Charlie Clouser (INTERVIEW)
Before reinventing the sound of horror with his industrial SAW soundtrack, Charlie Clouser was a member of Nine Inch Nails and had also remixed the likes of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. Since moving to movies his work with James Wan on DEATH SENTEANCE and DEAD SILENCE has birthed a musician who knows how to score the genre well.
Now returning with the soundtrack to THE NEIGHBOUR, this sees Clouser's second collaboration with Marcus Dunstan since THE COLLECTION.
Your latest score for suspenseful horror THE NEIGHBOUR showing at this year’s FrightFest, which we look forward to seeing.
Well THE NEIGHBOUR was an interesting process to go through. The score was, because it takes place in dirt roads in the rural southeast of America in Georgia or somewhere, I wanted to make that score. It just didn't feel right to use big orchestra things or even industrial music stuff. I wanted that score to feel like it belonged in the place that the movie was happening.
Pretty much all of it was made on guitars. There's one or two little synthesizer sounds, and a few sample drums, but most of the scary stuff was just done by heavily processing and manipulating guitar sounds because I thought, and I hope it works. that technically those guitars belonged in that place.
They were dusty dirt road guitars before I started wrecking their sounds with a bunch of effects and so forth. That was the sort of little mission that I set for myself on that score. Marcus was very receptive to that idea and I'd like to think that it works out. We'll see if the score is universally derided or applauded to see how well that experiment worked. That was the theory behind it when we started.
THE NEIGHBOUR sees you collaborating with Marcus Dunstan again. What made you want to work on that film?
I worked with Marcus on one other feature that he had directed called THE COLLECTION, and he also was involved in the writing or tweaking of screenplays of some of the SAW sequels, and he's a uniquely enthusiastic personality. He has a real deep knowledge of the horror genre and outsider and B horror movies, including their scores, and he brings a lot of knowledge in my direction, and knows about weird 70s Italian horror movies that had cool crazy electronic scores that I'd never heard. Between his depth of knowledge of the genre and his insane level of enthusiasm, it's just a laugh riot to work with the guy.
He came to me, THE NEIGHBOUR is sort of a passion project for him, that I gather he did on a fairly small budget and he kind of came to me sort of hat in hand, saying, "You know, this thing, there's not a ton of money, but it could be fun." It was a great opportunity to deviate from the template of a lot of the things that I have been doing in the Saw franchise, even on the collection, where I didn't use the tortured psycho orchestra sounds. It was an opportunity to try to create a scary score from a completely different sound pallet that fit the place that the movie took place in. It was a lot of fun that way.
I just want to go back a little bit and just talk about your relationship with James Wan on the SAW franchise and some of his earlier works and how that relationship was.
Well, James was similar to Marcus, James has a deep knowledge of a lot of the nooks and crannies of the horror genre that I may not have experienced because growing up I was more of a sci-fi kid, and of course people like James and Marcus were horror buffs. James, similarly, was able to point me to references and broaden my experiences by introducing me to a lot of stuff I missed the first time around, 70s and 80s genre pictures.
James also has a very clear idea about how he wants the film to look and sound that may not be obvious until you're in the middle of working with him. On the first SAW movie, the reason I got pulled into his orbit, in his temp score for the first Saw movie, he didn't use orchestral horror music in his temp score as he was editing the film. He had everything from Ministry [and] a couple of bits and pieces of very obscure remixes that I had done of Nine Inch Nails and bands like that you wouldn't think would work as score for a horror film. He had picked these little sections out of these very obscure remixes I had done that only came out on an EP in Europe.
He had been digging and digging, and had put this stuff in his temp score, and that's how I was first introduced to him through my lawyer, of all people, who said, "You know there's this guy who's this wunderkind who has this horror movie that he just finished, and he's got a bunch of your music in the temp score, would you want to talk to him about maybe scoring the film. Of course I jumped at the chance and it wound up being a very fruitful relationship with a total of seven SAW movies and two other films, DEATH SENTEANCE and DEAD SILENCE that James had directed. Of course the SAW movies were very much of a piece.
They had their sounds and themes which reappeared at various points throughout the franchise. Both DEATH SENTENCE and DEAD SILENCE were departures from that pallet, and in Dead Silence there was a lot more of this sort of almost fairy-tale horror kind of stuff where I'd have broken music boxes, and glockenspiels, and choirs and things that I wouldn't have been able to use in the saw franchise because they just weren't appropriate.
In DEATH SENTENCE, it was much more of a modern action thriller, so again I deviated away from a lot of the proven methods of scoring something like a SAW film, and was able to use a much more contemporary almost rock music sound pallet with drums and guitars and things that weren't traditional orchestral horror sounds. That was a good seven or eight years that we ground out at least one movie a year between the pair of us. Rumour has it that the SAW story may not be over. That's the latest I'm hearing from the rumour mill on the internet. With any luck, we may go back and revisit that world.
