Interview: Charlie Clouser On Composing The Perfect Horror Movie Score

Charlie Clouser

Mention the name Charlie Clouser, and most will think of one of the members of Nine Inch Nails. And it’s true, Clouser did spend 1994 through 2000 with the band, but these days, he’s known mostly for his work composing music for movies and TV, specifically for the horror genre.

Not only did Clouser score the Saw movies, Dead Silence and Resident Evil: Extinction, but he also created music for the TV shows Wayward Pines and American Horror Story, as well as Syfy’s Childhood’s End mini-series.

In an interview, Clouser spoke about his work, as well as what it takes to create the perfect horror movie and TV soundtrack.

How did you go from becoming a member of Nine Inch Nails to composing music for movies and TV?

Well, I had some experience long before my years in Nine Inch Nails in the late 1980s working as a programmer and an assistant for a television composer in New York City. And so when I got back into it, around 2002 or so, I was already really familiar with the workflow and the terminology and the nuts and bolts of how it was done. Through the years in Nine Inch Nails, and other stuff that I had done, I’d always had an attraction for dark and scary and heavy sounds. That seemed to fit really well with movies in the horror genre, like the Saw franchise, and that was one of the first movies that I scored – the first Saw film. And the directors and producers of that first Saw movie actually had some of my remixes of Nine Inch Nails in their music track for the movie. So they were already flirting with the idea of using a non-traditional score and having some industrial music elements and that sort of thing as the backdrop for the Saw movie.

So it was serendipity that I was getting back into doing scoring right around the time when that first movie was being produced. I think it was partly my attraction to sounds that seem to work well in that genre, and fortunately, for me, I did have that experience from the late 1980s so I wasn’t coming into it completely unaware of what was involved.

What’s the biggest difference from making music with a band versus what you’re doing now?

Well, there’s a lot that the two have in common, in terms of the type of band that I was involved with, where there was a lot of studio experimentation and heavily-processed sounds. But one of the biggest differences, besides the often very brutal deadlines and schedules of film and TV production, is the fact that the music you write for picture doesn’t obey the conventions of creating songs for an album in terms of verse and chorus and guitar solo and so forth. So you have this, often, very abstract kind of road map of where the music gets big and where it gets small and how long the sections are and so forth, but it’s completely determined by what’s going on on-screen.

And I actually found that much more interesting than working on song type stuff or album type stuff where you’re always worrying about how long a section would be and still be interesting to listen to. All of that kind of goes out the window when you’re working with picture and I actually found that much more creatively liberating because you weren’t faced with deciding how long the guitar solo should be. So working with picture means that all those decisions are made by the picture editors and the writers. That really winds up being kind of more fun to have that road map already laid out in stone and find ways to fit your music around that structure.

Charlie Clouser

When composing for a television show or movie, how do you start your creative process in composing scores?

It usually starts with after watching the movie and discussing it in almost excruciating detail with the directors, editors and producers. I generally start with a little bit of a sonic research session where I record a bunch of new sounds without knowing exactly what the music will be like yet. I try to create a palette of new recordings – whether it’s drum machines or synthesizers or guitars – that I can then use as I do develop a score. I can use those sounds as a sort of raw material and kind of set the stone.

So I often spend a week or two at the beginning of a project just making interesting sounds before trying to decide what chords and notes I’m going to play. And that helps to develop the process of inspiration because I’m watching the movie and making music alongside it, but I haven’t fully committed yet to what melodies I’m going to use and so forth. And that’s a way to really familiarize myself with the material and build up this collection of new sounds and raw material that I can then rely on once I really get into the meat of composing for the project.

Have you found that there’s any difference between scoring for television and scoring for film?

Obviously, the schedules are much more demanding when you’re working on a television series where you’ve got to churn out an episode every couple of weeks. In another way, one big benefit of doing repeating episodes like that is that you can sort of sharpen your themes and melody ideas as the series goes on and establish some things in the first few episodes that you may be able to refer to in later episodes.

