Spiral: From the Book of Saw marks Charlie Clouser’s ninth film in the franchise and it's very apparent from the following Q&A that the original Nine Inch Nails member would love to score nine more. The tone and vibe around the Saw franchise is one that he loves and excels at, and with the Spiral original score now available, we've been provided with the following Q&A where he discusses keeping the sound of "Saw" fresh in the latest installment, working with Darren Lynn Bousman, and more:
Was the transition from Nine Inch Nails to film scoring a hard one for you? If you would have not gotten into film scoring, what do you think you would have done?
Even before I got involved with Nine Inch Nails, I had worked for a few years with a composer who was scoring a big TV network detective series in the 1980’s, so I already had a bit of experience under my belt in that world. I had seen what the workflow was like, and how cool it was to be able to really go wild with musical sound design and crazy textures in the scoring world, in ways that might not work so well on records. As amazing as Nine Inch Nails records are in terms of interesting sounds, the world of scoring is like the wild frontier in terms of creating moods through music, so I always thought that I’d get back into that world after my stint in the record industry was up. Fortunately, the stars aligned, and just after I left NIN and returned to Los Angeles, a couple of great opportunities came my way and I was in a position to hit the ground running. If I hadn’t made the transition into scoring, I would probably still be searching for ways to make even more left-field and aggressive records. I love a lot of the electronic music that’s come out in the past 20 years, from artists like The Prodigy, Leftfield, and The Crystal Method, so I probably would have found myself moving in that direction and away from industrial and metal styles a bit. The Prodigy is one of my all-time favorites, and I was gutted when Keef died, but I reckon they were one of the best mash-ups of styles ever, and their live shows are just pure aggression and mayhem, which is just the way I like it.
You have scored 9 Saw movies now. How do you keep things sounding fresh and new for each installment?
I try to draw as much inspiration as I can from the different visual styles of the various directors and cinematographers that have rotated in and out of the franchise as it’s evolved. Sometimes the visual style is more gritty and low-res, sometimes it’s got a bit of a gothic element, and sometimes it’s crisp and clean, so I try to tailor my sounds and approach so that it all feels like it’s coming from the same place. For Spiral, a lot of the action and story takes place in the outside world, and in broad daylight, as opposed to all happening in darkness in some dank dungeon or evil lair, so to me that meant I could use brighter, more pointed sounds and more crisp rhythms than I would for a scene taking place in a dimly lit basement. I still want it to feel ominous and dark, but this time around I felt like I could use a different set of instruments, and even some action-movie elements like big drums and brass chords that I wouldn’t have used in most of the earlier films in the franchise. Of course there’s still plenty of the dark and murky soundscapes that have become such an important part of the sound of these movies, but with an added layer of more urgent and propulsive rhythms. Each of the films in the series has its own little quirks and new characters, and it’s always fun and sometimes challenging to find the right approach each time around, but it’s a good problem to have.
Besides the “Hello Zepp” theme, have you used any of the same themes in all the films?
There are about a half-dozen little musical motifs that have become a part of the fabric of all of the films, and that I re-interpret here and there as needed. The melodies from cues like “I Didn’t Cheat” and “Be Alright” from the first film, “Amanda” and “Baptism” from SAW III, and the group of cues for Detective Hoffman from SAW V have popped up in various spots in a bunch of the films, but I try to associate them with certain characters or places in the series. Since there’s a lot of flashbacks and time-jumps in these movies, sometimes I use an earlier piece of music behind a scene that’s jumping backwards in time, since a similar piece of music was behind the scene we’re flashing back to. But some of the themes are more associated with moods, so for example when a character has a feeling of having come to the end, I might use the quiet little melody from “Amanda”, or when we’re hearing an emotional backstory being explained I might use the hypnotic piano patterns from “Baptism”. It’s nice to have such a deep well of themes and characters to pull from in some of those spots, but it’s never as simple as a copy-and-paste operation, I usually just rebuild the piece from memory to fit whatever new scene is in front of me.
Speaking of the “Hello Zepp” theme, there are a lot of covers of it on YouTube. Have you seen these? Do any of them particularly stick out to you?
I haven’t gone too far down that particular rabbit hole, other than to just be amazed at how many versions there have been over the years. Besides a zillion remixes that use pieces of my original recordings, it seems like there’s people covering it on everything from bass guitar to flute! I haven’t listened to enough of them to pick out a favorite, but I’m pleased that so many people like that piece of music to take a swing at it.
