After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, critics and audiences alike have embraced another independent film set in the gentrified locale that is Oakland, California. “Blindspotting” currently enjoys a 93% Rotten Tomatoes score and an 89% audience score. The brain child of writers/stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal has earned over $3 million nationwide on just 500 screens, and Film Twitter continues to sing the praises of this remarkable work.
The other day, I had the opportunity to talk with composer Michael Yezerski. The Australian-born composer studied orchestral and film composition in his native Australia. He has worked on many different types of projects including shorts, features, and television. In our conversation, he discussed the joy it was to work with Diggs and Casal, as well as the producers, Jessica Calder and Keith Calder, and director Carlos Lopez Estrada.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: It’s been kind of a big year with “Blindspotting,” hasn’t it?
Michael Yezerski: It’s been, you know, non stop. It sort of started I guess when I was hired in late November. And just seeing the way the film has built to this point has been exciting. When I first started scoring it… none of us knew what it was going to be. We knew it was going to Sundance which was exciting, and then it just kind of took off from there.
KP: Okay, I have to back up. You weren’t hired until November and it screened at Sundance in January.
MY: (Laughs) Well, it’s just…that’s not unusual in the film composing world. It’s not unusual to be hired late. I actually thrive on really tight deadlines. And I worked with the producers, Keith and Jess on a film called “The Devil’s Candy” and we were trying to get that finished in time for the Toronto Film Festival. I had to turn that over super fast as well. So I think when this came up they called me and they were like “We’ve got another job for you, it’s gonna be really fast.”
KP: I’m curious, being that you’re not from Oakland and it’s very much…I mean, Oakland is very much a character in the film–
KP: And being that you’re not from Oakland, how did you prepare? How did you get to know the city so you could bring out those elements like the trains and the different sounds of the city?
MY: I had two incredible spirit guides with me, which were Daveed and Rafael… It was sort of like a crash course in Oakland music and the sounds of the city. And the thing that made it easier is all of the source music were from Oakland artists. So immediately I had a framework to balance against. But what I realized when I first was hired, I did some deep dive into Oakland and the sound of Oakland and the music of Oakland. Suddenly I realized that all the artists who I’ve been listening to my whole life are from Oakland… There is such a rich musical history in that city. Artists I never even knew came from there. Growing up in Australia I played in jazz bands and, without ever knowing it, that kind of music was in my life.
And then on the film it was much more guided by Daveed and Raf. It was ‘No, no this is the sound we’re going for. That kind of horn writing, that kind of drum.’ That, to them, was the sound of the city. And so it was sort of navigating these kind of series of musical adjustments to get this down right. And on top of that they actually picked my band for me. Normally on a film that doesn’t happen. Normally the composer does their sort of musical casting. But on this one, they were like ‘We’d love you to use Justin Timberlake’s horn section. They’re incredible, they’re called The Regiment Horns and they’re from Oakland.’ And I’m like ‘Great!’ And ‘Hamilton’ was playing in LA at the end of last year and I met the drummer at ‘Hamilton,’ who’s John Mader and they were like, ‘We’ve just met this drummer and and he’s from Oakland too and he’s amazing and he’s in ‘Hamilton.’ So use him.’ And I was like ‘Of course I”m gonna use him!’ So you know it was an Oakland collective that we put together.
KP: And it really does come through… The score really does help drive the story and you have such different styles throughout, but it all fits together to really help tell this story of Oakland. For you, as you’re preparing to do a project like this, did you read the script first or is it based on what you’re seeing of the finished film?
MY: Because it was so late I had the locked picture to work with. Even though the music was a totally open canvas, not having been decided. The pictures were locked. And the pictures were absolutely incredible. Carlos did the most phenomenal job with the way the film looked. And of course the performances, Daveed and Rafael, were beyond extraordinary. So I think seeing those two things were incredibly inspiring.
As a composer, whenever you have that kind of material—and it’s only happened to me a couple of times in my career where you have material that great to work with—it’s actually really, really inspiring. And so you want to reach that sort of next creative level. You don’t just take the first idea you come up with. It might be the seventh or the eighth or the thirteenth. You know, you’re looking for better and better. And it’s also the way the producers worked. They very much had the philosophy of ‘That’s one way of looking at it, but how can we make it better? Is this the best we can do? Is this the most cogent representation of our story on every level, including music?’
But in terms of the shifting landscape, you’re right the score in the first act is more of the band sound, the horns and the funk. It’s a little bit brighter. And then gradually I just start stripping layers away until it becomes more and more psychological and traumatic until we build it up at the end. And that was obviously a key role is that the score really had to track the emotional journey in the film.
KP: And it really did. There were some pieces of music that were just so beautiful. It was almost surprising in a film with this style. It was interesting to hear some pieces that were just so moving. But it was great and it really did complete it.
MY: And I think that’s what the film is. I think the film is surprising and the music can react to it. I think if the film didn’t create the space for music to be beautiful, to be unexpected, to be surprising, the score would have been completely wrong. It’s the fact that the film changes gears so effortlessly. In a way I had to just keep up. We’re changing quickly, let’s move!
And it’s interesting because one of the key score cues is the title cue, called ‘Blindspotting.’ And that came about because the producer, I won’t spoil the scene, but when the producer heard one of the sounds that I’d had on an earlier cue, he just said, ‘Well, can you take that sound and make a cue out of it?’ And that was the kind of sort of creative discussions I was having with all five, with Carlos and Daveed, Raf, Jess, and Keith. That it would be sort of this back and forth. And so that one sound, this recurring keyboard, became one of the most poignant sort of cues in the film showing that key relationship between Collin and Val.
KP: I’d like to know a little bit more about you and your experiences. How did you get into composing for films?
