Mike Flanagan, Newton Brothers Talk Collaboration, 'Midnight Mass' - Rolling Stone
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From ‘Doctor Sleep’ to ‘Midnight Mass’: Mike Flanagan and the Newton Brothers Discuss Collaborative Magic

The composing duo has been making horror sing with the director since 2013’s Oculus

Mike Flanagan and the Newton Brothers

Mike Flanagan and the Newton Brothers

Courtesy of The Newton Brothers

Composers Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart — a.k.a. the Newton Brothers — have worked on every single one of horror director Mike Flanagan’s films since 2013’s Oculus. Their latest project, Netflix’s upcoming Midnight Mass series, represents a new landmark in their collaboration, though: Grush will appear in front of the camera.

“It was a real joy to watch Andy as cast, you know, in hair and makeup and dealing with the rest of the actors,” Flanagan tells Rolling Stone. Grush plays a bit part as a musician on the show, which centers around an island community and a mysterious priest. “And it’s not just fun to have these new gears to work together, it’s also incredibly useful because he knows that project from a perspective that a lot of composers never get from the inside — out of being on the ground every day, building the show, performing in it. … Taylor and Andy have been there from the launch of the whole enterprise. I really loved seeing Andy sitting there, freezing his ass off at 3:30 a.m. with our long-suffering actors.”

Flanagan’s partnership with the composers is an integral component of his ever-growing horror empire, which extends from high-dollar Stephen King adaptations like 2019’s Doctor Sleep to 2016 cult classic Hush to Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor, which put a new spin on classic literature. A truly symbiotic relationship, the Newtons and Flanagan work together to amp up the terror in each of their projects, earning their share of acclaim — and screams — from critics and fans alike.

The Newtons met Flanagan when the director was searching for a composer for Oculus, a film about a haunted mirror that ruins a family’s life; ostensibly, the movie was Flanagan’s breakout. “They really won the job based on their interview,” Flanagan says. “I just loved their sound and we just got along great, too. It was really clear that we spoke the same language when it came to movies and scores. It was one of the more fateful hirings, I think, of my career. We never had anybody else since that meeting. It was always the Newton Brothers.”

According to the Newtons, Flanagan starts each project by giving them as much information as possible so that they can start jumping into the music off the bat, rather than waiting until post-production. “Mike really tees up these incredible stories and a world that, when we’re writing music, really allow us to really try anything,” Grush says. “And Mike always encourages us that, even if we do something terrible, he knows that that’s sort of part of the process. Mike gives us a bunch of rope and is like, ‘Go hang yourselves.’ And then, you know, in addition to that, you’ll turn it into rope sculptures that are really nice, too.”

“Mike speaks the language of all the departments,” Stewart adds. “For Haunting of Hill House, we got quite a bit of information at the start. For something like that, that has so many layers of everything from being scary to being emotional — the way he communicates is so rare. He would send us melodic ideas, we’d talk about the show, back and forth.”

The trio works together so well that the pandemic didn’t really pose that much of a challenge for them when it came to collaboration. The Newtons were working on scoring Netflix’s Bly Manor — a modern-day adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw — at the start of the spread of Covid-19 and largely worked with Flanagan over the phone in the early stages. “Once we were in post, we had virtual post sessions where we could all watch the show and Mike would give his feedback and input as each episode went along,” Stewart says. “Technology is pretty amazing these days.”

When it comes to effective collaboration, Grush specifically recalls when they were working on Doctor Sleep, a prequel to The Shining that follows adult Danny Torrance as he grapples with memories of the Overlook Hotel — and some equally terrifying new monsters, a cadre of vampiric beings called the True Knot. “Mike had chatted with us about a very specific scene and we were all trying to get our heads around what would happen, Grush says. “And Mike got on the phone with us and said, I’ll never forget, [the music] was in the key V-Flat and Mike gets on the phone, and he’s got his iPad, and he’s like, ‘Let’s try A-Flat.’ That little thing unlocked what ended up working for a series of themes in the film.”

The Brothers returned to some elements of the music from the 1980 Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining — which King famously hated — like a Gregorian chant from the 1400s, but brought in new elements to voice the vibe of the True Knot, like a hurdy-grande, a 25-foot-long wooden sound box. For Torrance’s theme, they used a 90-foot wind harp in San Francisco to capture his spiraling emotions.

If these methods seem a bit unorthodox for horror movies, which have long ramped up the suspense with doomy tones and shrieking violins, well, then good. That’s why Flanagan’s worked with the Newtons for so long. They have a kind of mind-meld when it comes to avoiding clichés. “The very first time [we connected] happened on Oculus. We were trying to find a track for the end of the movie where we’ve got two timelines braided together so tightly that we’re kind of switching between the past and the present shot by shot,” Flanagan says. “And we needed a track that was going to pull it all together and make it feel somehow all at once frightening, inevitable, tragic, fated. The way you usually approach something like that on a project like Oculus and on a budget like Oculus is you end up with a very safe track: the horror movie soundtrack, which is something the guys have just never, never wasted my time with, you know — doing the expected version.”

Instead, the Newtons came up with a cue they called “The Lullaby,” something delicate and strange that captured the ethos of the doomed family perfectly. “I watched them take a scene that was working and make it work like gangbusters in a way that didn’t remind me of any other horror movie that was out there on the market at the time,” Flanagan says. “That happens frequently.”

He also cites their work on 2017’s Gerald’s Game, another King adaptation in which a couple decides to get kinky in a remote cabin, only for the husband to die of a heart attack after handcuffing his wife to the bed. “With Gerald’s Game, once Carla’s in the handcuffs there’s no score until she’s out, which is a very radical idea that we all agreed to going in,” Flanagan says. “And they managed to make the last stretch of that hit the perfect, most delicate kind of beautiful and healing note on a story that before that was grueling.”

Flanagan says that the Newtons’ music is so engrained in his life, he’ll frequently listen to scores in the car or at work. “It’s become part of the fabric of my life,” he says. “I want to sit down with a cup of tea and put it up on my turntable and I want to listen to it on vinyl. I want to hear their work, you know, and consume it the way I would any other music — just as a fan. And that’s a really beautiful thing.”

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