An Interview with Charlie Clouser

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In this new interview with Horror Asylum original Nine Inch Nails member turned composer Charlie Clouser discusses everything from the new season of Wayward Pines to scoring the original Saw film.

I know you are scoring the 2nd season of Wayward Pines, are you going to approach the new season any different, musically, than you did the 1st? Are you going to keep any of the same themes?
In the first season a lot of the original cast was killed off, so this season there will be sort of a new, darker, more somber tone to it. Also, in the first season viewers were discovering what Wayward Pines was all about and the secrets that the townspeople were keeping, and now those beans have been spilled. So there’s not so much misdirect musically, where in the first season I did do a bit of misdirection. The first few episodes weren’t as sinister as the episodes that came later in the story line. But now that everything has been revealed the music is much more sinister and it’s sort of one group against another. The kids in Wayward Pines who are the new generation, it’s their group versus the adults who have been seduced and brought to town. So as those two groups face off in the next season, there is going to be a little bit more of a dark tone to it, without so much of the quirky mountain town vibe. That part of it is gone and now it’s just a sort of battle of wits between the two groups.

Do you work very closely with M. Night Shyamalan, the producer of Wayward Pines?
Not really, he is the Executive Producer though, and kind of spearheaded the whole project and directed the original pilot episode. I work most closely with one of his lieutenants. A guy named Ashwin Rajan, who works quite closely with him on his film projects. One could say Ashwin is in the driver’s seat for the show because I believe Shyamalan is based in Pennsylvania.

Shyamalan is bringing back Tales From the Crypt for TNT. Sounds like your kind of project. Would you be interested in scoring this? Were you a fan of original series?
Oh that should be cool! Absolutely, I’ll be sniffing around that one for sure. I was a fan of the show. That was one of the first sort of heavy-duty horror things that you could see without going out to a movie theatre. It occupied a place in pop culture almost similar to the original Twilight Zone series, where they were short, compact stories and a wide variety of things that all focus on that central horror topic. It’s kind of iconic and I’m glad to hear that Night will be bring it back because it’s right down his alley, and right down mine too.

We heard you just finished scoring the film “The Neighbor,” directed by Marcus Dunstan whom you worked with on “The Collection.” What can you tell us about this film?
It’s not so much horror, it’s more of a suspense and thriller. It centers around the antics of some white-trash drug dealers and kidnappers in Georgia, I believe, and things go very poorly for most of the people in the movie. Drug traffickers move next door to some neighbors and end up being even worse people than they are. There’s a great performance, as usual, from Josh Stewart, who was the lead in “The Collector” and “The Collection”, and an amazing performance from Bill Engvall from the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour”. I mean you would never expect that it’s him. I watched the entire movie for the first time and did not recognize him. He’s got a scruffy beard and plays a very bad person. Which is not something you’d expect from such a G-rated comedy person. But he does it fantastically and I could see his career taking on a new chapter as a character actor in the bad-ass southern white trash category.

How is “The Neighbor” score going to be different from your other work?
Well when I’m doing more horror genre projects I tend to use orchestral instruments and things like piano and little glockenspiels and music boxes, some of the sounds and textures that are associated more with the grand traditional horror movie music. Everything from haunted music boxes like we did in “Dead Silence” to the psycho strings and shrieking orchestra that we would do in a “Saw” movie. For “The Neighbor”, since there’s no supernatural aspect or ghosts, it’s just bad people, I didn’t use orchestral sounds at all, no strings, no shrieking, clattering psycho orchestra sounds, it’s all electronic and guitars. Because it was set in the south east of America it didn’t sound weird to have reverb-y guitars. It sounded like they were coming from the same part of the country. So I used a lot of sounds that sounded local to where the movie was taking place. There’s lot of things I did with old funky synthesizers. Most of the score though is created through guitars with lots of processing, so it sounds organic and evil but it’s not from a gigantic strings section because the cast is small, the settings are small. It takes place on a row of run-down houses next to each other on a dirt road. So a huge orchestral section just didn’t sound like it fit in that sort of place. So I was glad I was able to find a group of sounds that sounded evil and scary but weren’t necessarily huge.