MY: It’s funny. The first time it popped into my head was…I think it was a screening of ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. ‘I was 7 or 8, so it must have been a rerun or something. But I was walking out of the theater and my dad actually said to me—I’d only just started playing music, I hadn’t been composing—and I remember my dad saying to me, ‘Wasn’t the music fantastic in this film? You could do that.’ And I had forgotten about that for many, many years.
I started composing music when I was 13, I had played since I was 7 or 8. Then I got to university and did a very formal classical concert music degree. It left me wanting a little bit. I guess the career of the solitary writer was something that, on the one hand I really wanted, but on the other hand I did want the interaction with people. And that sort of quote from my dad popped back in my head.
There was a film course starting at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School and they were offering screen music for the first time. And as soon as I got to film school, that’s when I met my people. And these are people I still work with today. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles and I still work with the people I knew in Australia who have also moved here. And the world of film is a pretty small world. The systems and processes are the same. You’re collaborating with people, you’re throwing around ideas. It’s exciting and it’s dangerous and you know, it’s uplifting and it’s one of those incredible roller coasters, working on a film and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
KP: It’s so great when you find what you really love to do and people let you and they hire you to do it.
MY: (Laughs) Right!
KP: How many instruments do you play?
MY: (Laughs) It’s interesting. Normally I say sort of tongue-in-cheek but it’s the truth. I play only one instrument and that’s the computer. Because the technology, of course, is such that it allows you to dabble in every instrument by mastering one, so long as you have a basic knowledge of orchestration and music all the same. But my main instrument growing up was the clarinet. I was a piano player, and when I was in bands and stuff I was a keyboard player. But nowadays it really is the gateway to musical imagination, is the computer. And so that’s sort of a boring answer but it’s also kind of an amazing answer.
KP: It really is amazing what we can do with computers now and they are magical.
MY: The only thing is, it is possible to get overtaken by the technology. You have to retain your artistic voice and you have to stay independent of the machine, but it certainly is a great tool.
KP: True. So of course we know the John Williams’ and the Hans Zimmers and the sort of marquis composers, but who are some others that you really draw inspiration from?
MY: There have been many. I tend to love certain scores by certain composers at a time. And I think it’s often the nature of the work is that you’re drawn to certain films by certain people rather than the careers. Because particularly in media music, a composer’s career is going to jump around and there are things you’re going to love and things you’re gonna be like, ‘That wasn’t really my taste.’ There are cues from Ennio Morricone that I quite adore. Thomas Newman is someone who has been very influential on me early in the career. And then there are other people like, for example, my own composition teacher Ross Edwards whose music has had a great impact. Like I said, some of the artists I grew up listening to.
It’s kind of a mixed answer, but in a way that’s what is so important about being a media composer. You need to draw on inspiration from people in the field who are doing unique and genre-bending work. People who are really sort of pushing the boundaries because I think it’s very easy to sort of stay in a box and just do one thing. Whereas in my journey particularly, I’ve always wanted to sort of offer a different answer to the question ‘How do you score this scene?’ And when there’s the obvious answer, I find three more. ‘What about this?’ Like we haven’t thought of it and maybe I’ll get fired for even suggesting it, but what do you think? And sometimes what’s crazy is let’s throw BART train samples into the music and see what happens.
KP: And sometimes it works really well and it’s exactly right.
MY: And sometimes it hits.
KP: Are there any genres that you haven’t gotten to work in yet that you really want to?
MY: I would love to do more orchestral work. I just think working with orchestras is sort of the pinnacle in this particular field. I used to do a lot more of it when I was starting out. I just think the nature of the industry, budgets, you know, has made it harder to do but it’s always something I’m trying to do more and more of. Just bring in that experience of working in a room of 70+ musicians. I don’t think there’s anything like that. And it’s sort of trying to find a way to make the sound of that orchestra fit a contemporary story is always, to me, an exciting field of music.
KP: So I asked you about composers, but what are some film scores that you just love?
MY: I guess I’ve loved…it’s many. It started off with like the early 70s and 80s, the John Williams music at that time has, in a way, defined film music for the next fifty years. But in terms of films, you know, I love films without music. ‘All the President’s Men’ is an incredible film and it has no music in it. I guess my answer is that I respond to films that have sort of an innate musicianship without necessarily being musical. Because the tempo, like ‘All the Presidents Men’ is just this rapid fire dialogue. Which I guess is a little like in ‘Blindspotting.’
But if you name any of the great sort of films I’m going to like it. But there’s a couple of films that stick out. Films about some sort of arts are appealing to me. There was a small kind of film many years ago called ‘Big Night’ which is Tony Shalhoub and it’s about two brothers running around trying to promote parts in a play. Ed Harris’ ‘Pollock,’ you know. Movies about some sort of artistic creation, I see sort of reflection, which I love.
KP: I know we’re about out of time, but bringing it back around to “Blindspotting.” What for you is the most satisfying part about having worked on this film?
MY: When I see the reaction to it, I think, right now. It’s incredibly satisfying to see an audience, particularly on social media, which is where people are the most vocal about it. When you read the comments. I don’t think I’ve been involved in a film where I’ve seen a social media reaction like this. It’s incredibly satisfying to see people from all walks of life taking the message of the film as seriously as I felt it deserved to be taken. And the other thing is that I knew the climax of the film was something I’ve never seen on camera before. And when I first saw it, I was so completely blown away by it. It, for me, was incredibly satisfying to be part of a film with that scene key in the film. I was so inspired by it.
KP: What a joy for you that you got to be part of this process and that you’re forever connected with a film that is so important to people and so relevant to right now in this time.
MY: It’s been a dream.