The Australian composer discusses finding musical horror aesthetics and adapting an H.P. Lovecraft story for del Toro’s anthology series
Musician and composer Michael Yezerski hails from Sydney, Australia and has been working in the imaginative worlds of film and television since the early 2000s. Yezerski’s musical works are highly evocative, original and diverse. From the symphonic grittiness of David Ayer’s The Tax Collector to Carlos Lopez Estrada’s quiet drama film Blindspotting; from the avant-garde horror drones of Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy to Elissa Down’s heartfelt Feel the Beat and The Black Balloon, Yezerski brings a signature musical intensity to every project he takes on.
Other notable credits of his include the Academy Award-winning animated short, The Lost Thing; Keith Thomas’ claustrophobic masterful debut The Vigil; FX’s series Mr. Inbetween; Fox Networks’ Deputy; Bill Guttentag and Michael Ware’s HBO documentary film, Only the Dead See The End of War; PJ Hogan’s Mental; and more. Throughout the years, Yezerski has established himself as a composer who leans more towards dark and chilling films. The fun of composing horror scores, as he tells it, is that the genre gives him more creative license than usual to play with musical effects in non-traditional ways.
That’s certainly true for his latest project, Pickman’s Model. Based on the short story of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft, the film follows art student William Thurber (Ben Barnes) as he becomes involved with a fellow artist named Richard Pickman (Crispin Glover). Pickman’s grotesque and terrifying work deeply disturbs Thurber, and the images steadily grate on his sanity. This adaptation acts as one of the eight episodes in Netflix’s new horror anthology series Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Fresh off his work on 2019’s supernatural spine-tingler The Vigil, director Keith Thomas was brought in and reunited with Yezerski to help bring this particular Lovecraft tale to life.
We talked with Yezerski about what frightens him when it comes to the horror genre, what helped him find the right musical aesthetic for Pickman’s Model, and the benefits of modern remote work.
What brought you and Keith Thomas back together for this project?
Michael Yezerski: I hadn’t spoken to him much since The Vigil, he went off to do Firestarter. I believe he shot Firestarter and Pickman’s Model back-to-back in Toronto. So he was just finishing Firestarter and he called me and he said, “I’ve got this project I think you’d be perfect for.” And without even hearing more, I was like, “Well, yes, of course I’m gonna work with you again.” Then he told me more about what it was and I thought this sounds incredible, you know with Guillermo and everything. So it was a very natural, very easy collaboration that we continued from The Vigil days. Keith and I just worked so well together.
The Vigil was released before the pandemic. Obviously, a lot has changed since then. What was different this time around compared to that first collaboration?
Michael Yezerski: The funny thing is, Keith and I don’t live in the same city. So the actual process was very similar. I’m in Los Angeles, he’s in Colorado. On The Vigil, I would always just be sending things back and forth. So it’s almost like we were primed for COVID collaboration before it actually happened. That’s become a common thing with me. With most of my directors, I’m rarely in the same city, or even if we are in the same city, they rarely cross town nowadays to be in my studio. I think we’ve all gotten so used to remote work and the technology exists where you don’t actually have to be in the same room. I mean, there’s incredible programs now where I can broadcast from my writing program, make changes in real time, comment in real time, and it all gets done on a screen rather than, you know, with a director on the couch.
So in terms of the actual process, it was very similar. Keith actually sort of said to me at the end, he’s like, “Oh, Michael, it’s great with you. I don’t actually have to direct, you just know instinctively what to do. You know what I want.” I think that speaks of a great composer / director collaboration. We just kind of get each other’s work, you know? You never really know as a composer. It’s like, “I think he might be going for this. I think this beat needs to be more emotional. I think this needs to be deeper, this could be scarier.” When I send it to Keith, he’s like, “Yeah, man, that was exactly what I was hoping for.”
This is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. There are countless adaptations of Lovecraft’s work already. Even in this very series, there’s another Lovecraft episode. How did you go about trying to find the sound and music of Lovecraft’s particular mythos and atmosphere for this story?
Michael Yezerski: He and I spoke very early on about what he called this sort of steampunk, found sounds musical aesthetic, which I interpreted to be percussion instruments that aren’t traditional percussion instruments. Maybe they’re bits of metal or concrete or just strange objects that you can hit in different ways. Strings that are perhaps not the kind of strings that we’ve always heard. What other elements can we add to this score to not just set it apart, but to make us constantly uneasy? It never feels like a traditional period score, it has other elements in it which sort of put us on the edge of our seat.
In the case of this, I actually ended up using electrical sounds, actual sounds of old electricity wires and things layered in with the string orchestra. I wanted to give the feeling of physical pain through music. So it’s not just the sort of dissonant harmonies which we’ve perhaps heard before, or bendy strings. All of that’s in there, but I was trying to think of what else could be added. I came up with the idea of these sort of long electrical tones, like the buzz of electrical wires, just layered in with the strings so that there’s that added element, even if it’s just subconscious, that hopefully makes the viewer feel some danger in the music and in the film.
This story is more or less about fear and madness itself. Unlike standard horror score tracks that just build up to a single scare, many parts of your score ramp up the intensity to the point where it feels like it’s almost bludgeoning you. In the episode, Thurber gives a great description where he says it’s like drilling into his brain. How do you capture that sort of intensity?
