Interview: Hanan Townshend Talks About Becoming Terrence Malick’s Go-To Composer

You make your own luck but this is still a “good luck” story. Talented composer Hanan Townshend talks to Top 10 Films about grabbing his big break with both hands, landing the chance to develop music for Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life and continuing their collaboration through To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups and Malick-produced film The Vessel

Composer Hanan Townshend working on Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups

Composer Hanan Townshend working on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

For most, it would be a daunting assignment working with enigmatic auteur Terrence Malick. Yet, sometimes once in a lifetime opportunities arise that can only be embraced despite the challenges. For New Zealand-born composer Hanan Townshend, his work with Malick, firstly on The Tree Of Life and then To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, has presented him with the chance to bring his talent to a much wider audience.

But it really is a “good luck” story. Getting his compositions in The Tree Of Life was the result of applying to a wanted ad without knowing the project or the director attached to it. Within days of sending examples, Townshend was sat down having a meeting with Malick.

The rest, as they say, is history. It seems to be the right time to be working with Malick, whose creative ambition seems to have been enlivened in recent years following long periods of hiatus including twenty years without directing a film (two decades bookended by Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998).

Incorrectly labelled a recluse but famously protective of his personal life, Malick is as much a mystery as his enigmatic work which includes the frustrating ambiguity of experimental drama The Tree Of Life. It’s certainly a film that divides audiences but is one met with critical adoration. Roger Ebert was so struck by Malick’s work he likened it to Kubrick’s 2001 while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw alluded to its enigmas in his praise saying it’s “mad and magnificent”.

As an introduction to feature film composing, The Tree Of Life was a testing first project, to say the least. “There is an element of the unknown when collaborating with Terry, you have to be willing to go along for the journey even if you don’t know where the final destination might be,” says Townshend. But that is something that “suits my personality”, he adds. “I’m always amazed at where we end up when the project is completed.”

Townshend’s process is to give Malick and his editors musical “bins” from where they can take the music they need. This presents its own challenges, not least developing the score without specific knowledge of the scene or music cues. However, for Malick, it provides freedom to pick and choose. Townshend describes it as a more “fluid approach to editing and scoring” because editors can continue to make changes to the final edit while the composer’s work is effectively complete.

Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life

Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life

Composing for Malick’s films starts once the editing process gets under way. “We often begin by talking about music in terms of how it might represent the characters’ internal struggles. We may speak about music in very abstract terms and will sometimes use simple musical gestures to reveal something in the story, an example is the “tritone” (“devil’s interval”) and ways we can use it to create tension and resolution.

“There are really two different parts to the score, the original compositions and the “shadows” or simplified arrangements of classical pieces. I feel it my job as the composer to create a musical continuity throughout the film and creating simple arrangements of the classical repertoire used in the film helps to keep everything in the same ‘world’.”

It’s very much a collaborative process, one underpinned by Malick’s knowledge of music and how he wants it to complement what’s happening on screen. “Terry is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to understanding and discussing music and for that reason we speak frequently in person or on the phone. He is very open to my input and allows me freedom to write as I feel inspired.”

Yet, part of the challenge is composing the score without seeing specific, completed scenes cut together. That means Townshend must focus on a general theme discussed in initial meetings, developing the music around agreed or suggested tones, moods and textures.

“I never write to picture so I develop a system of music bins that Terry and his team are able to experiment with during the editing process. Sometimes there will be a back-and-forth where I will continue refining a piece of music until Terry is happy with it and then it will be reworked into the cut.”

Townshend admits to being heavily influenced by the works of European-born composers such as Clint Mansell, Johnny Greenwood and Max Richter, citing Richter’s score for The Fountain as being a personal favourite.

His love of music started at a young age and he was soon playing in bands during his school years, learning all kinds of instruments including piano, drums and guitar. He studied music composition at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, before coming to the USA to study at the University of Texas.

His success, thanks to his break courtesy of The Tree Of Life, has seen him settle in Seattle, Washington. “It was such a wonderful experience not only for me but everyone who had worked on the film,” says Townshend. “It has been a springboard for a lot of the cast and crew who have gone on to do wonderful things.”

It’s a film he understandably looks back on with great affection. “I think there is something incredibly universal about Tree Of Life. It’s such a big story, but such a small story at the same time. We all have questions about who we are and we try to mirror ourselves in our parents, I don’t think many films have every explored this like Tree of Life did.”

He says there are similarities between it and his most recent collaboration with Malick on Knight of Cups. However, he says, “I feel there are new liberties taken with regards to a more experimental or even “art film” approach. The story may not be as universal as Tree Of Life, but I think there are still elements that anyone can take from the film.”

Next up for Townshend in cinemas is the Julio Quintana-directed film The Vessel, a film executive produced by Malick and starring Martin Sheen. He’s just finished a Swedish film called Strawberry Land by director Wiktor Ericson and composed some music for Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign during the Rio 2016 Olympics.

“I am excited for what the future has in store. I’m really enjoying this part of my career and getting to build new relationships with new and upcoming directors.”

Written by Dan Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Callum Reply

    He’s definitely talented and his music works well with Malick’s niche. To strike up a relationship with a director like this is surely a dream come true for any composer.

  2. ruth Reply

    Great interview Dan! Wow, must be nice to be the go-to composer for Malick. The music in his films always sound so beautiful and ethereal, I’m a big fan. I didn’t really care for Knight Of Cups as a film, but the score is indeed pleasing to the ear.

  3. Rory Reply

    A super talented guy. And a genuinely nice, down to earth chap too it would seem.

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