Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and one of the sharpest sci-fi movies of recent years, lands in US cinemas today.
The claustrophobic thriller follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder at a Google-type company who wins a trip to a remote compound where his boss, the formidably brainy techbro Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is secretly working on the world’s first true artificial intelligence, an alluring female robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Making a major contribution to the intellectual mindfuckery and B-movie shenanigans that unfold is the hair-raising soundtrack by Ben Salisbury, a Bristol-based composer who’s won awards for his work on BBC wildlife programmes, and Geoff Barrow of Portishead, Beak> and Quakers.
Barrow and Salisbury previously worked together on Drokk, their unused score for 2012’s Dredd, the comic book adaptation written by Garland. Ex Machina’s soundtrack picks up on the Carpenter-esque synths that defined Drokk, but the duo have introduce messier organic elements too, from slowed down brass to gentle celestes, bringing out the tension between humans and machines in the movie.
FACT spoke to Barrow and Salisbury from their West Country bases to find out about working with Garland, composing for robots, the Hollywood machine that ate their Dredd soundtrack and the small matter of artificial intelligence being the most terrifying thing humans have ever invented. And no, the next Portishead album is nowhere near finished.
The soundtrack is out this week digitally and available for pre-order on CD, with a vinyl release on the way soon – stream it in full below and check out two exclusive unreleased demo tracks further down.
I loved your previous collaboration as Drokk, although I know nothing about comics and nothing about Judge Dredd.
Ben Salisbury: That’s like me then, I know nothing about comics or Judge Dredd either. It was Geoff who was the fan. I sort of know a bit now, but I didn’t at the time.
Alex Garland wrote the screenplay for Dredd, so is that how you first made a connection with him?
Geoff Barrow: Randomly, it was through Richard Russell, who runs XL. He’s a very old friend of Alex’s and he phoned up and said I really want you to meet Alex, he’s doing a Judge Dredd movie, so I said yeah, definitely. I was going to work with Ben on the Banksy film but it didn’t need what we were going to work on in the end, and we were just waiting for the right opportunity to work together.
BS: It was the Hollywood machine, you’re right. We had a very clear idea – which you can hear on Drokk, it’s a very clear sort of aesthetic – which Alex loved, which all the creatives loved, and it was going fine. Then there were people who supply money to the film who had different ideas about how things should be going, and we didn’t really agree with them, I suppose. There was nothing malicious about it, but with that particular film and that very particular style that we had going, for us to change it would have been dreadful, musically. You would have got a watered down version of what we were doing. Does that sound about right, Geoff?
GB: That’s right, we said we didn’t want to change what we were doing.
BS: I mean, we had to change lots of things on Ex Machina because you always do as a film composer, you’re working collaboratively, but it was slightly different. So you’re better off letting someone else start from fresh, because we’d have been a burden to the film in this new way they wanted it to go.
I’m guessing it was Alex himself who asked you to do the Ex Machina soundtrack.
Did he send you his script and let you start from there, without you having seen any visual stuff?
BS: Yeah. Because Dredd didn’t see through to its conclusion we said look, if we do it again, let’s really get this sorted from really early on. We all knew we wanted to work together again, so as soon as Alex’s next idea was given a green light we got a script. As soon as they came back and started editing, we saw the very first rough cut. We were really part of the growth of the film, and it was good for Alex as well because he could work with us in a collaborative way.
So you started composing once you’d seen a rough cut.
BS: Yeah, we had ideas from very early on, didn’t we Geoff? Alex knew that they needed a very simple, but hopefully enchanting and beautiful theme for Ava – almost very naive, and that was an early thing that we did. We also knew there was going to be this horror element creeping in, so we were able to work on sound worlds for that early on.
Ava has her own musical personality – having listened to the soundtrack separately I notice that it’s like a music box, or even an automaton in a music box. But the male characters don’t have those motifs, do they?
GB: It’s more about a growing mood, really.
BS: There are strands, but apart from Ava they’re not character related. There’s a falling in love strand, for want of a better way of putting it, and there’s probably two strands of that – there’s the actual falling head over heels bit, then there’s this gradual claustrophobic tension that grows.
How did you choose the sounds or instruments for each scene or plot point?
GB: It’s weird, we didn’t use any drums on the whole thing. I come from a very drum-based background, but we tried lots of different things and it just sounded wrong. It’s quite a strange film to work on ‘cos you’ve got pretty much an hour-plus of dialogue with no action, in one facility, and with only three characters. So you couldn’t blow it too early. There’s an old organ that I’ve got and because some of the shots were quite long, and left lingering, we used a pedal that’s got an extremely long reverb on it, so we played this organ through it and we played synths through it –the same synths that we used on Drokk. We just wanted to have this feeling of a slow pace, with nothing really sharp, and I think drums are quite sharp.
