Exclusive: Portishead's Geoff Barrow On Scoring Ex Machina
One of the most anticipated film releases this year is without a doubt Ex Machina, the sexy sci-fi thriller and directorial debut from Alex Garland. Featuring breakout star Alicia Vikander as a beautiful robot, the film evaluates the human qualities in the world of A.I. Evidently Ex Machina’s story is further enhanced by a very compelling score, created by Geoff Barrow of Portishead fame and his composer partner Ben Salisbury. The North American premiere of the film took place at SXSW, with a private after party where Geoff and Ben DJ’ed a soundtrack only set. Geoff described the event, as "the first time I DJ’ed in about 10 years. It was terrible.” When prompted for highlights of the night, he said, “I played the theme from MASH and the theme from Night Rider. I thought there were going to be proper film industry people discussing the film… turns out there were a load of guys with headbands on, punching the air.” After the dust from SXSW settled, we were able to chat with Geoff about this lengthily bountiful experience and pacing those dark chilling chords.
What about scoring Ex Machina excited you?
Alex and I are kind of weird in similar ways. Ben and I started working with Alex on the Drogg movie, but it didn’t work out for things beyond our control. So Alex basically said, next thing I do, you guys have to do it. So that’s where we were. I like the way Alex does everything — I like the way he directs, he’s really meticulous, he’s incredibly intelligent, an amazing writer, and now a great director. He works with people that he thinks are at the top of their game. Everyone’s pretty hardcore. There’s no weak link in it. Hopefully you can see that in the film. I don’t think anyone in this film was sort of mucking about in it. We worked on this for 10 months. Which is a long period of time to work on a score. It was a great experience.
After this film, how do you feel about soundtrack vs. score?
I learned a lot from Ben. It was kind of a similar learning curve, he was finding out more about sounds and such and I was learning about scoring. I’m still nowhere nearly there— because it is a really fine art. Without belittling anyone who does this, but if you have 5 really cool cats and they walk out the car and they’re smoking cigarettes and they’re walking towards you and you put on a really cool bit of music — that soundtrack will make them look as cool as you could ever imagine. But if you have to write a piece of music and score for their movements, it becomes a whole different art. Do you know what I mean? Nowadays there’s an awful lot of soundtrack over score, and I used to find a lot of score really boring. Ex Machina has long periods of dialogue and you can’t just jump in with a beat. You have to pace yourself, because if you go to a too dark chord on a character, you’re telling the audience, there’s darkness in him and you could pretty much ruin a film by doing that so yeah you have to be incredibly careful.
What was the partnership composing with Ben like for you?
To be honest, it was a traditional writing partnership. We both specialize in different fields and when we came together, we sat on the piano with sounds and pictures and we played. Someone in the back would go, “yeah, yeah that one, no don’t’ worry about that there. Play that one. Or what about if you just play both of those.” Ben’s a really good writer and it really helped me to write as well. I have a lot of problems with that. I’m putting up a new album every 15 years at the moment — do you know what I mean? So it’s good to work with someone prolific in that sense, who maybe doesn’t have the hang ups that I have.
I noticed that you didn’t use any drumbeats throughout the entire score. What was the reasoning behind that?
Sometimes it’s just too easy to pull down an old drum machine, stick it on, get your tempo, and hit your drums. I just didn’t want to do it. I think it would’ve standardized our score and we didn’t want that to happen.
How’s your perspective changed throughout this project?
This is the most important thing I’ve learned from it— you usually make music to basically smash walls down. For people to listen to it and say, wow that’s great! And for you to feel good about it yourself. Unless you make really chilled out music, generally you want people to have a party. In film, you’re literally just one person that’s part of the process of telling a story. That was my hardest thing: “yeah we want some music here but we don’t want it to say too much.” And you go, huh? That’s all I’ve ever done—try to write music to say stuff! That’s been a big learning curve for me and it’s also what I’m proud of, that I’m actually able to do it and expand my writing capabilities.
What would be the ultimate movie for you to score for?
One of my favorite films was already scored by the person who was best for scoring it which is Precinct 13 by John Carpenter. But that was it. He’d already done it.
Ex Machina comes out in theaters April 10.