[Exclusive] The Sounds of SAW: An Interview with Composer CHARLIE CLOUSER

Once upon a time, way back in 2004, a then relatively unknown James Wan made his directorial debut with a little film called Saw.  The film rocked the horror world and was an instant hit in the genre.  Since then, the Saw universe has continued to grow, expand and ask the now infamous question;

“Do you wanna play a game?”

While Saw has experienced different directors, writers, proteges and victims, one of the constants that has helped truly unify the Saw universe is the music of Charlie Clouser.  As a former member of NIN and his years working with artists such as Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, and David Bowie, Clouser was well versed in the world of electronic and industrial music when he took on his first solo scoring gig with Saw.  I recently had the privilege of speaking with Charlie for a bit and we talked about all things Saw, including the upcoming Saw Anthology releases from Lakeshore Records.  Check out our conversation below:


Rachel Prin for NOFS: In 2004, the very first Saw movie was released and it was our first introduction to the now infamous “Hello Zepp” theme.  Did you realize you were creating a theme at the time?

Charlie Clouser: I kind of had a game plan going in that I discussed a lot with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, that we thought it would add extra impact to that twist ending, and the sort of thing that’s become a sort of trademark in a lot of the Saw movies, the ending reveal montage where there’s a lot of quick cuts and flashbacks to earlier scenes in the movie while Jigsaw’s voice narrates and explains the parts you may not have seen earlier in the film.  So it was kind of on purpose that the whole main body of the movie had a score that was just very murky and indistinct and kind of blurry and didn’t really state musical ideas, thematic ideas strongly at all.

 As it turns out, if you dissect the notes, chords, harmonies and everything that’s used earlier in the movie, they relate to the “Hello Zepp” theme, but they’re transposed down a couple of semi-tones so that it’s just a slight shift when the actual theme comes in at the end. We really felt like we wanted it to be as if the bright lights get turned on when that ending theme begins. So you spent the whole movie in this cloudy, murky, dark indistinct world of music and sound that then gets really insistent and shattering when it comes in full force at the end. So for that reason the sounds that are used in the ending theme aren’t used elsewhere in the movie and it’s sort of a whole different set of sounds and a different approach.  

I knew that in order for that piece of music to work it would have to be fairly simple and kind of repetitive and hypnotic and not have a lot of musical information in there but still kind of start small-ish and then build as the insistent phrases kind of repeat. So once I had that game plan sort of in my mind, the creation of that “Hello Zepp” theme wasn’t something that took days, it really kind of came together kind of quickly because I had already established these kind of mental rules and conditions that it had to fulfill. I did most of the music in a few hours one day, spent the evening arranging it for a string quartet, the next day recorded a string quartet, and boom it was done.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhSHXGM7kgE]

NOFS: What have been some of the films or composers that have influenced you and your scoring work?

CC: The kind of movies that I wind up liking and enjoying are often well outside the horror genre.  Some of my earliest influences, for movie anyways, were all of Kubrick’s.  That’s what I wanted to see on screen. Whether it’s movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or his version of Stephen King’s The Shining. I still think it’s the greatest horror movie ever made and even though maybe pure horror fans don’t feel like it fits in with their genre, I always thought that it was just fantastic. And of course the music that Kubrick uses a lot is not composed for his movies, but was music that he found in classical music collections and so forth.

I still remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey when it was in the theaters for it’s initial release when I was just a little kid and being so struck by these atonal choir pieces, by the composer Gyorgy Ligeti, and it’s just these dense tonal clusters that sounded so other worldly and unlike anything I’d heard before. Of course a lot of other music from that same kind of genre of super modern classical composers is also used in The Shining. There’s a lot of Penderecki, Bartok and these other composers and it’s almost a sonic experiment more than it is traditional classical music.  The clattering, rattling, smacking sounds and weird atonal and dissonant elements; those kind of things have always been the pieces of music that stuck with me over the years. Mainly because it wasn’t anything that I knew how to do or just figure out how that music was put together by picking up a guitar or sitting at the piano.  It was such a mystery to me how that music came to be and that was what drew me in.

Of course horror movies are perfect avenues to use atonal and dissonant and experimental kinds of music, more so than say an Indiana Jones kind of movie or something, and so that’s sort of what drew me into these kind of movies. 

NOFS: Lakeshore Records has recently digitally released (with CD and vinyl forthcoming) the Saw Anthology Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 featuring music from all 8 Saw films.  Were you involved in this process and if so what was your role?

CC: Oh yeah. They said ‘Look, you figure it out, you put it together and we’ll put it out’.  So, it took me almost a month to go through all of the pieces of music. I literally went with a microscope, inspected and chose, out of the whole sum total of movies (there’s over 550 pieces of music in the source folders across all 8 of the movies). Since it’s coming out on vinyl, each side of a vinyl record is about 20 minutes, so I sort of set up a set of mental rules for myself that each movie would get 1 vinyl side and within that 20 minutes I would try to put my favorite cues from each movie in chronological order so that it felt like a miniature journey through the films themselves.

