Film composer Ben Salisbury invites us behind the curtain, discussing how he emphasised a selected group of sounds using CYCLES for Alex Garland’s fever dream thriller Men.
Using CYCLES on his laptop, Ben Salisbury worked on the score for Men from his caravan on the south coast.

"It was brilliant! If I needed a rest from making music, I could dive in the sea or surf for an hour."

Working remotely alongside his creative partner Geoff Barrow, the Men score came together quickly due to a refreshed working environment and a strong vision.

"Before Men, I'd never done a film where the first cut came back and all the demo music worked. We all punched the air!"

We spoke to Ben over a coffee about how the score came together.
How long ago did you finish the film Men?
We finished the film just before Christmas (2021). It took about three months. For an Alex Garland film, it was a quick turnaround! Both Annihilation and Ex Machina took a year. It was a priority that we found a palette of sounds that we all agreed on early. The first demos needed to work in the edit. Fortunately, we nailed it on the first attempt — very unusual for Geoff and me.

The script suggested a musical idea that we thought was very solid. When I explained the concept to Alex, he asked to hear some demos. Most of those demos appear in the film.
Still from Men (2022), scored by Ben along with his musical partner Geoff Barrow
Still from Men (2022), scored by Ben along with his musical partner Geoff Barrow
How was working on Men different from your previous projects?
Pre-lockdown, Geoff and I did all the major work together. We would bring separate ideas together in my studio space and sculpt them out. But during lockdown, we had to work on different things and send them back and forth between each other.

We admire film scores that stick to two or three sounds. So, naturally, we strive for an equally contained palette of sounds in our work. We never get away with it fully because we have to match Alex’s beautiful and textured visual style!
The concept of toxic masculinity is the major focus of the movie, how did this play into the creation of your score?
Our instant response was it needed a male voice. However, it couldn’t be any male voice. We searched for a strange voice by listening to clips of the last surviving male castrati — whether they are real castrati is in doubt. But either way, we were inspired.

Castrati were young choir boys, often from poor backgrounds, who had their testicles removed to prevent their voices from breaking. They were highly sought after and sang the female parts. The modern countertenor is a trained vocal representation of the voice.

So that was our idea. We needed to find a countertenor who had that same vibe but also had a strange and unique sounding voice. We scrolled through various recordings of existing countertenors and found Tim Travers-Brown. Although he sang in an incredibly high range, he sounded male. We liked how his high voice would break into a normal male range.
How was it working with Tim?
It was lockdown and I needed to record Tim quickly. I sent him the score parts and sat in on the sessions remotely over zoom. Occasionally, I sang some lines to him and made subtle changes to the vocal lines I had written.
Ben at Invada Studios in Bristol
Ben at Invada Studios in Bristol
How did the other elements of the score come about?
Three voices make up the bulk of the score: the countertenor’s, Jessie Buckley’s, and mine! Jessie sings in a tunnel which causes her voice to echo. We realised that we needed another. I said the third vocal should be a more recognisable baritone voice and sang some lines to Alex. Long story short, it ended up being me!

A fox scream plays a sort of narrative role in the film. We knew it was going to be a feature. I took fox screams and made them into usable score instruments.

The film takes a hallucinogenic turn. It’s trippy seeing Rory Kinnear as all these men in the village. A big part of the score’s psychedelic nature was the birdsong. Geoff and I visited the film set — a house with boarded-up windows. That day, a bird kept disrupting the filming with its distinct song, ruining the illusion of nighttime. It was funny!

Once they finished that scene, Alex showed us around some other film locations in the village, including the church. When we arrived at the church, we heard a familiar sound, looked up and that same bird was on the tree! I got my phone out and recorded the bird.

I felt justified in using that birdsong in this score because it was from the day of the shoot. It could have easily been any bird and wouldn’t have mattered. However, I felt that recording it on set gave me the artistic licence to use it. It gave me the confidence to fully immerse myself down that creative path and reassured me to go in a direction that otherwise might be weak.
What is your favourite piece of music in the film?
The first piece I wrote was called Pastorale. I wrote it ten minutes before getting in touch with the countertenor! It was one of those moments where I had to have something prepared for him to sing. I knew the vibe we wanted. The track had to have an English countryside beauty while maintaining a strange edge from the unique vocal.
How did CYCLES inform your creative process?
CYCLES allows you to maintain a recognisable sound palette whilst giving you broader options. As much as we all loved Tim’s long and strange melodies, on their own, they didn't give us the excitement or pure horror that we needed.

I would get the recordings of Tim and put them through CYCLES to generate a bucket load of new samples. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just explored until I found something I liked and bounced it straight away. The main chase sounds were all made using CYCLES. We used the fox scream to create horrible pulsating sounds.

I pitched down the birdsong and put it through CYCLES to achieve this weird and woozy sound. I think you can still tell the original sound was a bird. I believe we are so sophisticated in our recognition and listening habits that we can grab the resonance of a sound no matter how mangled or warped it is.
How else do you emotionally direct the audience without being obvious?
A danger when scoring horror films is to go "Rawwwrr, this is horrific"! The end of Annihilation gets pretty huge and there are parts in Ex Machina where the music gets overtly aggressive. All three of us have gotten slightly wary of this, especially for Men.

I drafted a minimal piece of music for the end scene — there was a power to it. It stayed in the film for some time, but eventually Alex said we couldn't use it because it was too minimal and needed to reflect what was on screen. It was tricky, we consciously made an effort not to go too extreme with the music, but we had to get a balance.
When did you first discover sound design and sampling?
I got my first synthesiser at about 14 — a Roland D20. It had an onboard sequencer which was my first experience of recording music.

Samplers were a game-changer. Lots of people were using early samplers to rip records. Geoff got me into it through hip hop. I used my dad's dictaphone and realised I could make flute sounds that were more realistic than from my D20!

I like the more esoteric electronic film scores like Gil Melle’s The Andromeda Strain and Jerry Goldsmith’s work. As a kid I remember listening to Planet of the Apes and loving the orchestral score. I was intrigued why the orchestra sounded that way. It was a brilliant gateway into exploring the sound design side of music.

We outsourced one track in Ex Machina called Bunsen Burner by CUTS. He was a friend and on Geoff’s label at the time. We put his song over the scene where Nathan gets stabbed and realised it worked well. CUTS let us use the oscillating line from his track in earlier parts of the score as it was just a preset. Even though I have heard that preset on other things, it sounded right for Ex Machina. It’s the same as sampling a Lalo Schifrin track!
Words and interview by Joe Dean
Photographs by Tom Ham
May 2022