When I’m flipping through my instruments and libraries and finding what sounds I want to use on a project, I’m always thinking whether a particular sound feels like it’s coming from the same place that the actions are taking place in. In the “Saw” movies a lot of them took place in claustrophobic dungeons with no windows, so I couldn’t choose something that sounded big, and epic, and outdoorsy. But in “Resident Evil: Extinction” they’re exploring the abandoned city of Las Vegas and being attacked by thousands of zombies and flocks of birds. So it was appropriate to use big, epic movie drums and epic string section sounds that sounded wide and outdoorsy. In a way that wouldn’t have worked in a “Saw” movie, and wouldn’t have worked, in my mind, with a movie like “The Neighbors” because it was a small setting with bad things happening.

You scored the widely successful Saw films. What has been your biggest surprise with those films?
The biggest challenge was continually one-upping myself with each sequel, because with each new movie into the series, the traps became more elaborate and longer, and there were more of them. So, if you think back to the first movie, there weren’t a series of trap rooms, it starts off with the guys kind of already trapped. And in the subsequent movies the victims would be led through a series of traps that would kill them off one by one. So over the course of 7 movies I think there were about 30 trap scenes and each one had to be more insane and intense than the one before it. So that was a challenge because you start off with the volume at 11 and then you have to turn it up to 12 and 13. It was fun because I had to find new ways to make things more and more intense when I already had the pedal to the metal and the meters were already the in the red. So that was fun, but challenging. And I think my biggest surprise throughout the whole process was how we always used a variation, not the same piece of music at the end of the movie, which was that “Hello Zepp” theme, which appeared at the end of the first movie. When I was doing the first movie I didn’t realize that song would become the theme of the franchise and that I’d have to keep building on that for every sequel. That was a surprise that this piece of music I wrote for one spot in one movie would become something I built on for 7 consecutive years. Something that started as just a one off became this reusable thing that I would redo with a slightly different slant every year.

How long did it take you to come up with the famous Hello Zepp theme song for Saw?
It’s funny, I am embarrassed to admit that it took very little time to write, the original version of it in the first movie. I probably came up with all of the music ideas for it in the space of an hour and then spent a day arranging it and layering in different string sounds, another day recording real strings on it, and then it was done! When I look back at the library of music we created for all 7 of those movies, there are many pieces of music that took much longer to create and long nights puling my hair out in the studio and pieces of music which were not nearly as effective, important, or iconic as that “Hello Zepp” theme. The strongest piece in music is often the one that gets written very juicily when an idea comes to you and you can get it down and recorded before you get distracted and wind up ruining the piece of music by making it too complicated. That just happened on “The Neighbor” that I just finished. The whole score is very murky and indistinct, and there is a song that occurs at the end of the movie that has a very strong core progression with these big distorted guitars. The editors and directors asked me “Wow that’s amazing! How long did that take?” and I have to sheepishly admit that it took 15 minutes to write the actual music and then a day to arrange it and put it all together.

I have to say my favorite part of the process is that zone where you’re about 2/3 finished with the piece, you know what the pace of music is basically going to be. You’ve figured out the notes and chords and rhythms and melodies. But you haven’t quite finished it. That sort of sweet spot where the possibilities are endless, you’re not staring at a blank page anymore, so you have a piece of music and it feels good but you haven’t completely ruined it by finishing it. And a lot of times that 2/3 point into the process is where, at least for me, I’m like the most comfortable and happiest. Because you think the piece could be great, but then you’re up finishing and you think maybe you could’ve added an extra drum beat or something, and then you’re disappointed with yourself. But for important pieces of music, you get to that 2/3 point very quickly and I think when the process works like that, you have an idea and you can quickly lay down the music. That translates to the listener and they see that is where strong, bold and memorable music comes from.

Most memorable experience scoring the Saw films?
I would have to say going back to the first time I watched the first film, which was at 9:30 in the morning on Wednesday or something. When Jigsaw’s character, who you think has been dead on the floor in the dungeon the entire movie, gets up. You realize he’s been there the whole time. I mean even just talking about it I get chills down my spine because it was such a singular moment of such a great ending that can never be repeated. Once that joke has been told, you can’t really un-tell it. I knew that the score would have to be something dreadful when I saw him stand up that first time. I remember thinking who are these writers, James Wan and Leigh Whannell.. These guys have a great future ahead of them because that was such a genius idea and it was so effective, and of course it spawned an empire of movie making between the two of them.

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