 I didn’t do things like, put all the action cues from all 8 movies all together and that sort of thing. I tried to reduce each movie down to this 20 minute slab that maintained the order in which those pieces of music originally appeared in the film. Once I had that set of rules, I had at least some sort of guidepost that I could use to map things out, and it certainly was agonizing to throw away and skip over so many pieces of music that I liked, but I still wanted it to feel like it balanced. So that each 20 minute chunk from each movie would have a variety of stuff; the thematic melodic material and also some of the crazy action and trap scenes, and some of the weird floaty dark ambient stuff that fills up so much space in those movies.  

So having that kind of game plan in place really helped me to organize my thoughts as I went through it.  And I did combine a lot of pieces together where I might have 2 or 3 pieces of music that are only 30 or 40 seconds long, and I would combine those together and then graft them on to the front of a longer piece. To create a sort of flowing, landscape of longer pieces instead of just a million short little pieces of music with silence in between them.  And I always like it when so many of my favorite albums growing up had that sort of feel, like Pink Floyd albums. Where the songs kind of cross faded against each other and it was just one long seamless experience, so I wanted to kind of emulate that as much as I could for this Anthology project.

NOFS: This is the first time any of the Saw scores have been released on vinyl. How do you view the importance of physical media and what is your connection to medium?

CC: Aside from the obvious sonic differences of listening to something on vinyl vs. CD, or streaming or whatever, the physical experience of holding something that’s large and slightly fragile and has to be treated with some kind of care and respect.  You know, you don’t leave your vinyl records lying around on the floor the same way you might leave CD’s laying around in the glove box of your car, or downloads lying around cluttered on the desktop of your computer.

So that process, and that manner in which you have to physically interact with the vinyl certainly forces you to behave a little more carefully with the vinyl that you own. Not to be in such a hurry to grab one and throw it off to the side to listen to another one, and that is helpful because it kind of leads the listener to not be in such a hurry to skip over songs and get to the next one.  I always prefer that on vinyl, if you do want to skip over a song you have to carefully lift the tone arm off the record and carefully place it down, as opposed to a CD or a stream where you just hit the next track button. I’m glad that vinyl makes it more difficult to skip over things because then maybe people will take the time and just relax a little bit and let the music flow along.

That’s also kind of why I wanted to combine a bunch of different pieces of music into longer suites and to kind of cross fade them all together so that you can’t get in between every track and it kind of forces the listener to sit back and let this whole 8 minute thing with it’s peaks and valleys kind happen.  The resurgence of vinyl and people’s love for a big solid hunk of physical media sort of has parallels in the resurgence we’ve seen recently with big hardware synthesizers for musicians in the studio.

For a long time it seemed like everything was going to just occur inside a computer. We had so many great software programs for creating music that everybody was just jumping on that bandwagon, and then a few years ago we started to see the resurgence of synthesizers that reminded us of the 1980’s. Back when things were big and had lots of knobs and were sort of expensive and delicate. There’s been a real resurgence in that as well and I think it really comes down to the tactile experience of wanting to touch the thing, to feel like you can feel the sound waves emanating from it.  I think both of those phenomena are kind of related in some way.

NOFS: Do you have any go-to Saw instruments or techniques that you only use in the Saw films?

CC: Yeah, there’s a whole category of sounds and techniques that I use, that in my mind anyway, that really only apply to that world.  I have a bunch of strange handmade acoustic instruments that are basically made out of pieces of scrap metal, which you can play with a violin bow or with sticks and most of them involve some kind of metal sheet or metal rods that’ll produce sound when you operate them.  I have a whole family of 5 or 6 variations of that kind of instrument that were built by a metal sculptor and musician named Chas Smith that I’ve known for a long time. In my mind those instruments are restricted for use only on Saw movies because they’ve become a big part of the sonic landscape that I use in those movies. And they also create sounds that are just so heavy-duty scary that they don’t really apply in less insane kind of scoring work. 

NOFS: After a 7 year hiatus, did you ever think you’d be coming back to the world of Jigsaw?

CC: You know, I secretly knew that somewhere deep down inside that, even though the 7th movie was called the “Final Chapter”, I knew they weren’t gonna let this thing die.  We had been doing the movies every year, one per year for 7 years straight, and it was always a mad dash to get the things finished. So once they decided to take some time off from the franchise I knew we’d be back. I didn’t know when, but they’ve created such a rich kind of cinematic universe of heroes and villains and victims that I knew they’d find a way. And at this point nothing would surprise me in the Saw universe.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was even more yet to come.

NOFS: So, Saw 9…you in?

CC: Oh I’ll ride that horse into the sunset.

The response to this latest movie from the hardcore Saw fans was really good and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the phone rings and they say ‘Hey get back on the horse because we’re working on the script for the next one’.  Of course, if they keep the franchise rolling, I’ll be all in for as many as they care to do. The first Saw movie was the first feature film that I scored by myself so it has a special place in my heart.  I’m fine to do as many as they care to roll out. They can count me in.


The digital version of the Saw Anthology Vol. 1 & 2 is currently available from Lakeshore Records and you can find it here. CD & vinyl releases coming soon so stay tuned for more information on that.

Also available from Lakeshore Records, the digital release of the Jigsaw soundtrack.  Make sure to check out that release here.

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