A twelve time BMI Film & TV Music award winner, Charlie Clouser has taken the music and film industry by storm. Working in collaboration with artists such as Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, he has contributed to ten platinum and gold records. He is a pioneer in the world of industrial horror scores, working on bockbusters such as the SAW franchise, Resident Evil: Extinction and the hit TV show Wayward Pines. As a user of Sonixinema libraries such as Superball and Hybrid Scoring Collection: Strings, we sat down with Charlie to find out more about his creative process!
As someone who as achieved a successful career in the record industry, what inspired you to start scoring to picture?
CC: One of the earliest phases in my music career, pretty much straight out of college, before I got involved in the record industry, was a three-year stretch working as a programmer for a television composer in NYC, doing programming on scores for tv series like the original The Equalizer. I did all the drum programming and sound design, and did most of the mixing of the scores. Whether on records or scores, I’ve always done pretty dark, sound-design-heavy music, especially during my time in the band Nine Inch Nails, and that approach was a natural fit for the kind of horror and thriller movies and tv series that I’ve become involved with. So it was kind of a smooth transition for me to move from records back to scoring, and my early experience on scores at the start of my career really helped me make the switch since I already knew the terminology and workflow. I’ve always preferred long nights experimenting in the studio over touring and playing live, and film scoring fits that description for sure.
Your studio setup consists of not only samples, but a lot of analog/modular gear and even custom made instruments such as the Que Lastas. How important do you think this is to your personal sound, and do you feel they help to inspire your creative choices?
CC: Being able to make sounds I’ve never heard before is a huge part of my inspiration. This approach helps me make a connection between the emotional themes in a film and the emotional reactions that a sound can evoke, over and above what the actual musical content is. I often form a stronger reaction to the unique or interesting sound of a new instrument than I would to just another chord progression. I think of some of these sounds as if they were an abstract expression like laughter, as opposed to more ordinary orchestral music that, to me, feels more like speaking actual words, like a language. If you can get both sides of that equation working then I think you’re on to something. I don’t have much interest in working solely with a normal orchestral palette for the same reasons that I never had much interest in making records with just guitar, bass, and drums.
Aside from working in a group scenario, do you find the process of creating music for records and music for films different?
CC: The biggest difference is that the form that a film score takes is completely dictated by the timeline of that film, without any of the considerations that come into play when making a record, where you’re thinking in terms of how long the intro will be before the vocals come in and stuff like that. I really like the process of weaving the music together around the shape of a film, even if it’s lopsided and asymmetrical. That’s often more challenging and rewarding to me than working in the song format that many records wind up having, even the less traditional genres that I usually worked in. Film can also be a much more free-form arena to work in from a sound design point of view, and lets me focus more on creating wordless moods without being distracted by the lyric content.
When writing for a hugely successful franchise like SAW, do you find that you spend your time trying to refine your sound on each film, or trying to reinvent your sound?
CC: Throughout the SAW franchise there had to be a balance between maintaining the textures, sounds, and moods that became trademarks of the movies while still raising the stakes with each sequel. Over the course of the eight movies there were certain sounds, melodies, and chord progressions which just had to be there or it wouldn’t sound like a member of the family, so I had to keep those elements intact without letting things get stale, and find a way to follow the flow of the stories, introducing new material that still felt familiar in a way. For me this meant thinking of it as though I were using a zoom lens; as if for the first film the musical camera had already been pointed at a dark corner, and for each successive sequel I was zooming in further and further, revealing more detail in the crust and filth of that dark corner, as opposed to re-focusing the camera on a completely different spot in the room. As the franchise evolved, with different directors taking control, I let the scores be influenced by their individual visual styles. James Wan’s style on the first film was pretty dark and gritty, so I used lots of muted, dusty tones, while Darren Bousman’s style had a gothic element to it, so I found myself using more choir and orchestral sounds. On the latest film, JIGSAW, the Spierig brothers’ style was more crisp and legible, so I used less of a blurry sound and focused more on sharp sounds. None of this was really an overly conscious decision, it’s always a reaction to the imagery that I’m seeing on the screen.
What was the last piece of music that you heard that you think everyone reading this should hear?
CC: My favourite record of the past few years was David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which really resonated for me for a lot of reasons. As far as scores go I keep listening to the score for Tom Tykwer's The International, by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Tykwer. For my money it’s the perfect thriller score and still sounds fresh. Reinhold’s score for the series Deutschland 83 is also really interesting as well. Other scores I like to listen to are Andre Despot’s scores for The Ghost Writer and Syriana, both of which are some of my favourite movies ever.