Composer Charlie Clouser dishes on the upcoming Jigsaw score & his favorite SAW moments

jigsaw charlie clouser composer

Credit: Lionsgate/Zoe Wiseman

By Dan Moore

“Do you wanna play a game?” Just like James Wan, Leigh Wannell, Tobin Bell and Kevin Greutert, when you hear Charlie Clouser’s name you often associate it with the horror franchise SAW. Clouser has been part of the franchise since the original 2004 film after leaving the band Nine Inch Nails and has taken the films to the next level of terrifying with his gritty scores, more specifically his Hello Zepp theme. When one hears John Carpenter’s moody Michael Myers theme they instantly associate it with Halloween, it can be said that Clouser’s Hello Zepp theme has become one of the modern day versions of that. We decided to speak with Clouser about some of his favorite SAW moments including what gruesome deaths make him squirm the most.

I read somewhere that you initially got the first SAW film from some of the filmmakers hearing some of your samples. Is that correct?

The story behind me getting involved with the first SAW film, as far as I can remember it, is this: I got a call from my lawyer, who had some sort of involvement with the film, and he told me that there was this amazing indie horror thriller that had some of my music in the temp score, and that I should get in touch with these filmmakers immediately to talk about the score. At that point, I was getting back into scoring after fifteen years of messing about in the record industry, and I was also producing an album by the band Helmet, with Paige Hamilton recording vocals at my house. I got the first call at about ten in the morning, by noon I was down in a screening room on Highland watching the rough cut with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, and by two in the afternoon I was hired. James, Leigh, and editor Kevin Greutert had built a temp score with a lot of industrial music, from Ministry to Einsturzende Neubaten, and some of my most obscure remixes for NIN and others were in there as well, so I knew that these guys were serious fans of the genre and were digging deep into the kind of aggressive music that I’d built my recording career on. For me it was the perfect vehicle to jump into the driver’s seat on my first solo score, and I’m so glad that the movie struck a chord with audiences.

SAW’s Hello Zepp theme has become one of the most familiar horror themes in the last decade. Did you have ever imagined it would become so popular?

Well, I certainly hoped it would become memorable in the context of the film, and help to define the ending to the film after the purposely murky and indistinct sound of the rest of the score, but I wasn’t thinking “classic horror theme” or anything. I just wanted it to feel like bright lights had been turned on and a sense of urgency would ramp up as the end approached. I did know that it needed to be simple, forceful, and bold, and should be pretty minimal if I wanted it to become an “ear worm” and get stuck in your head. That’s why I tried to use simple phrases and only a few sounds working together to create a driving, hypnotic feel, as opposed to the smorgasbord of wild sounds swerving all over the place in the rest of the score. I actually wrote that piece of music in only a few hours and recorded the string quartet the next day, so I certainly wasn’t pulling my hair out and trying a million different approaches. I had an idea, hit upon the basic string parts very quickly, and it all came together without much pain and suffering compared to some pieces I’ve done. Over the years it’s been great fun to re-interpret, re-mix, and expand upon that basic theme as we worked our way through the sequels, adding new sections and bigger sounds on top of the basic framework that’s now almost fifteen years old.

Is there going to be a new Hello Zepp theme in Jigsaw?

Well, it wouldn’t be a SAW movie without a Hello Zepp cue at the end, would it? So, yeah, there is absolutely a giant version of that theme in the latest film. For Jigsaw, the Hello Zepp theme became over six minutes long, with new drums, new sections added, false endings, turnarounds, and fake-outs, all leading up to a massive climax where the familiar ending string melody comes slamming in.

Tobin Bell told Daily Mail that this film is “a different texture to past installments.” Can you elaborate on this at all?

From the second film through the seventh, more and more of the action seemed to take place in the traps, dungeons, and underground lairs, so there was a claustrophobic feel to both the imagery and the score. For Jigsaw, there’s a major part of the storyline that takes place in the “outside world,” so it’s not all darkness and shadow. This meant that the score needed to have a bit more light shining into it – but it’s still dark and heavy when it needs to be. For the outside world aspect of this film, that means that I’m able to use more epic drums and strings, and brighter and more precise sounds, before switching gears to the dark, clanging, drenched-in-reverb sound that’s more familiar to SAW fans. It was refreshing to be able to bring some of those colors into the SAW palette, and it really helps to propel the story along.

The SAW franchise is known for having some pretty gruesome deaths. Which death sequence out of all the films do you think was the most intense?

Some of the traps that I thought were the most unnerving and uncomfortable to watch weren’t the most violent or crazy ones. The “breathing room” trap in SAW VI, where they needed to hold their breath as long as possible to prevent their rib cages from being crushed, always made me uncomfortable for some reason, and the “water cube” that Agent Strahm had to deal with in SAW V also. I guess those drowning or suffocating traps creep me out more than the more gory ones. Still one of my favorites to score was the “needle pit” scene in SAW II, which makes everyone wince, even though Amanda does survive.

What do you think moviegoers leaving Jigsaw are going to walk out of the theater saying?

I hope the average moviegoer, someone who’s not necessarily a devoted SAW junkie, will come out of JIGSAW thinking, “That was a hell of a ride, a tense thriller with some pretty extreme scenes,” while the true die-hard SAW freaks and horror fans will hopefully say, “Oh yeah, SAW is back with a vengeance.”

Are you a horror fan yourself? If so, what have you seen recently that really stuck out to you?

I’m a sucker for any movie that’s tense and gets my adrenaline flowing, whether it’s a political or espionage thriller, a supernatural spooker, or a full-on horror splatter-fest, especially if it’s got interesting music. Besides the Insidious and Conjuring series, some of my other favorites this past couple of years have been Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and of course, It: Chapter One, and I was also surprised by Get Out, which I thought was a really cool film, and not at all what I expected. It seems to be a great time for horror fans, and the variety of different flavors in that genre is pretty great these days.

Charlie Clouser’s Jigsaw score is available Oct 27 at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/jigsaw-original-motion-picture-soundtrack/id1289512849.

You can follow Clouser’s Twitter at @CharlieClouser.

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