Composer Charlie Clouser entered the history books twice last year: first, for being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Nine Inch Nails, and second, for composing “Saw X.” Clouser has been with the “Saw” franchise since the first film in 2004, and by writing the music for all ten films, he dethrones John Williams (who created nine “Star Wars” film scores) as the US composer responsible for The most consecutive film scores are US feature film scores in one series.
However, Clouser doesn’t rest on its laurels – Saw “Saw” theme), but takes a leap in new directions. “Saw Clouser spoke with IndieWire in an in-depth conversation about his work on Saw X and the franchise in general.
IndieWire: Before we get to “Saw
Charlie Clouser: Well, before I started, I had some long conversations with the director James Wan about what the musical piece should do and what it shouldn’t do. We agreed that it had to be bold and catchy and “catchy”, like a tasty guitar riff, but it also had to be somewhat simple so that it wasn’t too distracting. Whenever this topic comes up in any of the films, a lot of information is thrown at the audience, so it would be a bad thing if they were distracted by an overly complicated symphony coming at them. We knew it had to increase in intensity and energy to gradually build to a hugely epic conclusion while remaining anchored to the core melodic elements. So with this roadmap the form was created and then all I had to do was fill out the content. Quite simple, right? [Laughs] But seriously, it happened pretty quickly once I set those ground rules. I think I spent a day writing it, creating the string arrangements and programming the electronic elements, and then spent another day recording the strings and mixing the final track. However, I’m still a bit amazed that it’s had such a long lifespan across 10 films and 20 years!
What would you say were your guiding principles when scoring the “Saw” films?
It’s important to me that the music gives the impression that it takes place in the same place as the scenes in the films. So if we’re in a dark, crusty underground hideout, I want to use sounds that feel like we’re in the same claustrophobic place. That’s why I use a lot of dark sounds, metal string instruments and industrial drum elements. Another guiding principle I try to use is to move the main chord progressions and melodies down throughout most of the score, as if the music is helping to draw the viewer into the depths of what the victims are going through. Then when I reverse direction and start moving upward, it’s a big contrast and hopefully hits a little harder.
“Saw X” shifts the perspective slightly Favor John Kramer more than in the previous films where he mostly acted behind the scenes. How did that influence your approach to the score?
It’s unusual for a “Saw” film to spend so much time on John Kramer’s backstory and take an almost sympathetic look at it, but this gave me the opportunity to use some sounds and musical ideas that didn’t feel right in any of the films had earlier films. So I took a much gentler approach to this part of the film than I ever have before. Although there are many of these atypical elements in the first third of the score, I still tried to use some of the chords and melodic intervals from the larger “Saw” musical landscape, but played with sounds that were lighter and brighter, letting a ray of sunshine in Invade John Kramer’s world. It makes the contrast even more stark as we inevitably descend into the darkness.
The warm and hopeful moments are often the most difficult moments to overcome. Just because the music is simple and easy doesn’t mean it’s easy for me! These spots seem to require just as much time and effort to me as the craziest trap scenes. On the other hand, in the trap scenes, each one has to be unique and feel bigger and crazier than the others. I turned the knob to 11 so many times that it now reached about 76 and almost broke off! So the trap scenes are always a challenge because I feel like I really can’t repeat myself. Every note has to be something fresh and new that fits the visual mood of the scene, and there are no common musical motifs that I can draw from for the trap scenes, with one exception: the quiet, descending part after the trap is triggered and the victim dies.
How do you think the music in the “Saw” films has evolved since the beginning? Where did you want to stay in harmony with what came before and in what ways did you want to break new ground?
The music in the first film was quite simple in many places and had a certain lo-fi aesthetic that seemed to fit the dark look and feel of this film. As the sequels progressed, I tried to follow the evolving visual style and scope of the production and art direction so that the more hectic and grandiose scenes had greater music to match what we see on screen. As different directors have taken turns to helm different sequels, each has brought their own visual style to the films, and I try to follow along stylistically. Darren Bousman’s style, for example, seemed a little more influenced by film noir and had an almost gothic feel to it at times, so I tended to write cues that included more bombastic elements like choirs and epic brass, and to use soaring melodies that were the style followed how he constructed a song scene.
As far as musical motifs, melodies, melodies, etc. go, there are a number of chords and melodic intervals in my toolbox that are pretty much just “saw” chords, and even when I do a cue, it’s mostly ambient noise Not a strong musical content, I still use those shapes and motifs to trigger strange, floating sounds, and I think that helps anchor those sound design moments in the “Saw” world as well. But there are certain little “musical molecules” that I pull from the archives, sometimes with new sounds and sometimes with the exact sounds I originally used, and these places are intentional sonic throwbacks that take the viewer into places or moods should remind you of previous films. I hope they come across as an obvious nod to previous films and catch the audience’s eye as much as they did me.
Are there any particular techniques that you feel are unique to scoring horror films?
I think dissonance and atonality are crucial to the horror music scene and help reinforce the sense of despair and confusion that victims inevitably feel in so many horror films. The sound of unknown threat, the desperation of frantically searching for a way out, and the rush of battle… atonal screaming violins, dissonant low drones, and percussive “gnawing” on the low strings seem to amplify these feelings perfectly. Bartok and Penderecki’s music used in Kubrick’s The Shining is a great example of this. Of course, we hear some of these elements in all types of film scores when characters are threatened, from Indiana Jones to “The Batman,” so these techniques aren’t exclusive to the horror genre, but it’s true that in horror films you can really go for it Go to extreme lengths and really go for the throat sonically without it feeling like it’s too much. Then when you switch gears into a more melodic or thematic mode, it’s more contrasting and can have a greater impact, so the story gets to the point with a little more force.
Which other composers inspire you?
While they have nothing to do with the “Saw” movies and their music is much more minimalist than what I can reasonably fit into a “Saw” movie, it’s all really cool stuff. There’s the team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who wrote the scores for Fear The Walking Dead, Ozark, The Outsider and a psychological thriller called The Gift that I really love. Their music is very minimalistic, but still very effective and fascinating. Another composer named Mark Korven, who composed “The Lighthouse” and “The Black Phone,” makes really effective music with amazing sound design. He actually helped invent this strange instrument called The Apprehension Engine, which he demonstrated in a YouTube video, and I immediately set out to find one of my own. I finally succeeded, and this strange beast can be heard in my music for “Saw X”, especially in the scene where Valentina is particularly unwell. This scene wouldn’t have been the same without the sounds of Mark’s Apprehension Engine.
I always love strange and experimental instruments, and another one for readers to stroll through the YouTube wormhole with is Chas Smith, who is a great musician and experimental instrument maker. His instruments have been an important part of all of my film scores in the “Saw” series, starting with the first film, and he also worked with Hans Zimmer on “Man of Steel” and other films, creating amazing textures and super dark sounds. Get on the Google machine and search for these people!
“Saw X” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.