BS: It obviously didn’t want a traditional orchestral score, and we also didn’t want to do what’s become a sort of traditional synth score, we didn’t want to do a Drokk score either – although it’s definitely got elements of that. I suppose it might be a simplistic reaction to it, but it had to be this mixture of organic, human sounds and electronic sounds. We knew we wanted to get elements of human and real instruments in there, so there’s real guitars, the celeste and these organs which are much more organic than synths, and this slowed down stuff which is all created from real instruments, and this sort of warped brass stuff as well. So all that comes from the human world, I suppose.
GB: There is actually a lot of organic stuff in there, actual human stuff, and it’s all been manipulated. Not in the way that, you know, some plug-in has just been chucked on it – it’s more like it’s been synthesised. The horns feel real but they don’t, they’re really slowed down. I think it’s the pace of the film, and the growing realisation that things are not what they seem.
Yeah, because the whole way through you’re not quite sure whose side you’re meant to be on. Were there any other soundtracks that you had in mind while writing? You can hear a bit of John Carpenter in there still, and maybe someone like Clint Mansell.
BS: Drokk obviously had a lineage and a heritage, you know, a nostalgic feel to it – the Carpenter references, and Tangerine Dream and all that sort of stuff. This does to a degree, because it has a slight relationship with Drokk, but I don’t think we listened to or talked about any other soundtracks, did we? It obviously belongs to a school of soundtracks that aren’t orchestral – Clint Mansell is a good [example], and Cliff Martinez and people like that, but other than that we weren’t referencing anything. Alex was very keen for it not to reference anything.
“Everything with Alex is considered, every part of the film is under a microscope”
Oddly enough, though, the music which plays at the film’s crescendo isn’t by you, so did you pick it?
GB: Yeah. Tony, who’s an artist called CUTS signed to Invada, he’s an audiovisual artist and a filmmaker and he writes this music for it. I had his album and this one track, ‘Bunsen Burner’ I had in my car and I just really liked it. Alex said that if there’s any music from outside we wanted to bring in, bring it in.
BS: It was that particular bit of the film that we all realised, all three of us and the music editor as well, that it didn’t need to be thematic there. We’d been working on these themes that have a build and have a conclusion, but that bit seemed like it needed to stand out away from our thematic development. Then because we had Tony’s track, he was able to give us the stems of it so I was able to weave it in, to pre-empt it very slightly with little snippets.
GB: Yeah, we reverse-engineered his track back into the film. It just so happened that it kind of worked, the track’s movements and its little “do-do do-do do-do”.
BS: I remember we stuck it over the pictures and Geoff said, ‘ooh, the hairs on my arms have stood up, this is working!”
GB: Also he works in a different way on his synths and stuff, his filters are far more open and it’s got more of a modern sound to it. It kind of needed that, sonically – to be brought into a realisation of now, without it being some awful dance track but to have that vibe of euphoria, you could almost put a rave beat behind it. And it needed that, ‘wow’, because everything has been so subtly muted.
What about the song that soundtracks the disco dancing scene?
BS: It’s ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ by Oliver Cheatham. We didn’t have any say on that, Alex chose that one ‘cos that obviously happened while shooting.
It’s exactly the thing to inject a level of total weirdness to the situation between the characters.
BS: It breaks the tension in the film, but actually in a weird way makes it even more tense.
What about the Savages track used in the credits?
GB: There were two Savages tracks in the film initially, there was one right at the beginning.
BS: The one that’s in there, ‘Husbands’, actually opened the film at one point.
GB: But the thing is, it sounded and looked totally, totally brilliant and it was a really great opening, but it set you up for a different film – it set you up for almost what felt like a Marvel film, a really brilliant, exciting Marvel film, and then you were just going to go into an hour of dialogue!
There have been a lot of films about robots and artificial intelligence lately – Big Hero 6, Chappie, Her, many others in recent years. Do you think we’re likely to see robots like Ava in our lifetime?
GB: I think we’ll see ones that look like her, but in the sense of who’s actually in control, I don’t think we’ll have robots that are in control of themselves like Ava. So I think someone could sit down and have a conversation with a very, very well-programmed machine.
