Composer Michael Yezerski on Scoring “Pickman’s Model” for ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ [Interview]

Cabinet of Curiosities Pickman's Model

Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to deliver a genuinely delectable horror anthology with his new, curated Netflix series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Featuring an array of fantastical and spooky tales (two penned by del Toro himself), each of the series’ eight one-hour-long episodes fit snugly alongside the Oscar-winner’s filmography. This time, however, he traded in his director’s cap for a horror host hat. Embracing his role as a certifiable horror icon, del Toro is instead using this platform to elevate the voices and talents of others. 

One of the lucky directors chosen to participate by del Toro was Keith Thomas. After quickly garnering fans with his haunting debut feature, The Vigil, Thomas’ knack for intimate storytelling made him a perfect fit for “Pickman’s Model.” Starring Crispin Glover and Ben Barnes as two curiously entwined artists, “Pickman’s Model” is based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Less than ten pages long, the source material’s brevity allowed Thomas room to explore and expand upon the underlying themes and ideas buried between the words. 

To help navigate the emotional and psychological complexities innate in the story, Thomas called upon his friend and The Vigil collaborator, Australian composer Michael Yezerski. Highly motivated by character and narrative, every creative decision Yezerski makes feels wrapped in meaning. Every note, every melodic line, every interval and shift in volume or tone carries purpose and depth. Even with a diverse resume of projects that include The Devil’s Candy, The Tax Collector, and Blindspotting, each score feels highly tailored but undeniably his. 

For “Pickman’s Model” this approach serves the story remarkably well. Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, psychological and cosmic horrors abound and are difficult to capture and convey. However, by reuniting with Yezerski, Thomas tapped into the power of music to help sell and communicate the ideas of evil, artistic frustration, beauty, and horror innate within the text. Dread Central recently had the privilege of speaking with Yezerski to peel back the layers of his process, approach, and fascinating “Pickman’s Model” score. 

Dread Central: You reunited with director Keith Thomas on this after working with him on The Vigil. What was it like working with him again, and how did he approach you for this new project? 

Michael Yezerski: It was like working with an old friend. I mean, it is working with an old friend! [Laughs] Keith and I just had this kind of unspoken language. He actually said to me at the end, “Michael, with you, I don’t need to actually give you any direction. You just know what to do and what my films are about.” That’s kind of the highest compliment a director can give you, you know? When you’re just completely in sync storywise. And honestly, it felt like that from the first frame. 

He called me from Toronto and said, “You know, we weren’t able to hire you on Firestarter, but I have this other thing. Are you interested?” Before he even told me what it was, I was like, “Yes. Tell me more.” And then he began to tell me, and I’m like, “Oh my god. Wait, what!? Dream project.” 

It was really from frame one that I saw Keith as an artist. In the sense of like, I know his work, his storytelling style, the way he constructs narratives, the way he constructs shots and performances. The great thing about working with a director with whom you’ve had such a close working relationship in the past is that you really are just sliding back into that rhythm and flow. And that’s definitely what it was like. 

DC: “Pickman’s Model” is a Lovecraft story, and there are so many ways to interpret and present these stories. When and how did you two discuss the musical direction for this interpretation?

MY: He reached out just before filming. He was telling me about it, and he was mentioning it was a period thing, but that [it had] lots of steampunk elements. We wanted it to have an edge to it and didn’t just want “period”. We wanted period…not contemporary looking back, but found sounds and sounds that many have come from the world to give it that more horrific edge rather than just a beautiful score that descends. [Also we wanted] to give it some of that hard-edged, in-your-face horror music that hurts you a little bit. 

DC: Ok, you just said found sounds which are always exciting. Can you elaborate on that and reveal any of the interesting things you used on this score?

MY: Found sounds in, like, using bits of metal and concrete as percussion and things like that. That’s what we did in The Vigil. On this one, I was actually using electricity and electrical sounds. Also we had kind of an interesting ensemble. We had live strings, which I divided up. We had 16 players, which we recorded in Budapest. Then we also had a string quartet out in front of them. So the string quartet, I sort of think of it as the sound of decay. We put the string quartet through all these delay units and effects. So there’s the bigger ensemble, the string quartet, and then we surrounded it with electricity, synth sounds, and some really weird guttural, bowing sounds. 

DC: I’d like to discuss the strings a bit more, as they are beautifully active. There’s also an exciting duality to them. Did the characters or story directly influence your decision to write the strings that way?

MY: I think what you’re picking up on is, when you’re talking about the duality, the string quartet versus the larger string section. It stays out in the front, almost like a soloist playing a concerto. They’re out front doing their own thing in opposition to the long notes, pads, and textures that are going on behind it. I wanted to give the sense that the string quartet is basically anxiety transposed musically. We put it through delays and all kinds of digital garbage to make it sound like a sort of hyper version of a string quartet. It’s right out front and should be almost like a mosquito just getting at you. 