Fingers firmly crossed. Kudos to yourself. Part of what makes the Saw films as well as the visual style those films have, it also does credit itself to that industrial sound, obviously a credit to yourself. You are so much a part of that franchise. Hopefully if you do get the continuation we will see more of your music.
You've touched on it there a little, but for you, what is the importance of having an orchestral, or more of a score to a film rather than having just mainstream music?
I think both approaches have their place at different points in the storytelling process. We just put a bad-ass song against certain scenes in movies, but it doesn’t always work because the song doesn't exactly follow with the edits and the cuts of the action, but just kind of ploughs along doing its thing, it has a different relationship to the picture. It pulls things along, as opposed to a score that's written specifically for the scene and follows every twitch of the eyebrow with a sound and every slamming door with a change in rhythm, that kind of score lets the story and the picture be in the lead. Both have their place.
Even in the context of composing an original score, for instance there was one, and this often happens in the movies I've done for James, and also for Marcus, there was a spot in the movie, THE COLLECTION, where the building is burning down and the hero has to escape this burning building and then go back in and save his counterpart. For that scene, Marcus specifically wanted something that resembled the structure of a song, that it just plowed along at a solid temps and had sections like verse and chorus that were 8 and 16 measures long, and had a rigid format and did not follow what was going on on the screen.
That had the subconscious effect of as the hero is dragging this unconscious body out through the fire, then eventually carrying her through the falling timbers that are about to crush him, the music was almost doing the same thing. It was pulling you, the viewer and the story, forward at this trudging pace. That served a similar function that putting a song in that spot would. That seemed to happen at least once or twice in most of the films that I wind up doing. For most of it there will be music that is following what's going on on the screen, and then at some point you have this construction that has that song-like aspect. Then that music takes the lead and pulls things forward unrelentingly.
I always think that same reaction happens when a cool song is placed in a movie. Because it has a familiar tempo and format, then even though it's not following the action on screen, it's familiar enough to the viewer that it's not distracting. They've heard a song before and they're not weirded out by the fact that thing is ploughing along without stopping and starting at every possible moment that the actors have a spot where the music should change. I enjoyed doing that and I love hearing a score full of songs, whether you have a fantastic movies like GOODFELLAS, where there is no score, it's just fantastic songs that pull the audience through the experiences and I like being able to attempt that with score cues that do have that song-like element.
Obviously, you have plenty of experience on both sides of the fence, going into movies over recent years, but your early career with Nine Inch Nails and several other bands. Which side of the musical industry do you prefer?
You know, I'm glad that I've been able to experience both sides of that coin, but I will say that there's almost a relief that comes from scoring a picture when you know that surrender your concepts of the form and the structure of a piece of music completely to the structure of the film. When you're working on a song, you might agonize for minutes or hours or days over, should the introduction be 8 measures long or 16. Should we put the guitar solo after the first chorus or after the second.
It was all these structural decisions which must be made in writing a song or doing a remix or producing record, which can be surrendered to the structure of the film when you're scoring the picture. In some ways, that's a relief because it's almost like the difference between painting completely abstractly and freehand vs. colouring in a child's colouring book where the lines are already drawn and you just have to colour in between them, and decide whether the turtle's hat should be orange or purple. That may be a poor analogy, but there's something relaxing about not having to decide how long the guitar solo should be and where in the song it should appear.
That certainly is something you have that pre-set tone when you're doing music, mainstream music, rather than the free roam of the actual cinema music, however on your side, on that free roam that you have, how much of that is collaborative between you and the director?
I would say I have pretty free rein, but what makes a collaboration like that work is when we're all automatically thinking the same thing without even having to discuss or argue about it. I've been fortunate that the kind of people that I've worked with, there's never been an argument or conflict over, "I think this section needs a big crashing drum part played here that it stops right at that point." There's never been a scenario where one of us thinks the drums should be there and one of us thinks they shouldn't. Of course, I'm grateful when the director has a solid idea about the music that's in his mind set in stone.
That actually makes my job a little easier then that's one more shape that is outlined that I don't have to wonder, hmm should the drums continue through this next scene or should I stop them at the beginning of this section. When someone like Marcus or James has a solid idea about that, then that actually makes the process a little quicker, because then I don't have to experiment and agonize. My first attempt can follow that guidance and with any luck, provides the desired result on the first time out. It's certainly a little easier than being in a band in some cases, because the band members are not arguing about where the guitar solo should be. Like, I said, I am quite happy when some of the shapes are outlined and I can get down to the business of deciding on the colours to fill them in.
If you could claim any cinematic soundtrack what would it be?
