Ex Machina: Portishead’s Geoff Barrow And Composer Ben Salisbury On Soundtracking The Year’s Most Chilling Sci-Fi Drama

Ex Machina, the directorial debut from novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), is one of this year’s most fascinating sci-fi films. Sentient robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) has been built to pass the so-called “Turing test” by exhibiting behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human, so her inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) recruits a bright spark computer coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to assess just how realistic his creation is. Caleb is instantly impressed by Ava, who’s incredibly lifelike and hyper-intelligent, but events take several dark turns when he realises that life isn’t quite as it seems inside the high-security bunker that Nathan and Ava call home.

This brilliantly ambiguous film, released in the UK in January and in the US last month, has a suitably haunting and evocative score by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and film and TV composer Ben Salisbury, which is about to be released on limited edition vinyl. Keen to find out how they approached the task of composing music for such a clever, complex film, NME tracked down the duo recently for a chat about all things Ex Machina.

NME: At what stage in the project did you get involved with Ex Machina?

Ben: “We read a script in the very early stages, didn’t we Geoff? We had worked with Alex on [2012 film]Dredd, which didn’t last the course for various reasons, but Alex said when his next film came around, he wanted us to be part of it. So he sent us the script, we read the script and it was just meant to be, really.”

Geoff: “It was just obvious it was going to be an absolutely fascinating thing to be involved in.”

NME: How much of the film had you actually seen when you started writing the score? Had you seen a rough cut, or just bits and pieces that hadn’t been assembled yet?

Geoff: “No, we saw pretty much the whole thing, didn’t we?”

Ben: “Well, it was marginally different than it is now, but we saw the first assembly [of the film], yeah. Alex talked us through various strands of the film that he knew would be important – these strands that, whatever happened, were going to last the course of the film. Then he got us to work on them straight away, really.”

Geoff: “We started by creating a palette of sounds that we agreed were fitting and not so much character-based, but that we could use throughout different parts of the film.”

Ben: “And then when we got that ‘sound wall’ right, the first specific task was to come up with something for Ava herself. We wanted this very innocent and beautiful but ambiguous theme always bubbling along in the background, because obviously we always knew there would be tension and horror to come later in the film.”

NME: What would you say the hardest part of scoring this film was? Was there one strand of the story that was particularly hard to capture in music?

Geoff: “Lots of things!”

Ben: “I think the fact that this film has long periods of dialogue was difficult. Just getting the temperature of something right was tricky. In this film, even though someone is saying something, they may not be meaning it, so underneath there needs to be a subtle ramping up of tension. Thinking ‘how are we going to fill this?’ or even ‘why should be we filling this?” could be tricky in those situations.”

Geoff: “Sometimes, we would be happy with a certain musical cue in isolation, but then we would watch a whole run of the film, and something about it might not work because of the story. It’s such a layered story that shifts minutely and leads you up different paths, and if we didn’t get that right with the music, then it would throw things completely. A good example would be the scene where Caleb first sees Ava on CCTV. Initially we overplayed his amazement, which worked perfectly in isolation, but then when we watched it on a run of film, it left nowhere for him to go. The music had to start off with a bit more of a quizzical vibe, to convey that he was amazed, but also freaked out.”

NME: Different people have taken different things away from the film. What’s your overriding impression of the story, having seen the film so many times now?

Ben: “I saw the film hundreds and hundreds of times as we were working on it, but then had a slightly different reaction to it when it was actually released. At various stages we both were a bit unsure that we had done the right thing – this is just talking from a selfish, musical point of view – and then we saw it again in a different context, at South By Southwest with an audience that lapped it up, and that was amazing, we both felt very pleased with what we’d done. But your view of the film does slightly change every time you see it.”

Geoff: “Alex is a very good writer and obviously now a very good director and he has that ability to make you think – you could see it one way, or you could see it another. But we’ve had people say some pretty odd things about the film. Someone actually said to me, ‘Well, Nathan hasn’t really done anything wrong here, do you know what I mean?'”

Ben: “Ha!”

Geoff: “There were some pretty weird takes on it, but that’s what makes for an interesting film, isn’t it?”

NME: The soundtrack album is made up of extended tracks that you’ve pieced together especially for its release. How did you go about doing that?

Geoff: “Well, Ben did it and he made me a CD of it…”

Ben: “Haha! But no, what it was, it actually stemmed from a conversation that me and Geoff had. We were saying that the problem with film albums sometimes is that there’s these endless tracks that don’t go anywhere; they’re literally a copy of what’s on the film. That’s valid, but we had this idea that we could do something different with Ex Machina, because if you listen to our music for the film back, it kind of follows the narrative arc of the story. It was as simple as mixing some keys and notes like a multi-mix or whatever you call it… what’s that cheesy term they used in the 80s?”

NME: “Megamix? Like a Stock Aitken Waterman megamix…”

Ben: “Megamix, that’s it! This is the megamix! But the idea was to try to keep this shape that the music naturally had and then try to make more of it. There were a lot of cues that felt like they were joined together even though they actually weren’t in the film. There might be a space of three or four minutes before the next one came in, but they did feel like they were all part of the same narrative arc. So it was an attempt to capture that, really.”

NME: You spent about nine months in total working on this film’s soundtrack. Would that make you reluctant to take on another one?

Ben: “Not really, it’s something we definitely want to do again.”

Geoff: “We’re doing one at the moment, but we can’t really say what it is because it’s still in the process of being developed. We just got together yesterday to start some work on it. But with Ex Machina, though this film was a long period of time to be working on something, it was really rewarding because we were very much part of the process with all the other creative people. Seeing Ava’s chrome head for the first time, stuff like that was really exciting to experience. You feel like you’re all working together to create this one thing – it’s not like you get given this thing and they just want you to chuck some music on it at the end.”