Best known as The Newton Brothers, Taylor Stewart and Andy Grush are composers well versed in the complexity of the horror sound. Incredibly adept at navigating the intricate emotional tapestries that naturally reside within the horror realm, the pair manage to balance this tricky array of responsibility with startling ease. Although they’ve scored many different genre films over the years including See No Evil 2, The Grudge (2020) and The Bye Bye Man, the duo is perhaps most widely known for their frequent collaborations with director Mike Flanagan.
After their initial collaboration on Oculus, The Newton Brothers quickly established themselves as Flanagan’s go-to composers of choice. No doubt due to their incredible ability to sonically articulate layered emotional states in effective, engaging and beautiful ways, they’ve since scored all of Flanagan’s works — Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game, Hush, Before I Wake and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Showing no signs of stopping, the pair once again returns to the dark, haunted literary world with their latest project, The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Based on the infamous Henry James book The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Bly Manor is one of those rare and alluring experiences that draws you in with the promise of fear, but ultimately leaves you beautifully and wonderfully broken. We recently caught up with The Newton Brothers and had perfectly splendid conversation about The Haunting of Bly Manor, working with Mike Flanagan and their upcoming, never before announced project that you’ll read about here first.
“I love that people come into The Haunting of Bly Manor thinking they’re going to be scared to death and what actually happens is they’re tragically broken and crying.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second score you’ve done for Mike Flanagan in his Haunting series. Can you talk about your approach to scoring this new story? Was there any sonic connective tissue for you between this and The Haunting of Hill House?
Taylor Stewart: There was for sure. The stories are different and nothing is related, but from the music side of things we did bring back some themes and we expanded on them. We have these whole movements, and we also have movements on the first album from Season 1. So that was the main connective tissue. Bringing together those motifs and themes while reapproaching them and rearranging them from a different perspective. This season is more about love and how it affects these individuals. Obviously, the way that the story is told, the visuals and the tone of it, there are also some similarities to Season 1. But that’s all Mike Flanagan.
NOFS: So Mike Flanagan is actually a musician himself. How does that effect your working dynamic with him? Does his musical knowledge benefit you in any way?
Andy Grush: It definitely does. For the most part, he’s pretty hands-off with specific music information, but he will be able to articulate something very specifically if he’s looking for it. We’ve been in situations where he’s been over to the studio and he’ll go sit at the piano and say something like, ‘Ok, so you guys are doing this here. But what if we went to this chord here?’ And then we’ll talk about it. He’s very hands-on when he wants to be and it’s very helpful. Then there’s times where he’ll give us some general directions and just kind of say, ‘You guys know what to do. Do the thing.’ And sometimes when he gives us notes, his notes will be very specific. And sometimes his notes can be just as if we’re getting notes from someone who is not an experienced musician. So, it’s great. He kind of does it all which is really nice.
NOFS: The piano plays a prominent and important role in this score. Tell us a little bit about your choice to feature it and your approach to utilizing it.
TS: First and foremost, Mike plays piano. And he’s an amazing piano player. He has a lot of affinity for piano in general and the way it feels in a lot of his scores. So that was an early discussion in Season 1 and actually, that’s where that ultimately went to. And so we decided to continue that approach. It’s such a broad instrument. It can be used as a percussion instrument, it can be played very delicately, sad or you can bang on it and get a lot of noise out of it. So I think having that sort of beautiful sound (especially in this season since it deals with love so much), it was important to have something a little bit more traditional like piano, strings and woodwinds. Piano is also nostalgic. It’s used in the orchestra, but it can also be used at home with a family member playing on this broken, dull, muted piano. We can take advantage of that factor because it can be so creepy, but it can also be used so beautifully. It’s so flexible.
NOFS: Your music is so…thoughtful. I mean that in the way that it is always so entwined and connected to the characters and their emotions. What is that process like for you on the composing side of things? How do you develop these intimate dynamics?
AG: Thank you! It’s kind of a combination of two things. We spend exhaustive hours talking to each other about it and before we’re writing we have conversations that are an hour, two hours long. Just talking about what’s happening in the episode or scene. And then, after all the talking is done, there’s a lot of just sitting with the picture and the story, and just trying things. Trying to dance with what Mike’s put together because ultimately, we don’t want to get in the way. It’s really about supporting the story. And it’s hard because there’s no exact way to say, ‘Support the story by coming into music when the dialogue stops.’ It’s very intuitive. And that intuition isn’t always right either. And while that further complicates it, it also makes it fun to explore new ideas.
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“It’s really about supporting the story. And it’s hard because there’s no exact way to say, ‘Support the story by coming into music when the dialogue stops.”
