The deep, dark well containing religion and faith is one that horror finds itself returning to again and again. Films like The Exorcist, The Omen, The Witch, The Devil’s Doorway and the recent Saint Maud all have roots firmly planted in holy fields. However, despite the plethora of horror films that touch on the subject, very few have ever done so while representing the Jewish faith. In his debut feature film The Vigil, director Keith Thomas set out to change that narrative. Centered around a young man named Yakov (Dave Davis) who has recently left the Orthodox Jewish faith, the film begins as he reluctantly agrees to stand vigil over a recently deceased member of the community. Typically a predictable and quiet affair, things begin to take a sharp turn as Yakov finds himself confronted by memories, guilt and a dangerous, malevolent spirit.
To create the film’s terrifying and emotional soundscape, Thomas called upon the Australian composer Michael Yezerski. Incredibly versatile and experimental, Yezerski’s resume includes projects like The Tax Collector, Blindspotting and horror fave, The Devil’s Candy. With his uncanny ability to juxtapose electronic soundscapes with beautiful, orchestral moments, Yezerski imbues The Vigil with a unique score that defies expectations. Haunting, terrifying and evocative, the sonic world Yezerski creates in The Vigil delivers scares and emotional gut-punches with equal measure and ease. To celebrate the film’s recent release and Lakeshore Records digital release of the soundtrack, I recently sat down (virtually) with Yezerski to talk all about The Vigil, his unique style and so much more. Also, make sure to check out Kimberley Elizabeth’s review of the film, HERE!
“…the general direction really was, create a sound world that scares the shit out of all of us.”
NOFS: The Vigil is such a fantastic film. How did you first get involved with the project?
Michael Yezerski: I got the call from my agent about it, and the way she presented it to me was very simple. She just said, ‘Are you interested in doing a Jewish horror film?’ And I was just like, ‘Yes! 100% yes!’ She asked if I wanted to hear any more about it and I just said, ‘No. Put me in touch with the director.’ (laughs) It was really that easy. Of course, there was the slight pitching process and they had come to me because of The Devil’s Candy so they knew my work, but being Jewish myself, I had never seen a Jewish horror film. Especially one set in the Hasidic community of New York. I wanted to watch this film, let alone score it.
NOFS: It’s pretty amazing that The Vigil is Keith Thomas’ first feature film. Because this was his first feature, I’m curious. What were your initial conversations like with him regarding the film’s musical direction?
MY: He was very collaborative. There wasn’t a set path for the music. The general direction was, and I agreed with it, we have enough (for lack of a better word) Jewish-ness on the screen already. So we don’t need to do a Klezmer score. We don’t need clarinets and violins overtly everywhere. There was a sense that we could be more progressive with the music and situate the film within a more contemporary horror world. And Keith himself is really into post-industrial bands and stuff like that, so we were talking and found we had a shared love of various bands and various artists. He also really responded to The Devil’s Candy score which is more drone-based. So in this, there are some drones in it, but then it kind of takes off from there. It’s a little bit more active. But the general direction really was, create a sound world that scares the shit out of all of us. Right? Not just one particular audience. Make the film as accessible to horror fans everywhere as possible.
NOFS: It definitely works. While the film centers around this Jewish community, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate it. It’s still so scary!
MY: And that was the goal! To basically scare everybody.
NOFS: You mentioned steering away from a traditional Jewish musical sound, but did you manage to sneak in any Jewish influences that people might not realize?
MY: Yeah, of course. (laughs) As composers, we’re going to reach into our bag of tricks. To the extent that we’re allowed to. For example, I’ve been a clarinet player my whole life. Since I was 8. But I didn’t want to put clarinet on this score. So I thought to myself, what if I just put two sections of a clarinet together? A clarinet is five pieces that you put together. You’ve got the bell on the bottom and these different pieces. So I thought, what if I take the mouthpiece and the barrel section? The top two sections. And I was just playing through that and seeing what kind of weird sounds I could make.
