We recently saw Ex Machina at SXSW in Austin, and it turned out to be one of the most impressive sci-fi offerings of the year. Though the visually arresting film, with both bleak and grand moments, kept our eyes trained on the screen as a story about technophobia, misogyny, and much more unfolded before us, one of the most consistently transfixing and anchoring aspects of the narrative was it’s music. Composed by Ben Salisbury and Portishead‘s Geoff Barrow, The Ex Machina score weaves between affectionately warm drones and cold, antiseptic ambient music that all propels the dark film forward. During SXSW we caught up with the two–who previously worked on a shelved soundtrack for Dredd—about their favorite and least favorite sci-fi films, their own technophobia, and the difficulties of scoring Ex Machina. Check out our conversation below!
Nerdist: What drew you to Ex Machina? Was there anything that made you say “Ah ha!”? Like, “We have to score this film”?
Ben Salisbury: Ex Machina was made right after we read the script. It was really early on. And from wanting to work with Alex, because we had worked with him previously on Dredd. But we always said as a group that if we had the chance, we would work together again. Then when we read the script, it was like, “Oh, yeah!”
Geoff Barrow: Yeah, well, we trust Alex [Garland] to make a good film, and he did. He was a good guy to work with. He’s a very, very crafty and intelligent dude, and he’s a nice dude, and he’s honest. But yeah, it’s just incredibly interesting, and also was going to be challenging. Most scores, I think, would be, but this is especially, because it’s incredibly multi-layered.
BS: Alex made a film that really leans on the music, you know. We knew we were taking on–that’s his thing, right from the beginning. You’re in for a tough ride, here, guys, or you’re going to be.
GB: On both sides, so there’s the extreme kind of psychotic kind of electronic score, and then you’ve got the underscore, which is a hell of a lot of it. And you’ve got to keep it so it’s not boring, and you’ve got to keep it that it keeps on telling a story, and you’re not repeating yourself–it’s a long dialogue piece, really.
BS: And the music is designed to shift and turn corners, very subtly.
GB: Yeah, and make you feel something, and make you not feel something.
BS: It was a very interesting job to do as composers.
N: Are you guys drawn to science fiction?
GB: Yeah. Always have been. I grew up in the ‘80s.
BS: We both did.
GB: Post-nuclear kids.
BS: Me and Alex and Geoff all have–sometimes we would spend long periods of time where we wouldn’t get any work done, because we were just going through our childhood influences, whether they be musical or cinematic. We share a lot–we obviously got different, go on different turns, but we do share a common background of a certain age. So that helped, and made it fun, as well.
N: What are some of your favorite sci-fi classics?
BS: Blade Runner.
N: What about Dune? Were you ever into Dune?
GB: What’s with fucking Dune, man? It was on the other day. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t think–I struggled with it, when I was that age, and now I fall asleep through it.
BS: I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t count myself as a sci-fi kid. I would just count myself as a kid who was a film geek. I’m not a sci-fi geek in particular. But it just so happened that a lot of the strong films of our youth–we’re Star Wars kids, basically.
GB: Yeah. Star Wars, E.T.
BS: That’s my first big cinematic impact as a seven- or eight-year-old: going to see Star Wars. There are a lot of people who share that.
GB: It’s weird, isn’t it? Because you have certain times with sci-fi as well. You have the ‘50s, and the kind of nuclear generation.
BS: Yes, absolutely.
GB: The nuclear cowboy generation, basically. And then you have, like, video and sci-fi.
BS: And Betamax.
GB: And Betamax. You know renting cheap kind of sci-fi. Most people went to the cinema before, but it was like every Saturday, you and your mates could go and rent another sci-fi–use someone’s ID to get an over-18 horror/sci-fi.
BS: Or watch Escape From New York for the hundredth time.
GB: Carpenter is a massive influence.
N: And sci-fi continues to evolve in real time. Look at Under The Skin.
GB: I think Under the Skin is a masterpiece.
N: I thought that Mica Levi’s score on that was great as well. She’s massively talented.
