Red Stewart chats with The Newton Brothers on The Haunting of Hill House…
Andy Grush and Taylor Stewart are American composers who have been working in the film and television industries under the name The Newton Brothers since the late-2000s. They are best known for scoring Oculus, Extinction, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview them, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me.
Andy – No worries at all.
Taylor – No, thank you.
I happened to interview another musical duo, and one of the questions I asked them was how do you break up the work-flow on a project between the two of you, and they told me that there isn’t a set pattern, it varies. I’m wondering, is that the same for you two, or do you have a specific breakdown when it comes to allocating who does what?
Andy – At the beginning of a project, it’s a little bit of a free-for-all. Taylor and I will have some discussion upfront, but as we get going on the project we’ll usually just take scenes or themes that resonate with either one of us individually and work on those before we even have our first playback. And once the playback is approaching, Taylor and I will play things for each other and sometimes combine or use each other’s ideas and sounds and then go to the playback. So it does vary a little, but generally we just tackle it by the feet of our pants depending on what resonates with each one of us.
That’s interesting to hear. Have you ever run into conflict with each other? Like maybe you both had conflicting ideas on a theme, or is it usually a smooth process?
Taylor – It’s usually very smooth, although sometimes we’ve had situations where one of us will be like “oh, I’m not sure about this or about that.” Those typically we still play for the director, because maybe it’s something we like better and we just like having multiple variations speak for themselves.
That makes a lot of sense, especially if you’ve been working together for so long you would know how to get past any obstacles that come in the way. Now, before we jump into The Haunting of Hill House, I thought I’d ask about horror in general because this is a genre that you both have fallen into since doing Oculus in 2013, even though before that you used to do a lot of other types of films. What caused you gentlemen to focus on horror? Was it just the opportunities that came or have you always wanted to create music in that sphere?
Andy – It was a little of each actually. Part of it was the opportunities that were presented to us, and we both also tend to prefer darker stories. We’re strangely very happy guys actually, we’re very optimistic and generally happy in life, which makes it funny that we write a lot of dark music. But something that also accompanies the horror genre, musically speaking, is creating an environment where everything is okay and you feel emotionally attached to people or beings who are about to come upon bad times…to put it gently.
Andy – And Taylor and I are big music and sound nerds, so after we’ve established themes and ideas for the harmonic pallet of a show, it’s really fun to then throw a bunch of noises at it and try different things and really screw up what you’ve done to see what you can come up with that’s sort of a juxtaposition to the harmonic content you’ve written. That keeps it fun and interesting too. You know you might be involved in like a creepy but beautiful waltz for a character, but then the next day involved in someone getting violently murdered or a spirit possessing someone. It’s fun to bend the brain around both of those different scenarios if that makes sense.
It makes complete sense. Now, you mentioned darker stories, and one thing I know about horror, as I’m sure you guys of course know, is that it’s very dependent on sound; the soundscape is integral to maintaining the dread. I’m wondering, I know that music and sound typically don’t interact much outside of the music editor, but has there ever been a case where you’ve worked with a sound editor or sound designer in terms of trying to make sure your score amplifies the tension/mood of a scene?
Taylor – Definitely, yeah. I would say, as of recently, on Mike Flanagan’s projects like The Haunting of Hill House, and we did that a little bit on Hush as well. Basically the sound person that Mike was using, Trevor Gates, is a great guy. On The Haunting of Hill House we discussed certain things with him that we would tackle and he would tackle, like frequencies. We just decided that we would do a bunch of different things, and then we’d all bring it to the stage and kind of filter out and remove the things that we didn’t like and keep the things that we did. But it was definitely nice to have that communication between the sound team and the re-recording mixer Jonathan Whales, who is just super talented at what he was doing as well.
That’s amazing to hear, and makes me look forward to the series more as it shows there’s more unity in the project which will help the sound overall. An interesting thing I noticed is that you’re credited as the conductors on several projects you’ve done, including The Haunting of Hill House. Composers usually don’t get to do that, so what’s that experience been like for you?
Andy – It’s funny because it usually just comes down to the chaos of the schedule. Even on this one there was a lot of tension to get a lot of music recorded while we were on the stage, so it’s always a bit of a challenge. It’s great that there’s two of us, but we always try to be involved in some way just because there is something fun that happens when you’re able to be with the band and experience it and make small tweaks. It’s not always the case that we’re able to do that, but when we are we always try to jump at it because it’s one of the best experiences. So it’s been great, we’ve had a lot of fun with it. We’ve been able to conduct with orchestras we’ve used, we’ve been able to conduct with choirs. And even just doing single soloists, sometimes we’ll have sounds that we’re trying to create and we’ll have a cellist over and we’ll guide them through it. It’s less technical conducting than it is more of a sort of ad libbing, but it is in the same world and it’s a lot of fun.
I imagine it must be, because when composers do it you can see how much passion they have for the project. So I’m happy that you’ve had that opportunity, even if it has come with time constraints. Now, earlier you mentioned creating a waltz for a horror project, and I had the privilege to listen to most of the score for The Haunting of Hill House, and I just have to say that the opening or main theme is so beautiful. The way you incorporated the piano, it reminded me of those old fashioned Gothic horror movies where it was more focused on production beauty and atmosphere than immediately scaring audiences. And I noticed that piano was used in a lot of the other compositions in the series. What was the reasoning behind its extensive usage? Was it your decision, or personally requested by Mr. Flanagan?
