Composer Hanan Townshend on becoming Terence Malick’s go-to
When Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups came out last spring—the third film in a spate of unusual productivity for the enigmatic auteur—it prompted what is now the patented Terrence Malick response: a lot of people talked about seeing the film; some went; many hated it and said so; and a few loved it, but didn’t want to talk about it. That the legendary director—a Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar who allegedly stopped just short of his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford (because of a disagreement with his advisor); who taught at M.I.T. and translated Heidegger before leaving academia to attend the American Film Institute Conservatory (just a few blocks away from Flaunt HQ in Hollywood); whose every film has been critically acclaimed, and helmed by A-list actors—could elicit such a wan response is, perhaps, a sign of our times.
Regardless, it is perhaps also true that the spirit that drives Malick to produce relentlessly challenging films is the same spirit that drove him to put out a help wanted ad in the University of Texas Austin where New Zealand-born Hanan Townshend was a student, saying “An acclaimed director is looking for a student composer.” Townsend jumped on the opportunity, working collaboratively with Malick on 2011’s The Tree of Life, and when Malick was making his next film—2012’s To the Wonder—Townsend hopped on a plane after winning the New Zealand green card lottery and showed up in Oklahoma to audition for the job of composer. That productive relationship has continued to two more films—the aforementioned Knight of Cups, and an IMAX documentary: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey—and shows no signs of flagging.
Speaking on that initial experience of working with a film legend, Townshend is modest. “I’d seen his movies,” he says, “but I watched them when I was a little bit younger, and I didn’t resonate with them in the same way. Once I rewatched them I was like, ‘oh my goodness.’ I guess I didn’t realize how acclaimed he was, which was more to my benefit, because if I had known who he was and realized how much respect he has received, I probably would have taken a knee.”
“Terry is a very private person.” Townshend says, “He’s not the kind of person who you would do well to be like, ‘Love your work.’ He’s not that kind of person.”
Having grown up on a dairy farm in New Zealand with minimal opportunities to work in the film industry, Townshend is keenly aware of how rare an opportunity this was. “I’ve always loved film music and always enjoyed music that just makes you feel something.” He says, “Working with Terry, I feel that I’ve been able to experiment. You learn the rules to break the rules, and breaking the rules is important, because it allows for innovation—to take music, film, and the arts into a new direction.”
Townshend is similarly pioneering in his approach to climate change, pointing to another big-picture issue facing humanity: our lack of dialogue. “I think the most important part is just talking,” he says, “even if it means talking to someone who disagrees with your point of view. Being open to hearing their side, and having that discussion. I think that our generation—and I’m really hopeful—is seeing a shift, a grassroots understanding of interacting more with each other and taking care of your neighbors. I’m just blown away about how there are many people are around us that we don’t know.”
Written by Amy Marie Slocum
Photographed by Scott Everett