Because Spiral is somewhat of a new imagining of the Saw franchise, did you look at it as a chance to try something different?
For a lot of the scenes in Spiral, I did try to take the kind of approach I’d use for a more normal action movie, with big epic war drums and chugging string sections, and there’s also a few scenes, like Zeke’s conversation with Boz’s wife, that have a non-ominous, more conventional emotional feel instead of the doom and gloom mode that has become the sound of so many of the other films. This time around it was nice to see so many of the scenes taking place in the outside world, and I tried to follow that with the music where I could. So that meant I felt like I was allowed to get out of “Saw mode” for a good chunk of the score, before swerving right back into it in the trap scenes, and of course for the final act. Since it’s still in the Saw universe, with each trap scene upping the ante, there will always be cues that have a certain feel, but having another avenue to explore within that universe was a nice aspect to Spiral for sure.
Chris Rock not only stars in Spiral, but is also the executive producer. Did he have any input on the music?
I’m not sure if Chris had some involvement with the producers in selecting some of the other artists’ tracks that appeared in various scenes in the film, like during the heist scene right at the start, or when his character Zeke is driving to the first couple of crime scenes. As much as I would have loved to, I didn’t meet Chris or have any interaction with him on the music front. Maybe next time? All of the conversations about the direction the score should take were between myself, the director Darren Lynn Bousman, and the producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules, who have been behind the wheel since the first film in 2004. It was them who put me in touch with 21 Savage and his crew, and we exchanged stems and rough mixes for their songs which used samples from my original “Hello Zepp” theme as well as from some other bits and pieces taken from other cues in the franchise.
You have worked with Darren Lynn Bousman on multiple Saw films now. When beginning work on a new one, what do your initial conversations sound like?
Darren is a great collaborator to work with, and his sense of what the music should be doing aligns very well with my own opinions, so there are never any surprises when we work together. We both have very similar tastes, and before I had ever seen a single frame of the movie we had some conversations about widening the scope of the sonic landscape, and taking a slightly different side street just off Saw Boulevard. After he explained the plot and settings for many of the scenes, I suggested that we could have elements of action-movie scores, and more tense rhythms to give a more urgent feel to parts of the story, and he was very enthusiastic about incorporating those elements. When I finally got to see a rough cut, I was glad that my interpretation of the script was pretty close to what he was putting on the screen, so that whole process was very smooth. Of course, since we’re both old hands with lots of experience in the Saw universe, we weren’t sitting there scratching our heads about how we were going to pull this off, it was more about finding where the music needed to help the energy and pacing, and where it could lay back a bit and be more slow and ominous. I’m sure we’ll be collaborating again in the future, because it’s such an easy working relationship.
You are no stranger to the horror genre, having scored Dead Silence, Resident Evil: Extinction, Wayward Pines and The Collection. Why do you think your music does so well within this genre?
I’ve always been into ominous textures, scary tones, and aggressive rhythms, and that kind of stuff is a natural match for the more intense side of the horror genre. Even though I do love slow, abstract, ambient textural music, when it comes time to score a more high-energy movie like a Saw film or Resident Evil: Extinction, where there are scenes of absolute chaos and mayhem, my background in doing heavy industrial rhythms and war-drum beat-downs is a big help. There are a lot of elements in the music for Saw trap scenes that have a lot in common with many of the records I was making, like heavily-processed drum machine stuff and metal guitar riffs. As I got deeper into scoring and using more orchestral textures and effects, I was drawn to things like dissonant brass clusters and atonal string effects, and these are also a good fit in the horror genre. If I ever had to do a cute romantic comedy I’d have no idea where to start, and I sure wouldn’t have a huge collection of sounds on hand like I do for horror films.
Is there another type of horror that you haven’t scored yet, that you would like to?
I’d love to do more psychological thrillers and more slow-burn horror as opposed to the more action-oriented stuff. I’ve done a lot of films that feature chaotic mayhem and big action sequences, but whenever I see films like The Girl On The Train, Prisoners, Enemy, or The Gift, I always love how they evoke a sense of dread without much violence. Maybe films like those aren’t strictly horror, but they sure aren’t feel-good movies by any stretch, and it would be cool to try and stretch my legs a little bit in that direction if the opportunity arises. I really like the scores to those movies, and even though they don’t have very much in common with what I do in the Saw movies, it’s a direction I’d love to explore.