Michael Yezerski: Scoring The Vigil

Christianity and horror films go together like prom queens and pigs blood, and have been arming priests with holy water and crosses since the genre hit the big screen. 2020’s Saint Maud proved that there’s still life in the concept yet, but what about Judaism-inspired horror movies? The Vigil might be the film to tip the balance.

Michael Yezerski is a night owl. So much so, he’s technically a morning owl. There's not many people that would happily volunteer to be interviewed at 1am, but for this composer, it’s the perfect time to catch him.

“I couldn't think of a better time, at least for me! I'm completely nocturnal, naturally. So this just works,” he insists from his home studio in L.A.

The Australian native usually travels back and forth between L.A. and Sydney, but a certain international pandemic has put a stop to that over the last year.

“I've had studios in L.A. and Sydney running almost concurrently, so working from home was no issue. People just seem a little bit perkier behind their masks now. It's hard to describe, but for the first time in a year, I'm feeling optimistic.”

While many composers grew up in musical households, this was not the case for a young Yezerski. His parents are Russian immigrants who were born in China, moving to Sydney in 1950. Setting up in a new country, they were focussed on vocational pursuits when it came to how they made money.

“Then I came along,” he chuckles. “I was incredibly willful, as I seem to recall. I was going after music at any cost. I remember just coming home from music class in early high school, and starting to write something. My mom came in and was like, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I'm writing music’. It just sort of kept snowballing from there.”

Yezerski is a classically trained composer, studying a formal composition degree at The University of Sydney, then studying audio engineering for a year afterwards. He took to composing film scores “like a duck to water” – his first feature film was The Black Balloon (starring Toni Collette, and winner of eight AFI/AACTA Awards, including Best Picture).

With plenty of experience behind him now, Yezerski brought his signature musical intensity to recent horror film, The Vigil, which follows a young man who is tasked with keeping vigil over a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community, only to be targeted by a malevolent spirit.

It’s fair to say that Yezerski’s haunting score for the festival horror hit stands out as a defining fright-factor in the film (and yes you will find yourself watching from behind a cushion) – but there’s so much more to the film than just scares.

There has hardly ever been a film that explored the dark side of Jewish mysticism.

“This was an immediate yes for me,” recalls Yezerski. “My agent called me and she said, ‘it's a horror-thriller set in the world of the Hasidic community of New York’, and I'm like, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘do you want to hear the rest?’ I said, ‘no, get me a meeting’. I really wanted to do this.

"I read the briefing material they sent me, and the question was posed: why have there been so many horror films that have explored the various denominations of Christianity and demons and devils and everything associated with Christianity, but there has hardly ever been a film that explores the dark side of Jewish mysticism? I'm Jewish myself, so this is exactly the question that I've been asking.”

Despite the sinister subject matter, the film was actually a lot of fun to work on, says Yezerski, stressing how well he got on with director Keith Thomas and producers Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz.

“It was like we had known each other for years – we were telling jokes immediately, and it was an open, collaborative relationship, which led to great work. But the work itself, we take very, very seriously. So while the process of creating this fun and there's some banter, the actual writing is really difficult.

"The material does drain you, because it's not just a horror film, this is a film about grief, loss and the passing of a soul from one life into the next, with someone left behind. It's not just a horror film, it's actually quite a deep, devastating and hopeful film.”

And it’s not just the paranormal element that lends itself so well to a suspenseful and compelling score in this film; what Yezerski found particularly fascinating was the role of memory – both personal and cultural – and how it can be both a blessing and a burden.

“It can be horrific,” he stresses. “One can have horrific memories that one takes through life, especially for one of the protagonists of this film, who carries memories of the Holocaust. The film also explores issues of PTSD and grief, so it’s an exploration of trauma.”

That’s not to say that the film doesn't have its fair share of jump scares.

“I do love jump scares,” he admits. “The Vigil has been called out for some jump scares. But I think they're very necessary to the story that we're telling.”

I put to him that it must be hard to avoid horror movie cliches when composing?

“Yeah, of course. That's the hardest thing about film in general! There's a push-pull between trying to be completely different, and trying to do things in a totally new way. We needed the music to do something specific here, and that’s always the creative tension when you're working as a film composer.

"We want to give the film a unique voice and a unique sound, but at the same time, the music is in service of the film and of the story.

I love horror films that aren't necessarily really tightly scored; there's so many ways to score horror films, it's such a rich tapestry.

“There are times when it needs to do something very, very specific and communicate to the audience in a way that they're familiar with. You know when there's a sound and it's meant to scare the pants off you, there aren't that many ways to get around making a sound that's scary.

"I tried to do it in this film by infusing sounds from the natural world, like jackhammers, explosions and sound design elements mixed in with synths, distorted violins and guitars. So at least when one of these techniques sneaks up on you, it sounds kind of different, hopefully.”

Horror films tend to follow an unspoken rhythm when it comes to the ebb and flow of ramping up tension and scares, followed by a period of some level of respite to ensure the audience doesn’t suffer from fright fatigue, and that the scares land. For Yezerski, it’s all about light and shade.

“One of the ways that we get around what you call fright fatigue is we frighten the audience very, very quickly, and then we move on very, very quickly,” he reveals.

“And like I said, it's a film about grief, trauma, memory, and love, in a funny kind of way. The horror is woven into it, but we don't dwell on it for longer than we need to. There's so much depth in horror as to what you can do.

“My favourite horror films go back to The Shining and Poltergeist, and everything in between,” he shares. “I love horror films that aren't necessarily really tightly scored; there's so many ways to score horror films, it's such a rich tapestry.

"I guess that's what I love about horror films, and dark, edgy films, in general – there's so much creative license to play with musical effects in non traditional ways. It's really fun as a composer.”

Thanks to Steinberg’s Cubase, the frights are reserved entirely for the film in question – Yezerski knows that this is a DAW that he can rely on. He uses his audio engineering background on every job he takes on – it’s interwoven into his compositional process, and he takes each part of the job extremely seriously.

“I don't submit work that doesn't sound good. I don't go, ‘well, this is just a bad demo, but can you imagine it like this?’ Everything that I submit to directors and producers needs to be the best I can possibly make it. I've always used Cubase; I love the programme and it’s my go-to composing DAW. It's the fastest compositional tool that I have.”

For Yezerski, it’s all about the familiarity and that all-important filmic sound.

“I actually love the way it sounds. I've heard people say this before, but I really like the way that the bus routing works – I know it's kind of crazy, but it has a sound to me when you send things to reverb on Cubase. It has a sound that other DAWs don't quite have, and can't replicate. If I set up the same reverb on Logic, it just sounds different to me on Cubase – it sounds wider and fuller.

"There's something about the stereo imaging which I really respond to; Cubase is not only the one that I feel most comfortable with, but it's the one that sounds most filmic to me.

“I find the way that plugins on buses react to their sources on Cubase to just be really smooth and very interesting, and apart from that, just on the technical side, there's so much you can do in this application – particularly if you get under the hood,” he enthuses.

“It'll allow you to do anything; you can completely customise it to your instrument templates, or to any MIDI function you want. Plus, the reliability of Cubase is that it hardly ever crashes. You can bring it out and it's going to sound the same as you left it the day before. When you’ve got a film composer on a crazy deadline, you just need that.”

I note that it’s almost 2am for him now, so I’ll let him crack on with his next project – a new TV series that sees Yezerski collaborating with another composer, which is rare for him.

“There’s nothing really unusual about the 2am hour for me; my best work is done between 10pm to 3am,” he smiles.