Composing The Carnage: Interview With ‘Saw’ Composer Charlie Clouser

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With the ‘Saw’ franchise raking in millions at the box office, and with ‘Saw: Legacy’ set to his theaters next year, we sat down with franchise composer Charlie Clouser. Welcome to the ‘Saw’ composer interview.

‘Saw’ composer Charlie Clouser- Photo courtesy of Zoe Wiseman.


In film, one of the most vital aspects in its score. Whether its setting tone, scarring wits, or gracefully moving narrative, a film’s score is highly important. Often the composer of a film does the job and then moves on without little notice and acclaim. Unless you’re a name like John Carpenter or Danny Elfman, a composer sadly is a seemingly thankless job. Not today Fright Fans.

Composing every score that overlays the great Saw franchise’s visuals, Charlie Clouser is a man who shouldn’t need an introduction. From his iconic sounds of Saw, to his help with one of horror’s all-time best endings, the fright community, not to mention ’00s horror, owe Clouser a huge debt.

So let’s all read some sheet music, keep up tempo, and score a few scenes as I interview a true maverick of sound, Composer Charlie Clouser.


James Wan’s ‘Saw’ One-sheet- Courtesy of Lionsgate

Slasher Savior: So let’s go back to the beginning. Can you remember the first time you were drawn to music? The earliest memory you have?

Charlie Clouser: My parents listened to a lot of music, mostly old Dixieland jazz and stuff like that, and my mother used to play Scott Joplin rags on the piano, but I didn’t have any older siblings who could turn me on to their record collection. I think the first time I was really amazed and intrigued by music was when my father took me to see Kubrick’s ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ when I must have been about six or seven years old.  Those atonal choral pieces by Ligeti that are used in the film just transfixed me and really opened my ears to what was possible with music and sound.  It wasn’t until I was about eleven or twelve that I discovered proper rock albums, when I bought Led Zeppelin I and Bowie’s album “David Live” for a dollar each at a garage sale, and from that point, the die was cast.

SS: The film world is massively competitive. While I’m not exactly sure about the competitive part of composers, actors and directors sure are. So I can only imagine. How did you get into the business?

CC: After graduating college in 1985,I moved to NYC and wound up working as the computer and software guy at the Sam Ash music store on 48th street, back when 48th street was the mecca for music technology.  A customer of mine hired me right out of the store to create drum and percussion parts, and to design all of the sounds we would use on his score for the CBS television series “The Equalizer”.  That collaboration went on for a few years, and after that slowed down I spent a decade or two in the record business, programming synths and drum parts, doing remixes, and eventually playing keyboards in Nine Inch Nails.  

When I left NIN in 2001 and started getting back into scoring, I had the advantage of already having done a few years of apprenticeship in the scoring world, so I knew the terminology, the workflow, and how to approach things from the musical side.  I’m really glad that I spent those first few years working as a junior member of a scoring team, because that meant that when I left the record business I wasn’t going to be just a refugee from a band; instead I had real experience in both the scoring world and the record side of the business, and this definitely helped me as I was getting started.  I guess I’ve been fortunate in that I’m not trying to compete so much as just find a strange corner of the industry in which I can do my thing.  I’m not trying to do the next ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie or anything like that, I’m just interested in finding projects that are a good fit for my natural tastes and inclinations, and if those projects come my way then I’m happy.

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SS: With many credits under your belt, the Saw franchise is without a doubt your biggest work. Can you talk how you got involved with the original Saw film? 

CC: I first got involved with James Wan and the ‘SAW’ franchise because they had used some bits and pieces of my remixes for bands like Nine Inch Nails alongside lots of other industrial music in their temporary score for the first SAW film.  James wanted a score that could combine some of those heavy influences with more traditional score elements, and since I was fresh out of NIN and getting back into the scoring world, it seemed like I’d be a good fit, and as it turned out, he was right. It was actually my lawyer who made the connection; he’d negotiated many record contracts for me over the previous fifteen years, and he was involved in the process of setting up the deals for the writers and producers of the first ‘SAW’ film, so he’s the one who put two and two together. 

‘Saw’ composer Charlie Clouser- Photo courtesy of Zoe Wiseman.

SS: Then, brilliant director James Wan was in the very early stages of his career. What was it like working with the filmmaker? Can you talk about his process? Was he helpful in driving the score for Saw? Giving you direction to the tone of the tunes?

CC: James, like most excellent filmmakers, has a clear idea in his head of what he wants to see and hear to achieve his vision, so working with him is a dream for a composer.  He’s not shy about giving guidance and describing why a musical approach does or does not work in a particular scene.  The idea of having the score in the first ‘SAW’ film start out with an almost innocent feel before descending into murk and chaos, and finally turning on a dime for a bright and strident theme during the ending montage came from our early discussions about the approach we should take.  Before I wrote a single note of music we had that plan pretty well mapped out, and once you’ve got a grand plan like that in place it makes the whole process so much easier.  

We took a similar approach for his film “Dead Silence”.  He suggested that I write the big thematic pieces at the end of the film first, and then let the earlier parts of the score be constructed from bits and pieces of that theme, so that it felt like the music was gradually coalescing and coming together as the film went on, almost like an explosion filmed in reverse.  Again, once I had that road map in place it made the whole process easier and the results more coherent.