Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, known collectively as The Newton Brothers, know how to make you squirm. They understand what makes your spine tingle and just how to do it. They have the rare gift of being able to evoke emotions through music. They’ve worked on The Grudge, “The Haunting of Hill House”, and Doctor Sleep, just to name a few. With the release of their latest project THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, I was fortunate enough to get under the hood of the creative process that allows them to continue to provide the soundtrack to our nightmares.
First, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Your career arc is very inspirational for people who both want to compose as well as love how music provides all of the extras that are needed to bring a piece of film together. You both are accomplished musicians in your own right, but when you got the word that you’d be apprentices under Hans Zimmer, what excited you the most about that opportunity?
The Newton Brothers: That was circa 2005. Only Taylor apprenticed under Hans, but it was an excellent experience. He has a fondness for pushing the music boundaries and for combining technology with music to create new sonic possibilities. Hans is a master at that: trying new ideas, taking on new approaches, and always thinking outside the box. He’s a champion of themes and melodies.
When approaching a project, is the note-taking process very tedious and organized, or do you work off a general outline of feelings before you begin to lay down some of the compositions for the score?
The Newton Brothers: It depends on when we’re brought onto a project and on the timeline but it’s always very detailed. We’re using a program that calculates everything we have left to write, record, mix, and any specific notes, etc. Everyone on our team is using it which allows us to quickly go back and choose a version we wrote 5 versions back. It’s truly a life-saver.
On the creative side, getting into the headspace of the director or producer is the name of the game. We usually start off with a suite of ideas, tackling all the themes/motifs and sonic nature of the project. Once those pieces are approved we can build or hint on them in the smaller scenes. To your question, sometimes we do work off of feelings based on a script or a dialog with a director, and other times it’s very calculated.
It’s important to remember the movie or tv show is essentially a symphony, the director is the conductor and the composer is a player. Understanding how to balance your performance with the rest of the team is crucial. Overstating or understating at the wrong moments can distract from the film/show.
Is it an even 50/50 split in the handling of responsibilities for the score, or do you have a system that creates a seamless workflow for you? Whoever is in a good groove on a particular piece, takes the lead and the other fills in with thoughts and finishing touches?
The Newton Brothers: In the beginning, I would say we both double up and tackle everything. Mainly to put forward different options and ideas. Having different perspectives early on helps identify what works and what doesn’t. Once we have approval on the themes/motifs, we start tackling the remainder. Andy may start a cue and I might finish it. It just depends on who’s doing what.
Do you have go-to keys or modes that you can count on for inspiration if a particular part is causing writer’s block?
The Newton Brothers: Can’t say we do. If we run into writer’s block, we’ll just go for a run outside and afterward, make a strong cup of coffee and reread the script or rewatch the picture and just start writing. We find that even if it’s not coming out immediately, it will if you keep writing and focusing and feeling your way through it.
How do you decide what fear should sound like overall? I understand it vastly changes from project to project, but if you had to narrow it down to three general ideas that musically scare people what would they be?
The Newton Brothers: It really does change [from] project to project. Fear is really the unknown. If the music is telling you to feel too much before you get to the scary moment, it won’t be scary. Silence is scary and being selective and minimal in your approach to the muse is also your friend. Think about Jaws. Just hearing the water and a few notes from John Williams’ brilliant theme is enough to get you terrified. We don’t even see the shark but we know it’s there. As the theme builds, now we know to be terrified. Something bad is close or coming, but still, we don’t see the shark. It’s incredible actually!
Have you ever scared yourself, after you have created music for a scene, and you’re playing it back to make sure it’s the right fit?
The Newton Brothers: We’ve had the music up too loud over a jump scare on several occasions. Just the sheer volume can be jarring. Especially at 2 in the morning in a dark room alone. Not recommended. Scoring disturbing scenes can be very uncomfortable like the devolving scene from Gerald’s Game; that was tough.
How do you know when something is finished? Is it a feeling or do you have a tangible checklist something must meet to consider it “done?”
The Newton Brothers: Great question. When the music is approved would be the short answer. But typically, time is a factor. Most of the time we are playing half a dozen of the instruments ourselves, writing, arranging, recording, and then mixing them all together with the more obscure instruments, sounds, and synthesizers. Next is prepping, recording for the orchestra and finally, everything is mixed by a mixer and delivered to the dub stage. Creatively, knowing when you’re ready to present a cue to the director is a mental game with yourself. You have to trust your communication with the director and you have to listen to that voice in your head. Often times, knowing when you’re done comes after a period of self-editing in which we’ll take notes for each other or during which we’ll make notes to ourselves and start muting elements that interfere with story or dialog and play with fine-tuning what the combination of the score and the edit is telling us. It sounds real loose, and it is which makes first playbacks terrifying. Did we just try to land a plane in a swamp, on a field, or on a beautiful long runway? There are so many things that come into play. It’s a balancing act of trusting yourself to know when you’re done.