Sean Wilson chats to the composers of Doctor Sleep, the Newton Brothers, about working with director Mike Flanagan, and following in the footsteps of The Shining…
Classic Stanley Kubrick horror The Shining casts a formidable legacy in more ways than one. The filmmaker’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel is famously ambiguous (to the extent that the author famously disliked it), but few could deny the eerie atmosphere exerted by the cinematography, production design and soundtrack.
The latter is pivotal to The Shining’s discombobulating atmosphere: a mixture of Bartok and Ligeti alongside Wendy Carlos’ sinister synthesised arrangements, all of which brilliantly (and horribly) accompanies the brightly lit scenes of abject terror.
We now return to the dreaded Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan’s film that has the tricky task of honouring the legacy of both the original book and Kubrick’s movie. Similar challenges extended to Doctor Sleep composers the Newton Brothers, aka Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stuart, who sought to extend the sound of Kubrick’s movie and also make their own mark on the grown-up Danny Torrance’s story. We caught up with Andy and Taylor to find out how it was done.
Firstly, it’s great to chat to both of you. Obviously, we’re here to talk about Doctor Sleep, which is a really atmospheric and creepy movie, and gets a score to match. To put the interview in context, how did you first come to collaborate together?
Taylor: We came to collaborate through a friend of ours whom we met in early 2001. And we just kind of hit it off. We have a lot of similar interests in music, and I had been working on a record at the time. And Andy started playing on that same record. I also was doing film music for college kids, so it was a natural transition. And we became good buddies and we decided to join up at one point.
Andy: It was funny because it wasn’t until we started working together that we realised the similarities between us. We didn’t realise early on how similar we are in terms of how we approach things and write things.
I’m always fascinated when composers work together. In the past I’ve interviewed Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury who’ve worked together on the likes of Ex Machina and, most recently, Luce. How do you divide responsibilities? Is it an even split between the both of you?
Andy: Early on in a project, once we sit down and spot it, Taylor and I will have a brief conversation. Very general and not too specific. We’ll then try and use the fact that there’s two of us to our advantage. We kind of don’t talk to each other for a day, a week, a month whatever, and we;ll work on our own ideas separately.
Once we’ve brought those ideas together, we kind of sort out the big nerdy Google doc: which thematic material we’re going to use and what sounds we’re going to use. From there, we each just grab a cue as we go. Sometimes one of us will write a theme and another one of us will incorporate it somewhere. We definitely divide it 50/50 and conquer it that way.
Doctor Sleep connects to The Shining, and The Shining is of course a movie with a vast horror legacy. Is there a particular horror score that impacted on you individually?
Taylor: For me, I would saw Jaws and also The Thing. Both resonated quite a bit with me. When I saw Jaws, I was pretty young, and I remember just being scared to go in the pool.
Andy: I don’t know if this qualifies as a horror but the first one that really stood out for me was Aliens by James Horner. I had a paper route and I used to watch it over and over again. I wore out that VHS tape. I used to watch it all the time in the morning after my paper route. It was incredible how that scored weaved in and out of everything. At the time, it had orchestra but also synth sounds. I remember thinking it was very hip and modern at the time.
For me, it has to be Jerry Goldsmith’s extraordinary score for The Omen. That, and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho.
Taylor: Yeah. Rosemary’s Baby, too, is very disturbing. I didn’t discover that one until I was older, thank God, or else I would have ended up in a mental institution. [laughs] To this day, I still don’t enjoy listening to it. It makes me feel bad about life. And of course that’s a good thing! [laughs]
Talking about things that make you feel good about life: your collaboration with writer-director Mike Flanagan. You’ve worked with him several times now, the first one being Oculus, which is a film that I loved. I really enjoyed your creepy score for that. How did you first come to work with him?
Taylor: There was a music supervisor working on Oculus, and they’d failed to secure a composer. There were about 5 to 10 of us who went in to meet with Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy. When we met them, we saw some of the film and we talked about our process. Immediately we could see that we all had similar tastes and I think that was the original genesis of our working relationship.
From what we saw of Oculus at the time, we thought it was brilliant and that Mike was brilliantly talented, and we really wanted to work with him. I feel like our relationship has kept growing and growing. Most composers feel like they can do everything, and it’s not entirely true. A lot of composers can’t, for example, switch between different genres and styles. I think Mike was finding that we could do a lot of stuff. Every new project of his was different, and he became very comfortable in giving us a lot of rope.
Andy: It’s funny how you realise things over time, but we were at Mike’s house a couple of months ago. He and Taylor were going through Mike’s vinyl collection, and it was funny how all of the vinyl that Mike owns is the same as what we own. We have very similar taste in music. That helps out a lot because there’s a shared vocabulary in terms of how to express a particular feeling. It’s very easy to talk to Mike. Of course, when we get onto a project itself, technically it’s difficult, as things should be, but it’s an easy process of communication.
