Andy and Taylor Newton were understandably nervous to score Doctor Sleep, a film that merges the genius of writer Stephen King and The Shining director Stanley Kubrick. They found solace, however, in an unexpected member of the cast: Bonkers the cat.
“We were pretty serious for most of the 18 months we worked on the film. We would laugh at each other because Bonkers would look so calm,” Andy tells Rolling Stone of the feline who played Dan Torrance’s sidekick, Azzie. “We thought that was hilarious. Anytime anyone was stressed, someone would just say, ‘Well, look at the cat. The cat is so relaxed, you should be relaxed, too.’”
The recently released film adaptation of King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining finds Danny Torrance grown up and tormented by memories of the Overlook — the hotel where his father, Jack Torrance, famously lost his mind and almost murdered his family.
The 1977 novel gives the Torrance family much more background — Jack is a tortured alcoholic — and Doctor Sleep gives us even more information about the doomed clan as Dan fights his inherited liquid vices. The younger Torrance also finds himself fighting a group of vampiric creatures called the True Knot, who feed on kids with the Shining.
The film, directed by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) presents a pitch-perfect adaptation of King’s novel while bringing in elements of the Kubrick film (which King famously hated). For the Newton brothers, those elements included the music. “We really wanted to follow the connective tissue that Mike laid out,” Taylor said. “We dove into The Shining and took obsessive notes. To bring the films together — and create an entire new entity — is a very difficult thing to do.”
The brothers were tasked with characterizing both the Overlook monsters and the members of the True Knot through music. For the former, they returned to the music from the first movie, which they say was a Gregorian chant from the 1400s. “We didn’t want to get in the way or try to recreate something crazy,” Andy says. “We did just that for the end portion at the Overlook; we just did our own arrangement of a simple version of it.”
As for the True Knot, the Newton brothers tapped into some obscure instruments to tell their story. “They’re these ancient beings — a bit like gypsies in a way,” Taylor says. “They pick up things as they’re traveling throughout their experiences, so we wanted the music to reflect that. We used random percussion from different cultures — not from one specific place or country.”
For True Knot head honcho Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), they used the hurdy-grande, a 25-foot-long wooden sound box — mixed with an off-kilter heartbeat. “It added this element of compulsion that was driving and moving,” Taylor says.
As for Dan (Ewan McGregor), the brothers used a 90-foot wind harp in San Francisco to capture the emotion of increasingly feeling out of control. “We liked the idea that the wind harp is not something you can control,” Andy says. “It’s an ego-less instrument, because you’re just sort of at the will of what the weather is doing.”
When asked what the musical formula is for a good scare, the brothers paused and mulled it over. “What makes me feel scared is when there’s a huge loss of some kind — and I emotionally feel wrecked,” Taylor says. “I feel more scared when there’s this incredible amount of tension or silence and then all of a sudden this piece of music comes in that kind of wrecks you.”