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The Sound of ‘Spiral’: Charlie Clouser on His Latest Score for the ‘Saw’ Universe

To put it bluntly, there is no Saw franchise without Charlie Clouser. For more than 17 years, the former Nine Inch Nails member has been the one to provide a consistent throughline of atmospheric flavor and sonic stability for the Saw cinematic universe. While the traps may vary and the central villains may come and go (and come again), this reliable backdrop of sounds and musical tone has helped reinforce the connective tissue uniting each individual film.

For Spiral, the newest addition to the Saw family, Clouser’s involvement proves to be more important than ever. Rather than a direct narrative sequel, Spiral is billed as coming from “The Book of Saw.” A cinematic detour of sorts, this new direction continues to offer fans many of the familiar franchise trappings, but with several refreshing twists. For one, Spiral marks the triumphant return of Darren Lynn Bousman to the directing chair—Bousman directed Saw II, III and IV. It also brings the franchise out of the dark, dank dungeons it is known for and out onto the sun-soaked streets.

Further adding to this mix of fresh elements, Spiral stars Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella as the lead cop characters with dark backstories that are shrouded in mystery. Breaking away from the comedic roles for which he is so well known, Rock serves up a rare, stoic performance as a good cop pushed to unfathomable extremes. While seemingly disparate, it is Clouser’s iconic “Hello Zepp” theme and distinctive one-of-a-kind instruments that ultimately become the tie that definitively binds Spiral to its eight predecessors.

In celebration of Spiral’s recent theatrical release, I recently caught up with Clouser over the phone to discuss this latest installation in the Saw franchise. We dive into Spiral’s new direction, his collaboration with 21 Savage, the perks and pitfalls of working on a long-running franchise, the “Hello Zepp” theme, and much more. Will he return for the inevitable Saw X? Read on to find out.

Vehlinggo: There’s so much that’s different about Spiral from the previous Saw films, yet so much that remains familiar. For instance, Chris Rock making his debut in the franchise and Darren Lynn Bousman returning to the director’s chair. What were your initial thoughts when you first heard about their involvement?

Charlie Clouser: I was super impressed and psyched that Chris Rock (and of course Samuel L. Jackson) would be involved with the thing. The fact that Chris had this idea for how to go down a side street of the Saw saga and to not just do Saw IX with Chris Rock in it — but to have some sort of alternative direction — that was a really smart idea on his part. I’m always impressed and interested when I see actors playing against type. This is not Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop where everyone else is playing it straight but Eddie Murphy is cracking wise the whole time. In this, everybody is playing it straight, including Chris Rock. And yeah he’s got a couple jabs in there, but he’s under extreme duress for much of the movie. I thought he gave a hugely impressive performance. That was a welcome new flavor to bring to the franchise.

In terms of Darren coming back, he and I work great together and just had a blast on the earlier sequels in the franchise. It’s interesting because his visual style this time around is more gritty and has less gothic set pieces like there were in some of the earlier sequels. It was really cool to see how his visual style adapted to what Chris was bringing to the table in terms of the character development and the plot development. I always have a great time working with Darren. He’s not a hard customer by any means. I hope that if there are more chapters in the saga that Darren will be in the driver’s seat again.

You called Spiral a side street and I think that’s a really perfect word for it. It also makes me curious, what were some of the early conversations like regarding Spiral’s musical direction? How was this film’s musical approach different?

We knew that in this movie a lot of the action takes place, not in some dimly lit hallway underground somewhere, but it takes place on the hottest day of the year in broad daylight. So I knew that I was going to need a different approach to the sound. It’s great when you have rules like that you can apply to working on the music. I would use a completely different set of sounds for a scene of Chris Rock driving frantically at noon to get to the next murder scene than I would in a scene where the poor victim is crawling down some dark hallway.

That mentality plus the idea that we wanted to carve out a new musical flavor for everything except the trap scenes and then finally, in the final act of the film, then we start to veer into more familiar Saw musical territory — that’s when we start to bring in some of the traditional musical themes from the franchise. That was a big relief because now I have some rules on how to navigate and build the music out for the first two-thirds of the movie.

