No matter if it was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms or Williams, Goldsmith and Morricone: All the great composers we know are usually known for creating their beautiful music alone in their studios. Lately there’s a shift visible in the industry of music for media that more and more composers, producers and directors seem to be open for composer teams; such as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did it for Nolan’s first two Batman movies, like Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler did it for ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ and how Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders did it lately for ‘No Escape‘.
Recently I had the chance to interview Taylor Newton Stewart and Andy Grush, better known as The Newton Brothers. After both of them met in the early 2000s through music friends in Los Angeles, Taylor and Andy realised quickly they wanted to try composing as a team. It was very unusual for the time but they thought it could help them with the different musical approaches both had in mind: While an opera is still in the making (“at some point we’ll finish”), Andy and Taylor wanted to be able to release an electronic record too at one point or any other different kind of music. An alias would allow them to look into as many different fields as possible without having their names attached to a specific genre.
Benefits of collaboration: How scoring as a team nurtures creativity
The result is not only that both agree on the fact that definitely more work can be done in a shorter amount of time if two composers constantly collaborate but that especially the constant exchange and feedback is so very important in the creative process, as Taylor summed it up:
A lot of times composers will get so trapped up in their head for too much doubt or too much self-confidence or for whatever it is and they play their music for the director and it’s just wrong. People get too caught up. Maybe they write something beautiful and they are too afraid to play it for the director or they have the worst thing they’ve written in a long time and they play it for the director and it’s terrible. It works both ways. Usually in our process together from start to finish there’s a heavy filtering process that goes about that we collaborate and listen to and give opinions to and we’re brutally honest to each other. So it’s definitely super helpful and it’s been provenly quite a big advantage a couple of times.
One of the most memorable scores by The Newton Brothers that grew from their collaboration was their music for the horror movie ‘Oculus’ because of its pulsing bass element. You can read below what Andy had to say about it.
Like anything, early on in Oculus we were experimenting with the variety of organic and synthetic instruments and we started getting into the idea of how creepy this mirror and its history was. It brings up two interesting points; for one: The bass ended up as constantly pulsing and it’s never pulsing at a rhythm. It’s always slowing down or speeding up ever so slightly. In addition to that mixed with moments of silence. Taking a dedicated moment of scare and making them “Hey let’s not hit this, let’s not play anything at all.“ Not playing is just as important as playing. When you have absolutely nothing happening there’s sometimes something much more unnerving about that, than scary music playing. I think especially for horror movies that’s the fine line.
On another recent horror movie as well as on a thriller, Taylor and Andy have been working with one of the great maestros I mentioned in the beginning, Danny Elfman, as well as with John Debney and here again it showed how both could benefit from their experience in collaboration. Andy told me about the collaborative process behind ‘Before I Wake’ (also known as ‘Somnia’) as well as ‘Careful What You Wish For’:
Taylor and I having the background of working with another person on projects is helpful because when we started with Danny for example we knew there are certain things we need to communicate to him or ask him. We have meetings where we discuss ideas and play ideas to each other. Same goes for the collaboration with John Debney.
I feel like musicians are just great people. It’s then the time you get into a room with other musicians / composers and everyone comes from a similar sensibility of what they are trying to express with the music. So you have this language that we all speak and it’s a comfortable place to be. There’s a quick ice breaker in these relationships. It’s fun, you can make dumb composer jokes of drummers or whatever.
Another important thing for Andy was, that you can learn so much from long established composers when it comes to meetings with directors. These were the things you never learn at film scoring schools.
I was curious how deeply involved Danny Elfman and John Debney were in the writing of the score. Taylor mentioned that from about 80 minutes of ‘Before I Wake”s score, Danny Elfman took the biggest cue of them all which is about 13 minutes long. Additionally one of Taylor’s favourite scenes in the movie is accompanied by an “amazing piece of music” which again was scored by Danny Elfman.
[Danny Elfman] spent a lot of time on ‘Before I Wake’. He did a couple of big chunks and we did the rest. So definitely it wasn’t like “Here’s this little piece of music, I’m outta here.” Luckily enough we worked with quite a few different guys and Danny isn’t like that at all. He definitely worked really hard on it. He likes to write his music and he gives great advice and opinion. Same as John. He is a true collaborator. He comes in, does his thing and that’s great.
