The Newton Brothers on Scoring Midnight Mass: "It had to be very truthful and sincere"

In Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, the arrival of a charismatic priest brings miracles, mysteries and renewed religious fervour to a dying island town – a synopsis perhaps not enough to get this miniseries to vie for scroll-happy Netflix viewers’ attention. Those that took a leap of faith and hit play were rewarded with a thoughtful, perfectly executed show that suffocated them with themes of faith, conformity, guilt and grief – that would stay with them long after the credits rolled. Halfway through, however, Midnight Mass takes another turn entirely; whatever you think it’s going to be about, it’s not. In on the secret from the start were long-time Flanagan score collaborators, The Newton Brothers, aka – Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, who explain how they tackled the music for the most ‘WTF did I just watch?’ show of last year.

Let’s get this out of the way, you are, in fact, not brothers. Where did you meet?

AG: We didn't even know each other until we were in our 20s actually. We needed to come up with a name years ago because we both had day jobs and we didn't want them to know that we were composing for films and TV shows. 

So we came up with a name and strangely, we never changed it. There was a long list of names we came up with at the time – we didn't want anything that was too crazy, but we also didn't want anything that was too pretty.

TS: We’re like brothers. Newton Brothers comes from Isaac Newton, so that was the inspiration around it, and we ended up sticking with it and we just kept going.

You’ve got a finely tuned working relationship with horror director Mike Flanagan, working with him on every single one of his projects since 2013’s Oculus (including Gerald's Game, The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass); have you developed a shorthand way of working together?

AG: It's really been helpful that we had a bit of a shorthand with his producing partner, Trevor Macy, because we're able to understand the information pretty quickly. 

Sometimes we will reference any number of past projects we've worked on to Mike, like, ‘For this scene, we're thinking about a similar emotion that we had in the scene from this [other] show’. And that'll happen all in a five second mention of it, but it will contain about five minutes of information, which is really helpful in composing because to me, it's a communication thing. 

Each film or TV show is like a new relationship, so it's nice to have relationships where you know the other people and you can understand each other in a way that you don't feel like you're on a first date!

Whenever we approach jumpscares Mike Flanagan is very specific about it.

We need to talk about that jump scare in The Haunting of Hill House. It has a very subtle touch of music. How did you approach the score for this memorable scene?

TS: The thing with Mike that's so great is that he really uses the silence and the space before a surprise. The actors actually didn't know when she was going to jump out, it was just so brilliant. 

On the music side, us scoring something before that [moment], or drawing attention to it would have taken away from that effect. It was quiet, and then adding just a little bit of something to the scene for the jumpscare gives it a little bit of a jolt. 

Mike's known for having a jumpscare where there's almost no music, and it's just the sound of the door closing loudly or something, but you're scared to death because it's just so jarring. So for that scene, that was the approach, and whenever we approach jumpscares Mike is very specific about it. 

We've worked long enough with him to know what he doesn't like and what we're going for, so it makes it very efficient.

What about that hand scene in 2017’s Gerald's Game? Why did you decide to not use music for this gruesome moment in the film?

TS: Actually, we did have music in it originally. A lot of times we tend to overwrite certain scores, then we'll throw it up on the screen and watch it with Mike and Trevor, the producer, and say, ‘How does this make us feel?’ 

We decided that the scene would be more impactful without music, and we took it out. And Mike was right. We didn't really play it very horrifically, we played it a little more musical – it was more melodically-driven. 

It was a beautiful piece of music, we both loved it, and Mike loved it too, but just to hear the sounds of the hand, the sound effects and, of course, the acting that she was doing, it feels like you're right there in the room. It's so disturbing, and what's great is that we brought in a big sweep of music at the end to relieve the tension of it being so uncomfortable.

AG: We have a good sense of when music should happen and shouldn't happen. For myself and Taylor, and Mike and Trevor it's usually like, ‘Do we need music here?’. We'll start writing and sometimes we'll think, ‘Maybe this isn't right, so let's approach it differently’. 

Sometimes Mike and Trevor will say, ‘This is an incredible piece of music, but we're going to mute it because the intention of the scene is better without the music’.

TS: It's always humbling when you're working on something and you're like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a great piece of music,’ and the director’s like, ‘This is amazing. We love this. We're gonna mute it’.

We decided that the scene would be more impactful without music, and we took it out.

What were your immediate thoughts when you heard the concept for Midnight Mass?

TS: When I read it, I had to take a moment and think about what I had just read, because it was so intense. The way it came across to me was a story of good-hearted people on this island who go through life and all of a sudden, it starts to swing into something. I was like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’

AG: Mike had the idea for quite a while and he talked to us about it when it was in full fruition. We were pretty excited about it because there's just so much that goes along with it. I was raised Catholic, I was an altar boy – so I have a very similar background to Mike's. 

So when he was talking to us about the hymns and that aspect of it, I felt good because I already knew the hymns from being smacked in the back of the head to remember them at a young age [laughs]. 

Mike invited me up to be in the show, which was a lot of fun to get to play a version of the person I was when I was young. I grew up playing and singing at church, so it was fun to be a member of the cast and to be part of a project that goes so deep. It's a story about faith, feelings and emotions.

I had to take a moment and think about what I had just read, because it was so intense.