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There’s a track called ‘Lair’ on the soundtrack and that’s just me making this distant kind of horn sound that’s digitally treated. So there’s that in one section which is a slight hint towards Jewish-ness. There are also fragments of chants. It’s no chant in particular, but it’s like the idea of a chant is a religious idea. So I was infusing that into the score. I was singing into a microphone and then pitching my voice down three, four, five octaves to get the sense that a monster was coming out of the ground. But doing it by reciting these kind of nonsense syllables that sounded like fragments of something. The idea was to create a sound world that could be religious, that could be liturgical, but that has been broken down over centuries into nothing.
“The idea was to create a sound world that could be religious, that could be liturgical, but that has been broken down over centuries into nothing.”
NOFS: The way composers experiment and use instruments in different ways is so fascinating! The music nerd part of me just loves that stuff.
MY: Oh me too! (laughs) There’s another reason for that as well. There’s a lot of music in the film, there’s a lot of score. And I always think it’s really important that as a listener, as an audience member, where you start is not the place that you end. Both sonically and dramatically. So in all my scores, I want to employ different tricks and sounds the whole way along so we’re not just listening to the same sound palette at minute one that we are and minute ninety. I want things to evolve. And that basically means reaching for different instruments and sound worlds along the way.
NOFS: Your use of melody in the film is really amazing and it helps unpack a lot of the emotional layers to the film. Why did you choose to use melody in this way and how does it fit within the overarching narrative?
MY: There is an element of the film that draws upon recent events in Jewish history, mainly the Holocaust. And that element kind of bubbles up slowly throughout the film, but it’s never overt. So my intention with melody, or something more recognizable as melody, was to connect it to memory. Particularly the memory of loved ones. And I don’t think it’s necessarily just a Jewish thing. This film is about the loss of a loved one, a partner. And I think when you reach the end of your life, there is pain, longing, joy, reflection and hopefully, some hope. To me, nothing would express that more than a heartfelt melody. Amidst all the chaos and the brutality of a horror sound world, injecting it with some humanity seems to be the way to express the heart of the film. That way, when we get to the end of the film, we’re like yes, that film was incredibly scary, but at the same time, I’m walking away with something. It’s not just a thrill ride. There’s something that lingers about this film.
NOFS: The demon in the film has its own very scary, very interesting sound. Talk a little bit about your approach to scoring this entity and how you worked its identity into your music.
MY: I wasn’t sure that I could say the name of the creature, but I saw Keith did in an interview this morning so I guess I can say the name. The Mazzik. When Keith and I talked about this really early on, the creature in whatever form, has some sort of musical signifier. It was going to be very simple, just two notes. Basically, we just found two notes that were a ninth apart, starting high and going low. That descending motion, that kind of classical step down, descending into hell sound. It’s very very simple at it’s core, but it’s quite effective. The sound appears very simply at the beginning. Then I gradually just kept doubling it and adding layers to it. You just keep hearing those two notes again and again through the film. The final time you hear them in the film, its got 10 or 20 layers for those same two notes. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more and more threatening.
“Amidst all the chaos and the brutality of a horror sound world, injecting it with some humanity seems to be the way to express the heart of the film.”
NOFS: Sound design plays such a crucial role in this film, especially when talking about these scarier elements. It also had such an intimate relationship with your score. What was it like working with the sound department on this film? How does their job affect what you do? Or does it?
MY: It very much can and it should. It does. You always want to be aware of what the sound department is doing. In fact, one of the great things about this film was that the sound team was sending me their work in progress as I was working. So they were like, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking for this. Here’s what we’re thinking for that.’ Then I would send a couple of cues back. Of course, once we got to the final mix everything got adjusted around each other. There needed to be, actually, I think in all horror films, there needs to be this incredible marriage of sound and music. Otherwise, it can just sound like a clashing kind of mayhem and it robs the effect you want of its impact.
