“I wonder, uh, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben. The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God.”
“Sound of Metal” (2019) just became available on Amazon Prime, and I urge you to experience it. It deals with a musician who starts losing his hearing. All of a sudden, what he thought he was good at – what he thought defined him as a human being – is taken away. And he starts to question who he is. What will he be able to do now? Halfway through assimilating this remarkable movie, I was stunned to realize that it was articulating the searching and the challenges that we’ve all been grappling with these past enigmatic and arduous months. All of a sudden, everything that we knew about ourselves was stripped away. Fade out. We were forced to reassess our lives without the stimuli, the relationships, the interactions and things that demarcated us and made our everyday continuum fulfilling. Like Ruben, the main character – we flailed back in March, as things started to untether. We were on a path – and all of a sudden – there was a different plan. I don’t know about you, but at some point I decided to learn how to live in our new condition. In a way, it felt like learning a new language. If I couldn’t connect with a loved one by being in the same room, what else could I do to make a meaningful interaction? In one moment in “Sound of Metal,” Ruben is given an assignment: “Learn how to be deaf.”
Before I go any further, I should state that Riz Ahmed in the main role of Ruben is without a doubt one of the best performances of 2020. It is a demanding role both physically and emotionally. Not only did Ahmed have to learn how to drum like a professional musician, he also had to learn American Sign Language. He transformed his body to illustrate a wiry character ravaged by a former addiction and a tough life on the road. But it is his expressive eyes that gives us a window into all the palpable emotions that he’s undergoing. There’s a deep level of specificity and vulnerability in this portrayal. I had been impressed with his work in the film “Nightcrawler” and with his 2017 Emmy winning turn in the miniseries “The Night Of,” but this is on a whole other level – an expansive work.
Directed by Darius Marder – working from a script co-written with his brother Abraham, “Sound of Metal” tells us about Ruben who after years of touring across the country playing earsplitting drum sets starts to develop rapid hearing loss. The doctor tells him that he needs to curtail his exposure to all loud noises, and his first responsibility is preserving the hearing he has left. His bandmate and lover, Lou is afraid that this crisis will trigger a relapse into his drug addiction and convinces him to check into a sober community for the deaf where he will be able to learn to adapt.
It is there that Ruben meets the manager Joe – a deaf Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic – who is a cross between a guru and a father figure – and who tells him that if he lives by the group’s rules, his life will be rich as it ever was – maybe richer. “You don’t need to fix anything here” he instructs him – encouraging him to be comfortable with being by himself in a room with his thoughts. Paul Raci – who plays Joe – is a revelation. Ruben learns ASL and starts to teach deaf children about percussion. But Ruben struggles reconciling his new way of living with the need to repossess the way things used to be.
One of the many noteworthy things about this film is its groundbreaking sound design in which we’re immersed in what Ruben’s subjected to. I’ve spoken in the past about seeing from the point of view of a character. In this case, you hear what he hears – or doesn’t – from the very first scene. It’s amazing how your perception starts shifting as the movie progresses and how you start to be more in tune to sounds – including those that Ruben’s own body is making – like breathing or even the blinking of his eyes. It’s also astonishing to think of the trajectory of the film which documents the conversion of the way Ruben hears, while his emotions are evolving as well.
The final minutes in which Ruben bravely embraces his new world are life affirming.
Ruben : “Like, what does it matter? What does it matter? It just passes. Yo. If I disappear, like, who cares? Nobody cares, man. Seriously. Yo, and that’s okay. That’s life. That’s life. No, for real. Okay? It just passes.’
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Screenplay by Darius Marder. Story by Derek Cianfrance.
