Midnight Mass Composers The Newton Brothers Rediscovered The Beauty Of Hymns [Interview]

The Newton Brothers go way back with director Mike Flanagan. Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart have been composing the horror maestro's movies and shows since "Oculus." They brought emotion, not just horror, to "Hush," "Doctor Sleep," and "The Haunting of Hill House," to name a few. It's the drama, not always the horror, that the composers are responding to first and foremost. 

That's perhaps most evident in their newest collaboration with Flanagan, the horror-drama "Midnight Mass." The limited series is often about what's unsaid, and The Newton Brothers wanted to respect that. However, the duo clearly had a ball interpreting classic hymns such as "Were You There" and "Come, Darkness." In a phone interview with/Film, Andy and Taylor talked about their experience recording them, as well as their creative partnership with Flanagan.

'Were You There When They Nailed Him To The Tree?'

For anyone raised Catholic, this show probably brings back memories, especially hearing those hymns. How was it working on those?

Andy: I was Catholic. Even Catholic college. I was Catholic the whole way for a long time, and Flanagan as well. We were very aware of all the things that I know you're very aware of, too.

Taylor: As you know from the show, a lot of it was hymnal-based, and that came from the direction of Mike. He wanted to implement realism and authenticity. I studied up on Andy's recommendations of different books and stuff. I did research, and of course, Andy could probably just recite it all in his sleep. Andy took the lead, actually, on that project, more than me, in the sense that he actually ... I'll let him tell you, but he flew up there and he spent four months being an actor [Grush plays the church organist in "Midnight Mass"], being a music director, going over to the hymns. And meanwhile, I was trying to do what I could to help out down here. And then when he came home, we started working on more of the background traditional score, per se.

Andy, so many musicians learn from performing in the church at a young age. Was that your experience?

Andy: I was playing at church. I don't think I started playing at church until I was in the fifth or sixth grade. And strangely, piano was my first instrument, but I started with the guitar, because it seemed cooler at the time. A teacher that was at my school was also playing at church, so I played guitar with him. Around seventh and eighth grade, I started playing piano. It was pretty fun, because at the time, you're not necessarily listening to and understanding what it is you're doing; you're just doing it. A lot of it was by repetition. There were many scenes where, during the consecration, when we were shooting "Midnight Mass," I could recite all of those lines -- as I'm sure, Jack, you probably can too, still. You just know how the mass goes.

Absolutely. It does not leave you.

Andy: Similarly with the music, too. The hymns were very familiar. Most of those hymns were chosen by Mike, and a few of them were our recommendation. "Come, Darkness" was a dark piece that I found by accident in high school, when I was trying to find something darker to perform in mass, because I thought it was cooler. No special reason. It was always the piece that I loved. When it ended up making it in the show, it worked really well. It's funny, the hymns land on me a lot stronger now than they did as a child, or a teenager, or even in my early twenties. Even some of the lyrics landed on me in more of a way like, "Oh. That's what this is about." I knew a lot of these hymns by heart, but I don't think I'd ever paid attention to, really, to what they were saying, which is terrible to say, but in the last two years, I've paid tons of attention. It's brought deeper meaning to all of them, or brought a deeper meaning to me with all of them.

Some of those hymns can be perceived as beautiful or creepy. Given the tone of the show, and it technically being a horror show, how did it influence your interpretations?

Andy: I don't know about you, but for me, I feel like we only sang enough lines to get whatever was happening in mass done. It was never like, "Let's sing all seven verses of this song." "Were You There," that has some lyrics that are heavy. "Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?" I remember getting chills in the studio the first night I was piecing together that hymn, and figuring out how the arrangement would go, and just being moved by how real those lyrics were, regardless of my current faith or past faith. It's more of the story that's being told in that hymn. It's pretty dark, even though the hymn is beautiful. I think it had a lot to do with the performance that we chose to put forth with that hymn. Both the instrumental performance, as well as the vocal performance.

Taylor: It's funny, because the cool thing about that, too, is that we're getting a lot of people reaching out to us who are very Catholic. We've had a minister reach out to us, just saying how much they loved the music, which is always a compliment, when you have both sides. You know what I mean? People who are atheists, and people who are very Catholic, or whatever religion they are. It's always a compliment.

'Wade's Waltz For Wade Scarborough'

Mike Flanagan's stories are always very full. He hits a variety of notes and tones, which means you get to do the same, right?

Taylor: Oh, for me, it's great. I know we both love playing on the emotion of characters and the storytelling. I think we typically don't score the horror of it until, obviously, there's blood gushing. But even then, sometimes we don't. All of a sudden, you think you're watching a dark show that's horrific, but it's really a love story. It takes you to different places. That's what I love about Mike's writing, and his level of detail is extraordinary. So for us, it's just enjoyable to be creative. I think that on this show, we're able to get creative with a lot of the musical elements, but I'll let Andy go on about that.

Andy: On all the shows we work on with Mike, it's always a process, in a very good way, because good ideas can be improved upon, bad ideas can be turned into interesting ideas that no one thought about. It always becomes a dialogue. The instrumental version of "Were You There," that was initially too big and boisterous for what we thought the show was going to be. We had initially put that together, and arranged it, and recorded a version of it, and as we were all talking, it came to be that that was too big for the show. But then as things progressed, it landed where we needed something like that for the scene where it now plays.

It's funny how what you set out to do, and where you end up are always a different thing, and I think that's terrifying, but also really exciting. We always know that it's a process. No matter how sure we are of something, of a cue, of a scene, there's always room for it to change for the better. I think that has a lot to do with the team of people. Mike, his producing partner, Trevor, as well as our music editor, Snacky, and our mixer, Jonathan Wales, the whole team is very collaborative. We don't get too bummed out if the team is against one thing that someone's done.

