Syfy’s three-part Childhood’s End adaptation, drawn from the Arthur C. Clarke novel, debuts Monday, December 14. We’ll have our review up tomorrow—but today, we’ve got an interview with musician and composer Charlie Clouser, who created the score for the highly anticipated miniseries.
Clouser was a member of Nine Inch Nails from 1994 to 2000, and has since built a robust career crafting scores for films (the Saw series) and television (American Horror Story, Wayward Pines). But it wasn’t just his musical background that made him an ideal match for Childhood’s End—he’s also a lifelong science fiction fan. We got him on the phone this week to learn more.
io9.com: Prior to working on Childhood’s End, were you already an Arthur C. Clarke fan?
Charlie Clouser: I was much more of a scifi nerd growing up than a comic book or horror nerd. I still get the big, end-of-the-year short story books that Gardner Dozois edits, which are these telephone-book-thick anthologies that come out every year of the best scifi short stories. I’d always been into Arthur C. Clarke, ever since my dad took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I must have been seven years old or so. That lit the flame both on being a scifi and Arthur C. Clarke fan, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of advanced music, like the crazy György Ligeti choir pieces that are in 2001—sounds that I had never heard before! So that was an early spark to curiosity about crazy music. Not electronic music, but just crazy classical music.
How does the process work once you’re hired onto a project like Childhood’s End? Do you get an early look at the script and go from there?
I was already familiar with the book, but they did send me a script—they modernized the script so it takes place today, not in the 1950s when the book was written. They’d changed a few characters. For instance, in the original, one of the main characters was someone from the UN; in this version, it’s a normal civilian plucked seemingly at random from the populace. And they focused on how these momentous developments affect individual stories, as opposed to the broad swath of humanity. So, it was good to see the script and how that differed from the book.
When I read a script, what I picture in my mind is never what it looks like on the screen—but when I get the actual finished picture, I can really see musically what needs to be done. In this case, I only had a few days with the script before they handed over the rough cuts. And that’s when I really got down to business.
How much freedom do you have as a composer?
[The producers and filmmakers] have a very clear picture of where the music needs to complete certain tasks. Before I start to work, we all sit together and watch every scene and make notes: “Ok, so the music should start here and be kind of warm and touching. And then when the guy opens the door, it needs to get a little scary, but not too dark.” There is a very detailed picture of what they’ve come up with, over months of tweaking the photography and editing. They try their best to communicate that to me, and hopefully I don’t go home and get in the studio and forget everything I promised I would do.
How intuitive is the composing process?
I’ve been doing nothing but making music for 30 years or so now, so I kind of have my own internal shorthand about how certain chords, or melodies, or intervals on the keyboard make me feel. So if something needs to sound hopeful, let’s say, a lot of times I will use melodies that tend to move upward. In Childhood’s End there’s a lot of religious overtones, as the arrival of the aliens challenges humanity’s notions of religion. There’s times when we wanted to evoke an “ascending to the heavens” kind of feel, so we used melodies that sort of rise up the keyboard. Likewise, when a character has no way out and they’re like a rat in a maze, searching for a solution—but you know there isn’t going to be one—I use chord progressions and melodies that descend, dragging the character to his or her doom.
So there are certain resemblances between the musical phrasing and what’s going on with the characters. I try to mirror that as much as possible. It may not be obvious to the viewer, but I think subconsciously it creates a unity between what you hear and what you see.
And I’m guessing that’s one of the challenges of composing—you want the score to be effective, but not obvious or even distracting. How do you approach that?
Sometimes you’ll write a piece and think, “Wow, this is the greatest little nugget of music ever. I want to make sure this is heard and obvious!” But then you’re trying to work it into a scene, and there’s important dialogue that you can’t overshadow. You realize, in the context of the finished product, this little musical nugget is going to be buried. Then you try to figure out ways to let the musical ideas lurk in the background and populate large chunks of the movie.
On this project, there were certain themes—not necessarily themes like “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, which is this obvious thing that happens whenever Darth Vader comes out. One thematic mode in Childhood’s End was the death of organized religion, so there’s a very simple little chord pattern that I had in my mind that I equated to that. There was another musical theme that was related to the children “ascending into heaven,” quote-unquote. Those were distinct ideas but some scenes dealt with both of those contexts. So I wrote these two modes so they could overlap and interchange. When you keep the themes simple and modular, then it’s very satisfying. It’s not very overt, but it’s the kind of thing that when I pull it off, it’s like, “Okay. Mission completed. And whether or not the audience notices it, that’s their problem.”
Childhood’s End influenced a lot of alien-invasion works that came after its publication in 1953. In writing the score, did you take inspiration from any pre-existing science fiction movies or TV?
I did take some influence from those sort of atonal, mind-bending choir pieces that are in 2001, which were actually not written for the film. Kubrick dropped those [Ligeti pieces] into the movie because they had a sense of otherworldly wonder. There are some scenes in Childhood’s End where, basically, humanity’s mind is being blown. I didn’t want to have a lot of synthesizers and far-out sounds that would distract the viewer from what’s going on on-screen. So using choirs is a sound that is not foreign or distracting, but it still let me create this clustering of sounds that hopefully isn’t too big of a nod to the 2001 score.
There’s a few scenes at the beginning of the saga before we really know what the aliens are up to, and it’s like, “Oh hell. Is this the end of humanity?” In those scenes, I used these terrifying gigantic sounds. But once we get to talking with the aliens and get more into the stories of the individual characters, then a lot of that huge, epic-ness kind of goes away in the score.
Going into this, I sort of thought, I’m going to have to pull out all the stops and have all kinds of attention-grabbing pyrotechnics in the music. I kind of did a little bit in the beginning; the first night, the score has chaos and confusion and wild textures. But then in parts two and three, the tonality of the score gets narrower. By the time we’re at the end, the score is made up of orchestral sounds, with solo cello playing over it, and choirs. I’m listening to it going, “How did I wind up here?” My instincts led me down that path—as the big triangle of the story gets more focused, so does the music.
While you’re composing, how important is it to be aware of silence?
There are some scenes which are so complex, where a character is wrestling with multiple choices and is about to make a decision. And sometimes, it’s better to leave those moments silent because the score could telegraph to the audience what decision they’re going to make. Of the roughly four hours of running time, I think I have a little over three hours of score. A lot of that score isn’t thematic—it’s atmospheric and sort of gently keeps the wheels turning. But the moments when we drop the score out and go to complete silence tends to be when someone has not yet decided what their next move is going to be. We don’t want the score to prematurely open that door until the characters open it first.
Childhood’s End begins airing Monday, December 14 on Syfy.
Childhood’s End photos courtesy of NBCUniversal.