INTerview: Hanan Townshend

Hanan Townshend's introduction to the world of composing music for film has been quite extraordinary. This is the gentleman who received an e-mail from his college professor, asking if he'd be interested in working with an "acclaimed director" that turned out to be one of the most reclusive, poetic filmmakers, who was readying his magnum opus --  his fifth film in 38 years -- which ended up winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The film was The Tree of Life and the director was Terrance Malick.

Hanan Townshend has been collaborating with the notable filmmaker ever since, having worked on three additional films of his since then, including the latest documentary, Voyage of Time. Interiors had a chance to talk to the man responsible for composing the music for some of our favorite films of all time.

INT: Can you tell us little about yourself and your background?

HT: Certainly, I'm a Kiwi born film composer based in the U.S. I grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand's countryside, but from an early age knew that I was better at writing music than farming. I spent any windows of time I could gather between farm jobs writing songs and recording them on my Kurzweil electric piano. In my teens, I released a few albums and performed in bands. I enjoyed the process of producing and recording in the studio and decided to study composition at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. In 2008, I came to the states for a year-long exchange program at the University of Texas, where I began working on films with several U.S. based directors. After completing my degree in New Zealand, I decided to return to the states to continue my pursuit of becoming a film composer.

INT: In the past few years, you’ve been working with one of the most private filmmakers. How did you come to work with Terrance Malick? What was it like first meeting him?

HT: Working with Terry was a serendipitous encounter, really. While in the states for my exchange program, I actively sought opportunities to write music for film. My professor, Bruce Pennycook, forwarded me an email saying something in the way of: “acclaimed director seeks student composer for unnamed project.” I responded quickly, sent some of my music and received a call back from producer Nicolas Gonda. I went into the editing suite a few days later and discovered that the director was Terrence Malick and the film was The Tree of Life. It was surreal, and of course I was thrilled.

INT: What was your role on The Tree of Life? How did you then go on to the To the Wonder?

HT: On The Tree of Life I contributed music to the film, which consisted mostly of simplified arrangements of Episcopal hymns. This lead me to making the trek up to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where they were shooting To the Wonder and I asked the producers if they would allow me to come on board as the composer for the film. I worked in the editing suites in Austin, Texas and wrote music for the film nearly everyday. I believe I worked on the project full time for eight months.

INT: What is a typical day of work like for you?

HT: I'm an early riser, so I'm up by 6.30am everyday. The first thing I do is fire up my espresso machine and brew a couple of flat whites, then help get my son off to school. I usually write for six hours, unless I'm on a tight deadline. I find that's my sweet spot for my own creative bubble, any longer and I lose my artistic perspective. Outside of writing, I usually have several conference calls throughout the day. When working on a project, I'm communicate frequently with directors, agencies, and producers, so there is a lot of back-and-forth to make sure that I have what I need to give them the best experience possible.

INT: What is it like living in Austin – a city that is so well known for its music scene? Does that inspire you or influence you in any way? Do you enjoy being surrounded by that or does that not really affect you in any significant way?

HT: Truth be told, I just moved from Austin up into the Seattle area. I do miss the Austin community (especially the breakfast tacos!), but I enjoy this new phase of life in the Pacific Northwest. It feels a little closer to my home country having the mountains, lakes and oceans at your doorstep. I feel more inspired when surrounded by the beauty of the landscapes here; it definitely affects my music, too, in the best ways!

INT: What do you do when you aren’t working? What do you listen to in your free time or in the car?

HT: I love spending time with my family! We just a little baby girl in August, who is the cutest wee thing. We're also in the process of renovating a historic farmhouse, so any free time gets eaten up fixing things, painting, installing light fixture etc. Recently I've been listening to a lot of British electronica/trip hop (Bonobo is one of my favorites). I love the way they are able to mash together orchestral samples and loops from completely different genres and create a new piece of music that feels so fresh, its inspiring.

INT: Terrance Malick, as we all know, works unlike other filmmakers, in the sense that there isn’t always a concrete screenplay. How does that affect your process?

HT: My process on Terry's films is a little different from a conventional film scoring experience, because there isn't a concrete screenplay when I begin work on the film. Much of the story is crafted in the editing room. As a composer, I work within this process. Rather than writing directly to picture, I mostly compose music away from the cut. This means the music needs to be adaptable to the project but also allows for the film to be adaptable to the music. While it's not feasible for every project, I do appreciate this way of working. 

INT: What kind of director is he in terms of the discussions you guys have about the music? What are you conversations like?

HT: Each project is different, but I find we often speak less about specific moments or themes and more about the larger questions of the characters in the film, like a particular struggle or doubts, or perhaps their search for purpose. We spend a lot of time experimenting to find the right musical language for each film, I appreciate this way of working as it leads you into new and sometimes unfamiliar waters.

INT: Do you go to the movies often? What do you typically find yourself watching?

HT: Yes, when I can; although, I probably watch more TV shows than films. I really love this new wave of independent filmmakers writing and directing their own shows (House Of Cards, The Knick), I feel like we're seeing a completely fresh take on something that has perhaps in the past has become a little stagnant and predictable. I'm drawn to gritty, dark dramas.

INT: What’s your favorite film?

HT: I don't know if I can say I have a favorite. One film that I love is Darren Aronofksy's The Fountain. I didn't like the film when I first saw it in the cinema, actually, but it intrigued me so much that I ended up watching it three or four more times. As I watched it more, I fell in love with it. The film has such a unique approach, and it blends several genres together in a really beautiful way. The music for the film, composed by Clint Mansell, is absolutely incredible! Another close second is Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

INT: Voyage of Time is your first documentary with Terrance Malick. Is there a difference between working on a documentary with him instead of a narrative feature film?

HT: Contributing music to the Voyage Of Time films was very similar to all the experiences I've had working with Terry. In many ways I feel like all of his films are more like documentaries in nature, with their freedom from a concrete screenplay and identifiable experiences and personalities between audience and characters.

Voyage of Time is scheduled for release on October 7, 2016.