Posts Tagged ‘The Tree of Life’

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?

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Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.

His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.

The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.

To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.

Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.

One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet.  Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.

There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.

Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.

Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.

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1) THE TREE OF LIFE (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK) – USA

A confession– I had been waiting for years for Terrence Malick’s new film to come out, listening out intently for snippets of information on its long production. So forgive my bias, but there is simply no other contender for film of the year. In all honesty ToL is not a perfect film. Some scenes work, some scenes don’t. But when they do work, they soar. I’d take 20 minutes of some scenes from ToL over the whole year in cinema. Pitt and Chastain perfectly convey the complexities of parenthood, while the young boys are a revelation. Lubezki’s roaming camera combined with the beautifully operatic classical pieces is utterly glorious. Malick’s most personal, sincere and adventurous film to date.

2) WUTHERING HEIGHTS (DIR. ANDREA ARNOLD) – UK

Scottish auteur Arnold updates the classic Bronte novel with hyper real cinematography and naturalistic performances. The young Cathy and Heathcliff are excellent as the bruised lovers, while the Yorkshire valleys take on a wild, oppressive life of their own. One of the few British films to use the landscape in a refreshing and exciting way.

3) SLEEPING SICKNESS (DIR. ULRICH KOHLER) – GERMANY & CAMEROON

This beguiling odditiy comes across as a mix of Claire Denis, Uncle Boonmee and David Lynch, combining jungle environment with hallucinatory, surreal touches. A German doctor is working in an unnamed African hospital, where he deals with the ‘Sleeping sickness’ bug, a condition that makes the sufferer feverish and hallucinate. His family have to leave the country without him, and then things start to get weirder on his own…

4) TRUE GRIT (DIR. THE COEN BROS) – US

The Coen’s are so consistently good, it’s almost boring. Here they turn their meticulous hands to full on western, and master the genre in one fell swoop. A remake of Henry Hathaway’s original, the brothers stick to a more traditional approach, harking back to the classic Westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, but with a few of their own surreal touches for good measure. Jeff Bridges seems to be one of the few leading actors of the 70’s not to have settled into semi –retirement, and is a wizened joy here.

5) NORWEGIAN WOOD (DIR. ANH HUNG TRAN )– JAPAN

Based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 60’s set doomed romance, Vietnamese director brings an exquisite visual style to the books foundations. Garnering only luke warm reviews, this is for me one of the more underrated films of the year. Taking his cues from his earlier films, Hung Tran combines lush, sensual cinematography with subtle, restrained emotions. On top of that, it has an excellent soundtrack featuring CAN and The Velvet Underground.

6) SENNA (DIR. ASIF KAPADIA)– UK

Painstakingly compiled from endless hours of footage, Kapadia’s documentary of the golden F1 driver Ayrton Senna introduces a whole new legion of fans to a sport they thought they hated. Or at least for a couple of hours or so he does, anyway. Made up of grainy interviews and races, with only voiceover to compliment them, the film takes on a hypnotic, compelling quality as we follow the charismatic Senna through his highs and lows.

7) MARGARET (DIR. KENNETH LONERGAN)– USA

Kenneth Lonergan’s long gestating follow up to indie hit You Can Count On Me was riddled with studio and editing troubles, and on it’s eventual release it almost went unnoticed. Thankfully a few major critics rallied around it and it looks like it has at least cult appeal. Following a brattish New York teenager, played by Anna Paquin, as her life is turned upside down by a shocking road accident. Regarded as a response to the confusion 9/11 brought to American life, Margaret is a raw, sprawling drama that leaves the audience to work out their own point of view.

8) BIUTIFUL (DIR. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU) – SPAIN

There was a sense that Inarritu was starting to get ahead of himself, with the bloated Babel and the split with writer Arriagas, but with Biutiful the director has gone back to basics. Anchored by a towering, moving performance from Javier Bardem as a people tracker who starts to have a change of heart. Inarritu shows a side of Barcelona that the tourists won’t see.

9) MELANCHOLIA (DIR. LARS VON TRIER) – SWEDEN & DENMARK

Based on Lars Von Trier’s own struggles with depression, this unusual, elegant film is an effective distortion of the Hollywood disaster movie. Kirsten Dunst plays a bride to be in the midst of the illness, and sees a kinship with the hovering blue planet Melancholia that threatens to engulf the world. The lush visuals and subtle performances elevate this above your standard apocalypse film.

10) CONFESSIONS (DIR. TETSUYA NAKASHIMA)– JAPAN

A fairly low key release this year, this Japanese film was a strange mixture of high school drama, thriller and who dunnit. A teachers child is killed by one of her students, and like Battle Royale, the adults end up having the last laugh. Multiple view points tell the story, and the film is notable for its inventive, playful visual style and soundtrack featuring the XX and Radiohead.

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Sergei Parajanov occupies a strange place in public perception; lauded to the high heavens by critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet seemingly unknown to 99% of the population. Perhaps it is his Armenian background, not exactly a hotbed of household figures. Or maybe it’s because of the censorship and imprisonment that hindered his career? Fortunately Parajanov seems to be gaining some more exposure in recent years; there has been an upswell in interest in lost filmic gems, signaled by Scorsese’s film restorations.

Parajanov certainly deserves his reputation, despite any qualms I might have with some of his work. His films have a visual style almost completely unique to any other; how many filmmakers could you say that about? The Colour of Pomegranates is his most famous film. It is an unconventional biopic of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Instead of telling a traditional story of Nova’s life, traipsing through his ups and downs, Parajanov uses an elliptic editing style, making use of static tableaux shots and poetic flights of fancy.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a distinctive story to grasp onto. We begin seeing through a child’s point of view, flashes of colourful daily life in a rustic town. It is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the recent The Tree of Life, dwelling on moments of beauty and revelling in Nova’s childlike wonder. Parajanov has little interest in telling a classical story, but creating a piece of work that reflects Nova’s own poetry.

There is little dialogue, and the acting is fairly muted. Having seen a few of Parajanov’s films now, I would say that the performances are less about expressing themselves as human beings, more vessels for Parajanov’s overall vision. Parajanov was influenced by “Armenian illuminated miniatures”, which explains why each frame feels more like a intricate painting than a cinematic image. Costumes and mise en scene are lovingly handcrafted by Parajanov, creating some of the most beautiful frames in cinema.

I have to confess, although Pomegranates is visually stunning, I prefer the swashbuckling, roaming cinematography of Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, an earlier film. The Kalatozov ( The Cranes Are Flying) style camera work coupled with the mise en scene in that film created some extraordinary sequences. Still, Pomegranates is one of the most distinctive and visually inventive films ever produced; young filmmakers would do well to get educated by it.

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