Oh, boy. That's a good question. You know, I can tell you, I do have that reaction sometimes, where I see a movie and hear a score and think, "I wish I'd done that." I'd have to say that one of my top ones would be the movie, MICHAEL CLAYTON, of all things. Which is James Newton Howard, whose incredible. I've actually worked with him a couple of times. He's incredibly talented and a completely skilled at conventional orchestration. The movie MICHAEL CLAYTON, I was very surprised to find out that that was one of his scores because it's very contemporary and almost electronic sounding and it doesn't follow the action so much.
It doesn't stop and start and it doesn't hit or sting items on the screen. It just creates this wonderful tension-filled mood that reinforces the tension in the story. I often refer back to that score when I am in need of minimalist inspiration, because it's exceedingly minimal but still contains enough calories and wattage pointed in the right direction to absolutely make that movie stand out, for me anyway. It's also widely regarded by other film composers as a true work of genius despite being so simplistic. Often minimalism and simplicity in the music is a lot harder than it looks. That's an example of someone who pulled it off perfectly.
I imagine, it's a really underrated choice. I like that, as you say it's the work and its simplicity, and it's probably one of those things that you don't necessarily think for a normal moviegoer it doesn't stand out, but without the soundtrack, I'm certain that MICHAEL CLAYTON kind of wouldn't work.
It could have been a very different movie with different, or no score on it. Another one that I love and a movie that I love and recommend to people is a little known espionage thriller called THE INTERNATIONAL, which starred Clive Owen and Naomi Watts and had a great score by Reinhold Hal, Johnny Klimek, and collaborating with the director, Tom Tykwer. The score that they did hearkens back to the sort of classic 70s espionage thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or whatever. That's another movie.
The score is not electronic, it's mostly organic and has pianos and strings and drums but there are some amazing cues that are very minimal but somehow still forceful. I remember seeing that movie and thinking, "This is great." Of course movies like MICHAEL CLAYTON and THE INTERNATIONAL don't exactly set the world on fire. They're not summer blockbusters by any means but I think both of those are examples of supremely talented people at the top of their game just absolutely killing it. Both of those are scores that after I heard them, I thought, "I wish I'd done that one."
They're certainly great choices. Is there any particular director you would like to have the chance to work with?
I must say, I'm a bit jealous of I believe it's Jóhann Jóhannsson, who works with Dennis Villeneuve, he's a fantastic director, I've liked all the movies I've seen of his.
I missed a lot of his earlier work, but the first movie I saw that he did was a movie PRISONERS, with Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard and after seeing that movie, I remarked to my agent, I was like, "Wow, it had this great score," that was very, again minimalist, and you couldn't tell if it was electronic or organic, but just murky and dark and scary but great.
Yeah, that score was Jóhann Jóhannsson and my agent of course said, "Oh yeah that director always works with the same composer and the two of them are just killing it." Then later he did SICARIO, which I thought was great and again Jóhann Jóhannsson on the score, and fantastic, grinding sounds that were made with the orchestra. Just a very unusual, but effective minimalist approach.
I guess then he just finished THE ARRIVAL, that alien invasion movie which is coming out soon, and reportedly is directing the BLADE RUNNER sequel. That's a guy that's got some great stuff in his pocket. Again, those type of movies that he's done are generally my favourite types of things. Tension filled thrillers and sci-fi. Those are my favourite genres to watch and would be my favourite kind of direction to move into in projects that I get to work on. I know there's no hope of prying Dennis and Jóhannsson apart, so I would not hold out hope that I will ever score one of his movies. I'll just watch them and enjoy them.
Stranger things have happened. Certainly some good choices. Really underrated films, especially PRISONERS and SICARIO, was a fantastic hit last year. So what's next for you? Are you looking to score anything else, or are you going back into the music industry?
I actually finished THE NEIGHBOUR in about February, and then did ten episodes for the second season for the series WAYWARD PINES, which came out of M. Night Shyamalan's world. I had done the first ten episode season last year and so it came back for another round, and that was some brutal deadlines were involved on this second season, but that one is just in the can.
I did just hear some exploratory phone calls about the possibility of Saw coming back for another round. Most of the SAW movies, we were on such a rapid refresh, almost a treadmill, getting one of those movies into the theatres every Halloween for seven straight years that it was always just a massive hurry that I would usually get to start on the score in August and have to be done in six weeks or less.
I did the first one I think in five weeks, while there was other things going on at my studio. I was kind of in the back room choking that one out. Hopefully, with this reinvention and/or reboot of the franchise, I will have plenty of lead-time and won't have to just rush through it at the last minute. If it does happen, that will be my plan, it to begin writing as they begin shooting or before, so that I can start reinventing the sonic footprint of that world, and not have to be just cramming it all into the last few weeks of the production. I'm looking forward to that, if the rumours are true.
That's fantastic, I certainly look forward to the return of a great franchise, there's enough left.
The Neighbour will premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest 2016 on Sunday 28th August.