So both Andy and Taylor were fully positive about the collaboration with Elfman and Debney. But Taylor mentioned as well that other composers in the industry would have “a different method” when it comes to collaborations.
Approaching two sides: How the score for ‘The Runner’ came about
Besides ‘Before I Wake’ and ‘Careful What You Wish For’ The Newton Brothers recently worked on Austin Stark’s political drama ‘The Runner’. Different to other movies Andy and Taylor had the finished script to the movie as early as two years ago because they had gotten to know Austin during their work on ‘Detachment’, directed by Tony Kaye, where Austin had been involved as one of the producers. Back then in 2011 the two of them had three and a half weeks to score ‘Detachment’ as they were brought in after the production had to let go their prior composer. Andy and Taylor loved the film so much that “we killed ourselves trying to do that score and we literally didn’t sleep. My wife was bringing me food and our assistants would leave and we would still be looking at them and say “I wish I wouldn’t have to be here anymore.””
You can listen to a piece from ‘Detachment’s’ very beautiful score below:
With an established relationship to Austin, this time both had much more time and got into the real scoring process about five months before the movie was released as that was the time when both received a cut of the movie they could work with. Even though the edit of the film changed during the past months it was plenty of time to “try all different kinds of things with the score.” Since both had sent over some themes and demos before, the whole scoring approach to the movie was much more relaxed than on others.
It allowed them to try a variety of approaches to the movie and its characters. Set in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill, ‘The Runner’ tells the story of idealistic politician Colin Price (Nicolas Cage) who is forced to confront his dysfunctional life after his career is destroyed in a sex scandal. Here’s what Taylor told me about their scoring approach:
I think originally the director was very clear in his mind. He wanted a synthetic score. Very paddy, very Glassy. It works in some capacity but there are really two different aspects in the film that needed to meld: One is the personal aspect on Nicolas Cage and his life and what happens. The other was the political aspect and it had a bit of a thrill element to it.
Being truly synthetic just didn’t work. So all of us agreed that it needed to shift and change, and it really prompted us to try other things like guitar, so it really started to gel together once we started trying other things. We tossed things underneath the synthesisers and it really blossomed from there.
Apart from the very strong theme played on an electric guitar you can hear a salient ticking sound in ‘The Oil Spill’ below (you can purcahse the full soundtrack on ITunes here):
Nicolas Cage’s character is just an ordinary guy who goes through some extraordinary things and he has a good heart. Unfortunately he has some bad tendencies like a lot of other people. He is a little self-destructive in some capacity. Andy came up with this really cool theme on electric guitar and we added some percussion that allowed us to set up some kind of interesting, nice theme for him.
From there when he talked about anything politic or anything to do with the oil spill, we had a clock ticking, and strings swelling up and down. It was a small ensemble, so the whole movie feels very intimate. We have guitars and pianos, plucking and swelling, and this pulsing sound that pushes you through these scenes. We have these sections where Nicolas Cage is crying on the ground for example. Those emotional scenes from a musical side are extremely solo and super soft. Those many elements would blend into each other and it was very minimal at times. It seemed to work really well.
Colin Price, Nicolas Cage’s character, is very much like “We need to get this going, we need to help the people, it needs to happen right now!“ There was urgency. That was the main reason behind that ticking sound.
Andy added some more details about what made it so thrilling to play some pieces for director Austin Stark who flew from New York to Los Angeles for the first playback:
There’s several scenes with just that electric guitar playing in the big room where we tracked it and it’s really effective. It makes you kind of empty in places and also very emotional and good about a relationship he probably should not be having. It’s a little bit nerve wrecking to play something like that for a director. Especially when it’s super minimal. The full cue is maybe nine notes that are ringing out. It’s sort of paying attention that the melody hits you but it’s subtle and still there. Austin responded really well to it and we ran with it.
Taylor and Andy played around with organic instruments in many uncommon ways and ended up bowing a Bazantar and developing percussion patterns from recorded sounds of banging on guitars and dobros. Different kinds of guitars were used for themes of different characters and both were very glad when the director even recognized this small detail at the first playback.