And that often doesn’t happen in movies where each project is a unique little island of sound. Of course, with the Saw movies – we did seven of them in seven years – so that was almost like doing a TV series because there were certain musical themes that appeared repeatedly throughout all of the movies. So maybe the Saw franchise isn’t typical.

But I actually enjoy doing TV series because you do get to – it’s almost like you can take another swing at it. You can write some stuff, which might have just been a minor little musical piece in some of the first episodes and as the directors and editors respond to that, they may say, “That’s a great little theme. Can we use that in this next episode?” And then you can kind of perfect it and make it a little bit better each time that little theme crops up and it can be very interesting to try to fit those little puzzle pieces together as the season of the series progresses.

How does composing for horror movies differ from scoring something for other genres, such as sci-fi, like what you did with Childhood’s End?

The Childhood’s End story line – although it deals with the ultimate end of humanity and the human race – there is this aspect of noble hopefulness to the story. A sense of hopefulness is not typically something you find in a horror movie, especially not the Saw films. It was nice to be able to write some music that had more of a calm and uplifting and hopeful emotional content to it, for Childhood’s End and that was definitely different to the kind of stuff that I typically would do in a horror movie or even something like Wayward Pines where people are in grave danger most of the time, so the music and the themes tend to be heavy and moving downward as characters are sucked into their inevitable doom.

So Childhood’s End was definitely a nice departure and allowed me to explore some musical ideas that I typically don’t get to touch on in the dark hopelessness of the horror movie genre.

What is your favorite soundtrack that you’ve composed and why?

I’ll borrow a phrase from Hans Zimmer who said when he was asked what his favorite piece of music that he ever done was, he said, “Well, I haven’t written it yet.” There are a couple that, at the time, I didn’t think were all that special, but upon reflection and listening back to the archives, there was one track in the movie The Collection, which I scored a couple of years ago. It was called “Out of the Fire,” and it was just an epic dirge rock piece, but in listening back to it, I thought that really did come out pretty good.

And, of course, one of the pieces that’s most familiar to fans of the Saw series, was the ending theme from all of the movies, called “Hello Zepp.” The first one was written very quickly, just in an afternoon or so. But it kind of took on a life of it’s own and it became a trademark theme for the series of movies. And with each movie, with each successive sequel in the series, I would have to do a longer and bigger and more insane version of that same piece of music. So it’s almost like remixing myself each year.

I kind of always look forward to having to do that huge piece of music at the end of each of the Saw films because it’s really fun to keep expanding upon that basic theme that I had written in a few hours one afternoon 10 years ago.

What’s your favorite soundtrack from a TV show or movie that you didn’t compose and why?

Oh, I have lots of those. I typically am drawn to movies that maybe didn’t set the world on fire, but really captured my interest. And one of my favorites – the movie and the score – are to Michael Clayton, which was a very subdued, almost a gentle sounding score done by James Newton Howard, but it was full of tension and it really fit the movie in such a great way and gave it a very grown-up and calmly desperate feel, which fit the movie perfectly.

Another one is a movie called The International that starred Naomi Watts and Clive Owen. It was sort of an espionage thriller kind of thing. And the score was done by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, along with the director Tom Tykwer. And that was another one that just seemed to fit the movie perfectly and it had a sense of urgency, but it wasn’t loud. I always recommend – if people haven’t seen The International, I always recommend that movie because I thought it was great and I thought the score fit perfectly, so much sought out Reinhold, one of the composers, and found friends who knew him. And I looked him up and I sought him out and said, “I want to be your friend” because I love that score so much. And since, we’ve become really good friends and I’m glad he scored that movie.

So what’s next? What are you working on now?

Well, I just finished season two of Wayward Pines, and rumor has it – unconfirmed rumor – that there might be more Saw movies. So I am preparing for that mayhem to launch once again. I hope that I will be coming back for any future movies in the series, since I’ve got seven of them under my belt. And I’m definitely looking forward to trying to make it to 10 movies, if they’ll have me. I definitely want to be on board for that. Rumor has it that they’re going to start shooting in October, I think, and with any luck, that’ll fill up my calendar for the next “X” number of months and/or years.

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