BS: I dunno, I go on Alex’s take on it. I sort of agree with Geoff, which is I find it hard to believe, but equally, I’ve heard Alex say this, that if you heard tomorrow that Google or Apple or Microsoft had been working on something, and they unveiled it tomorrow and it passed the Turing Test, you wouldn’t actually be that surprised either. You’d be fucking amazed, and scared, but you wouldn’t think it was beyond the realms of possibility. And the day they showed it at the BFI, it was part of their sci-fi season and the audience was full of boffins, basically, all of them at the top of the game in the AI world. And you get talking to some of them and your opinions might change as to how possible all this is.
Do you know what the reaction to the film has been among the AI research community?
BS: Very, very good. This is obviously something that Alex talks much more eloquently about than we do, but he did make sure that he had all these conversations with all the right people before and whilst making the film. That doesn’t mean it’s scientifically accurate, because if it was we’d be talking to our robot friends, but it’s based on possibilities I think, all based on current AI theory.
GB: There’s a lot of loopholes in a lot of sci-fi films, a bit like Star Trek and the transporter, but Alex has done an awful lot of work in talking to professionals. And I know that whole thing about the feminist angle to it, and he put in so much work to get the balance just right.
BS: That doesn’t mean it’s going please everyone but it would be very wrong to think it wasn’t thought about. Whether you get it right or wrong, that’s a different matter, but it’s being considered – everything with Alex is considered, every part of the film is under a microscope, and that’s one of the great things about working with him. Music as well, every note, every little sound you hear, I promise, have been considered [both laugh] but in a good way!
There’s always gonna be nutters, scientists – and if they’re men they’re gonna be sexually deviant as well…
I’d say the mark of a really great sci-fi is that it does generate big conversations, because sci-fi is a way of talking about society as it is as well as how it might be in the future. The feminist angle is interesting – some of my friends didn’t like it because they thought it was the same old ‘sexy robot’ cliches, but to me it’s the exact opposite – the sexy female robot is a cliche that Garland deals with through the plot, he explains why she has to be a sexy female robot.
BS: It’s pointing the finger at men like Nathan’s failings, it’s not saying this is a good thing. Although there is a sci-fi, B-movie tradition of getting, you know, titillation from sexy female robots.
Yeah, it doesn’t shy away from that either. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about humans developing artificial intelligence and “playing god”, as Nathan does in the film?
BS: I’m scared of it, I have to admit. Alex’s take on it is it’s a good thing and why should we be scared of it? If robots eventually take us over, that’s the way it’s meant to be. He has that sort of view on it, I think – I hope I’m not speaking for him, but you can read interviews and you’ll find that out. He’s not particularly scared of it, he is optimistic about it, or at least he says he is. I find it troubling, definitely. And I think this film…
BS: Troubles, as much as anything else.
GB: I think we’re all headed to hell anyway.
That’s exactly what I’d expect you to say!
GB: [Laughs] Am I that predictable?
BS: Yeah, we’re all headed to hell so we might as well have some robots to take care of things when we’ve fucked it all up.
GB: Well if you look at Wall-E, you know what I mean…
We don’t really deserve any better, do we?
GB: No, absolutely. And there’s always gonna be nutters, scientists, and if they’re men they’re gonna be sexually deviant as well…
BS: The thing that scares me about the film is less AI, actually – there’s a thing in the film that I keeping thinking about, and that’s the power of these internet companies, the power of faceless multinationals.
The fact that the entire project is a secret, no one knows what’s being developed.
GB: Yeah, no one will know.
And we don’t if it’s already happened, of course. So what are you both working on now?
BS: We are working on another film score at the moment, we’re in the early stages of it but we can’t speak about it. It’s even less Drokk than Ex Machina was, so it’ll be a move away from the synth stuff and at the moment we’re working with brass and it’ll be–
GB: Don’t say too much!
BS: Right, we’re not working with anything, take that back.
GB: It’s going to be exactly the same as everything else we’ve ever done!
GB: Beak>, which is my little band, have done a soundtrack for a film that should be coming out later on this year, called A Couple In A Hole. It’s from a different space and time completely, and it just so happened that a filmmaker wanted to use a load of Beak> stuff so we re-recorded a load of stuff. Hopefully that will be coming out in October or something.
Will there be any more from your hip-hop project Quakers?
GB: Ah! Interesting. Yeah, there is another Quakers album and it’s pretty much done. It’s not a massive jump from where we were last time, it’s just that bombastic kind of hip hop album really, that just keeps on going.
When might we expect that?
GB: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know when that is.
And finally then – on a scale of one to 10, how finished is the next Portishead record?
GB: At the moment it’s minus 34 and half. [Laughs]