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

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Darren Lynn Bousman’s ‘Saw III’- Courtesy of Lionsgate

SS: And speaking of processes, can you talk about your own process? 

CC: I try to get a theoretical approach plan all mapped out before beginning work on the actual music, and once I have that general road map in mind I can begin sketching the musical framework for the most important spots in the film.  It’s sort of like framing a house, building a wire-frame outline out of 2×4’s that sort of defines the shape of the house but is really just a pile of sticks. Once I have that rough framework in place, I stop writing music and spend some time just recording new sounds that I can deploy as the score develops. I generally spend a few weeks just experimenting with recording new sounds and processing them through various effects and so forth to build up a stockpile of new musical sounds that I haven’t heard before that can give each score its own unique sonic footprint.  Once I’ve got the road map in place, and a nice pile of newly created sounds to deploy, then the actual writing of the score goes so much more smoothly.

SS: The ending of Saw is one of the most shocking and effecting endings in film history. Which, of course, relied on a few things and your score is one of the most important aspects of its success. How did you come to compose the film’s score, specifically Saw’s end theme?

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

CC: Well, we knew that for the ending of ‘SAW’, it needed to feel like the lights had been switched on in the score as Jigsaw gets up from the floor and the ending montage begins.  I purposely used sounds in that “Hello Zepp” theme that had not been used anywhere else in the score, and did it in a different key than the rest of the music, to help it seem like a big shift at that point in the film. The rest of the score gets progressively darker and murkier as the movie progresses, so when that jingling little dulcimer sound and the dry, strident string quartet starts up, it’s really a big contrast to the tone of what is heard before.  I had these ideas in mind when I began writing that piece, and with that plan in place it all came together rather quickly.  I knew that I wanted a simple, insistent, almost hypnotic rhythmic part to form the bed of the track, so I used the little dulcimer part for that, and I needed the string parts to sound like a conclusion and have a sense of finality and certainty.  The string part is so simple and clear that I didn’t need to labor over it for weeks on end; once I had the basic idea in place it all fell together.  I think that most of the writing and arrangement of that cue was done in an afternoon, and within a couple of days I had the string quartet recorded and the track was finished.

SS: Wow, that’s really awesome. To have a part of film history explained like that is an interesting angle. So when composing any piece of music, one can pick from an array of instruments depending on their skill set. I imagine, scoring film is no different. How do you choose what instruments you’ll use on a project?

CC: I obviously try to choose instruments that have a sound character that matches the emotional feel I want to convey, and that’s more important than how well I can play that instrument.  I do own a lot of instruments that have a sound and texture I like but that I can’t really play that well, and often those form a big part of my scores.  For instance, the dark drones that are heard whenever a character in a SAW movie is listening to Jigsaw’s tape recordings were all made with a pedal steel guitar running through pitch shifter effects and delay units.  I arrived at those sounds through experimentation; I didn’t set out to use a country and western guitar on the ‘SAW’ score, that’s for sure!  But once I started experimenting. I came up with those ominous drones and it just seemed like a natural fit for those scenes.  

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That’s an example of the kind of thing that happens quite often in my scores.  Some late-night experiment in the studio results in a sound or texture that was not what I set out to do, and not what I expected, but strikes some chord or triggers some memory or emotion, and it just clicks in my mind that I’ve found the right sound for a particular scene or theme.  I’ve always been a bit of an obsessive collector and cataloguer of sounds and recordings, and I think I have a very good memory for sounds and the processes needed to create them, so it’s not difficult for me to react to a scene in a film and think of a few instruments and processing techniques that might be appropriate.  I always think of sounds in terms of the emotions they might be associated with, so composing for film is a natural fit for the way that part of my mind works.

SS: I’ve heard some composers like to see a film and then compose. Then I’ve also heard some composers will make tracks before seeing a single shot of film. While I could be wrong about this, it’s what I’ve sometimes heard. Which do you prefer?

CC: I really prefer to write music as a reaction and response to what I’m seeing on the screen.  On a few projects I’ve written some music before seeing the film, after just discussing things with the director or writers, and it seems like I always go back and tear that music apart once I see the finished film.  For me, the rhythm and pacing of the music really works better when it feels like it’s in sync with what’s happening on screen, almost like choreographing a dance piece.  The chord structures and melodies that I come up with before seeing the film might survive the editing process, but I really prefer to find the tempo and rhythmic density of a piece while watching the finished edit of a film.  For me that just makes the score sound more like it’s coming from the same place as the visuals.