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Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers

Paula Goldberg

PremiumBeat sat down with the prolific duo of Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart to discuss how they successfully craft fear.

PremiumBeat: Psycho-supernatural horror thrillers seem to be in your wheelhouse. What is it about crafting the soundtrack to terror that appeals to you both?

The Newton Brothers: A terrifying soundtrack usually comes with opportunities to try really odd things. Often times, it’s less about just notes and more about a combination of all of the things that make up music — notes, production, rhythm, feel, tone, etc. In a typical score, your goal is to enhance the narrative. When it comes to terror, that’s still the job, but you need to get really uncomfortable with how you do it. If audiences hear something familiar, it can sometimes “instruct” their psyche how to feel. I think the best experience of a film is letting each viewer have their own unique experience, as it relates to them. Enhancing the narrative without pointing the finger is an absolute blast, especially for horror films.

Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers - The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House (photo by Steve Dietl/Netflix).

PB: The Haunting of Hill House is a reimagining of the 1959 Shirley Jackson book. It’s been nearly fifty years since that novel was published. Were any elements of the score a throwback or homage to the original source material?

TNB: We spent a lot of time in the early stages after reading the novel and watching the original film, discussing with each other this exact question. Eventually, through the process of writing, we decided that there were ideas we wanted to think about and incorporate into the TV show, which came from the book and the original film. Fear was one of the big ones. We tried to not make anything feel comfortable and expected. Even the pieces of music that were not meant to invoke fear were all played freestyle, without a click, so that the music felt as if it was breathing. There’s always an element of “anything can happen” when something is breathing.

Music can turn on you and keep you guessing, especially when it feels like it’s living and breathing. We had big percussion hits throughout which were also not to a tempo, which also helped with an unexpected feeling. In addition to fear, the idea of sanity — or a lack thereof — was also a concept we talked a lot about before writing. As the season went on, certain cues would be placed in the edit, as it was being assembled, and sometimes they’d work. and other times they’d just be a road map. Mike Flanagan (show creator) would have a specific note about what was or was not working. But even the cues that were working, we made it a point to completely re-score them as an exercise of sanity/insanity. It caused a lot of extra work, but was incredibly effective at giving every scene its own unique score. (Wow, after answering that, we sound slightly crazy.)

Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers - The Newton Brothers

The Newton Brothers (photo by Josh Shultz).

PB: As brothers in music, how do you navigate the collaboration? Do you have a set process between you when crafting a new score?

TNB: We do. Typically, we have very little dialogue with each other early on. We’ll talk in broad strokes and then go away separately and try things. Then, we’ll come together and play things for each other and start filtering things and using each other’s sounds/themes that we’re liking. It’s actually a really wonderful process because it taps two wells of thoughts and then brings them together. I don’t think music is ever about a singular person or a singular idea. Music is informed by others and by instruments and by production and by natural chaos in life. Being able to combine thoughts and chords and melodies and sounds is such a fun and rewarding journey, every time.

Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers - Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep (Warner Brothers).

PB: What is your approach to a horror score? Do you aim to guide the audience’s emotions or do you play against manipulating their fears and anticipation?

TNB: We play against manipulating fears and anticipation. There are times when we will support the narrative, but we’ll rarely do so before dialogue or action on scene has already broken the ice. We’ve become quite sensitive to it in watching films and TV shows. I know that it bumps me pretty hard when I’m watching a film and a piece of score will instruct my emotions before something has occurred. That being said, I think there are occasions for it. A great example is the “Binary Sunset” cue in Star Wars IV when Luke walks out to watch the sun set and John Williams begins giving you the emotional thread, just before you cut to Luke’s face. But, in this case, it propels the narrative and acts as a storyteller with the scene. The entrance of the score in Episode 6 of Haunting was used in a similar way — to give support earlier than dialogue acknowledged, but it was extremely specific to do so, and that was Mike’s idea. It worked brilliantly in context with the episode.

Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers - The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House (Jackson Lee/Netflix).

PB: You both play multiple instruments. How are your scores typically produced? Do you rely on live musicians or does technology play a big role for you?

TNB: We rely on live musicians for everything. We also rely on technology, as well. Both can interact beautifully, as long as we always remember that the live recordings are the heartbeat of the music. There’s magic in the machine, too, though. It’s another tool in the kit and can equally inspire. There’s a Pink Floyd “Live at Pompeii” video from the late ’60s or early ’70s where they’re living this exact situation. They were using the technology of the time in confluence with their skills as artists, musicians, and humans.

Industry Insights: The Horror Scores of The Newton Brothers - Extinction

Extinction (Netflix).

PB: Finally, you’ve had so much success bringing thrills and chills to the screen – is there any other genre you’d love to work on?

TNB: We both love a variety of genres. We’d love to work on more. Sci-fi and drama have always been our biggest influences. We worked on a film called Extinction, with Director Ben Young, and we loved working in that genre. The melding of that technology and human spirit, and the influence of the infinite is a perfect experience for music. It can be huge or intimate or heroic or desolate. All of the dynamics of life, which opens up every avenue possible, musically. But, in general, we love the prospect of new projects with great teams. It really comes down to the experience — working with the entire team on a great narrative — even more than the genre. I think Pinocchio was a wonderful tale that would be incredible to score.I don’t even know if they’ll redo it, but if they do, that would be a really great project to work on.


Cover image via Ouija: Origin of Evil (Universal Pictures).

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