Composing Malick: Hanan Townshend on a Surprise and Enduring Collaboration


Film director looking for student composer.” That’s all the ad said, but Hanan Townshend, a music student from New Zealand doing a study abroad program at the University of Texas in Austin, decided to answer it. The film director turned out to be Terrence Malick; the film was The Tree of Life. Since then, Townshend has been the credited composer on the filmmaker’s features To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, and he also worked extensively on Malick’s documentary Voyage of Time. We talked to the young composer about the surreal process of working with this most enigmatic and unconventional of directors. (Read Bilge Ebiri’s piece on the eternal symphony of Malick’s The Tree of Life.)

What was it like working with Terrence Malick at first?

At first, it was clear that I was only coming in as a supplement, to try out some ideas. Alexandre Desplat was doing the music, and I was not to interfere with what he was doing, and never had any intention to. But Terry really likes to have the time and freedom to experiment during post-production. I was doing a lot of simple arrangements of Episcopalian hymns and early American songs. A lot of stuff for solo woodwinds — stripped-bare, minimalist pieces. But I wrote a lot of music for the film. I didn’t have a car, because I had come to the States for one year; I was not planning to stay long term. So someone would come pick me up and take me to the office every Friday, and I would just record these little piano pieces. It was the opposite of glamorous, really. Sometimes, Terry would be very specific: “I really would like you to do arrangements of this particular hymn.” But sometimes he’d just say, “Do what inspires you.”

In Tree of Life, there are a number of existing orchestral, classical pieces that are later reprised in simple piano arrangements. That was you?

Yeah, we tried to reprise some of these things because they’re such pivotal pieces of music in the film. So it made sense to bring them back again in these simplified versions. This allowed us to create some kind of continuity between the source music and the rearranged music. I have continued to work with Terry in this way — where I’m not just writing an original score, I’m also arranging or reprising some of the other source music from the film. The goal is to create a flow, a dialogue, between the original music and the new arrangements. Also it helps to solidify the musical language of the film. It helps glue it all together.

As a composer coming in to work with Terry, if you go into it expecting to write this full original score, he’ll probably end up cutting most of your music out. You need to respect the fact that he is going to use some of these existing classical pieces. It’s been cool for me, because I know that he’s worked with many other composers, and they’ve all had their own process. And he can choose the cream of the crop, as you know; he can choose whoever he wants. But I feel like since The Tree of Life, this relationship that I’ve had with Terry is how he likes to work. Maybe I was able to adapt to that because I was young and fresh. I didn’t have as much baggage, and wasn’t so set in my ways. Terry could be really frank with me if something wasn’t working.

How has your process of working changed over the years? You’re no longer a student.

There are basically two different parts to composing for me. There’s the original music that I write for him, and then there are the arrangements for the reprises of these classical pieces. When it comes to writing the original music — if you’ve ever listened to any of my soundtracks from his films, they’re really meditative — sort of these long, drone-like pieces. The music has to be really adaptable, because the film will change. Sometimes I’ll see something and say, “That’s the final cut,” and very often, I’ll be totally wrong. The music is always being moved around or shortened or lengthened.

Terry sometimes says he’s the carpenter and I’m providing him with the wood and the nails. So he’s putting the structure together, and the music is often just given to him and the editors to experiment with on their end. So it’s not “We want a piece of music for this scene and this scene and this cue.” It’s “Give us a whole lot of different music that will work for the world of the film, and we will find a place to put it.” And that’s completely different from the conventional experience where you spot a film with the director and talk about what specifically you want. Terry’s movie are made in post-production. And you truly become part of that process. You bring in a track that maybe resonates with someone, and they start experimenting with it, and it could actually become the backbone of some part of the story. So, on To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, we did three or four different recording sessions instead of just doing just one session. We were doing them throughout.

Malick, I’m told, likes to speak in metaphors. That seems like a natural fit with a musician, since that’s often the way we describe music as well — through metaphors.

How do you put music into words? You could talk about instrumentation or orchestration or just all the different ways that an instrument makes you feel. But ultimately, you’re talking about things that are abstract. And that’s why [directors and editors] rely so much on temp music. You throw on a temp track for a scene, and suddenly you have your starting point. “I don’t know exactly what I want, but that’s the closest thing I can find for what I do want.”

When we talk about the music, we’ll talk about abstract things. With Knight of Cups, for example, we always talked about Christian Bale’s character, Rick, and what he’s searching for, and how the music could reflect that. We were always trying to create this wandering piece of music that was searching. Or we might talk about how the music is supposed to represent space or peril or something like that — sometimes, it could just be a word.

I wrote a piece of music for Terry a while back called “Eclipse.” It was supposed to be representing an eclipse — like, you’re having this bright, sunny day and then all of a sudden we go into darkness 30 seconds into the piece. And then the moon pulls out from behind the sun again, and we’re back into this light-dark, light-dark kind of thing. That’s a very important part of what I’ve seen in Terry’s films: this sense of light and darkness, good and evil. An innate struggle within us. So in the music we’re always trying to represent these extremes, these opposites.

Now that you have been doing this for some time, how has your conception of film music changed? There are a lot of filmmakers out there who feel that film music should be used very sparingly or not at all.

I certainly am much more open to the idea of breathing room. Now I’ll often find myself working with a director and saying that there’s too much music. Sometimes they just slap it in everywhere, and it loses its impact. And very often, composers want things louder, but I often find myself thinking, “Let’s take the music down a little bit.” There’s that story about the band, where they go in with the mix engineer, and the drummer says, “I can’t hear the drums.” So they turn the drums up. And the vocalist says, “I can’t hear the vocals,” and they turn that up. Then the guitarist can’t hear the guitar. And so on and so forth — until you realize that all you’ve done is turn the whole thing up louder!

I feel like as a composer, I’ve been able to get away from that mindset. Sometimes it should be quieter, sometimes there should be less music. I just watched The Revenant again with my wife the other day. Now there’s a film where the music comes in very gently, like a river, just washing in and out. It’s very simple. There’s something kind of refreshing about that. A lot of scores coming out nowadays are much more textural; there are fewer big, powerful themes. I like music that will wash over me, without me having to come out the theater whistling a tune. But maybe that’s just me.

What’s the most interesting or surprising thing that you’ve encountered with Malick, or that he’s said to you?

I don’t think it’s any one thing. But when I was on the set for To the Wonder, there was a moment where they were shooting a scene with actors, and, suddenly, Terry saw these vapor trails in the sky. The camera and the crew and everyone turned up in the middle of the scene, and just shot these vapor trails for what seemed like 20 or 30 minutes. And the actors were kind of standing there. It was one of the most eye-opening things for me. I have applied that to my own compositional approach. So I may be working with an orchestra, but rather than getting them to play the notes on the page the whole time, I’ll look for moments of inspiration and experimentation. The players might look at me like, “What the heck? This isn’t what we do. You haven’t written it down.” “I know I haven’t written it down, but let’s just play around with it!”

There was a piece of music I wrote for To the Wonder that wound up in an Apple commercial as well, which Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s longtime cinematographer] directed. It was one of the main themes in the film, and it started as just an experiment. I had extra time with some woodwind players, and I just said, “Hey can you guys just play some arpeggios?” And we toyed around with it. I know Terry has a lot of ideas about this as well — the idea of allowing these moments of spontaneity. When they come, just jump on them and try something new.

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