Written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder
Directed by Darius Marder
Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric
Writer and Director Darius Marder on Bringing “Sound of Metal” to the Screen
The movie and its themes are passionate topics for Marder as he’s spent the past decade trying to make “Sound of Metal.” The idea for the movie came 13 years ago, Marder says, when he first met writer/director Derek Cianfrance, with whom he co-wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines.” “Literally within 30 seconds of meeting each other, we were talking about (Sound of Metal), at least the seed of this project,” Marder says. Cianfrance had previously played drums for a metal band, but quit as he experienced tinnitus. However, the filmmaker had shot footage of the heavy metal band Jucifer. During downtime between projects, Marder began editing what Cianfrance captured. “I got very obsessed with this idea (for Sound of Metal),” Marder says. “Derek was very clear that he was not going to make this movie. I found this little abandoned baby that I needed to raise, and I did.”
Marder was interested in exploring the relationship between Ruben and Lou as well as silence on a very literal level. While Blackgammon’s music is loud, the majority of “Sound of Metal” is quiet and meditative. As Ruben deals with his hearing loss, the audience does, too. Sounds like blenders, conversations or traffic are muzzled, buried in the mix. The movie jolts from Ruben’s sense to a louder world. Even as Ruben experiences the loss of hearing, he still deals with his addict past—a noise inside himself that’s just as deafening, Marder describes. Creating that sound design alone took 23 weeks, but it was worth it to understand Ruben’s physical struggles.
“In terms of the number of tracks and complexity, the sound mix was as big as any action movie,” Marder says. “Creating that sonic landscape was so exciting and grueling. I was going for a specific experience: As someone in the hearing community, how do we experience that physical journey that we go through in this movie? “My greatest hope in those moments of complete silence in the film is that we all have to sit in it and recognize what it’s doing to us on a physical level.” (observer.com)
Marder on the Sound Design of “Sound of Metal”
The film (streaming on Amazon) often places us in Ruben’s aural perspective as he navigates his new reality. (It’s worth watching with headphones or a good sound system.) “I had many conversations with people who have lost their hearing and not two people’s experience is the same,” said Darius Marder, the film’s co-writer and director. “But one thing that’s pretty much true for all people who are deaf is that they don’t lose sound entirely. It isn’t silence.” Instead, Marder and his sound designer, Nicolas Becker, wanted to capture those low-frequency vibrations and other tones. The approach was adjusted for different moments in Ruben’s experience. In separate Zoom interviews, Marder and Becker focused on three scenes as they spoke about some of the techniques and ideas they used to tap into Ruben’s aural experience, including putting microphones inside skulls and mouths. One of the first times there’s a notable change in Ruben’s hearing comes before a show, as he is setting up the merchandise table with his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). At one point, he experiences a high-pitched ringing, then voices are muffled. Ahmed’s response in that moment isn’t just acting. The filmmakers had custom-fit earpieces made for the actor so they could feed him a high-frequency sound they had created. “He’s reacting to a very physical process,” Marder said. “And that process gives way to a white noise in Riz’s ears in real time that doesn’t allow him to even hear his own voice, which is a very specific experience, to not be able to hear your own voice. It’s what gives rise to a loss of balance and a real loss of control.” This moment signals to the audience that the movie will be taking a much more first-person approach, that we will often be listening through Ruben’s ears. The sequence continues with the band’s performance, when Ruben is sitting at the drum kit, the loud beats slowly fading into low, distant tones.
