After answering an ad seeking a composer to work with a “celebrated” director, Hanan Townshend became Terrence Malick’s friend and collaborator, writing the sound tracks for Malick’s last four films: Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and, now, Voyage of Time, Malick’s exploration of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Townshend chats with Director Talk about working with Malick, the role of music in film, and the effect technology has on the film score. Click here for more about Hanan Townshend and links to his music. •Availability: Voyage of Time is now available in theaters around the country in IMAX and standard versions. •Thanks to Dita Dimone, Sweet Heat PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: How do you see the role of music in film?
HT: I think music can take on many different roles. Obviously it’s part of the narrative, part of the storytelling process, but I think music can be like cinematography—just as cinematography creates a visual landscape for the film, music can create a soundscape for those things you can’t quite put into words.
I grew up in the New Zealand countryside, right next to the ocean. The sounds of nature and the soundscapes of where I grew up are a big part of my writing, and I like to bring that to the table when I write. Rather than the orchestra just playing notes and progressions, you’re creating a soundscape with the orchestra. Sometimes it will be very simple, like the orchestra sustaining one note for two or three minutes. For most composers, that’s a pretty long time to stay on one note, but I like that; I like time, I like an ambient orchestra in a way that lets you create textural pieces as well.
DT: What is your process of working with Terrence Malick, and has it changed as you spend more time with him? For instance, do you see a rough cut before you compose?
HT: Terry’s films are a little less conventional, obviously, so we tend to talk about music in a more abstract form. It could be something as simple as an interval—Terry loves to use the tritone and minor second, those kinds of intervals that create tension and then resolution—but I’m always working away from the picture. As we’re moving closer to a final locked cut, I may be working with picture a little bit, but I think of myself as a composer who’s providing music for the editor and Terry to experiment with during the editing process. Sometimes when I watch the final film in the theater or at the premier I don’t know exactly how my music is going to be used, but that’s exciting.
DT: Do you read a script first?
HT: I asked Terry whether I should read the script for To the Wonder and he suggested that I shouldn’t worry about it, I think because the script for him is a loose blueprint of the film. Especially now, with Voyage of Time, I feel like there’s no real concrete script, so you could read a script but very likely after the movie’s in the editorial process for a few months it could have changed dramatically. I remember Sean Penn saying that he was taken aback when he saw Tree of Life because it was so dramatically different from the script. I have read some of the scripts for Terry’s films, but I don’t specifically read them when I’m working on a project because I feel like I’d rather immerse myself in what’s happening during the editing process and what the editors are working on.
DT: Do they edit the music, or do you do a music edit?
HT: I’ll see it through the initial sketches, and then we’ll go back and forth. The editors might send me some edited music, and I’ll reconform that on my end. Then we’ll usually do a recording with an orchestra. The way Terry uses music is very much like a collage. He uses pieces of music that may run for a minute or two, but often he and the editors are working to create this ebb and flow between pieces of music. It really is like a collage, and quite a different approach. As a composer, you’re providing the wood and the nails for them. They’re the carpenters who create the structure, as opposed to you going in and doing your session with the orchestra and having everything scored with time code. It’s not like that at all. It’s just providing the material and then they’ll find a place to put it into the musical world of the film.
DT: How many times do you actually record with the orchestra, and at what point?
HT: It all depends on the project. With To the Wonder and Knight of Cups we probably did about three or four sessions. Terry encourages me to experiment with the orchestra, which is something you don’t really have time to do when you’re doing a session on the scoring stage because you’re always trying to record so much music. But with Terry we would do a lot of sessions that were purely experimental, where we would have the players improvise.
Now I’ve adapted that into my own process, because not writing everything down on the page allows spontaneity and moments when you can’t notate the stuff—it’s a moment in time, and you’ve captured it. It’s quite unique. There’s a piece of music which was in To the Wonder, which was used in an Apple commercial in 2014. It was just woodwind players, and I got them to experiment with just playing arpeggios in D minor. We recorded it and didn’t think anything of it, but then I pulled it back in and started playing around with it, and I realized there was something really interesting there. I wouldn’t sit down and write it, but there was an interesting kind of textural idea. It worked, so this arpeggiated and improvised woodwind piece became a pretty important part of the score of To the Wonder.
DT: Where did you study music?
HT: I went to the New Zealand School of Music. They didn’t specifically have a film scoring program, so I was doing 21st-century composition. That meant I was writing more avant-garde music, which I enjoyed. I’m still very much a bit of a sucker for tonal music—I’ll be honest—so I didn’t really see myself wanting to do that long term, but I’m very thankful I did it, because it opened my mind to a lot of possibilities of different approaches to composition, different composers I never would have heard of.
I’ve always had an affinity to British film composers, because there are a lot who come from similar kinds of backgrounds. My experiences in the States, when I studied at the University of Texas, were wonderful but different, because it was more a film scoring program. We’d listen to John Williams and Alan Silvestri and very American composers and riff off some of their ideas. So I’m thankful I had that experience in New Zealand. Opening one’s mind is so important in terms of allowing yourself as an artist to go into waters that are a little unfamiliar.
DT: In terms of composing, what is the most important musical tool you have—rhythm, instrumentation, melodic line?
HT: If I talk about an instrument group, I love working with woodwind players because there’s something about the colors of the instrument; the color changes as the instrument moves up and down its register, and you get these completely different sounds. The strings are beautiful of course, and I love to write for strings, but I find myself always wanting to write for woodwinds. I don’t know if it’s because of the soloistic quality that you can get out of them but at the same time there’s this way the chords play together when you have a group of woodwind players. The way the chords work together is very emotional for me. That’s something I definitely pull on a lot, but these days a lot of it comes down to having really good sample libraries.