Everything from the sound of the creature to the sound of the house, all the sound worlds needed to interact and connect. I think the way we really did that was, at least for me in a musical fashion, was to center the music around the lived experience of the characters. Rather than making about what they are actually hearing in the scene or in the moment, or anything that is a reality-based scene, I wanted to express their inner world. If they’re feeling fear or terror or torment, longing, hope, joy or pain, that was my role.
NOFS: You often incorporate both electronic and acoustic instruments into your work, so I wanted to pick your brain about something. Historically, acoustic instruments have generally been associated with humanity while electronic sounds are often relegated to the otherworldly, supernatural or futuristic realms. As our world is becoming increasingly digital, do you ever see this association changing?
MY: That’s a fantastic question. I think that’s one of the best questions I’ve ever had. Now I have to think about how to answer. (laughs) I think a film score reflects the sort of zeitgeist and the fashion of where we are now. And I think where we are right now in musical history is exactly what you said. Acoustic instruments, we do connect them for whatever reason with, let’s say the word organic. Which keeps coming up all the time in music. ‘Can you make it sound more organic?’ Or, ‘This feels really organic.’ Or human even, right? Whereas electronic instruments, even though they were made by humans and played by humans, in exactly the same way, are considered sci-fi or other.
Personally, I’m always trying to bridge that gap. I do think you’re right. There’s a sense that when we hear a violin, it speaks to the audience in a way that feels more immediately emotional than a synth. Now, that may not always be the case. In 50 or 100 years time, there might be this great fondness for early 2000s synth scores or things like that. For me, what I find interesting is blurring the line between them. It’s like, are we listening to a violin? Or are we listening to a synth? Are we listening to a horn? Or are we listening to an analog, distorted whatever? That line where you can’t really tell is where I like to play.
“I think in all horror films, there needs to be this incredible marriage of sound and music.”
NOFS: You’ve scored a lot of different films in a lot of different genres. So I’m curious, what attracts you to a project and gets you to sign on?
MY: It’s a few things. One is the relationship with the director. Someone who I’ve been working with my whole life, or it’s a close friend, or maybe it’s someone who I’ve just met who has a really interesting point of view. Perhaps they’re taking on a subject matter I wouldn’t have been interested in before, but they have such a unique take on it that I end up going, ‘Yes. Of course I’ll go with you on this journey.’ Maybe I’ve never seen or heard of anything like that before.
I don’t particularly like to repeat myself musically so I try to choose projects that, to the extent that I have a choice. I’m always grateful when the phone rings, you know? But to the extent that I have a choice, I always try to choose projects where I think I can bring something unique to it. Or something that I haven’t heard before. And on the other hand, I get really bored. So I like being able to jump between horror films or family films, or gritty sort of urban dramedies. To me it’s the stuff that makes being a film composer really interesting.
NOFS: You’re originally from Australia, but are currently working in Los Angeles. What’s it like working as a composer in Australia and what ultimately brought you to California?
MY: So, I grew up in Australia and my wife and I moved to LA about 7 years ago. I had been scoring films in Australia up to that point. We wanted to come to America to tell stories that were a little bit more universal. That’s really why I came here. It’s funny, because a lot of other Australian producers, writers and directors came with me around the same time. So I ended up working with a lot of the same people that I did in Australia, but now we were making projects for the American market.
There’s a particular quirk of the Australian market because it’s so much smaller. You get to work in so many different genres. You can’t really survive by just working as a comedy composer or a horror composer or a drama composer. You have to be everything because there’s just not as much work. The resume is wider just by necessity. But that also makes you harder to pigeonhole. However, I would say I’m generally attracted to material that explores the darker side of humanity. Whether it’s a darker comedy, horror obviously or things with a little bit of an edge. That’s where I like to work.
The Vigil is currently playing select theaters and is also available on VOD. You can check out more of Michael’s work in the upcoming Starz Blindspotting TV series, his forthcoming score collaboration with jazz trumpet phenomenon Ambrose Akinmusire, or at his website which you can find here. Have you checked out The Vigil? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, and get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.