I think what appealed to me about the story is that it’s not just horror; it’s also about artistic anxiety. It’s something that I can certainly relate to, as I’m sure you can too. I’m sure anyone with an artistic bent can. It’s like seeing your own creation or perhaps being confronted with the mortality of your own creation. That’s kind of a deep theme for me. So I think [I was] trying to tap into that internal anxiety about the work that we do, which is actually presented on the screen. 

DC: The way Keith presents that idea is intriguing. In fact, there isn’t a villain for most of this episode, and the horror is more psychological than anything. Did that “horror ambiguity” impact your music? Did it make your job easier? Or more difficult?

MY: Actually, the hardest thing to score was the climax. Without giving anything away, that, to me, is where everything got laid bare and revealed. But up until that point, we’re dealing with this kind of hidden or internal enemy. The enemy is Ben Barnes’ character turning on himself. Is it his jealousy and his rage? Or is it actually this external factor? You don’t know. That was this fantastic line that I just love playing with. 

So, where does this anxiety come from? It’s kind of hard to pinpoint, and that’s very appealing to me as a composer, When you’re dealing not in black and white, but you’re somewhere in the middle. In the grays is where I kind of want to be and especially with this story. Then, of course, when we got to the end, we could actually go into full-on horror. But we were allowed to hold back on that. 

DC: There’s also this great recurring question of beauty versus horror and whether the two are one and the same. Musically, this becomes very interesting thanks to your decision to feature strings so prominently.  

MY: The period thing was an interesting challenge because even the sort of gothic horror period scores are actually quite beautiful, you know? So it’s, “How do we infuse ugliness into our period score?” That was the fun challenge of this project. 

I think I’ve told you before, but my favorite musical medium to write for is strings. I just think the most diverse palette that a composer has is a string section. Like, if you deny me the rest of the orchestra, I’ll be happy if you just give me strings. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter what the project is. 

I mean, we all know the sound of a child learning violin for the first time. It’s a difficult, nails-down-the-blackboard kind of sound. And that sound is still in the string arsenal even when you get really good. In a film like this, we can tap into a little bit of that, the “learning to play” sound. We can play around with tunings. We can play around with things that are absolutely locked together in time or slightly out of time, slightly out of phase, so that you’re giving the impression that things are subtly falling apart. There’s just so much that you can do with a section. 

We also chose to have a smaller section. We went for 16 strings rather than, say, 60. Part of that was budget related, but also, I probably would’ve made the same choice. Because 16 strings, a chamber orchestra, it’s a much more claustrophobic sound. It’s not lush. You definitely feel like you’re in the room with them. I always think with 16 strings you can hear the room around the strings a lot more. You can hear them playing in a room, and I think that was just the right choice for this claustrophobic film. 

DC: The William Thurber character at the heart of this story is quite interesting. We not only meet him in two different periods, but we also get to know him pre-Pickman and post-Pickman. How did you interpret or encapsulate those changes with the music?

MY: It’s definitely the experience of going from the exuberance of youth, the promise of an artistic career [with] your whole life ahead of you to realizing that you’re not as talented as another student. And I think that’s a journey that many media artists go on. It’s the Mozart-Salieri thing. At some point, you get confronted with somebody who’s better than you. Do you choose to retreat from your career? Or do you choose to keep pursuing [it] no matter what? He basically chose to retreat. 

So on the other side of the hump, as you say, is sadness. And yes, there is terror. At one level, you could say he’s haunted by Pickman. But on the other level, I think he’s haunted by his own failures. And I think the music reflects that. It becomes, apart from the terror and horror bits, slow. It’s sad, and it’s mournful. It’s deep. To me, it’s about memory. 

DC: Each one of these Cabinet of Curiosities episodes feels like a feature-length movie. Since this is an anthology series, how aware were you and Keith of what everyone else was doing? Was there any communication between the different creative teams? 

MY: Amazingly, not really. It was siloed, and I think that worked out pretty well. We trusted Guillermo to be the leader. And he was. My contact was Keith and Miles [Dale], but Guillermo was the artistic director of the whole project. From our perspective, I saw my role as purely to tell the “Pickman” story. I really wasn’t even thinking about the other episodes of Cabinet of Curiosities

And now, finally getting to see them and seeing how they all link up in these little ways, it’s like, “Oh. Well, that’s brilliant.” And also, “Gee, I’m really glad that we went in that direction because now there’s a thematic through line.” It all kind of fits together.

I think we were one of the first episodes to complete, mix, and record. Although, we kept tinkering a little bit because we recorded this back in February. I think that also meant that we had a lot less contact with the other teams.  

