Interview with Michael Yezerski

Hailing from Australia with a creative ticket that’s particularly effective for exploring America’s underworld from its black metal prairies to southwestern corporate cannibalism and the crime-ridden big cities, composer Michael Yezerski couldn’t be more fitted to get into the car of unlikely homeboy turned Hollywood shot caller David Ayer. Born in the Midwest and ending up spending his youth on the streets of South Central LA, Ayer brought a believable grit to his particular brand of crime stories from his script for “Training Day” to such transfixingly nihilistic hood-driven films as “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and “End of Watch.” 

Now after bigger, way flashier Hollywood fare, Ayer is thankfully back riding shotgun on the kind of hard-hitting, yet insanely stylistic street hood films. It’s a badge of authority that gets his Benjamins back with an exhilaratingly nasty bang in “The Tax Collector.” Hearkening to such the distinctive crime lord rise-and-hard fall films as “The Long Good Friday” and “Scarface” (though with no small amount of Ayer’s delightfully lurid “Suicide Squad” comic book flash) the writer-director sets up top-of-the-world Mexican drug lord David (Bobby Soto) and his Jewish gangsta bff Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) for the big fall. Every day, David leaves his sunny high-end house to check off his list in the ghetto, gathering his organization’s dues with an air of invincibility. But when the decidedly less upscale, black magic worshipping Conejo (singer Jose Conejo Martin) returns from south of the border to claim David’s territory, gang war erupts in a way that shows David and Creeper that they’re far from the kings of their world.

It’s a transfixing, defiant fall to hell given Yezerski’s mesmerizing, guitar and percussion powered score that nevertheless gives vocal sympathy, and dare I say tenderness, to David’s devil. Capturing the club and street beats that surround the characters, as sent through a mix of inner guilt, lethally religious family allegiance and an unbreakable criminal blood line, Yezerski’s drive on the dark side hauntingly takes David’s life apart while delivering the bloodlust throb that makes for Ayer’s Peckinpah-like comeback. Simmering for more than half of the film, it’s the kind of deceptive scoring that lays sinisterly low on the soundtrack, only to emerge like a dues-demanding beast in a way that pays “The Tax Collector” with tension, ethnic identity and lethal compulsion to spare as it demands David’s moral dues. 

Yet Yezerski is far more of an Aussie good-humored guy than what his more twisted series detours as “Bite Club,” “Wolf Creek” and “Deputy” might suggest amidst his way sunnier stuff like “Mental,” “The Honor List” and “Feel the Beat.” With numerous credits back home and in LA, such urban-themed features as “Blindspotting” and “The Tax Collector” continue to level up for Yezerski in Hollywood notoriety, perhaps even more so now in a locked-down nation channeling its pent-up aggression into The Bad Guy they particularly love. It’s an American anti-success story heard through the underbelly of Yezerski’s propulsive, sinisterly atmospheric score for “The Tax Collector,” one that delights in paying the price for its moral bankruptcy alongside Ayer’s brutally believable and thrilling way with the genre. 

Tell us about your musical background in Australia, and what brought you to scoring in Hollywood?

Australia has a small and rather competitive film industry so in order to survive, you have to be able to score pretty much everything, and do it really well – horror, comedy and everything in between. In some ways, working in the Australian industry is the best apprenticeship there is. 

Because of where and who we are, we were exposed to a wide range of musical influences and that for me meant the film music of Takemitsu, Morricone, John Williams and beyond. So, I’m someone who is relatively comfortable bouncing around between styles, as long as I can find my own way into them without sacrificing that sense of self. Hollywood was an inevitable choice for me due to my love of the big story, the grand canvas. I grew up on American films and I wanted to be a part of stories that transcend cultures and continents. 

Before “Tax Collector,” you scored the surreal urban dramedy “Blindspotting,” which now is in development for a tv series at Starz. Could you talk about that project?

“Blindspotting” is a very special film. I still pinch myself that I was lucky enough to have played a small role in it. It has only grown in stature and relevance since its initial release two years ago. Rafael and Daveed’s writing was eerily prophetic. The events of the last few months have borne that out. 

Daveed and Rafael knew exactly what they wanted musically. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth about the brief, or vague terms about how to best represent their vision because they are both musicians and they can very easily explain their desires in musical terms. Sometimes that can be limiting for a composer, but not in this case. Everything was so well thought out, so considered, that our instincts were pretty much aligned from the start. The music had to start out light-hearted in a way, absorbing the sounds and stylings of the Town. Gradually, almost by a sleight of hand, that lightness distracts your attention from the dread and terror that begins to creep in. The music itself never gets really dark per se, but melodies give way to textures and traditional instruments slowly give way to sound designed and musique concrete elements. 

How did you come to score “The Tax Collector?”

My good friend (and music editor extraordinaire) Bryan Lawson, mentioned to me that David Ayer was looking for a new sound for his new movie. He had a couple of references to share but they weren’t score references exactly; they were songs that captured something of what he was looking for. I can’t actually remember now what the titles were. I do recall thinking that I knew exactly what David meant though. The references spoke to me in a way. I recognized something in them. I knew that I wanted my demos to be quite songlike, recreating in a film score idiom, the feeling that I got from the songs. I actually sang… well, hummed, on the recordings. I multitracked my voice (lots of reverb!) and it created the kind of effect I was looking for. I hadn’t seen a frame when I wrote them but the melodies from those original demos survived and feature in the final score. 