You’ve just touched on my next question, which is this: what is the secret to a great collaboration between composers and a director? Does the filmmaker need to be musically literate or do you both find it easier when a director talks in general emotional terms?
Taylor: That’s a great question. In general, it’s about having a good relationship, and I think that on the composing side of things, not getting too precious about what you’re writing is important. You’re serving the story and the film. And the director is of course leading that. You’re taking their idea and you’re contributing one part to this film, along with the actors, editors and so on.
Andy and I just naturally want the film to be the best it can be, whether that means taking music out or changing it quickly. We’ve had moments where we’ve had to change music instantly to suit a change in direction. In that sense, it really helps to build relationships, and we have new relationships that we’ve been building, similar to Mike’s, that have a similar approach. The director feels comfortable enough to tell us that they don’t like a cue, or if something isn’t doing it for them. Mike will quickly tell us if something is not working. He has no hesitation.
To have that relationship, it takes a level of comfort. On a personal basis, Mike knows if he calls us at two in the morning, we will stay up all night and write a cue for him, and have it ready by 6am. We have zero hesitation and we’ll do what needs to happen. Having that balance in terms of personal friendship and also a technical side really helps. The third aspect is that you have a lot of respect for your filmmaker. You admire them because they want both the film and the music to be the best they can be. With Mike, he’s such an incredible editor and director, and also a musician. There are so many fields in which he excels, yet he’s super humble. That’s inspiring.
Andy: It doesn’t matter if a director is musical or not. It’s more about how a director communicates what they want. In Mike’s case, he happens to be an insanely talented pianist, so we’ve had times where he’ll say, for example, play F Minor here. It’s awesome but there’s other situations involving other great directors where they don’t have that musicality. Yet they communicate in the sense of, ‘I’m not feeling the emotion from this yet’. We have to pivot depending on how a director communicates.
That leads us nicely onto Doctor Sleep. How did Mike Flanagan present this project to the both of you?
Andy: He brought this up to us on the dub stage for The Haunting of Hill House. Before Mike shoots, he has everything in his head – how he’s going to edit it, what the scenes are going to look like and what’s going to happen. So he had already put this together in his mind and had spoken with us about it over a period of weeks while we were mixing The Haunting of Hill House.
He told us that he wanted it to be a big score with a lot of interesting sounds. He wanted the emotional content and dread of The Shining in the music, but also wanted the score to expand in its own way and weave into the new world of Doctor Sleep as well. That was the initial conversation he had with us.
In terms of musical approach, did you go into this intending it as a thematically-driven score, was it mainly about texture and tone, or was it a combination of all those principles?
Taylor: We talked a little bit to Mike about ideas. He didn’t have a lot of time at the beginning so he wanted us to just get going. We went in two directions at first: we went with some melodic ideas, and then we went with some soundscape and tonal ideas. We worked on both for maybe a couple of months before we saw Mike again. We flew out to Atlanta and we saw the sets and the filming. We then spoke to him about his musical intentions and what he was thinking.
He basically said he wanted it to be a tonally driven score, not one with a lot of melody. So we kept a little bit of melody on things here and there. One of the things about the original The Shining, in terms of the music, is this sense of dread. The fact that most of it had been scored with needle drops – Bartok, Ligeti and so on. As much as we wanted to have our own soundscape and designs for a lot of different things, we also wanted to have moments that touched and continued on the areas from The Shining. Those were the early conversations about the music, and once the film arrived, of course things changed. We had recorded this hurdy gurdy and a lot of these crazy instruments and we recorded many different kinds of ideas.
Andy: When we signed onto this, besides having a few days of crying out of fear, we wanted to ensure that we knew everything we could about The Shining.
It was interesting because we found one of the initial cue sheets – basically a list of all the cues that go in a film. Just a portion of an original cue sheet for The Shining – it was handwritten and it looked like a museum blueprint from the 1800’s. They had all these different pieces of 20th century classical music written down in brackets, with notes indicating that the beginning of one piece of music ought to be placed it on top of another piece of music. Meanwhile, underneath that, there were more notes indicating another bit of music playing, and none of them lined up at all. It was all a free for all and very chaotic.
Just taking 20th century music alone is a daunting and exciting thing. This is something I only got to do in my first year of university when I was sent away to write a 12-tone series overnight, before coming back the next morning to see if they’re any good. The other aspect was, Mike wanted to incorporate the original ‘Dies Irae’ from the opening sequence to The Shining.
We found out that was a Gregorian chant that the Catholic church had commissioned in the 1200’s. I was only familiar with the Berlioz piece, and Wendy Carlos had performed that on the synthesiser. I didn’t realise that Mozart and 15 other composers had also used that ‘Dies Irae’ riff in various pieces, which was really interesting to us too. We didn’t know all of this at the get-go, and it really helped inform our approach. We used that 12-tone structure, in that there’s not much melody in Doctor Sleep by design, and the melody that is present is often 12-tone – not always easy to listen to.
