Michael Yezerski is an Australian composer living in Los Angeles who thrives on genre diversity. In conversation he is open and pragmatic about the creative process, his approach to collaboration and what drives him in terms of those musical choices. He recently took time out to talk to Martin Carr about his involvement in David Ayer’s latest project The Tax Collector.
How did you first become involved with The Tax Collector?
A good friend of mine Brian Lawson, who is one of the top music editors in Los Angeles, was working on the film and knew David (Ayer) had not found the sound he was looking for yet. Obviously Brian knows me and knows my work so he thought I would be good for this. David had a couple of references sent over for the film which were a little unconventional and asked me to respond. These pieces resonated with me and I realised there was something in them. They weren’t written in a film score idiom but I found them musically evocative. Which in turn, triggered a series of feelings in me and I immediately got a sense of what he was looking for. On paper this film is a hard edged, gritty urban crime thriller but his musical references were gentle, soft and heartfelt. So I felt he was looking for something which ran in direct opposition to what was happening on screen – humanistic, gentle and deep.
What were those first creative discussions with David like once you joined the project?
My first experience was walking into the edit suite with David and Geoff O’Brien (the editor) and being played a couple of scenes with my score demos already worked in. Once that was done we got into the nuts and bolts of deciding how I would establish a musical arc, in direct correlation to the character arcs happening on screen. From that point on we got quite deeply involved in that process.
Bearing in mind David is one of the producers on the films as well as its writer and director, how collaborative did you find the process from that point of view?
With David he makes his intentions very clear at every edit point. Bearing in mind he knows this world so well, so there were times when little moments of body language between the characters was important. They had their own code which David had written in. It became about gestures and glances between characters during scenes, which with my training as a musician I might not necessarily pick up on. He wanted the score to highlight these little moments to enhance the emotional impact of any given exchange. So I was actively encouraged at various points to look at these things in different ways, which I think is how David likes to work.
Did you do any research prior to joining the project knowing what the subject matter was going to be?
Not really because it all happened so fast. Often film is like that and you are minding your own business one day, then the next you are immersed in this massive high stakes project. It’s kinda like jumping out of a plane with no parachute. However, having David as a guide and a completely committed collaborator, I had a director who knew exactly what he wanted at every single moment. That is something that makes my job so much easier, because the hardest gigs are those where you walk into the room and someone says ‘look I don’t know what I like, but I know what I don’t like’. Fortunately, David is not that type of director. He lets you know what he wants and gives clear direction. In terms of musical background this is not a million miles away from what I normally do. I seem to be historically drawn towards projects that allow me to write dark, heartfelt and emotional music.
How did you represent the darker more violent elements of this film within the score?
That’s the thing, because for the most part I took the approach that it was unnecessary as that was already on the screen. It’s an ethos I try to stick to as a composer because not only does musical repetition make emotion redundant, but also things then become cloying for an audience. Audiences are smarter than that and underlining violence, romance or anything obvious is essentially overkill. For example, when the music is darker in tone it is also very melodic and I always try to find themes and melodies to remind us where we are in the story. David, who is our central character, has his own theme, so even when the film is at its most violent we still hear echoes of that playing in these moments. So we hopefully know subconsciously that this is always his story .
Would you say your job as a composer is to underpin the drama, or maybe draw out the character and subconsciously influence the tone of the film?
I think it depends on the job which in this case is the latter. At times you have to underpin the drama but with The Tax Collector that element was already so strong, it was more about teasing out those subconscious layers of information. Even at its darkest moments you are reminding the audience of this person’s humanity, their fragility and inherent vulnerability. To me the most interesting type of scoring comes from being asked to emphasise elements which are hidden within the visual sub-text, (those which visuals are unable to do on their own) – turning it into a fully immersive and almost three dimensional creative experience.
Considering your diversity which has included writing a song for Ophelia, working on The Little Death and now obviously The Tax Collector, what are the overriding factors which attract you to a project?
In terms of my career choices I get bored easily which is the short answer, but I do love jumping around between different things. Whether that’s the world of urban funk for Blindspotting, something sort of romantic like A Place Called Home which was a period drama set in the Fifties, or The Tax Collector that was more industrial folk guitar combined with cinematic mayhem, I just love being challenged – like I was with The Devil’s Candy which was all about death metal drone which was fantastic. All these musical perimeters put you inside a box creatively. It then becomes about how innovative you can be within that space with only a few instruments rather than the whole orchestra.
Of all the musical instruments at your disposal, which do you consider to be the most evocative and why?
Strings always. I find them to be the most extraordinary invention we have at our disposal as composers in terms of versatility. The string orchestra maybe my musical go to but I have leant toward writing for them (more than any other group) purely because I find them so evocative. They are just so diverse in terms of possibilities being percussive, lyrical and everything else in between.
Describe for me your perfect Sunday afternoon.
Right now that question has taken on a new meaning because we live in Los Angeles and at this moment the city is pretty much on lockdown. My wife and I can normally take my two year old daughter to the beach, shopping or even to see a film, but these choices are affected enormously by the horror movie we are all currently living in. Under normal circumstances anything involving all three of us outside the house doing some sort communal activity would tick the box.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to Flickering Myth today and take care.
The Tax Collector is out now. Read our review here.