Based on the interviews you've both done, is it fair to say Mike Flanagan is more well-versed in music than most directors?

Taylor: Very much so. Mike is, across the board, has a skillset that is definitely unlike a lot of individuals. He edits, he writes, he directs, and produces, and he actually writes music, too. I think, if he had the time, he'd just score his own stuff. He definitely understands, like, "Hey, let's go to F minor here, and let's change keys here." It's specific. For us, it's definitely awesome to have, obviously, that extra bit of communication in that domain.

Like you said, even when blood is gushing, you may not even score those moments, but how'd you want to score the final episodes when the bloodbath unfolds? 

Andy: The things that transpire in episode 6, because I was on set for all of that, and a part of it, that was actually one of the first pieces that we worked on. I explained to Taylor, the days after we shot those scenes, what had gone down, and we wrote some score based off of what was happening. We actually called a big piece of music, "Wade's Waltz for Wade Scarborough," the mayor. That wasn't what we ended up calling it in the end, but the piece that we put together was called "Wade's Waltz" because of what transpires in that situation. If you've seen the show, then you know what it's about.

'Poor Timmy'

What moments did you want to go bigger with the score?

Taylor: Even when we were using strings, the strings were muted for, I think, most of all episodes 1 through 6. I think the last one, we opened up a bit more and made it a little bit bigger. I think when you're writing music, you always have a tendency to want to go big, or fill the space, or be very musical. But we've worked with Mike so much that we get into the groove of what the project tends to dictate. There's a lot of uncomfortable silence, and a lot of cues, and then there were pauses, but there were a couple of cues that were able to get a little bit bigger, stylistically. For most part, it was reserved, because the characters were reserved.

So, it's the performances that often inspire you?

Taylor: Timmy. Timmy. He inspired me. Andy's Timmy, by the way. Never gets old.

Andy: [Laughs] Oh, it was really hard to be myself in those scenes. I'm the organ player, and then the guitar player in episode 2.

Taylor: Poor Timmy. Such a good lad.

Andy: That was pretty fun. But aside from my Oscar-winning performance throughout the series ... It's funny, being a composer, you get moved in the room by yourself. We'll watch these performances once they're edited together, and this show is just one home run performance after another, from everyone. I can recall the moments of scoring all of these scenes.

Rahul [Kohli], when he has his monologue, the sheriff, you know? That's a very delicate scene, and a lot of the score needs to just stay out of the way, but support what he's saying. It's tricky. When you hear the final version, it sounds like it's just a real simple approach to something that playing underneath the dialogue, but it was actually two weeks of work to dial-in what is exactly going to work. It's mostly so that we stay out of the way and allow them to do what they're going to do.

Being on set, Andy, did it give you more insight into what you wanted the score to accomplish?

Andy: I think there was a scene for everyone that was a challenge for us to score. Especially having been up there, and then becoming friendly with everyone up there, I was like, "Well, I don't want to F this up." I had the added boost of not wanting to fail, which is always good. There was a funny little story about that. After Hamish had done one of the first scenes that I had seen him do in-person, I walked outside. We had our COVID protocols, and we walked outside, and it's pouring rain, and they only had one umbrella. So they gave myself and Michael Trucco one huge umbrella, and said, "Hold on, we'll get you another umbrella. Just stand here for a second." So Truco and I are standing under this umbrella and he's like, "Buddy, that scene that Hamish just did is incredible. What are you guys going to do for the score for that?" I said, "Not a goddamn thing. We're not going to touch it."

'Waves Coming To Shore'

What were some more experimental choices you made with the score?

Taylor: Early on, we made the strings sound like, rhythmically, an ocean, the waves coming to shore. Andy had this idea that it was never consistent. It was rhythm, but it was never consistent. It was always inconsistent. We kept trying different things and different sounds. We wrote this piece that was like how people believe something, sometimes they'll just follow things blindly, without any science binder, or data. They're just going off faith. It wasn't so much whether that's wrong or right. It was just more of, "That's a statement," and we're trying to support that in certain moments and have that come through.

It was nice to be able to switch between using the landscape of sound and this off-putting-ness, to work with the music, and then, of course, have a little more traditional elements. And this is after all the work on the hymns, obviously, where Andy would be like, "Hey, I need you to sing this 26 times." I'd be dying [Laughs]. 

Andy: We're big into the idea of taking the full concept of something as far as we can take it so that we know, yes, this is working, or no, it's not working. So for the hymns, we started tracking all the hymns, just Taylor and I, and we have sessions where I would call Taylor and say, "I need you to track yourself 25 times. I need you to do all four parts five times." Obviously, then we brought people in once we knew things were working and Mike was digging the overall sound. It was a ton of fun to sing those hymns, because they're beautiful. They're really well-written hymns. It's a lot of fun to sing. Anyone who's a singer knows that singing harmonies with yourself is very, very vain, but to be in the studio and be able to do it for a project, and then to step back and produce yourself, it was fun. We were just self-producing our vocals to get them dialed in.

Taylor: We got Mike and his brother, James, to sing on it. Mike is obviously traveling a lot, and he's very busy, and all over the place, but in reality, we live super close to each other. My studio is close to his house. Finally, he was back in town, and he came by the studio with James. It was a real treat, to have him come in and lay down some vocals. They were both doing one take passes, and I was just like, "Wow." They had the words, the flow, and the melody. I was blown away.

"Midnight Mass" is available now on Netflix.

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The post Midnight Mass Composers The Newton Brothers Rediscovered The Beauty Of Hymns [Interview] appeared first on /Film.

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