Michael Yezerski: That was the aspect of the film that I was really trying to tap into. As a dark kind of horror composer, those kinds of lines like you said, drilling into my brain, that is a musical sound to me. Whether or not you dealt with actual drills or things that sound like, you know, fingernails down the blackboard. Or in this case, electrical wire sound or strings screeching. The idea for me is that I wanted the audience in the best way I could to experience the pain that Thurber was feeling. Look at what you’re talking about, where horror scores sort of stay on one level and then they just build up to a quick jumpscare and come back down. The structure of this piece is actually different and it’s necessitated by the visuals and by the story.
Thurber is encountering these works of art and he has to consider them for quite a long period of time while he takes in all the details. So the camera scans the images diagonally left to right and we see more and more grotesque images pop out of the screen. It takes time to process the imagery. So I wanted the music to not just be “Oh, there’s a grotesque image of a monster. Here’s a hit, and then we’re going to go to another part of a painting and there’s another monster, here’s another boom.” It’s more like a continuing mountain of pain that Thurber was feeling. He was being attacked in real time by the imagery and I wanted the audience to sort of feel that in the same way.
The end of this story arrives at such a heightened, insane place. How do you match the music to the level of the graphic terror that’s onscreen?
Michael Yezerski: That was interesting because that is actually one of the few more classic scare reveals in the show. The show has all these long builds and long burns, but that one is sort of a smack in the face. There was some misdirection there because, you know, he comes home, everything’s fine, and then you just suddenly jump back into the world. And what I loved about that particular opportunity for scoring was that we’ve already set up the world, we’ve already set up the world of pain, we have our electrical sounds, we have the string orchestra going crazy, we have the subs just being blown out, we have all of this stuff. But you think as an audience member, that you’re actually past it because he’s come back home to this tranquil scene. The danger’s passed. And then for a split second, I bring back all of those sounds, even if it’s a quick jolt, or it’s two quick jolts, actually. It’s like it’s literally getting triggered back into that world.
Was there ever a discussion about keeping similar themes or aesthetics in line with the overall Cabinet of Curiosities series, or was each individual segment kind of left to their own devices?
Michael Yezerski: That was the impression that I got, that we didn’t really have any editorial direction from Guillermo or J. Miles Dale, the producer. I think part of the reason was that we were one of the first films to shoot and finish. We actually mixed this back in February and March. There were some tweaks along the lines of visual effects and a couple of scenes that were sort of moved around a bit, but I think a lot of the work was finished early. I can’t speak to any of the other episodes, but certainly for us, there was this incredible amount of trust put in Keith and by virtue of that, in me, to just tell the story that we wanted to tell. I always felt my responsibility was to tell Keith’s story, to get inside his head and to realize his vision and the best way possible.
What have you found to be the advantage, creatively or otherwise, with going back and forth between L.A. and Sydney?
Michael Yezerski: I think the main thing is that the distance has become nominal through technology. You and I are talking now from opposite coasts but we’re having a normal conversation. I’d be having the same conversation with you if we were here in the room. I could probably offer you a drink, that would be the only difference. It’s sort of the same with the directors and the producers. I think we’ve all gotten so good at the dialogue that it’s no longer necessary to be in the same room to actually do the work. So I think from that perspective, it’s an advantage.
I think you do lose the social aspect of it sometimes. I think you do lose that “Let’s get really intense, let’s go through all the notes and then let’s go out to dinner.” I think that we’ve lost some of that. That’s part of the collaboration that I think we all thrive off of and hopefully in the next couple years, that’ll come back. But in terms of the work, it’s very streamlined. Now we can get things done faster, I can turn music around faster. Let’s say I get a call and they’re like, “Look, this cue is not quite working.” I’d have to drive back to the studio and fix it. Now, I can turn things around in five minutes and get it back to them. There are definite time advantages to the way we work now.
What frightens you when it comes to horror?
Michael Yezerski: I think Keith has two of my most successful horror scores that I’ve done. Between Keith’s scores and also The Devil’s Candy, I think they’re my favorites. They’re sort of the slowburn scores. I love horror that taps into genuine human anxiety. The thing about Pickman’s to me is, everyone can interpret Pickman’s in different ways. As someone who grew up in a creative field, I interpreted it as like Salieri seeing Mozart. He’s an artist who is confronted and then eternally tormented by a better artist. It doesn’t matter if you as an audience member don’t see the other art as better than Thurber’s own art or not, that’s completely irrelevant. It’s actually about one artist being tormented by the perception of another artist.
I think anyone who’s grown up in a creative field can actually relate to that in some way. We’ve all come across people who we perceive to be better than us. That’s kind of what makes us keep going, because you want to try and do better. That to me made the story personal and intense. So anytime with horror that I can tap into something or some aspect of it that is relatable to the human experience, it works. In The Vigil, it was the Holocaust. The horror of the outside world fed into the horror of the world of The Vigil. That to me creates the most interesting kind of horror. And also scares the crap out of me.
‘Guillero del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’ is now streaming on Netflix.