So after we’ve noodled around exhaustively and we’re both feeling like what we’ve done is working for scenes, we’ll run it by the other one. Taylor might give me suggestions or say, ‘This is great.’ Or, ‘This isn’t working at all.’ Or even, ‘Send it to me. I have an idea I want to put on top of it.’ So we kind of go through a pretty exhaustive process before we turn it into Mike or [Executive Producer] Trevor Macy. And sometimes it ranges. Sometimes it’s a first take, just playing through the scene and playing piano. Sometimes that first take works great and then we’ll add in the orchestration. And other times it’s days and days on a single scene, just trying to find a good point to enter on or find the right performance so that the chord changes work with the story. It feels very much like a delicate dance. You don’t want to step on your partner’s toes, but if you do, you’ll know they’ll be okay with it. And hopefully you don’t have to go the E.R. So we’re trying to do that dance and be graceful while making it artful within the story.
NOFS: Similar to The Haunting of Hill House, there’s different time periods and storylines at Bly Manor. How did you approach or integrate this idea into your music for this score?
TS: Well, the first thing in our approach (which was a little different than Season 1) was we didn’t try to write themes, excluding the one theme for the Lady of the Lake. There weren’t character themes like, ‘This is Dani’s theme.’ We weren’t trying to go for that. We were trying to have more of the connective tissue of these two characters and how they were connecting in the music, continue and connect other characters and other couples. So there’s a similarity and an art to each of those things. And what is great about that is how that goes right into Episode 8 which you’re talking about. For those sequences, we were able to take those same melodies, those same pieces and added just a little bit, just a slight amount of something more traditional and rooted to that period. But not so over the top that it’s like, ‘Hey! This is what’s being played.’ For instance, we added harp in one cue. That wouldn’t have worked earlier. It just gave it a certain feel and sensation to the scene. I think it was more that approach rather than trying to isolate only instruments that were played in that period. Although, most of the score is pretty much a waltz.
NOFS: I’m glad you mentioned Lady of the Lake because I have to talk about her and her terrifyingly ominous sound. Seeing as she is one of the few characters to have her own theme, can you talk a bit about how you scored her in particular?
TS: Early on, Andy and I chatted about her especially. We didn’t want to give anything away so initially we treat her just like we treat the other ghosts that are in a scene. Either with very delicate hands or silence even depending on what the reference is. And with her, she had this kind of static grind noise when you first really see her. That’s actually a sound from Season 1 of Hill House that Andy came up with. We had this joke within the team that it’s called ‘God Fart’ because it sounds like this ginormous, grinding noise. So we came up with that and then added these glissandos, these slides going down with the orchestra. And we don’t play those until we are fully in the world of the Lady of the Lake. It’s super menacing. We actually had a lot more of it originally in scenes, but we ultimately brought it back down a little bit. Those sounds in particular were there to convey the power and the sheer strength of her. She’s almost like a shark that just eats and eats and eats. It’s not that she’s trying to be vicious, she just is. So I think that was kind of the approach with her. We wanted to bring in her sound slowly so that you don’t hear the full nature of all her tones until the end.
NOFS: You mentioned the idea of silence and quiet sound. There seems to be a reverence and a value placed on the weight of space in a lot of your scores with Mike Flanagan. As composers, do you ever find yourself fighting that? How do you work with the idea that less is more sometimes?
AG: I think that it’s getting to a place where even when I watch other films or TV shows, if there’s too much music, I cringe. The same way I cringe when I hear a leaf blower. It’s like doing a salsa in the middle of a dance floor that is not having a salsa competition right now. (laughs) It really does. It takes away from what the whole point of this is. These are stories. And in these stories they generate emotions for everyone and it talks to everyone differently. I feel that if you’re out there instructing everyone what to do, it interferes with a sort of natural elegance that just comes naturally to people. Everyone is smart. And everyone has their own emotions and feelings. I think that dictating those emotions is…
TS: Insulting? (laughs)
“.. if there’s too much music, I cringe. […] I feel that if you’re out there instructing everyone what to do, it interferes with a sort of natural elegance that just comes naturally to people.”
AG: It’s not insulting, it just takes away from it. That’s a conversation that all of us have. Taylor and I have it. And then we have it with our Music Editor and our Mixer, Jonathan Wales. Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy will also talk about it and say, ‘Hey. This music works beautifully right here, but what happens if we take it out?’ So we might have spent a month on a piece of music, and then we mute it. And while a scene may work well with the music, but then without the music…it’s hard to explain. But I think you probably noticed it in Bly Manor. There’s moments where you’re very engaged, but there’s no score going on. And it’s likely that there was score in there at one point and we either took it out or Mike took it out.
It’s very effective to have space. I don’t know, it just does something and works very well. But it’s also very difficult to execute. You have to have a showrunner or a director and producers who are ok with that silence. Often times, putting a bunch of music or sound design over things feels like it’s big and like how everything is supposed to be. But in fact, there’s no soul sometimes when you have all of that stuff going on. Sometimes there is. I’m not saying that’s never the case. I just think it’s more important to be focused on what’s happening on screen, and is this actor giving a wonderful performance, and maybe we should just be quiet for the next four minutes.
