The Music of SAW, A Conversation With Composer Charlie Clouser

This holiday season Saw fans will be receiving a special present, a Saw anthology compilation soundtrack from the film’s composer Charlie Clouser. The 2 volume disc set has just been released by Lakeshore Records and includes scores from all seven films of the successful franchise. To celebrate the release, we sat down with Clouser and discussed many topics including why the films register with fans, which Jigsaw death made him and his wife squirm and which track out of all the films was the most challenging to write.

-There was a seven year break between the last Saw film and Jigsaw. During that break did you think to yourself if there is another film I will use this new technique, or instrument or do this differently? If so, what was it?

For Jigsaw I did take a slightly different approach, not really because of the seven year time span between the last film and this one, but more in response to the visual style of the Spierig brothers who directed this installment. Their style is a little brighter and sharper than we’ve seen in most of the Saw films, so I thought that my sound palette should reflect this a bit. That meant using more pointed, brighter sounds this time around as opposed to the total murky darkness that filled most of my previous scores. In the trap scenes I used a lot more synths and high tech feeling sounds that felt more in line with the Spierig’s sharp style. A lot of this film takes place in the outside world and in broad daylight, while we follow the investigators as they try to piece together the case, which is a bit of a different feel to many of the previous films that seemed to take place mostly in dank dungeon environments, so it felt natural to use a few more “normal” instruments in these scenes. That said, I still deployed the full arsenal of bowed metal instruments and creepy processed orchestral sounds that have always formed the foundation of the sonic footprint of all Saw films.

-In your opinion, why do you think the Saw films register so much with moviegoers? Creating the demand for more films in the franchise.

All of the Saw films have a cool balance between the suspense of the chase and the struggle of the victims, and you never know until the end who’s going to make it out in one piece. I think this gives the audience a lot of different angles to latch onto, and just as they think they’ve figured out which victim’s number is up next, the story switches gears to follow the characters outside the traps who are racing to find the victims before they meet their demise. When you stack all that up against the inevitable twist ending, and the feel of acceleration as we near the end of the films, I think it gives the audience a good rush, and they leave the theater feeling exhilarated, which is definitely the desired outcome.

-Simon Abrams from remarked that Jigsaw has 2 story lines, one is a locked room mystery set in an undisclosed barn, and the other is a police investigation of those farmyard slayings. Did you find yourself creating two different sounding scores for the film because of these settings?

I did try to have my score for Jigsaw have a little bit of a split personality to go with the two parallel story lines, with two distinct sets of sounds and feels. For the locked room segments that meant using the familiar dark and murky soundscape with addition of the high-tech synth stuff I mentioned earlier, and for the investigative segments I tried to use less extreme sounds with a more dry, up-front feel. As the film progresses and the two story lines converge, the two musical approaches start to cross-pollinate, so that by the time we’re nearing the end the two sonic worlds have merged into a single feel. Some of the sounds and melodic elements are linked to certain characters, so as the characters’ arcs collide their sounds start to meet in the middle, which hopefully mirrors what’s happening on screen. It’s great for a composer when the film’s writing and editing can lead the music down a path like that. Having a game plan that’s derived right from what we’re seeing makes the composer’s job a lot easier.

-Which death in Jigsaw did you find particularly disturbing?

For me, the most disturbing death in Jigsaw was Mitch versus the motorcycle grinder. For a minute there it looked like he might make it out in one piece, but at the end of the scene, even though what happens to him isn’t totally unexpected it was still pretty freaking gruesome. The sound design is what made it even more disturbing, with that big, wet splat as his corpse hits the ground! When we saw it in the theater and we got to that scene, my wife looked over at me with this look on her face, like, “WTF, man?”

-Did you have a favorite sequence to score in Jigsaw?

One of my favorite scenes to compose for in Jigsaw was the whole sequence in the third act of driving to the barn and exploring the lair. It was a fun mix of styles, with the swelling string chords while they’re in the car, then some dark and murky metallic ambiences as they discover the trap devices, and finally a bit of high energy action as they confront Halloran. I did that whole segment of the film as one long piece of music, and it was fun to move between those styles as the scene progresses. Maybe not the most hard-hitting part of the film, but from a musician’s view it was a bit of a challenge and a fun workout.

-The 2 volume Saw Anthology album was just released. What are you most proud of with these albums?

It was a real labor of love to create the Saw Anthology albums. I had to go through over five hundred pieces of music from all eight films that spanned the first fourteen years of my scoring career, and I tried to pick pieces that best represented how the visual and musical styles of the films changed over the course of the franchise. In a lot of spots I went back to the original files and remixed them, making slight changes here and there in order to let me join some cues together into little mini-montages. Instead of scrambling the order and doing something like putting all of the heavy cues on disc one and all of the ambient cues on disc two, I kept all of the music in chronological order, the same way it originally appeared in the films, with each film’s score reduced down to about twenty minutes of music so that each film got a single “side” on the vinyl release. Obviously, I had to leave out a huge amount of material, but I tried to pick the pieces that would be interesting to listen to, even if they might not have been the most obvious and well-known cues. In the end, I think it all flows together nicely and really feels like a journey through the whole franchise, and that’s the most important part of what I set out to achieve with this release.

-What was the most difficult track for you to create on the anthology album and why?

Out of all the cues that wound up on the Saw Anthology album, the most challenging one was probably one of the complex later versions of Hello Zepp, like Just Begun Your Test or Doctor Gordon. It was always a challenge to add new sections and new material on top of the familiar framework of Hello Zepp without destroying what makes that track so simple and effective, and in many cases it became an elaborate process of manipulating tempo changes and inserting little breaks in order to get everything to line up against the picture in the right way while still feeling like a piece of music that flowed in a natural way. Many of the complicated trap cues were challenging for other reasons, but for me it’s always easier to do a complicated music from scratch than it is to modify an existing piece to “soup it up” without wrecking everything. So I’d have to say that for me it’s always been the inevitable umpteenth new version of Hello Zepp that makes me a little nervous when doing a Saw film.

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