DC: You know, Cabinet of Curiosities has a pretty stacked cast of directors, actors, composers, etc. Maybe it’s better that everyone was left to their own devices. 

MY: [Laughs] It also really speaks to how much free reign we were given. I don’t think Keith or I ever really felt any kind of editorial influence from anyone. It was just like, “Tell the story you need to tell.” And, I think Keith, in particular…I mean, I can’t speak for him, but I got the impression that this was the film that he wanted to make in pretty much every way. I think that speaks volumes about the collaborative nature of the production and of Guillermo’s leadership. 

DC: Oh, gosh. I can only imagine. What an icon. While we’re on the subject of icons, Crispin Glover is absolutely perfect as Richard Pickman. What was it like scoring around his performance and for his character? Any chance you got to meet him?

MY: [Laughs] No, I didn’t get to meet him. I always just saw his character as — and I was purely approaching it from the music school aspect, which is my own history — but I just saw him as this effortless genius. Yes, he’s haunted, and we get to know his inner traumas as the film goes on. But I think it’s that thing where, even in society today, you look at great artists, and maybe they die young, or they experience trauma, and they talk about it, and you’re like, “Wow. You’re so successful. You’re so good at what you do. I had no idea any of that was going on.” I sort of put him in that category as a character. 

He would produce this work that was gruesome but it’s also brilliant. It’s ahead of its time. It changes the medium that he’s working with, and it starts to create a fuss. And I just thought about it from Ben’s character’s angle. Not only would it be, “Have you given up on your own career?” Probably because of him, but then he continues to be in your life, haunting you in reality rather than in the meta-reality. That’s how I approached him — a constant thorn in the side.

DC: Have you ever had a piece of art, whether it be a painting, book, or music, stick with you like that? Not necessarily in a bad or dark way, but make a profound impact on you?

MY: That’s a hard question. There have been so many things in my career that have changed the work that I do. I’ve always been more of a complex composer. I would describe myself as somebody who’s been more drawn to fascinatingly complex sounds, starting with [Olivier] Messiaen and moving forward to [Iannis] Xenakis. And, you hear a little bit of the Xenakis influence on this score, I think. 

But lately, it’s almost like the thing that’s challenging me as a composer is music that’s a lot more simple. It could be the minimalist composers of the 50s like Glass or Reich, and the extensions of them, of course. Now there are lots of composers [like that]. Max Richter would be one of them or Jóhann Jóhannsson. People whose music is so simple, but you just can’t shake it. That’s the thing that I’m finding myself drawn to as I move through the career. Now it’s like, “Oh my God. That’s so effective. And they’ve done that in two notes.” You know? And I’m like, “Why? Why is that so amazing?” 

My training was looking at these beautiful scores where there are a million notes on the page just going crazy. Like, that’s the “true art.” And now it’s more like, “Well, yeah. You could do that. Or you could just have the perfect two notes or the ideal interval that solves everything.” That’s really hard to come up with. 

DC: Or you could be like John Cage and just do nothing for 4’33”.

MY: Which is fine if you’re the first one to do that! The second person to do that…meh. [Laughs] But that’s the other thing, of course, as a composer, you’re always looking for new ways to express ideas and express sounds. And when somebody has done it in a way that’s kind of perfect, it changes the way you compose. Not that you would ever copy them, it’s more like a glitch in the matrix or something. It’s like, “Hang on a second. How did that happen” You know, “Why is that piece so effective and so powerful as a piece of music? Or a piece of film music?” Like, “Why can you take that one piece and put it in almost every film, and it’ll work?” Because temps come up, and you say, “Oh. They’re using that piece again. And they’re using that piece again.” And it’s like, “Why?”

DC: Well, at least you’re not like Thurber. It sounds like you’re allowing the art to challenge and influence you rather than allowing it to destroy you. So I think you might have survived an encounter with Pickman. 

MY: [Laughs] There’s a painter I came across named Jonas Wood. He’s a contemporary painter, and he paints, on the face of it, the most simple shapes and colors and things. Honestly, I’ve just encountered his work in the last month. It’s the most simple shapes like a basketball, a kitchen scene, mountains, windows, plants, and normal suburban settings. But the way he puts it together on canvas, you stand back, and you’re like, “That’s amazing.” When you break it down, it’s really simple, but when you put it all together, it has a point of view. And to me, that is the goal. I’m not saying to be like him or do what he does in any way or in a musical way because everyone has a different aesthetic. But to actually put something together in a way that doesn’t sound like anybody else, but not in a way to be challenging, it just works; that’s the highest of aspirations. 

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix. You can also stream Yezerski’s music from “Pickman’s Model” along with the entire series soundtrack via Lakeshore Records on all major streaming platforms. 

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