Taylor – That’s a great question. Strangely there’s a funny story behind that. The producer for The Haunting of Hill House was Trevor Macy, and we’ve done a lot of projects with Mike and Trevor, and Trevor hates piano [laughs]. So you know we have a poster from Oculus with Trevor sarcastically saying “more piano please” and signing his name. So Trevor’s not the biggest fan of piano. Mike, on the other hand, is an amazing piano player. He even writes music, super talented guy just across the board, and he loves piano and so do we. So it was just more of the tone of the show. There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of places where music can’t really be too much- it can’t be overwhelming, it can’t be leading the witness much. And the great thing about piano is if it’s played and it’s played very sparsely it evokes a lot of feelings and emotions without being so heavy-handed. And that allows it to kind of be the center and the structure of the score. And of course we brought in the strings and the woodwinds and all the other different elements, but I would say, for this particular project, that was deliberate.
That’s intriguing to hear about that duality of oversight, where you had one person who liked piano and the other who didn’t. It’s great that you were ultimately allowed to use it as, as I said, the opening suite was just gorgeous. I honestly wish the soundtrack would come out soon so I can buy it. It’s one of my favorite pieces.
Newton Brothers – Thank you!
No worries! Now, The Haunting of Hill House is based off of an old novel by Shirley Jackson, and it’s very famous. I’m wondering, did you both read the book prior to working on the series, or did you avoid it altogether.
Andy – I knew of the book. I had not read it until the project came up. And once the project came up, I did read the book and it is very disturbing. I think that even the way it ends lingers with you a bit. But it was awesome to see the way that Mike reinterpreted… Taylor, would you say that that’s a safe way to say that he…reimagined it really.
Taylor – That’s a better way, yeah, reimagined it.
Andy – Reimagined, yeah. And it’s just wonderful how it plays, wonderfully dark. So yes, I did read the book, but then was greatly pleased with the reimagination Mike did with it.
And I think modernizations are always encouraged for older material. And I have a good feeling it will succeed here because, based on the trailer, it looked amazing from a production, acting, and of course music standpoint. Now, you gentlemen tend to alternate between various platforms for your projects- you do Netflix films and you do standard production company films. What’s been the biggest difference between the two mediums for you as composers?
Taylor – There is much more creative freedom typically when doing Netflix projects than usual studio projects. I would say that’s the biggest difference that I have noticed. And it mainly runs on the shoulders of the director. And of course, we’re with the director and we have their back and we’re there to make their vision come together. Without a major film company, the stakes are a little bit less because there’s not someone who’s watching everything we do all the time. That being said, it is a different process. And when you have the theatrical experience, that allows you, in some ways, to be more symphonic, be more cinematic, with the music, because people are going to see this in a giant cinema versus at home, so there’s different expectations with both. And both have merits. But that’s what we’ve noticed from just the stress and the pressure of the director. You know, there’s different levels of stress, and it seems to me that Netflix has lower levels of stress [laughs].
That’s very interesting to hear, especially when you consider that censorship standards are different on the platform. Speaking of Netflix, I just have to ask, I know you both did the Netflix film Extinction, and for one of the songs you wrote, Don’t Wake Me Up, which was sung by Jojo, who an artist I grew up listening to. What was the collaboration process like on that piece?
Andy – It was pretty awesome actually. We wrote the song with a friend of ours, Callaghan Belle. She wrote the lyrics and we wrote the song in the many late hours of the night during the scoring process of that film. And towards the end we had a melody, we had lyrics, we had a vocal track on there that was working really well, but we wanted to up the game a little bit, so we were able to reach out to a couple of artists. And one of them that we were put in touch with was Jojo, and her voice was just so, so powerful and perfect for it, and she got back and liked the track and we met up at a studio in Los Angeles and had a recording session and the session went great. She just crushed it. As you know, from being a fan of hers, her voice knows no bounds, so she opened up on that microphone and just did what she does and it was a pleasure. It was a great recording experience. And we’ve been receiving a ton of great feedback about the song, so that’s been really nice too.
Yeah, I believe it was #1 on the charts, so I’m happy to hear that the process was stress-free and worth it. Last question, this is something I love to ask every composer I speak to, but what are three pieces of music that have had the greatest influence on you as a composer. They can be a band album, a music score, a video game score, a television score, anything. Three pieces that have had the largest influence on you.
Taylor – Oh wow, that’s a great question. Just in general, I love films. Like a lot of us growing up as kids I loved going to the theaters, I loved watching movies, I loved sitting there with the family or whomever I was with. It was this magical surreal place, even if I was watching something incredibly disturbing. And for me, that just inspired that world. I had already loved music: my mom sang opera growing up, my dad was in bands growing up, so I was around music a lot. And I think just seeing movies in general around that time combined with it. E.T. I saw when I was really young. I was incredibly blown away by the music and the emotion that it made me feel. And, for me, that’s what got me going, those kinds of moments. Specifically I would say John Williams and E.T. and Bernard Herrmann and Vertigo. When I saw Vertigo, I was very young and I was like “wow, the music in this movie is amazing and this is what I want to be a part of and do.” And I also watched Psycho, Back to the Future, and Predator. That’s kind of what got me going.
Andy – I would echo pretty much the same, what Taylor just said, I would almost say the exact same thing, so I’ll leave it at that [laughs].
Taylor – [laughs]
The 80s were one of the greatest decades for film, and it’s funny because I ask this question to everyone and the vast majority always cite one piece by John Williams, which just goes to show how influential he is. And I’m definitely glad that you gentlemen have had the opportunity to break into the industry and create your own brand of music because I always like it when good people are given opportunities over the nepotism and favoritism that sometimes unfortunately happens. I wish you both the best of luck in your future careers. It’s been a privilege!
Andy – Thank you Red, thank you for that!
Taylor – Yeah, thank you so much for having us, it was great!
Flickering Myth would like to thank The Newton Brothers for sitting down with us. The Haunting of Hill House is available to view on Netflix.
Special thanks to Cas Spencer and Adrianna Perez of White Bear PR for making this interview possible.