It was very on-purpose that it wasn’t like, “Here’s the Amanda Theme and here’s the Zepp Theme” until we get to the end. Having those kinds of signposts and guidelines for the music approach made it a much simpler mission than it might have been.

charlie clouser spiral saw interview soundtrack
Charlie Clouser. Photo by Zoe Wiseman.

There’s this interesting thread throughout Spiral about generational influence and loyalty that really got me thinking about your music for this franchise. Do you ever feel restricted by the precedent you’ve established in the previous eight films? Or, is it kind of nice to have that back catalog to creatively pull from?

I definitely don’t want to abandon the sonic footprint of the previous movies and go marching off into some Indiana Jones territory or whatever. I know that there’s a whole family of sounds that I really only use in a Saw movie. There’s also — besides the obvious themes that are recognizable — musical tendencies that I deploy, whatever the Saw movie might be. Like, the feeling of melodies and root notes moving downwards as the movie goes on, to try to give the audience the feeling of being dragged down into despair along with the characters.

Even when using action movie sounds in some of these broad daylight scenes in Spiral, I’m still kind of applying the abstract rules to how to deploy those sounds and what kind of melodic choices to make. Both alternatives kind of apply. It’s nice to have a new setting to use a fresh palette of sounds, but it’s also nice to be able to use certain structural elements that have become traditional Saw elements. And then, with the two mixed together, hopefully that creates something that’s a little different from previous movies but still has a familiar aftertaste.

I definitely wanted to ask you about some of the signature Saw sounds. I have this image of you getting the call from Darren about Spiral and then walking over to one of your amazing custom instruments built by Chas Smith and pulling off a dusty sheet very dramatically. Did you dust off any of these classic instruments for Spiral and, what I’m more curious about, did you use any brand new ones?

I definitely broke out the old favorites. Especially the biggest one… called Que Lastas, which can produce such a wide variety of sounds. As soon as you hear them you think, “Oh that would go perfectly in a Saw movie!” But there was another instrument that Chas built, which he didn’t make for me, he made it for himself. But, when he was moving a year or two ago, he said, “I don’t really have room for this one on the truck. So, I’m not giving it to you and I’m not selling it to you, but you can babysit it for a while.” It’s an instrument that he calls Tio and it’s very similar to a waterphone, which is a familiar instrument to horror composers. It has a series of metal rods attached around a pair of metal discs. When you strike or bow the rods it creates haunting metallic textures.

It’s not nearly as gargantuan of sound as the other instruments that do the main heavy lifting, like the Que Lastas, but the Tio instrument can make mournful little squeals and ugly nails-on-chalkboard types of sounds. It is more in a higher register and it has some interesting abilities to make bending of pitches so that it can create these sort of whistling sounds that seem to be descending in pitch. That was a nice addition. I had had that one kicking around since around the time of Jigsaw, but I didn’t use it on that one. So this time I did finally break out the contact microphones and the microphone set-up for it. A lot of times I’m using orchestral string textures that have this bending of pitch type effect so, by using the Tio instrument, I was able to create an almost whistling overtone and mix it in with these string sounds to give them a little bit of an unrealistic texture.

Oh wow. That sounds incredible.

I’ll see if I can’t take the dusty sheet off it and stick a picture up on Facebook or Instagram. It’s a beautiful looking thing. He completely hand-fabricated the stand that supports it, and the main resonating body of the thing is a 16-inch carbon steel saw blade, which he cut all the teeth off of. But because it’s made from a saw blade, it’s kind of natural that it would be used in a Saw movie.

It’s so perfect! The whole franchise is known for its elaborate traps and here you are, also using these elaborate, incredible, hand-crafted and original instruments!

They’re like musical traps!

Yes! It’s such a unique and amazing thing about this franchise, and honestly just endlessly fascinating. 

It’s really serendipitous. It wasn’t a case of me saying to Chas, “Hey, I’m doing this movie called Saw. Can you make an instrument out of a saw?” It just so happened that he had all these tools and bits of metal lying around and he liked the sound that the saw blade made when he tapped it with a drumstick so he said, “I think I’ll build something out of that.” He made this Tio instrument years and years ago — completely without any knowledge that there was going to be a movie franchise called Saw, so it was a happy coincidence that it creates the types of sounds that would work in this environment.

