Collaborations are a tricky business. They always seem like a good idea in theory, but in practice, they can sometimes become nightmares. The key to a successful professional partnership? Good teamwork. Thankfully, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury have that in spades.
“We’d known each other from playing rubbish old man’s football for years on possibly the worst team ever, basically,” says Barrow from London over Skype. Salisbury (a BAFTA-winning composer) chimes in on the pair’s unlikely—or very likely, if you remember that they’re two Englishmen from Bristol—meeting: “Yes, we played football together for ages, but we didn’t really know what either of us did. Then we found we [both had] got into music. I found out he was Geoff from Portishead and he found out I did music as well.”
After first connecting on the pitch, the duo transferred their good relations to the recording studio. Barrow and Salisbury collaborated on instrumental projects for Barrow’s label Invada and soon began hankering to work on something larger together. Thankfully, writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) called them to work on his debut directorial project Ex Machina: an excellent foray into the world of science fiction that dissects the possibilities—from the euphoric to the catastrophic—of artificial intelligence.
In collaborating on the film’s strange and effective score, both men grew to appreciate the presence of a second ear on their work. “You don’t feel so lonely and isolated,” says Salisbury about working with Barrow. “When you have an idea, it’s very difficult sometimes on your own to get that sort of judgment thing right. Where, if you do something and you know the other person in your team is into it as well, you know you’re on the right track, really.”
Here, the men behind one of the strongest scores of 2015 reveal their favorite movie moments and essential cinematic soundtracks, from John Carpenter’s films to Star Wars.
FAVORITE MUSICAL MOMENTS IN FILM
Salisbury: Weirdly, when you give answers to these things, they’re quite often nostalgic, aren’t they? Things like the bikes taking off in E.T.—I just fucking love that. [Laughs.] And I could give you an obscure Italian realist film, but that would be bullshit. And I’m a sucker for themes! I’ve always been a sucker for themes, so when the theme kicks in at the beginning of Star Wars, that’s just brilliant.
Barrow: [In] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Blondie [Clint Eastwood] is taken back to recover from being out in the desert at Tuco’s brother’s priesthood [is a favorite]. He gets himself kind of well again, and then Tuco has a chat with his brother, Father Pablo. Blondie sees them talking and he knows that they’ve got this terrible relationship. But when they leave, Tuco pretends that they don’t and that they got on really well, and Blondie knows this, and it’s in Ennio Morricone’s score. It’s just this point where they’re riding in the wagon, and he’s saying, “Oh yeah, me and my brother get on really, really well,” and there’s these chords that go underneath it. It’s really melancholic. And he passes him his cigar to have a go on it. It’s this amazing change that happens from the melancholic vibe to going into this adventure. And the chord change is so amazing! It’s properly like, “Oh my god, this is gonna be amazing!” And in a couple of notes, he’s gone from really melancholic and quite serious to something completely different. That’s why [Morricone’s] a master, you know.
FAVORITE FILM COMPOSERS
Salisbury: [Jerry Goldsmith’s] Planet of the Apes score was the first big, orchestral, atonal stuff I’d heard. Or polytonal. And [that experimental score] led me to Risky Business—which has this Tangerine Dream synth thing that was like, “What the fuck’s that?” It’s like Steve Reich! So yeah, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, and as for modern composers, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris is great. Film music is a gateway drug to weird, interesting music.
Barrow: Yeah, that’s what I’ve found as well. Actually, even with Portishead, the stuff that we were originally kind of sampling, replaying, or writing was in the style of Italian soundtrack composers like Riz Ortolani and Morricone. They were experimenting with instruments in a totally different way than popular music had been.
Salisbury: But actually [experimental film music] was finding its way into the mainstream, so you listen to The Andromeda Strain and it’s like the most bizarre electronic Stockhausen music, and yet you’re able to see that as a kid. Or even Jaws is… You know, like the Rite of Spring.
Barrow: And then John Carpenter, massively. The early demos of Portishead sampled a couple of Carpenter tunes. ’Cause it was just amazing. It’s endless.
FAVORITE RECENT FILM SCORES
Barrow: Birdman…Nightcrawler… A Most Violent Year…Only God Forgives…
Salisbury: Under the Skin…
FAVORITE FILM SCENE THAT WE COMPOSED
Barrow: For me it’s that arm-cutting scene [“Hacking/Cutting” from Ex Machina].
Salisbury: I’ve got one weird really, really small bit that I always loved, which isn’t a scene, it’s like a moment, and it’s… I don’t know why I always liked this bit; it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!
It’s when Nathan has told Caleb the full reason why he’s there and he says, “Ah, it’s a shame your plan didn’t work. That’s a great plan. It might have just worked.” And Caleb goes “Well, we’ll find out.” And there’s a moment, and a little bubbly synth thing that goes on behind it that Geoff sort of made and we put just there, and I don’t know why, I just love that bit.
THE MOST CHALLENGING PIECE
Salisbury: [Some of the challenges we had] were probably ones that you [as a viewer] don’t notice—things like getting the nuance right in dialogue scenes. Funnily enough, the “big music” scenes weren’t that difficult. We thoroughly enjoyed doing them. There are three or four scenes in the film where the music really steps out to the front, which you might think were the hardest to write music for because the music is all on its own and plays such an important role, but, actually, all of those scenes were done in like two days’ writing. The hard things are getting the tiny moments right so you don’t lead people down the wrong path.
Barrow: The other thing that was hard for me [was making sure that we didn’t] work outside of the parameters of our instruments. We set ourselves up with these instruments, making these specific noises. And what happens is—in the film world—people will ask for specific sounds. Someone will say, “Oh it’d be brilliant if you just had a little bit of percussion here, that just goes ‘ch ch ch ch ch ch.’” Right, so you’ve got this sound, but it wasn’t in our [specified] world, because it won’t happen again.
A lot of commercial writers, and noncommercial writers, are quite prepared just to throw in anything to make it work. It’s just like, “Yeah, we’ll just drag it down off a computer menu and go “ch ch ch ch ch ch.” You know that sound: when someone glances or walks through a door or whatever. We made an effort not to go outside of our dogma, our sound palette… If you listen to a lot of scores, all of a sudden a piano note will go “bling bling bling.” It’s never been in the start of the film and it’s just arrived for this one scene, and it never appears again. I believe in sonic unconscious—if you add something in, it just makes people go, “What was that about?”
Alex understands, but if we come up against another director that doesn’t understand that concept, we’re just in trouble! [Laughs.] FL