Do you think you have a particular talent for dark, and often violent subject matter, whether it’s utterly bleak in “The Devil’s Candy” or humorous in “Corporate Animals?” And what’s it like for you to psychologically plunge into these worlds? 

I do feel a natural affinity towards dark or perhaps “darkly emotional” subject matter. I’m always interested in the inner journeys of characters, rather than what you necessarily see on the surface. I guess that’s film scoring 101, but I try and apply that in different ways. “The Devil’s Candy” was bleak and relentless but my access point to the music was seeing how beautiful I could make those drones sound. Yes, they were messy, atonal, a-musical even. But within that linguistic framework could they also be beautiful? Could the layering of sounds amount to something rich and unexpected? Could the sound of a bow ill-advisedly hitting the wood of the violin or the scrape of a string be perfectly recorded and float effortlessly above a river of droning mayhem? That’s kinda how my brain works. 

“Corporate Animals” was harder because the characters are all such a#*holes, so I focused on the incredible landscape of New Mexico as my guide. Patrick and I used to muse that the music was mother nature taking its revenge on these idiots. The strings at times let out these bellowing earth cries. We found great pleasure in that. So I guess whilst I take the work very seriously, it does not affect me psychologically. My greatest anxiety is always “will the director and producers like it”? Having said that, Michael Ware’s “Only the Dead See the End of War” for HBO, was very difficult to score. It’s probably the only time that I have taken the work out of the studio with me. Despite all that, I did just finish “Feel the Beat” for Netflix which is not dark in any way, shape or form. It did allow me to write some highly emotive pieces though.

What was your collaboration with David Ayer like? And do you think his “street” background makes his films more authentic than most in the genre?

David Ayer is a visionary in every sense. His approach to the art is not only visually arresting, but he brings an authenticity and depth of character to the screen that few can match. I think he is one of the greatest world builders in the industry today. 

Now what does that mean for a composer? On the question of authenticity, my only focus is whether or not I am being authentic to his characters and his vision. David was looking for a humanistic score, a sound that would play against the violence and crack open the characters’ souls for the audience to see. He was always very clear with me with what he wanted. He pointed out elements of the world that I had perhaps missed in the way that I spotted the cues – smaller interactions between the characters, power plays at work, looks, sideways glances and the like. A very specific body language that I was unfamiliar with. And yes of course there are times when the score has to be more action-focused and even more traditional in a way. But these moments are not where the heart of the score lies. It was a really easy and fluid collaboration and a lot of fun.

“The Tax Collector” takes mainstream audiences deep into a kind of urban world that they really haven’t experienced since “Training Day,” which David wrote. What’s it like for you to be submerged in this culture?

I think that when you work on or watch a David Ayer film, you have in him a great guide. He knows these worlds that he creates. He knows these characters. As an audience member, you feel at once familiar with these protagonists despite surroundings that may be alien to most viewers and that is the genius of Ayer’s work. As the composer for one of his projects, you then have to ask, how do I stay faithful to the vision? How do I reveal exactly what Ayer wants to reveal? How do I draw out the audience’s emotions in an exacting way? For me, it’s not so much about submerging myself in the culture, but rather, submerging myself in the vision and the expectations of a great storyteller.

Given that David is set up as a bad ass who thinks nothing of terrorizing people, how important, and difficult was it for the score to give him sympathy?

I think it’s important to point out here that the main character’s name is also David! So that’s interesting because I don’t see him that way. To me, he’s a survivalist. He has buried that empathy down deep to survive in this world, but we see hints of it in the film. And the score tells you that it’s there. That’s its role – not to directly generate sympathy (that’s hopefully a side effect) but to hint at David’s empathy. Ultimately, he’s a family man and he will stop at nothing to protect his kin.  

How did you want to set up David’s dual life between an upscale, sunny family home and the urban areas he collects from?

Well, David’s journey progresses quickly and with great fluidity from one setting to the next, so I didn’t feel it necessary to delineate them musically. Rather, I was following for the greater story arc for David and the trials to come. 

Did you want to use voice to convey the religious sense of family for both kin, and homies?

The vocal element is the humanity in David’s character. At the same time, it also represents the converse in the Conejo character. Whereas I hummed recognizable melodies for David and his family, I created vocal textures and pitched them down four octaves for Conejo. And yes, there are religious overtones in both treatments of the voice. But the religiosity was not the primary intention of the vocal element – that was accessibility and relatability. It’s one of those nice intersections though – it’s a very welcome overtone. The sound of Conejo comes up through the ground, out of the fire (at least in my mind anyways). 

How Latin did you want to make the score, especially when it comes to its use of the guitar?

Again, the Latin influence, whilst present, was not my primary intention. I was looking for something that had its roots in contemporary folk music (which is a storytelling medium). I knew that I wanted a guitar and a vocal element because they are the root sounds of all popular music today. Once those primary colors were established, I could allow other influences to creep in but they had to be subtle. 

