Interview with The Newton Brothers

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Modern horror scoring often relies on weird, unsettling tones and knife-sharp jump scares of percussion and strings, an approach through darkened hallways and nightmare-filled imaginations that refuse to allow any melodic pleasantries to provide an escape for the audience. For fans who may have been no bigger than “The Shining’s” Danny Torrance when they first saw that ghost-plagued kid peddling about a deserted hotel, it’s a sense anti-musical memory that truly defines what a “scary” horror soundtrack is all about.

With his 1980 Stephen King adaptation, Director Stanley Kubrick took the “needle drop” approach that he applied to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon.” But instead of the positively pleasant music of such refined masters as Strauss, Beethoven and Bach, Kubrick drew from the jagged, confrontational likes of Bela Bartok, György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki. They were composers whose “Musique concrète” style threw traditional ideas of harmony to the dogs, their tonal, distinctly uneasy work confronting audiences with all the pleasantry of a psycho killer. Little wonder that these pieces would be ideal for an axe-swinging father besieging his family through a hotel and its adjourning garden maze. It was perfect harmony between fear and imagination, one that viewers wouldn’t soon forget – let alone two composers joined and a director joined at the fearful hip to reprise a trip to the Overlook Hotel for King’s sequel “Doctor Sleep.”

Sobriety and helping the aged pass to the other side have saved an adult Danny (Ewan McGregor) from the alcoholic demons that damned his father. Yet there’s no escaping the torments of the Overlook that come with telepathic abilities that are anything but a gift, even if the young teen Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is delighted by her shining powers that dwarf Danny’s. But that will change to fear as she comes on the radar of the vampiric near-immortals called the True Knot, whose leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) can’t wait to make a feast of Abra’s abilities and pain. Of course all snowy roads shall lead to The Overlook, as Wendy Carlos’ arrangement of the ancient Dies Irae takes on an orchestral power to gloriously bring listeners back to the iconic “theme” of a cult picture whose saga is now given exceptional new life by filmmaker Mike Flanagan.

Cementing himself here as a new master of ghostly horror Flanagan has an equally strong psychic connection to the Newton Brothers (aka the non-related Taylor Newton Stewart and Andy Grush). While their resume has varied from the bonkers illegality of “Pawn Shop Chronicles” to the hip vibes of “Life of Crime” and the political subterfuge of “The Runner,” it’s in the company of the uncanny, and Flanagan in particular where they’re most striking abilities lie. As begun with the glass-like tonalities of a look inside Oculus’” haunted mirror, The Newtons have given unique voices to “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Before I Wake” (alongside Danny Elfman), the Stephen King adaption of “Gerard’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep’s” spiritual series cousin “The Haunting of Hill House” (currently in the process of a new Netflix address). All of these chilling works say much about the simpatico vibrations of a collaboration that’s reworking the haunted house genre into a thing of dark, intelligent beauty, no more so than with “Doctor Sleep.” Much like Flanagan’s picture-perfect recreation of Kubrick’s look and tone, Stewart and Grush seamlessly incorporate “The Shining’s” hit “tunes” into their own fearful though process.

But where movies and scores that come from super fans can fall into hollow, though well-meaning imitation, that’s most certainly not the case with “Doctor Sleep.” Much like Danny, Stewart and Grush confidently walk into their personal Room 237 to absorb the spirits of the composers within, absorbing the telltale dissonance, eerie voices, uncanny heartbeat, nerve-rending strings and best of all that Dies Irae into a new, utterly chilling spirit. What the Newtons bring to that bathtub is a chilling sense of the cosmic scope of evil at play here, using ritualistic rhythm, unearthly sampling and twisted percussion for a meeting of the minds between the sourced avant-garde music that gave birth to modern horror scoring, and the possibilities of where that terrifying astral, and sonic plane might go next. Rarely has modernistic shock effect been played with the unnerving subtlety of “Doctor Sleep” with a truly haunting, transfixing way that has something new to say about the soundscape of “The Shining” and horror music in general.

What did “The Shining” and its music mean to you before taking on “Doctor Sleep?”

Taylor: This is one of the few films I remember watching as a teen that left such an impression on me. I could not stop thinking about it for days. The music was just as impactful. The music and the film married up perfectly in a way that’s made it stand the test of time. “The Shining” is a true cinema classic.

Andy: I still remember exactly where I was and who I was with the first time I watched “The Shining.” It was at a youth group retreat in a cabin in Big Bear, CA. I had never seen anything like this film. It was disturbing, but in a way that scared me and forced me to think more about it. It sat on my brain. Only as an adult did I eventually come to understand more of the content, but it’s clear now why it resonated so deeply with me even at a young age.