Another really cool aspect to Spiral’s sound is the addition of 21 Savage and his song “Spiral.” Did you work with him at all and what was it like hearing your iconic theme reinterpreted as a hip-hop beat?

If you get on YouTube there’s a zillion illegal, unauthorized track remixes of “Hello Zepp” where they’ve sampled bits and pieces, but this was of course a completely authorized cooperation. Although we were never in the same room together, I did go back and forth quite a bit with him and his crew. I extracted the stems of the audio from the original “Hello Zepp” theme from the first movie and gave that to them so they could stick them in their samplers, chop them up, and flip those samples to create the bed for the track that they did.

It’s always awesome when you realize that there’s a fanbase or whatever you want to call it in an unexpected place. I wouldn’t have thought that those samples would form the basis for this hard-ass hip-hop track that he did, but it’s hugely gratifying to see what they did with it and realize that there’s enthusiasm behind it on their end.

It’s always fun to hear how someone reinterprets and flips the material that becomes so familiar to me and to the audience. When writing the original track, I did try to make it kind of hook-y and hypnotic and it’s gratifying to see that those were the qualities that 21 Savage and his crew were responding to. It was a great experience all around.

Speaking of the “Hello Zepp” theme, as I was sitting in the theater watching Spiral I could feel myself getting really excited about when the track was going to drop. I found it really comforting and satisfying when we finally got those icy notes and that iconic progression. It has transcended into something way more than the average theme and has become such a crucial narrative moment for the franchise. When it comes to placing that theme into the Saw films (because it has to be in there), do you have discussions on when, where, and how to use it? 

Oh absolutely. That’s always a critical timing element in the final act of these movies. Where does the score stop — and those jangly little notes at the beginning of “Hello Zepp,” where exactly should those start? And then, where exactly should the first string chords come in? They are always a little different from each other in terms of how many bars of the little jangly sound play before the string chords hit.

That’s not one of those situations where the director and the producers just say, “Just slap it in here somewhere towards the end.” It’s always a case of, “OK. The jangly sounds start right…here when he pushes the button.” Or when the door opens or whatever it may be. And then, “The string chords need to start here on this shot of his face.” Or whatever that precise timing is to get that set-up going.

Once it’s kind of rolling, it’s a case of adjusting the timing and the tempo so it ends with a big slam at exactly the right point. Usually it’s a door sliding shut. There’s always a little bit of logistic studio tomfoolery involved in adjusting all that stuff so that it fits precisely into the hole that has been cut for it. That is never an easy process and it’s one that everybody involved has an opinion on. It’s never an argument, but it’s always sort of, “Here’s where it starts. Here’s where the strings come in. Here’s where it ends.”

charlie clouser spiral saw soundtrack score interview

That’s so incredibly interesting. It’s pretty rare that a modern piece of music carries that much extreme weight into the ultimate execution of a film. Especially for the big final scene. 

It was a surprising result from a piece of music that originally was written fairly quickly. It wasn’t a case of going around the block and trying 20 different versions and seeing which one everybody liked. It was done in a couple of days and fit into its slot in the first movie and then, to some degree, the ending montages of all the movies have almost been built around it. So that makes it just that much easier to fit into its slot in the rest of the movies.

Outside of composing, you also have an incredibly rich musical history with bands and traditional songwriting. Because of that, when it comes to creating a score, how conscious are you of creating a score that is able to stand on it’s own two feet as a satisfying listening experience? Do you ever wind up making adjustments with that in mind?

I admit to being completely guilty of going too far in the direction of trying to make the score work as a stand alone piece of music. I’m conscious that I may go too far sometimes and that that can detract from the score’s usefulness in the movie. In the Saw movies that’s less of a problem. Maybe because the precedent has already been established that these trap scenes are going to be these industrial music tracks that are complete with a kick drum and snare and guitars. That they have the ingredients of a more complete piece of album listening music than many score type pieces of music would have. And a lot of times when I’m preparing the soundtrack album version, I am making some changes so they do work a little better as a stand alone listening experience. Often just shortening things and removing some sonic events that make sense against picture (like a jump scare type of sound or whatever), but without the picture those little islands of sonic mayhem may not make as much sense. So, a lot of times I go back to the original recordings on the computer and remove a few things, shorten some sections and try to make it a tighter piece of music that can stand alone when you’re not watching it against picture.