When you hear a finger on a guitar string, it’s a sound and a feeling that, for me, cannot be replicated by any sample library. And clearly the same with a vocal. What we recognize as human are all the tiny mistakes and imperfections from intonation to articulation. No computer can capture these things (at least not right now). So it’s the humanity of the sound that was important for me to find. The whole score is built from a single guitar and a vocal line. 

Did you want to incorporate the rhythmic idea of the songs that these characters would be listening to?

I did use beats in the score at a couple of moments. These were moments when the emotion of the scenes spilled over into action. The beats propelled the frenzied nature of the characters’ responses to situations. And guitars of course have a rhythmic function to them that can feel very songlike.

What did you think of the score pretty much being held back until the final third of the film, and do you think that makes its “real” entrance more powerful?

I guess it depends on what you mean by “held back”. Perhaps the score is not at the very forefront of the audience’s attention for the first half of the film, however, I’d argue that it plays a vital, if subdued role. All the DNA for the second half is present in the first half. The relentless pulsing drones, the asymmetrical string ostinato, fragments of guitar and voice, subliminally enhance the world of the film without perhaps the grand statement that you are talking about. That happens later on and is definitely by design, although that design is not my own. It’s structural. As composers, we must always be reactive to, rather than predictive of narrative structure. There are a couple of key moments about halfway through this film that necessitate a big statement of the musical score, but I won’t give them away!

How did you want the music to convey the panic and constant menace of David’s world falling apart?

I tried to react rather than to predict with this film. There are a number of “wtf” moments in this film and I was concerned that playing constant menace would in a way have a predictive effect. So instead, I tried to state David’s theme as much as I could, and have it constantly and rudely interrupted by characters and situations that unfold. Once something happened, I had the score react to it through a series of “quickenings” (pulses, heartbeats, ostinati etc.). 

“The Tax Collector” is both gritty, and also surreally stylized, especially when contrasting street gangs with its beyond evil, witchcraft-worshipping villains whose femme fatales are decked out like comic book assassins. How did you want to play both approaches?

I wanted to have the score simply react without commenting on the crazy shit that happens in the film. David is thrust into a situation that he cannot see coming and cannot control. I guess I just didn’t want the score to overwhelm the action in any way. I wanted it to sit just below the events on screen – ever present and driving but never suggesting that we are in any place other than reality. The world is real. The dangers are mortal and very real. I never wanted the score to feel stylized.

Tell us about the score’s instrumentation, and gear.

Lots of layering of guitar textures and vocals. Some of it was traditional, other parts more sound design based (but all generated from vocals and live guitars). I added synths, percussion and sweetened it with a few live string parts. 

Crime movies like “The Tax Collector” give the audience a vicarious sense of enjoyment but end up with a downbeat moral message. How would you say your music plays into adding up to that big price to pay for David and his family?

Most operas have a downbeat moral message despite the beauty achieved along the way. I always thought that TC felt very operatic within its grittiness. The score swells up when it needs to and provides that emotional underpinning, even in the bleakest and most violent moments in the film. It serves to contrast those moments by reminding us to focus our attention on David at every point in his journey. I want the audience to feel a real and palpable sense of cathartic relief at the end. To achieve that, I had to get pretty big at times, but it’s not a traditional action sound, it’s more elongated, more tonal, more melodic.

You’d also scored the Fox series “Deputy.” What was that experience like, and what how do you think the BLM movement will change cop shows?

I am very proud of the work that we all did on “Deputy.” Kim Harrison took the story in a wonderful direction and it was very much ahead of its time politically. I would have loved to see their take on and response to the events of 2020. In terms of the larger picture, I feel that it’s not really for me to make predictions other than to say that this is a fantastic and long overdue conversation to have. I’m excited to see where it lands and to react musically to the new paradigm!

How do you think “mob” scoring has evolved from such “Tax Collector” ancestors like “The Long Good Friday” and “Scarface” to the point we are now with projects like “Narcos” and where do you think it’s headed?

Well, it’s flattering to be placed in that company. Thank you. I still think it’s going to come down to the aesthetic choices made by the filmmaking teams. I mean “Narcos” is close to “The Tax Collector” because both approaches are humanistic and melodic. “Scarface also has strong melodies. The show “Breaking Bad” however trods a less traditional musical path that is no less effective. 

How has your “seclusion” been, and do you think this “new normal” makes it easier for hybrid composers like yourself?

You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Morricone would write music at his desk, removed of all musical technologies (including the piano!) and still managed to push many boundaries using only his imagination. I’ve always been quite frugal when it comes to studio gear. I have a very basic setup. Under the present circumstances, I think that has become advantageous. If you think about it, all composers really need is the idea and the technique to pull it off. The idea governs everything. I don’t think anyone knows what our industry will look like in a year’s time. One thing for sure is that we all have to be extremely agile moving forward.

“The Tax Collector” is now on VOD and in Drive-Ins from RLJE Films.  

Get Michael Yezersk’s score for “The Tax Collector” HERE

Listen to Michael Yezerski’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Michael Yezerski’s web site HERE