Did your collaboration with Mike, as well as yourselves, differ here given the scope, and expectations of “Doctor Sleep?”

Taylor: Not at all. We were prepared for blood, sweat and tears as we do on every project. We always push ourselves to make the best possible score for our director and their vision for the film.

Andy: The collaboration didn’t differ too much from our previous projects with Mike. Our research at the front end of “Doctor Sleep” was one aspect that differed, because like anything in life, you’ve got to understand history to understand the future. We were familiar with the music in the film, but we didn’t know a lot about the specifics of it. Given the expectations of “The Shining” / “Doctor Sleep,” we wanted to make sure we knew everything we possibly could about “The Shining” universe before writing for this continuation of the story.

As this is based on a sequel book by Stephen King, who appreciates Mike’s work, did that make your breath slightly easier than working on a film and score that would have no affiliation other than using the author’s name?

Andy (L), Mike (C) & Taylor (R)

Taylor: No not at all. The bar on any movie, no matter if it’s a re-make, a sequel etc. has the same set of rules and expectations. Mike crafted an amazing script that Stephen King, the Kubrick Estate and Warner Brothers loved. That’s no easy task.

Andy: This was a really heavy project to work on. Having Stephen King appreciate Mike’s work almost set the mark even higher for us to make sure we gave this every bit of detail and nuance that it deserved.

What makes for a score that truly scares you? And why do you think the original “Shining” soundtrack is so nightmarish – let alone the movie?

Taylor: There are two parts to that question. I don’t believe any music is particularly scary unless you’re invested in the characters or the story. The scares just tend to not land. But if you’re invested in the story then you have the opportunity to create something incredibly unsettling. A great example would be “Jaws,” “Psycho” or “The Exorcist.” What makes “The Shining’s” score so scary was its use of dissonance and particularly inconsistency of rhythm. There’s very little predictability in the music, which makes you feel uneasy. And of course you’re invested in the Torrance family and you want to find out what happens to them. The score is mostly comprised of \needle drops that don’t change on shifts in the film that a composer would normally make. That added another element of uncertainty to the overall cinematic experience.

Andy: I agree with what Taylor said. To add onto that, finding motifs and sounds that are new and unexpected is something else that feels scary and unfamiliar. It’s hard to know on each project what this equates to, but it’s always an exploration of music and sound to picture to find out what’s working the best. It’s about being open and informed by the journey as you go. “Scary” music isn’t really definable by itself. I think it depends on the story, the characters and the setting. The music from “The Shining” really gets to you because it feels unfamiliar. While 20th Century music is not unfamiliar to everyone, it’s very complex and nuanced and can feel very unexpected in a wonderful way!

Stanley Kubrick directs Joe Turkel and Jack Nicholson in The Shining

“The Shining” was one of the first major “Avant garde” soundtrack albums to make an impression on listeners. How would you say Kubrick set the tone for horror scoring since then?

Andy: This is an excellent question, because a lot of what I explored in the research phase of this project was Avant-garde music in films prior to “The Shining” and after it. One of the most interesting stories that I did not know a lot about dealt with Bebe and Louis Barron, who scored “Forbidden Planet” in 1956. The things they did in that score had not been done before. There was an exploration that was so deep that they explained some of the music not as music, but as “characters.” They believed the notes were not just music to be performed, but that the music was a living character. A lot of the technology they were inventing at the time defined their process and the sound. Similarly throughout history, technology, knowledge and process inform stories and creativity. Musique concrète is all part of this and something we also spent a lot of time working on. Kubrick’s use of music and sound in “The Shining” was a brilliant way to take a re-imagining of recorded music and apply it to his film. In many instances, multiple pieces of music are edited on top of each other, furthering the feeling of chaos. It’s almost a “remix” of Avant-garde music. In a way, it was using samples of music. What if you loaded snippets of this music into an MPC? The pieces of music used in “The Shining” are all brilliant works of art. To use them together in the way that Kubrick and his team did, was immensely different from most film soundtracks.

How important was it to be faithful to the mix of Wendy Carlos music and modernistic pieces that made up the original “Shining” soundtrack?

Wendy Carlos (L), Rachel Elkind (R)

Andy: Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind composed and recorded some excellent music and sound for “The Shining” which has become a part of the film. As I understand it, Kubrick was attached to the Berlioz version of “Dies Irae,” and as all composers know, if a director has an idea that they believe is paramount to the film, that idea will usually be in the final film. Musique concrète is essential in “The Shining.” Even the needle drops could loosely be considered Musique concrète in the way they are edited together. It was very important to us to recognize this, but to also use the Musique concrète as something to expand “The Shining” universe into the “Doctor Sleep” universe. We went through the “Doctor Sleep” novel in huge detail and used that to employ our early ideas on what raw materials to record as part of our sound palette.

