A Perfect Fit For Wonderland: Hanan Townshend Talks Malick (Part 1)

Hanan Townshend is not a household name. But, if you’re a fan of Terrence Malick, chances are you’ve heard his work. At least, that is, if you’ve seen the latest endeavors, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Hailing from New Zealand, but now grounded in Austin, TX, he’s a composer who interned (sort of) on The Tree of Life, having a few pieces of classical orchestration used, and then requested composing To the Wonder’s score, which resulted in an astounding collection of work that may be the best yet to arise from Malick’s process. Seriously, if you have yet to check it out, go listen to what he’s done. Around these collaborations he’s composed a few other feature films, and a number of short projects, but for the last three to four years he has been primarily working hand in hand with a man many consider with mythic quandary. I spoke on the phone with Hanan recently and while much of our dialogue surrounds working in the studio with Malick and what these collaborations have meant to him, there is a bright future in store and one we can all hope to be a part.

Garrett Tiedemann: What brought you from New Zealand?

Hanan Townshend: Originally I came to study. I was here for a year and my professor put me in touch with Terry and I ended up doing a kind of interning out there with him. Then I went back to New Zealand, originally I think it was 2010, to finish my degree because I hadn’t finished it yet and applied for a green card and got it. So, I just moved back over and came knocking on the producer’s door and said I want to write the music for To the Wonder. Give me the opportunity.

GT: Really?

HT: And they were like, yeah, maybe. So, I had proved myself.

GT: Nice. So, that’s how you got the project? Or, sort of?

HT: Yeah, pretty much.

GT: That was one of the things I was going to ask you. I knew you had some work for The Tree of Life, but then I remember when people were first announcing that you were doing the score for To the Wonder you were the least recognized name that Malick had worked with, as far as a composer, for the full score.

HT: Yeah.

GT: And I remember reading some stuff where people were like, “Where the hell did he come from?”

HT: I was privileged because it was a great part of my life doing something that was here in Austin. I was going in there every week and when I was working on To the Wonder I was working in the office with him.

GT: Really?

HT: Yeah. It’s a really intimate experience. The traditional director/composer relationship doesn’t exist with Terry. I was never writing to picture. I would see a few things every now and again, and we would discuss some ideas. I think it was just my ability. I think Terry figured I just had the right skill set to do what he wanted and on the same token, I would really devote 14 months of my life on a project and be working in the office with him. I don’t think many of the other composers were able to do that. I think [Hans] Zimmer actually did. I think they were able to work very closely.

GT: From what I know I think they were working in Zimmer’s studio. But, you’re right, I think he was able to give that time. I know with [Alexandre] Desplat he was kind of working in and out of it for a year or two.

HT: Yeah.

GT: And he would send him pieces and Terry would send back notes. I have no idea of the process with [James] Horner. All I remember hearing was that he couldn’t handle Terry’s process because Horner is so cue driven and in that sort of old school idea that you sit down with a finished product and you write your music for it.

HT: Yeah, absolutely.

GT: I don’t even think, if I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think Horner was originally attached and he was kind of brought in after, for whatever reason, the previous composer couldn’t do it or wasn’t available or something. I can’t remember.

HT: Oh, interesting. I didn’t know that. I know on Days of Heaven there is only one piece of music that [Ennio] Morricone wrote that he said to Terry I want that to be for the scene I wrote it for. The rest you can leave it, you can put it wherever you want, but I want this one piece. I’m not even sure what that one piece is, I’ve never been able to work it out, but you can’t get too attached to it. He’s not looking for the obvious. He’s always going to do something different.

GT: I remember when The Tree of Life was getting ready to come out I was thinking Terry is either going to be done or he’s going to have an explosion of stuff because the weight is gone from this one project that he’d wanted to do for so long and thankfully he didn’t decide to cash it in.

The lovely thing is it seems now at least people are much more aware that if you’re going to work with him you’ve got to recognize that it’s not going to be like anything else.

HT: Yeah.

GT: And you can either roll with it or you can’t and you have to make that decision.

HT: Yeah, that’s true. That’s very true. And it’s across the board as well. It’s a challenge but a wonderful experience for every person that’s involved. He just has such a unique way of working.

GT: Did To the Wonder come upon faster than The Tree of Life? I know The Tree of Life had been in editing for quite a while. Can you talk a bit about how the process compared? In connection with the fact that how you worked on it was different.

HT: I felt like I was in unchartered territory when I came on board, well I didn’t really come on board especially, but when I was working on The Tree of Life. I wasn’t even that familiar with Terry’s films at that point. I’d seen some of them. I knew who he was, of course, but I wasn’t aware of how he worked. And, so, I would sort of come in every week and just bring him some, you know, a lot of piano, I did a lot of solo piano pieces, I was writing a lot of music, I was writing probably in the range of ten to fifteen maybe twenty minutes of music a week.  And that went on for nearly two or three years. If you can imagine it, there’s a lot of music.

But with Terry, the thing is, you are just trying to cover your bases. He often has these big pivotal or big classical pieces at very pivotal moments in the films. There are things I could do that could compare, but if he’s attached to a particular piece by Wagner there is nothing I can do to try and get away from him. So, I was kind of giving him a lot of strettos on here, which is simplified, just the themes and tried to simplify them, so that’s what I did for Tree and then with To the Wonder it was sort of the same territory apart from this time I was going to write the score so he wanted stuff that really was underscore, stuff that could really just sit down underneath the picture almost and come into your subconscious mind as opposed to the bigger stuff that was classical repertoire. So, yeah it was different, but at the same time, when I look at both experiences, I think the only thing that was different with To the Wonder was that I knew I was going to be the composer so I was ready to take on that role. Coming in from that experience as an intern I just tried to give him what he needed, whatever he wanted.

[Continued in Part 2]

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