NOFS: You’ve spent a good deal of time now immersed in these literary worlds. Do you read the source material beforehand? If so, how does it benefit you?
TS: We do! We definitely, tediously go through the material. We go through the source material and like for Doctor Sleep we read not just Doctor Sleep, but we read The Shining. And then of course thoroughly watched The Shining and took notes. And we do the same thing for the scripts. Any material we can get our hands on we try to get. It helps give you a complete picture and not necessarily where to go, but sometimes where you don’t want to go. Like for instance, with Doctor Sleep we specifically chose places to go that we didn’t want to reference The Shining. And then there were things we wanted to connect deliberately. I think when you go through the source material you can then really understand it. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to Mike Flanagan’s vision. And us trying to support that and peeking out if we need to, or like Andy was saying, just be quiet and let it breathe. It helps having that map of where you came from so that you know where you’re going. I have all these books with all these tabs and marker outlines. My other half is always like, ‘This book is ruined.’ (laughs)
NOFS: You’ve done a lot of work in the horror realm. What is it that you enjoy about working in the genre?
TS: I think particularly, we just love great storytelling. And I think with horror, we’ve worked with some great directors. I think the idea is people are often attracted to this horror movie that they’re seeing in trailers, but then they go to see the film and by the time the film is over with (maybe they don’t totally realize it), but they actually just watched a drama. Or they watched a science fiction film. And that’s what I think is so great about horror is how it brings in people who maybe wouldn’t normally seek that stuff out. And it allows itself to be many different facets of many different things inside this skin of a horror project.
“Horror and science fiction are really some of the genres that you can change the limits and change some of the boundaries.”
Because of that, it builds and brings in new fans. Horror and science fiction are really some of the genres that you can change the limits and change some of the boundaries. I love that people come into The Haunting of Bly Manor thinking they’re going to be scared to death and what actually happens is they’re tragically broken and crying. I think that’s much more of a compliment to storytelling that just being scared or some jump scare. Not saying those aren’t great! We’ve done those and we love those. But I think there’s something to be said about the fact that we care about these characters. You care for them and then you lose them. Those are the projects we fight to get and like to do and Bly Manor is definitely one of those. We feel very lucky to be a part of it.
NOFS: For my day job I work at a record store so physical media is near and dear to my heart. And you both have some amazing releases including a couple vinyl releases of your Haunting scores through Waxwork Records! Did you have a hand in this? Are you a fan of the medium?
AG: Taylor, you take it. Dive in.
TS: When I first moved to LA, I didn’t really know many people and I didn’t really have any connections. I just needed to work as much as I could. So, I was helping engineers and working for Paul McCartney’s producer just doing whatever he needed to happen. And at night, I would DJ. I wasn’t even a DJ! I just had this huge collection of records and they were like, ‘This pays’ so I was like, ‘Great!’ Everybody would just play records and I would like, try to scratch live. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. This was at this hotel in LA called The Standard, and sometimes the waitresses would go by and say things like, ‘That was really weird. Why did you just scratch that record?’ I do have a point to this story. (laughs)
My love for vinyl has been around since I was kid because my parents were also involved with music. I obviously love film music and stuff like, E.T. and Edward Scissorhands, these classic scores. And so does Mike! I think I also stole some records from Andy. So Waxwork hit us up about a couple of scores that we had done…I think they’re still working on Doctor Sleep. So, they hit us up and we love vinyl, we love the way it sounds so we were like, of course! I love that they keep that medium alive and I think there’s something timeless and nostalgic about it. I support those guys 100% and they really love the music. The guys at Blumhouse do too like Ryan Turek, he loves vinyl. There are so many people backing that medium in horror and it’s just one of those really great things. Obviously, it’s a huge honor when people want to release your music in any medium, but I just really love vinyl.
AG: And bravo to the music stores. I can’t tell you how many hours of my childhood were spent riding my bike to stores like Music Plus at the time. I would spend 2 or 3 hours after school in there just going through things and sometimes just buying things off of artwork or because I knew the name of one of the guitar players. So many of the record stores in LA have either closed down or have sort of moved outside of the city and it bums me out a ton. If we still had Tower Records where I grew up and still live, I would go there every weekend and just cruise. I think it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do.
NOFS: Any cool projects on the horizon for you both?
AG: We’re working on Midnight Mass which is Flanagan’s next project. And then we are also working on the next Purge movie, The Forever Purge. And while we’re not working on it right now, we will be working on the Walking Dead spin-off called Walking Dead: World Beyond.
TS: And then there’s a movie coming up too that we’re doing called Borrego with Lucy Hale which hasn’t been announced yet. You’re the first person we’ve told that!
“…there’s something to be said about the fact that we care about these characters. […] Those are the projects we fight to get and like to do and Bly Manor is definitely one of those.”
The Haunting of Bly Manor is currently streaming on Netflix and the score is now available for pre-order through Waxwork Records. You can also find more information about The Newton Brothers and tons of their music by checking out their site here.