New Zealand-born composer Hanan Townshend was plucked from relative obscurity in a Texas university when an unnamed director got in touch to request his involvement in his new film. That director turned out to be the notoriously elusive Terrence Malick, and Townshend joined The Tree of Life project as an intern. He became the main composer for Malick’s next film To the Wonder and collaborated on his latest film, Knight of Cups. We spoke to him about his latest project and working with Malick.
You’ve recently finished working on Knight of Cups, how was it working with Terrence Malick this time around? Was it a different relationship?
It was and it wasn’t. I’m pretty familiar now with Terry’s process and we have our own way of working, collaborating together so a lot of it was an extension of what we’d already been doing with To the Wonder. Tree of Life was a little bit different because I was more of an intern and working in the capacity of an intern, I wasn’t the composer of course. I did write some music for it but I wasn’t the composer. But with this project I’m pretty sure that Knight of Cups was shot without a script. Obviously there was a vision for it and Terry would have the anchors, the pages of the script, but it wasn’t anything set in stone. So I feel like there was a bit more freedom in this project, in particular during the editing process, to just experiment and see the directions in which the film might take. So in many ways it was very similar and in other ways it was a little bit different. I wasn’t working in the office on To the Wonder. I was actually in an office building right next to the editing house so I was kinda creating things, sending it through every day, talking with Terry every day, or every second day. Whereas on this film I was working from my own studio and I was a little bit more separated from it, which has its advantages and disadvantages.
How did you communicate on this film? Did he give you directives?
We were certainly speaking on the phone a lot and he would usually call every couple of days, usually during the times when the music was having a really important part to play in a certain section of the film. I usually go into the office where they’re editing the film and we just talk about the vision of the music and Terry’s vision for the film musically speaking. Then I usually just go away to my studio and we just start experimenting with a whole handful of different ideas. Terry has a lot of ideas and there is never any lack of ideas there (laughs). He has things that he wants to experiment with, so a lot of it is creating some music and then he might call and we’ll refine it further. But obviously I’m not creating music to picture so it’s a bit of a different thing, just kind of creating, y’know. Terry talks about it being like he’s the carpenter and I’m providing him with the wood and the nails to be able to kind of build the structure. Other than me building it, I’m allowing myself to just create this music and Terry and the editors will work to fit it to the film.
What kind of language does he use when he’s talking about the music? I’ve heard he uses particular kinds of words, like ‘river’ or ‘dance’ for the type of music he wants…
He does. Pretty much. He uses a lot of metaphors when he’s talking about music. He can be very specific and at times he can be very vague. I don’t mean vague in a way that he seems like he doesn’t know (what he’s doing). He has a very clear idea of what he’s doing. Sometimes I think as a composer and a creator in general if someone tells you too much you end up doing exactly what they tell you to do. Terry is very aware of that and he’ll talk a lot in metaphors. He speaks a lot about water. Water is a really important symbol in a lot of his films and it represents the river of life, this eternal kind of thing that continues on and on.
There is other things, like he is very interested in the tritone (an interval often referred to as “the devil’s music”). He likes to use intervals, simple intervals to kind of represent something in his film. For Terry it could be something as simple as a melody that he likes which really distinguishes his films. In this film there is a Ralph Vaughn Williams piece called Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which is based on an Episcopal hymn. So we take that theme and kind of try to find ways to create a score that isn’t just original music but is also taking some of the big themes that Terry uses in the film, creating a sense of continuity between them. So it’s not just this big piece of music. We have a reappearance of it in the film. He can often be quite vague in what he wants but at the same time he’s not vague, he’s allowing some freedom to experiment and I really enjoy it.
Is it intimidating to be put up against these revered composers or quite flattering? He uses a lot of different types of music in his films…
Yeah it can be, but the thing working with Terry is that it’s a constant, morphing changing thing. Often I’ll go off and watch a scene from the film and it’ll be completely different. I guess I don’t really think about it as much because I’m not constantly watching it through. You know, the pre-existing licensed music, I feel quite separated from that. But there is a little bit of everything in there, I do at times feel like, y’know seeing Ralph Vaughn Williams, Debussy…there’s a lot of heavy hitters. Being part of it is kinda cool, it’s exciting.
Were there any times when you were particularly surprised how your music was used?
I don’t tend to feel shocked in the sense ‘Oh my goodness this music has been used in a certan way and it shouldn’t’. I think that’s part of it really, when I put my name down to work on the film I’m agreeing to ‘OK, I’m going to be sending this music to these guys and you guys should feel free to find the right places’. If I’m being honest there are a couple of editors in particular who work with Terry who I think are real music spotters, who can really place (the music), because it can make a massive impact you know, how the music comes into and whether it ties two scenes together, whether it changes the whole meaning or the symbolism. So yeah, I trust them and I never feel like ‘Oh they’ve used this in the wrong way’ or anything, I’m usually pleasantly surprised.
Do you have any favourite composers working today that you admire?
Yeah, yeah definitely. I like actually a lot of UK/British composers. I really like Clint Mansell, think he’s doing some really cool stuff. I always enjoy his scores. His score for The Fountain is probably the first score that ever got me really interested, and there’s something about that score that for me, the ways in which he uses the orchestra as just part of the ensemble and then he’s got guitars and voice. I realised film scoring can be more than just an orchestra. It can be anything you want.I also really like Jonny Greenwood. Just once again, as a guitarist he can do the orchestral or conventional stuff but he can also do this hybrid classical which is really cool. Probably one other name would be Max Richter. Really, really cool take on orchestral music. I love tons of composers, but those three in particular. I don’t know, there’s something in their sound that just resonates. Maybe something in their education sets them apart.
When you’re watching other films are there any bugbears you have in listening to the soundtracks?
Using samples too much. I remember Hans Zimmer saying this and don’t quote me exactly (laughs) but he said something along the lines of ‘the composer with the best sample wins’. When I say sample I mean sample libraries, orchestral synths. I’m just amazed, time and time again, I hear these scores it’s like not good synth, it’s fake synth. There are a lot of composers out there who do a pretty good job but I kind of learned early on if you want to get work and you want to do this job for real, you’ve got to know how to work a sample library and make it as realistic as you can. Because at the end of the day, if there’s no emotion in it, just strings going NEEE-NEEE-NEEE, no one’s going to get anything out of it. Just bringing in a single player can really help, bringing in a violin and putting it on top. It doesn’t cost you, it’s economic, but having that one element of realism can take your mind away from all of the fakeness that you’re hearing in the samples. That’s probably my biggest bugbear because there’s no excuse for it.
When you’re working with the musicians do you always go in with a plan of what you want to hear or is there room for improvisation?
Well there are times where l’ll do both you know. There are times when I’ll be recording with an orchestra and there’s a very specific amount of time that we have to get through however much music. So I’ll work with an orchestrator and it’s completely planned out and there’s not going to be curveballs thrown in or anything. You get there, you record, you get the best takes you can get and then you mix it. But there are times where I’ll go into the studio and maybe there might be an extra 30 minutes left over with the players so I’ll use that chance in real time just to experiment. It all depends on the players, some players feel more comfortable. One piece in particular, Awareness, was used in To the Wonder and the Apple iPad ad, that was an improvisation with some woodwind players and it turned into this thing. So I love doing those sessions, you just don’t know what’s going to come out of it, you know?