Could you talk about spinning off from Wendy and the pieces by Bartok and Ligeti into your own score?

Andy: All of these composers are legendary. Spinning off from them was a daunting challenge, but ultimately, one that involves understanding their music in context with the film and then setting that aside and composing for “Doctor Sleep.” It was very important to us that “Doctor Sleep” be its own unique sound and story. That also meant we had to explore every single idea we had.

Doctor Sleep Scoring Session

On the flip side of that, is there a danger of being too scared to go for a different style that might not be of “The Shining’s” musical soundscape?

Andy: This was a benefit of having worked so many times with Mike. We know that Mike will let us try things. To your question, some of those things were difficult to see to fruition because they were so different from “The Shining” world, but that was all part of the journey. We’d have ideas based on the novel, the script or discussions with Mike and we’d see those ideas through. Not taking those chances is irresponsible because it’s our job to get uncomfortable and to challenge the ideas we have. There can be no bad idea in this process. At some point, myself or Taylor or Mike or the producer Trevor Macy can decide that idea is not right for this project (or maybe any project, ha!) but ultimately, if you’re scared, you’ll never be able to find those ideas that resonate with the film. Some of it involves a saying that I love to remember when we’re weeks into exploration; “If you think, you stink.” The thinking comes in the research early on, but at a certain point you need to rely on the core of composing which is playing music, playing sound, making noise, capturing audio, performing an audio ballet of treatment. “Forbidden Planet” was done in the 50’s and even then, the Barron’s employed production tools to achieve effects of recordings. There was no Logic Pro or Pro Tools to do this, but they had their own techniques for reversing audio, applying effects and coming up with interesting motifs and sounds. I would guess that film was a journey for them in the same way that this and all projects are a journey for us as composers. Being open to every idea is crucial.

Forbidden Planet composers Bebe and Louis Barron.jpg

Taylor: We wanted to write something true to the story and characters of “Doctor Sleep.” As it’s very much it’s own story. As with any good sequel you want to connect certain things.

How did you want to approach the soul-sucking villains of “Doctor Sleep?”

Taylor: Yes the true Knot. They’re essentially ancient travelers with vampiric-like characteristics. We know they’ve been around for centuries, but where do they come from? How old are they? The book hints at these answers. Musically we knew it needed to feel like a collage of rare and unusual instrumentation. Particularly, the use of percussion and woodwinds to underline the ancient traveller elements. The Hurdy Grande also played an important role. As its predecessor, the Hurdy Gurdy has been around for centuries. Often just cranking the instrument on one note was incredibly effective. It captured that earthy and organic feel, while at the same time feeling dark and evil.

How was it to balance the movie’s earthbound, visceral action with its surreal quality of being on a haunted, astral plane?

Andy: Natural vs. Supernatural. That was a note I kept writing on my tab-notes in my “Doctor Sleep” paperback. Those two ideas are in constant flux in “Doctor Sleep.” The instrumentation we use throughout the film was specific to these ideas. Wind was one example. It haunts Dan Torrance as an adult. Our initial thought on this was to use wind instruments. But after some exploration and recording, we realized that there’s a sense of the supernatural that the wind brings. A wind harp is an ego-less instrument. We cannot employ our knowledge or skill on the instrument. We can build it to have characteristics, but apart from that, once you set it up, it performs infinitely different every time based on temperature, wind speed, humidity etc… It’s a bit of the natural giving you a doorway to the supernatural – at least I think it is. We can identify what it is that makes the wind blow, but I don’t think anyone will deny a sense of “something else” in nature’s ebbing and flowing. Our recordings of the wind harp were an integral part of the film. It became raw material that we used as just one of the many Musique concrète ideas. While the wind harp leaned more toward the supernatural, the yin to that yang was the wind chimes we recorded. Here you have man-made instruments like the wind harp, but there is an ego/human attached to the performance of them. The wind harp represented a bit of Dan’s early idea of what it is to shine, while the wind chimes represent this new chapter in Abra not hiding that shining, but rather embracing it.

How was it to score the Overlook, and what lies within it?

Taylor: It was an incredible experience. I think everyone including the orchestra had that feeling. The, “chill factor.” The Dies Irae theme is powerful. It’s a moment I think will stay with us for some time

Andy: I will never in my life forget the moment of seeing the faces of the orchestra light up a few notes into our arrangement of Dies Irae for the drive to the overlook. It was that indescribable feeling that music gives you in life. For the rest of the overlook, Mike was very specific that he did not want anything to get in the way of the overlook experience. I think that’s what makes it so powerful in “Doctor Sleep.” Everything that each individual person experienced in “The Shining” comes back to you at the overlook. Scoring that would be trying to force people to feel a certain way. It will sound crazy, but we spent weeks coming up with exactly the right balance of instrumentation and swells to land on the sound that we all agreed worked for this newly iconic scene that Mike shot.