DT: What is a sample?
HT: A sample is a recording of orchestral instruments playing every note separately.
DT: So you’ll have a violin playing an A, then a B-flat.
HT: That’s right. Every single note is recorded, and they’ll do different articulations, like a sustained note, and then they’ll do a staccato, and then pizzicato, and they’ll record pretty much everything they can on that instrument.
A lot of directors want to hear something that’s very, very close to the final recording, so you’ve got to have really, really good libraries. With a Midi keyboard you can have the orchestra pretty much at your fingertips. The libraries are very powerful because computers are so powerful now—you can really dial them in to get a very realistic sound. The most difficult thing with samples isn’t so much the notes; it’s everything between the notes, like keeping the natural feel of a legato on a solo string playing up and down and moving the fingers across the fretboard. That’s something that’s very hard to capture with a sample recording, but they sound pretty good these days.
Samples actually allow for a lot of experimentation as well, because you can pitch-shift and you can do things with the instrument that you couldn’t do with a real player. But the samples can also be crippling, because if you write too much for the samples, you’re eliminating things the orchestra can play that samples can’t.
I’m still surprised by the number of TV shows and movies where I listen to the sound track and think, ‘That’s all sampled.’ Or Hans Zimmer’s approach is to combine samples with a real orchestra, so it becomes a sort of meld of the two together, a kind of amalgamation that’s rather cool.
DT: In the sound track to The Vessel, you use the human voice, which is fairly uncommon in a sound track. Can you comment on that?
HT: We worked with a wonderful singer named Mela Dailey, who’s based out of Austin, Texas. We wanted to give the score a little bit of an operatic feel with solo voice, and we didn’t want the solo voice to be a pop voice. We wanted it to have a more classical sound to it. When we worked with Mela, we even tried to get her to sing like a boy, because there’s this beautiful soloistic quality that sopranos have when they sing like a boy. When you hear a solo boy sing, there’s a pureness to the sound that’s so young and so unadulterated, and we tried to capture that in the sound as well. I was really happy with how it turned out. Some sound tracks use voice, but they tend to use it in a pop kind of way, whereas I was interested in trying to keep a more classical kind of sound if we could.
DT: You recently worked on Malick’s documentary, Voyage of Time. I guess this question is almost irrelevant, given you don’t read the script in advance, but is there a difference between working on fiction and documentary?
HT: With Terry or in general?
HT: I’ll answer in regards to Terry first. I find that Terry’s movies are almost already documentaries. The way he works with actors, the way he works with the editorial process is almost the same way as a documentary—the film is shot, but then it’s made in postproduction. They craft the story there. In many ways it was a very easy transition for him to go from his narrative films to working on a documentary—they cross over a lot in terms of the approach. There isn’t really a concrete script for Voyage of Time, like there isn’t for any of Terry’s films. He used much of the same techniques and processes that he’s comfortable with. He’s certainly made the documentary in a way that he felt comfortable…Voyage of Time has definitely got Terry’s signature on it.
My experience working on documentaries is quite different. Generally there isn’t a script. Obviously, if someone’s written a reenactment, the reenactments are scripted, but generally speaking there isn’t a script, so there’s a lot more ebb and flow in the edit, changing a lot more, there are things that get cut out entirely, things that get put in and you say, Whoa, I didn’t even know that was there, so it all depends when I get involved. If I get involved very, very early on, then I’ll probably be writing a lot of music and sharing early on so they can edit to it. Then they’ll send it back to me and I’ll reconform it to the edit. If it’s a documentary that’s kind of locked, then I’ve already got the final thing. I lock everything to the cut, and that’s it.
DT: That’s when you’re brought in late in the process?
HT: Yeah, but it all depends. When it’s an indie film, the director usually likes to have the composer on board a little bit earlier on because it helps influence the way the film is cut, as opposed to just replacing temp music. You’re actually able to create a dialogue between the film and the music so the music’s a part of the story; you’re not just replacing temp music, so to speak. It really comes down to how much time you have.
DT: What’s your favorite part about the process and what’s your favorite sound track?
HT: My favorite part of the process is definitely the recording session because it’s when everything comes to life. All these ideas that you’ve been sketching out or playing around with—you’re with the orchestra saying, “Pretty please, I hope this all works.” Then you hear the orchestra playing it for the first time, and it’s always a special moment. Of course they’re asking, “What should we do different next time?” And you’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, that’s right,” because you’ve just been so busy enjoying it. All this work, and now we’re here. So that’s definitely my most favorite part of the process.
I have a couple of favorite scores. As I said before, I have a connection to a lot of British film composers; I don’t know if it’s because of my studies or if it’s because I’m from New Zealand. But I really love Clint Mansell and his score for The Fountain, the Darren Aronofsky film. I think it’s one of the most interesting in terms of the way the sound track is integrated into the story. As I was saying before about just replacing temp music…The Fountain doesn’t feel like that. It feels like there’s a connection between the music and the rest of the film, an even flow, and it’s very, very emotional and memorable for me. I didn’t like the film the first time I saw it, but I watched it again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I had to go watch it again. After I’d watched it a few times, I thought, ‘This film has me.’ I fell in love with it.
Another score that definitely worked for me is Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. I remember sitting in the theater and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ I hadn’t heard music used like that in a film for…I don’t know if I’d ever heard music used in that way before, at least not in that exact way. But I’m also a sucker for Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings sound track. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a New Zealander. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything about Lord of the Rings, because everyone will say, “Oh, typical,” but I just remember being in the theater and thinking, ‘This is an incredible score.’
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