Did Flanagan have a specific vision of how he wanted the score to sound?

AG: At first, we were talking a lot about the involvement of the hymns in the show and that it might be more impactful to just have hymns and not a lot of score. Then at a certain point, Mike called us late at night and said, ‘I think we should explore putting some score in here’, and gave us what his ideas were for what he wanted and what he didn't want. 

He didn't want a big, blown out, robust score, which made sense, because that doesn't fit the town or the island. He wanted something that was very minimal, but very specific. He didn't want noises happening – everything had to be very specific. That was kind of a tall order. 

When you’re writing music with chords, at least there's a structure and you know where you're going and what the themes are, and with this (although the music is very thematic), we balanced it with a score that was specific to the island, the oddities that were occurring and that the people of the island were feeling before they knew what was going on.

That's always tricky because you want to think outside the box. But being specific and outside the box is a weird place to be, so we just ran with it. Taylor and I started scoring a bunch of ideas for different scenes, and then we were off to the races. We wrote almost all of the themes for the show in a handful of days.

TS: Mike had given us direction and what he was thinking from a musical standpoint, and he gave us a lot of room to try things.

It really helped having Andy up there because by that time, rather than a character, we were scoring a sense or a feeling that was developing and approaching due to what was happening on the island. 

And whether it was due to the nervousness or this tension building, it really helped. There could have been so many different directions to go with this, so it allowed us to narrow it down really quickly.

AG: Being up there was very informative as to what it should not be because it was very obvious that all of the characters are very humble. They come from this small town, no one is doing anything crazy or has any crazy hairdos. 

It's very simple people who are on this island, and we knew that the score had to reflect that – even the hymns had to reflect that. When we were recording the hymns, we were working with excellent singers, and they sounded excellent. 

We'd get back the takes, and we'd have to go back to them and say, ‘This sounds incredible and beautiful, but we need you to sing more humbly. We know you have a beautiful voice, but that's not necessarily what we're going for’. 

We were going for more of an earnest approach, over a, ‘How good can you sound?’ approach. That was a tricky part of the process. We wanted to make sure that the score sounded very truthful and sincere.

It's very simple people who are on this island, and we knew that the score had to reflect that.

Which were your personal favourite scenes to score?

AG: Episode two, where they’re singing Holy, Holy, Holy in the church, which transitions into the score. This was Mike's idea from the get go; I think this was cooked into the script. It worked really well to transition from the source material, to on-camera singing, to a scored montage, and it all being tied together. It was fun to work on that.

TS: I have several favourite scenes. Obviously the end with the last hymn is incredible, and Kate [Siegel’s] monologue; that sequence for me was like, ‘Whoa!’ Mike told us he wanted a really simple piece on a piano, and then we just added a full orchestra [laughs].

AG: We had done some really simple piano for the scene, and sometimes you just feel something and you go for it, and we know if Mike will go for something. He might be like, ‘No, you guys are crazy; this is terrible’, but he'll let us try it. 

In fact, he encourages us to do so. In this situation, we added brass and strings and it got bigger than what was initially intended. I think the subject of the email to us said, ‘Fuck you’ [laughs]. The email said, ‘I'm sitting here bawling my eyes out. I hate you guys. This score is beautiful. I didn't think that this was going to be right’.

Another favourite scene of mine was the beginning of episode two – the beach scene with all the (spoiler alert!) dead cats. That was the first scene that I scored loosely to picture and I really love how it turned out due to the way it's shot with the camera angles, and the actors all do an incredible job. 

There's a weirdness going on with the town, which was a lot of fun to explore in the score.


An email from Mike said: I'm sitting here bawling my eyes out. I hate you guys. This score is beautiful.

What sort of feedback have you had from viewers that watched the show?

AG: We had so much more feedback than we thought we would get. Not that we were thinking any less of the score at all! Actually, the response was kind of overwhelming for a period of time. 

We were getting hit up from all kinds of people, even professional, famous singers, and people we look up to and admire were reaching out to us. Everyone had something different that resonated with them. I guess it just talks to the individuality of our world and how awesome that is.

TS: We've got a lot of emails from people who are Catholic and they go to church – they're very devoted. And it's funny because the show is, in a lot of ways, very neutral to that. It lets the viewer believe what they want to believe and I love that about Midnight Mass, because it’s not telling viewers that something is good or bad, it lets them make those decisions. 

And you don't want to offend this person or that person, so to get people who are very, very religious say to us, ‘I love this hymn, I sang it in church’, it's a really rewarding feeling. Across the board, lots of people like it, and with this kind of thing, maybe you didn't think that they would.

Are there any new Mike Flanagan projects in the works for you?

AG: Right now we're working on Mike Flanagan's Midnight Club, which we're really excited about. It's coming to Netflix, so it's really exciting. The whole team that worked on it is really good. It's really…I guess I want to say fun, but there's other things to it. It's going to be a really fun show. We've loosely started on some sketch ideas for his next project as well.

TS: The Midnight Club is based on the books, but with all Mike's stuff, he puts his own concepts and stories into it, but it’s based on the Christopher Pike book. Essentially, it's about a group of terminally ill kids who are all together in a house, and at midnight, they all get together and they tell each other stories. I think I'm allowed to say that!