Talk about your ritualistic use of voice and percussion in the score.

The Doctor Sleep Chorus

Taylor: We wanted the percussion to feel a bit piecemealed from all parts of the world and history. Just like The True Knot. Everything from the Marvin, bowed timpani via metal and bowls, shells and various shakers hand drums became the percussion palette. We used our voices processed through modular systems and choir muttering chants of an ancient language.

For all of its menacing dissonance, there are also moving sequences of Danny telling his patients how to naturally come to death, music that’s only heard on the album. Could you talk about scoring those sequences, as well as choosing when to bring in more “earthly” and relatable melody into the score?

Andy: There was a huge lightning storm in Los Angeles in early March of this year. That night, I stayed up all night in the studio working on the score that became the score for these scenes. I have a skylight in my studio and it was incredible to have the sky exploding and flashing throughout the night while this music was written. It’s funny because it was a pivotal point in the film for the emotional content. After that night, it was details to finish the score, but that emotional content was the final push and difficult to find because how do you underscore 40 years of trauma. It can’t be melodramatic, it can’t be stale and it can’t be something that points a finger. This music stayed into the film until a few days before the final print and Mike looked at Taylor and I, and said, “You guys are going to kill me.” Then he asked the mixer, Jonathan Wales to mute the music in those scenes. We all loved those pieces of score. But ultimately, taking them out proved to be an excellent detail that Mike commandeered. We included two versions of this material on the soundtrack; ‘We Go On’ and ‘Doctor Sleep.’ It’s an 81-piece orchestra playing off of each other. They’re set up in a unique formation so that there is a natural panning and movement in the score that feels grounded, earthly and relatable. Apart from that, Ewan’s magnificent performances at Mike’s direction provided exactly the pathos needed to let you feel what you feel.

You’ve also recently scored the sailboat-bound horror film “Mary.” What was that experience like of being in close, haunted confines?

Taylor: We’ve always found the open sea to be a bit haunting. You’re in this small space with a massively open expanse around you. You’re alone other than the millions of creatures in the sea beneath you. There’s a siren aspect to “Mary” that we loved and really leaned into that on the film.

Next up you’re going to be scoring an Americanized take on “The Grudge.” What will your approach be there, especially given that it’s set on our soil as opposed to its Japanese roots?

Andy: We’ve just completed the score for “The Grudge” and we’re very happy with how it turned out. There’s a mix of emotion and chaos both through traditional writing and recording as well as the Musique concrète we explored on this one to gel the world’s together.

Are you happy to have found a niche in horror scoring?

Andy: We love the freedom that the genre affords us. It’s dark, it’s beautiful, it’s terrifying and it’s emotional.

In the end, do you think you’ve taken the musical spirits of Wendy Carlos, Ligeti and Bartok to their next phase with “Doctor Sleep?” And how do you hope this film and its soundtrack will stand next to the original “Shining?”

Andy: We hope that people enjoy “Doctor Sleep” as much as we do. Ultimately, at the onset of every project, we hope that our music becomes part of the film with all of the other parts of the film. It’s a huge compliment to have score marry to picture in a way that supports but doesn’t get in the way – to swell when it’s needed, be quiet when it’s needed, be purposeful while also being unpredictable. It’s difficult to be unpredictable without steamrolling dialog or visuals.

Do you hope your music for “Doctor Sleep” will give listeners nightmares that will wake them out of their slumbers? And if so, will that mean you’ve succeeded?

The Newton Brothers – Andy Grush (L) and Taylor Newton Stewarr (R)

Andy: The CBS Entertainment reporter Denise Poon asked us last week at the premiere what it felt like to be the sound of her nightmares. While we don’t want to stand apart from the film, we’re also aware that we carry the feelings and ideas of films with us after we leave the theater. I play soundtracks constantly to evoke a feeling from a film in my day-to-day life. I play “Remember the Titans” when I’m running, I play Erich Korngold when I want to feel adventure, I play “Interstellar” when I’m having life changing experiences, I play “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for inspiration and on and on. I hope that our music allows fans of the film to take “Doctor Sleep” with them on a plane or on a run or on a drive or in a nightmare. I’m trying to figure out which cue I’d listen to on a plane….yikes. Ha!

“Doctor Sleep” is now in theaters, with The Newton Brothers’ score available on WaterTower Music HERE

Listen to The Newton Brothers soundtracks HERE

Visit The Newton Brothers web site HERE