trip. I’ve been to New Zealand when touring with Nine Inch Nails a few times, but this would’ve been the first time that we’ve just set out to wander the North Island. I was bitterly disappointed  that our flights were cancelled, but we’re going to reschedule. We’ll be down there soon. 

That’s fantastic to hear. It’s been difficult everywhere, but I’m thankful to have been here in particular. 

Charlie: New Zealand seems to really have handled it in a very mature, thoughtful and compassionate way. Since it’s such a small population, the potential for a virus like that to run roughshod over the whole population was high. So it was good to see that Jacinda Ardern had the support of pretty much the population of Los Angeles. Maybe not complete support, but she really jumped into the driver’s seat in that situation. We were quite envious, as you can imagine, comparing how New Zealand was dealing with the COVID situation to how the Trump administration was dealing with it – or not dealing with it.

We Americans all have a huge crush on her and just wish that she were our President too.

Was Jigsaw originally supposed to be in Spiral?

Check out the trailer for Son, coming July 8 on Shudder