I was reading that on your score for Oculus, you used glass and metal for ambient sounds mixed in with the score. Was there a similar opportunity for Doctor Sleep?
Andy: We did use a lot of sound effects. In the story of Doctor Sleep, Dan’s character is tormented by the wind, which reflects his childhood experience of the shining at the Overlook. Initially, we thought about the woodwind instruments that could be altered to sound weird. Then we started researching wind harps, talking to manufacturers all over the world, and we even looked at buying a couple. We were going to set them up in a couple of places and record them.
And then we came across this wind harp that’s over 90 feet tall, located in San Francisco. It’s crazy. It’s up on this hill in south San Francisco in a very small park, so we flew up there to check it out. This thing sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Wind blows at different velocities and levels, so you have this huge thing and when the wind blows, it has both low howling sounds and also high weird sounds. We recorded that before treating it and processing it. There’s also no ego involved in playing that. The wind simply blows and you can manipulate whatever noise it’s going to make.
We had to work with meteorologists to figure out the best time to record. We recorded some wind chimes, too, because Abra’s character takes control of the shine, as opposed to Danny who hides from the shine. The wind from the wind harp is Danny, something he’s not able to control, and the wind chimes represent what Abra is able to control. We processed a lot of those whereas with others, it was just the raw recording. Taylor went nuts and ran a bunch of vocal recordings through the modulars. You hear these weird sounds throughout the film. All of the vocals you hear are what Taylor put through his modular gear.
Taylor: It gets nerdy really fast! I don’t know how deep you want to go into this Sean, but we recorded the organic elements, like the Hurdy Grande. It’s basically a giant Hurdy Gurdy that’s open and 20 feet long. We did process all that stuff. We also took lots of ancient, odd percussion and bass flutes, recording them and pitching them down.
We really wanted a sound that represented the True Knot cult from the book. That was really the original idea behind this crazy sound. We also ended up recording lots of chimes and tubular bells and bowls. We used those for certain characters and situations throughout the film. A lot of stuff.
Andy: When we recorded the orchestra.Our orchestrator decided to split up the players in a way where we would have different parts of the orchestra trading off different parts. In the middle of one of the more ethereal pieces of music, one of the violin sections is playing one of the lines, and then the first violins are also split up on the other side of the room but not playing that same line. Midway through the line, however, the other violins pick up and play it.
It’s subtle but when you’re in the theatre, you’ll notice that things are moving about. Nothing is stagnant with the sounds that are happening. Everything is all over the room and the speakers. That was by design. We weren’t sure if it would be a complete waste of time, but having heard it in the theatre, we were very happy with how it turned out.
Talking with you guys about the construction of a good, creepy horror soundtrack, on Halloween no less, is going to do down as a highlight of my year! To round everything off, what do you think is the secret to a really great horror soundtrack?
Taylor: Great question. It’s funny, we’ve come across a similar question before, and it got me thinking. There’s two parts to it. If you’re invested in the story and the characters, in a way that’s believable, you tend to be very involved and committed. And if that hasn’t happened by the time that scary and disturbing music kicks in, the overall effect really doesn’t resonate with the audience. That unfortunately makes it a difficult uphill battle for the composer. It’s way more convincing when you’re committed to this character and, for instance, they die. That’s way more disturbing.
I think it all relies on having a score that knows how to work with those elements, that gets you to fall in love with those characters, that knows when to be quiet and when to add a sense of dread, and when to use melody or not. I mean, how long did we look at the ocean and not even see a shark? Then all of a sudden we were petrified upon hearing those two notes from John Williams. It’s incredibly minimal but so effective.
Likewise, early on in Psycho, you’re hearing these stabs and riffs that Bernard had created. By the time you get to the shower scene, it’s so unnerving. He found a way to make you feel like you didn’t know what was going to happen, yet at the same time you can’t look away. I think that balance in scary films is what separates a good horror score from a great one, and again, that depends quite a bit on the film itself.
Andy: That encapsulates why we’re a writing duo, because I agree completely. You really have to care for the characters and feel the response to the fear and the frights. In any genre, actually. Say when Bambi’s mom dies – I know it’s not a horror film, obviously, but it’s the perfect example. If she didn’t die, you wouldn’t care about the deer, but the minute she does, you care about an animated deer.
That plays into scores as well, In Doctor Sleep, you care about Danny and you want to know if he turned out OK. What happened to him later on? That then extends to Abra’s character, and she’s the new Dan.
It’s almost a question of music empathy then?
Andy: Perfect, yeah that’s it.
Thank you guys for talking to me. I’ve really enjoyed talking to both of you!
Thanks to Andy and Taylor for taking part in this interview. Doctor Sleep is on wide release now.