I recognize that outside of the Saw universe I always have to check myself so that I don’t go too far and make some solo album when it really needs to serve the picture more. That definitely is a holdover from my days of making records and remix stuff where even if it’s some abstract chunk of weird noise and beeps, it still wants to feel like it works as a “song.” There’s always that element, more so in the Saw movies hopefully than other things that I’ve scored, but in the context of the Saw world, it’s a little bit more acceptable.

In the world of film music, there seems to be a continuous upward trend of films utilizing electronic textures and acoustic-electronic hybrid blends across genres. Yet, not just to sound vintage or to denote that something is science-fiction and disconnected from humanity, but used in ways that carry real emotional weight. Any thoughts on this shift in how electronic music is being used within film scoring? Do you think our increasing dependency and relationship with technology has also evolved our emotional connection to electronic music? 

I do. I think that there’s a few factors at play that have led to the increased saturation of electronic textures in modern scoring. One of the simplest explanations is that the people who are making the movies—whether it’s the directors, writers or producers—are from a younger generation than they were 20 years ago. They grew up listening to Joy Division, Kraftwerk or whatever. Or even Nine Inch Nails!

So, it’s not as foreign a concept to them as it might have been 20 years ago to say, “We’re not going to go with a John Williams orchestral score for this movie. We’re going to go with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who do these fantastic, emotional electronic soundscapes.” Or to go with someone like Cliff Martinez who does these half-acoustic, half-electronic atmospheric scores, but that are very rich with an emotional backdrop. So I think there’s that element; that the filmmakers are of a younger generation. But there’s also the constant quest for something new and fresh in the sonic landscape of film.

Even in the world of big budget mainstream Marvel movies or whatever, you have composers like Hans Zimmer. He has always used a lot of electronic textures as a backdrop to what he’s doing. But then you also have guys like Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL). Yes he does big, bombastic orchestral stuff, but there’s also very tasty sound design and synthesizer stuff that’s tucked in there and providing a backdrop. Even more “traditional” composers like Harry Gregson-Williams — he always has great electronic synth work in his scores. So I think there’s a bunch of factors that are all helping to add to that saturation of electronic textures.

Plus, the fact, like you mentioned, technology and high-tech sounds are just a part of everyday life. Any nine-year-old can work an iPad better than their granddad can. That kind of familiarity with technology means that it doesn’t sound weird or foreign when those sounds and textures are included in a film score.

It’s such an exciting evolution in the world of film scores.

Absolutely. I knew they’d come around eventually. [laughs]

Big final question…Saw X. Are you going to answer that call?

I will absolutely answer that call. I’m hugely grateful to the producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg, who have stuck with me through this whole adventure. With the success of Spiral and this new side street that they’ve gone down, their energy and enthusiasm level is like they each drank 5 Red Bulls. They’ve got a fire lit under them and there’s no way we don’t see more installments in the series.

Whether it’s a return to the traditional Saw storyline or whether it’s more chapters in the side street of Spiral I don’t know. But whatever it may be, I’m hugely grateful that Oren and Mark’s general attitude has been, “Well, you’re our guy.” This franchise is what got me started for real in scoring… and I’ve told them over and over again, “Look guys. I owe you for taking a chance on me way back when, so anytime you need it, you can count on me.”

I’m hugely excited that there’s a new direction with Spiral and it isn’t just, “Oh, it’s another Saw movie. It’s the ninth one and it’s the same old thing.” I bet they are scheming right now for multiple avenues to exploit and I’ll be on board for all of them if they’ll have me.

(Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.)

Spiral is now screening in theaters worldwide. Clouser’s soundtrack is also out and available now via Lakeshore Records.

(Feature Photo of Clouser in the studio by Zoe Wiseman.)

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