SAWing One String at a Time, Interview with Composer Charlie Clouser

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Composer and original Nine Inch Nails band member Charlie Clouser is no stranger to scoring darker projects having scored the entire SAW franchise, Dead Silence, Resident Evil: Extinction, Syfy’s Childhood’s End and FOX’s hit show Wayward Pines to name a few. His latest film project, The Neighbor, is reuniting him with horror writer/director Marcus Dunstan whom he previously worked with on the The Collection.

In this exclusive interview we talk to Charlie about everything from The Neighbor to some of his previous titles including the SAW films.

Looking back when the first Saw came out in 2004, I remember everyone everywhere was talking about the film.  The film was the start to a very successful franchise as well as the directing career of James Wan.  How did you get involved with the first Saw? And how was it working with James Wan and Leigh Whannell?

Charlie Clouser:  I got involved in the first SAW movie through my lawyer, of all people.  He called me one day and told me about these two young filmmakers who had an amazing little horror movie with a temp score full of industrial music.  They had found a couple of very obscure remixes I had done and had bits and pieces of them, as well as music from Einsturzende Neubaten, Ministry, and lots of other really heavy music In their temp music track for the film.  I had been involved in scoring in the early nineties, working as a programmer for a composer in New York, before my years in the Nine Inch Nails camp, and after leaving NIN in 2001 I was just getting back into that world when SAW dropped into my lap, so the timing was perfect.

What is your favorite Saw movie and why?

Charlie Clouser:  I think my favorite of all the SAW films is still the first one, because of that big twist ending that can never be repeated once the secret is revealed.  The first film was also a lot less violent than the rest of the sequels, and was more about tension and suspense than blood and gore, so the build-up at the end seemed like it hit harder since it was so unexpected.  In close second would be the second film in the series, where the story goes a little deeper into Jigsaw’s back story.  I had a lot of fun with the score for that one because I was able to get old friends like Wes Borland and Danny Lohner involved and really cook up some ugly sounds.

You’ve worked with Marcus Dunstan on several projects including the upcoming film, The Neighbor. How has it been working with Marcus Dunstan? And can you give us some insight on the process?

Charlie Clouser:  Marcus is a joy to work with.  He’s so enthusiastic and positive and involved in my process, and he has great ideas about where the score can adopt an aspect of the “epic dirge song”.  In both “The Collection” and “The Neighbor” there are big moments in the score where we get these slow, heavy, almost industrial rock song-like pieces with big guitars and drums, and those moments have been really effective.  Marcus has a really clear idea of how to build tension and release, and how to help those moments through music, and also has deep knowledge of music, so it’s easy to sit with him and play different ideas for him, and work together to get right feeling out of the score.

The Neighbor

How is your score for The Neighbor different than some of your other scores you have previously done?

Charlie Clouser:  For “The Neighbor” I thought the score should match the geographic location in which the film takes place, which is a dirt road in the rural south, so I based the sound palette on guitars instead of orchestral sounds.  I though the epic nature of the big orchestral stuff just didn’t match what I was seeing on the screen, so I didn’t use any strings or brass or anything like that.  There’s some semi-normal sounds that are recognizable as guitars, but lots of the other heavily processed textures and rhythms were also made with guitar sounds as the starting points.  It’s a little more raw and minimalist than a lot of the stuff I’ve done, but I thought that would be a better fit for the raw and gritty feel of the characters and locations.  I always loved the score to “Sling Blade”, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and the way that Daniel Lanois was able to create such dark and menacing moments with familiar guitar sounds was definitely an inspiration on this one.

How has your experience as a member of Nine Inch Nails influenced your approach to composing films?

Charlie Clouser:  During my years in Nine Inch Nails I was able to refine some of my approaches to creating dark and heavy moods with simple sounds, and it was a great opportunity to experiment with heavy processing of sounds that would often lead to unexpected results.  I try to draw from my experience in those years when developing the sound palette for a project, and also to keep in mind Trent’s tendency to do the opposite of what’s expected or obvious in the composition process.  We would often to the exact opposite of things that would be normal or traditional in record production, like putting a crash cymbal on the downbeat of the chorus to a song to make it hit harder.  If you can make a piece of music work without relying on the same tricks that everybody else does, it can make the result so much more effective and unique, and I try to do that whenever I can.

And what was the wildest and/weirdest experience you have had on the road with the band?

Charlie Clouser:  In terms of weird and wild experiences on the road with NIN, where to begin?  Maybe when Mr. Lift-o from the Jim Rose Circus tore out a piercing while attempting to lift too heavy an object suspended from a sensitive body part?  Perhaps riding on a two-story tall float in a Mardi Gras parade in full mask and costume, throwing beads for ten hours while standing next to Rob Halford from Judas Priest?  But the most surreal experience from my touring years is probably having my portrait painted by David Bowie backstage during our tour together; that was something that doesn’t happen every day.

It’s no secret that the score can make or break a horror film. Many horror fans are also aspiring indie filmmakers, musicians, and composers.  Do you have any advice for these indie artists that would help them break into the industry?

Charlie Clouser:  One key element of getting a foothold in either filmmaking or music seems to be to forge a unique vision or sound right from the start.  This is something that everyone from James Wan to Trent Reznor has done.  I try to avoid the obvious, the stuff that everyone else is doing, because I figure if there’s tons of people that are just killing it by taking a certain approach, then if I take a similar approach then I’ll just be in line behind them.  So if I can get my desired results without doing the same things everyone else is doing, there’s a good chance that those results will have a chance of standing out as something new and different.  Fortunately for me, my tastes run a little left of center, so this isn’t really a struggle or even a “front brain” approach, it’s just sort of my natural tendency.  But for anyone getting started, I’d say don’t just be yourself, be more of yourself than anyone else could ever be.  Widen the gap as much as possible between the ordinary path and the path you take, and this might put you in a unique space that will be a refreshing change to the status quo.

What is the oddest object or sample that you have used in a score?

Charlie Clouser:  One of my favorite sounds is a recording of the squealing brakes of a NYC subway train pulling into the Union Square station that I recorded with a cassette Walkman back in the late eighties.  I use this sample quite frequently; it almost sounds like a string section, but has an unsteady pitch and a distant quality that gives it a haunting feel.  Another odd sample I love is a recording of a big electric motor starting up that I recorded at a ski area in Vermont.  It’s just this huge, heavy grinding sound, and when I play it from a keyboard it sounds like a massive distorted guitar chord.  Both the subway brakes and the ski lift motor are frequent flyers on many of my scores.  At the other end of the spectrum, some of my favorite instruments are made by a very innovative musician and metal sculptor named Chas Smith, who builds devices that are somewhere between sonic sculptures and playable instruments.  One instrument that he built is called Que Lastas, and I used this quite a bit on the SAW scores.  It is basically a large titanium sheet suspended vertically and pinched between two piano strings held at great tension, and played with a cello bow.  The sounds it makes are huge, dark, and menacing, but completely organic and acoustic and not at all like a synthesizer.  I’ve been very fortunate to work with Chas and his instruments on many of my scores, and I think he’s a truly unique sonic visionary.  His solo records are definitely worth checking out, just amazing and haunting stuff.

The Neighbor arrives on VOD platforms September 6.

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