You can watch the trailer to ‘The Runner’ below:
Scheduling the day: How sleep is overrated
Slowly coming to an end I had to ask for some advices of course. To maintain a specific quality across projects and to not have to prioritize one project over another both prefer having “one film ending and we are delivering, plus some revisions, and the other film is starting up.” While this is a best case scenario this isn’t always possible and there were times as well where both had to score seven movies within only eight months. “That’s where we learned our important lesson that the idea of seven hours of sleep is not really what you need. I’m sure it is and we would live longer for it but sleeping 4 hours a night can be ok. Or no sleep,” as Andy remarked. Taylor jumped in and recommends in times like these to “do what is best, which is you just don’t sleep. Which is what wives and girlfriends love. They love to having you never around and all you do is being in the studio and don’t show up. That’s the best.”
Getting more serious again Taylor highlighted, that first of all it is important to have a strict schedule every day. Additionally both also get up very early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, to get things done. And to free ones head, both like to go for “a fairly long run,” sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mountains.
In general there usually never is enough time so, relating to the very beginning of our interview here again, it always helped both of them to have a scoring partner, as Taylor explained:
Time is the enemy. You have to get all the ideas, all the sounds and everything you want to create out there as quickly as you can. Having that person who is going to bring just quantity of more stuff, and you gotta filter things out, it really allows you to write on each other’s stuff and to bring the best things out. Plus sometimes it’s just listening. Andy will come to me and be like „This is really good but the mix could be better.“ In the early stages people are sensitive with certain things. We’ve had directors, who we love and cherish, not like a piece just because some element was too loud. So it’s really important to have that other voice.
Additionally, mentioning Danny Elfman’s collaboration with Tim Burton, Taylor stressed on the fact that “your success depends on the director and the producers you’re on. If they are not doing well, you’re not doing well.” Andy also added that listening to your director is one of the most important things for your career:
Take all projects on and listen. No matter what the project is, the biggest key is listening to what the director tells you. Taylor and I see that a lot. A lot of times people will submit music that works as an album or it might be a beautiful piece on its own but it’s not what the director wants. Taylor and I spend the first two weeks on drinking coffee and tea and talking about the meetings we’ve had with directors and producers on a project before we even write. There is a communication early on trying to decide where you gonna start that project, I think that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Taylor also added some more to it:
[Young composers] should try to find something they love about [a movie], like the cinematography is beautiful or the acting is great or maybe the scriptwriting is really good. Because [the directors and producers] hopefully go on to do more projects and you want to do more projects as well. You want to look for what’s good in a film and you want to be the strength to the film. Maybe you need to play two notes on the piano or you need to write this really incredible piece of music. So I think whatever it is, you need to be aware of what’s positive out the film because everyone can be critical and find all the negatives.
Furthermore, to end this article about The Newton Brothers with two little behind the scenes stories, be always aware of happy accidents along the creative process as this little story by Andy from a recording session tells us…
We find most of the time that when we go into these projects we always know the more traditional approach and we gonna try for different things whether it’s gonna be ‘Before I Wake’ / ‘Somnia’ or another film. That’s always the direction we are going.
If we start trashing studios, making noise and plugging in microphones, sometimes happy accidents happen. For a project we were working on last week [which, unfortunately, can not be disclosed,] I was tracking some clarinets just to get a padded sound. By accident I put a clarinet on the stand. Then, strangely enough, after 3 hours of recording clarinet, what ended up happening to be really cool, was the clarinet going back into the stand when it knocked a guitar and the strings made this weird percussive sound that made me say “Wow, that’s actually cooler than everything!” And so some of those happy accidents are cool sometimes.
… and try to think outside the box as much as possible as Taylor’s example shows:
Part of ‘Before I Wake’ is really Sound Designy and part of it is really traditional, so the two mix. There is a couple of sounds for a specific person in the film; it sounds like a wind is blowing or almost as if someone is talking. It’s a synthetic sound that is very eery and very creepy. We spent a long time on processing that and creating the sound from synthesizers. It’s actually not organic at all. So we used that.
We also sculpted with bees. We recorded live bees and then we had the orchestra mimicking that sound as much as we could to create this kind of swarm sounding. Those two sounds took surprisingly a tremendous amount of time on that film.
Since only three very severe pieces of music have been embedded in this article so far, I want to end it with a very light cue of The Newton Brothers from the crime comedy ‘Life of Crime’. You find all ways to get in touch with The Newton Brothers below the track. And if you were wondering all this time how the two Newton Brothers came up with the name: Its origins are not from Taylor’s second name but simply from the fact that both share the same favourite fruit; apples.