GB: So the thing is, for me, that score–forget it as a score. I heard it as a record before I saw the film. Reg and I run Invada, and we release soundtracks, on my label. He was playing the Under the Skin score that he got up front, and I was like “What the fuck is that? What the hell is that music?” That’s music. You know what I mean?
BS: It’s insanely good, and I had the same experience. Reg gave me a copy, and I drove back from Geoff’s studio through the center of Bristol, and you have to go through some sort of quite rough inner-city areas, and I was just freaked out. Every single person walking along the pavement looked like an alien to me.
GB: It’s weird, because it’s not traditional. It’s not scored–it’s soundtrack, really. Because there are incredibly long, drawn-out shots, and that music kind of creates something. So it’s not like a door opens or someone says something, something happens in reaction, like a traditional scored film.
BS: There are a number of scores like that.
GB: Like Drive.
BS: Like Drive and Solaris, and things like that that we’re both naturally sort of drawn toward. But the music is almost like a tone that the whole film is soaked in. They play a very particular role, and the Mica Levi one does it unbelievably well. But they probably don’t have to get involved with some of the things that we had to get involved in.
We knew early on that with Ex Machina, it wasn’t possible for us to do a score like that, because it had a different job to do. It has elements where we were able to do that, and certain scenes where we were able to do that, but it had a lot–although it’s hopefully not a traditional-sounding score, it is actually…
GB: Incredibly traditional when it’s…
BS: …there’s a lot of traditional film-scorey things that we had to do, and that made it harder.
GB: That made it really hard, yeah. Because you don’t get beats. You can’t keep this constant kind of beat going across, like four or five scenes. I mean, it’s just not going to happen. Different things that you have to kind of help with the film. So yeah, for me, who comes from a kind of like a pure “there’s your beat and you watch it through,” and it was very difficult to me, and I had to lean on Ben’s knowledge of filmed picture tons. Working with Alex, as well–he’ll be like…
BS: “You’re pre-empting things.”
GB: “You’re pre-empting the action or the dialogue.” So you had to move stuff around. And we’re lucky that with technology, it’s not like an orchestra, where you’ve got that session to do it, and that’s it.
N: I think a hot trend right now in discussing sci-fi films and television is technophobia, and this film definitely touches on that to some extent.
GB: It’s really strange, because we’ve been sitting here all day, and each journalist will have basically their view of what it’s about. And they’re all completely different.
N: Right. And they’re all right, and they’re all wrong.
GB: They’re all right, and they’re all wrong.
BS: No, no. None of them are wrong. That’s actually one of the real massive strengths of this film, is that it brings out so much. Not necessarily that it’s not pigeonholed. It’s more that it brings up so many different areas of discussion. You can talk about misogyny, you can talk about feminism, you can talk about what it is to be human, you can talk about the fear of faceless tech companies. As well as talking about singularity.
GB: Technophobia–yeah. You can talk about religion, you can talk about human behavior.
BS: And it doesn’t provide, I don’t think it provides a solid, full-stop answer, necessarily to all of those things, or any of those things. But it does raise them. It’s interesting–we just sat on a panel, and we all–me and Geoff were like the monkeys who don’t really understand at all, but we all have very different opinions on the fear factor of artificial intelligence. To a simple, binary thing–are you for it or against it?–are you scared of it or is it a positive thing?
N: Are you afraid of artificial intelligence, as portrayed?
BS: It’s not as simple–my answer that I gave in the panel was “Yeah, mildly.” I can’t believe you wouldn’t be slightly afraid.
N: It would be foolish not to.
BS: That doesn’t mean I want people to stop doing it. It’s just human beings, man. If we were given an end-of-term report, we would be like, yeah, we’re pretty good at getting on with each other, really, underneath everything. But when it comes to the big, important things, we tend to fuck up. And I can’t actually believe we won’t fuck this up.
Have you checked out all of our SXSW coverage? Make sure you didn’t miss any of the cool news that poured out from Austin over the last two weeks.