In the next sequence, Ruben gets up in the morning to realize his hearing loss has become more pronounced. The sound here comes off as low and rumbly, somewhat cavernous and very internal. That internal feeling is a specialty for Becker, who has created immersive, personalized sound experiences on many projects, from the astronaut drama “Gravity,” for which he put on a spacesuit to understand the sound inside it, to the deep-sea disaster film “The Command,” for which he spent two weeks recording underwater in a submarine. “If I can put people in a real ambient sonic environment, I can create something very specific,” he explained. “It’s about how you relate sound to your body memory.” Becker said that a year before filming “The Sound of Metal,” he invited Marder to Paris to visit an anechoic chamber. The room is designed to get rid of sound and reverberations. “After 10 minutes, you can hear your tendons, the pressure of your blood,” Becker said. “You reach the physiological limit of your hearing system.” Going deeper into this body-sound connection and conjuring up Ruben’s aural experience involved what Marder called a “real experimentation of muffledness.” Becker mic’d the insides of preserved skulls and helmets to get at that feeling of being enveloped. He also used stethoscope-style microphones, along with mics that go inside a performer’s mouth to create a mix of audio illustrating how Ruben experiences sound from the inside out. (nytimes.com)
Marder on the Cast of “Sound of Metal”
To prepare for the role, Ahmed spent six months learning how to play drums and ASL. Though other actors including Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson had been previously attached to the project, Marder says he offered the role to Ahmed midway through a lunch meeting in 2017. “I could see it in (Ahmed): He was hungry; he was game; he was scared; he was courageous,” Marder says. “During that meeting, I found someone who was interested in going down to the mat for this role, who would lay himself bare and be out of control.” Another miracle Marder says was finding and casting Raci as Joe. Before meeting Raci, he could have gone with an actor from hearing culture who might have helped finance the film. Instead, Marder says he “bet the farm on finding a Joe.” “I was lucky to find (Raci),” Marder adds. “(Raci) did two tours in Vietnam, dealt with addiction, grew up in deaf culture, and his first language is ASL,” Marder says. “He is a seasoned actor, an artist with such fine control of his craft. There could be no one else to play that role.” Throughout the process of making Sound of Metal, Marder says he would put himself in dangerous positions like this because he was unwilling to compromise from his vision. Another example came on set when Marder wouldn’t let the cast watch dailies. At first, it was a point of contention between Marder and Ahmed. “At the time, I joked with Riz and told him, ‘I’m not going to be your enabler,’” Marder says. “With dailies, people start looking back and analyzing…I’m not interested in that. I challenged Riz to not be in his frontal lobe, to not question his instincts, to trust and move forward. That was very much what our shoot was all about.” “I had gone through many ups and downs and heartbreak,” Marder says. “The film came together and fell apart multiple times. Most people around me were sure I would never make this movie because I had such a high bar for what I wanted to achieve.” (observer.com)
Riz Ahmed on the Making of “The Sound of Metal”
“In a way, the conditions that Darius set up and the way that we want to approach this film were really very conducive to not overthinking things. When you only get one or two shots of something, you’re not going in thinking about trying it this way and that way. You just have to go from the gut and be in the moment. We were also shooting chronologically, which helps us live through it. And also, the way that it was shot, we didn’t have a lot of takes, but there was an intimacy and an observational, almost documentary style to the way things were done that really helped us to live in it a bit more. There were a lot of different things to juggle, for sure. Learning the drums is one thing, but spending seven months learning them and then having two takes to do the gig is another thing. And you have to make sure that you don’t pull really bizarre faces on camera, which I realized I was doing the day before the gig. The day before the gig, I realized that I was doing this bizarre thing with my jaw when I’m playing the drums. And then, we had the auditory blockers, which were these inverted hearing aids that would emit white noise deep in my ear canal.” There were all of these different things and to be honest, the combined effect of it is to just throw you massively off balance and overwhelm you. In a way, that’s what I seek. I try to put myself in situations where I’m off balance and overwhelmed enough to not be in control and to give up control. At that point, interesting things happen. At that point, you’re carried along by the currents of your preparation and the situation, rather than controlled by decision-making and your intellect. In a way, it’s a gift. The challenges always end up being gifts. That’s something that I really learned in a new and profound way, making this film, because of everything we’ve spoken about, but it’s also something that Ruben does. The challenges can be gifts. The same things you’re running from and are scared of might be the things that bring you closer to yourself. (collider.com)
Marder on the Core of “Sound of Metal”
“I think it is a spiritual movie, ultimately. When you strip away all of the trappings of what we think we are, what’s left? And is that enough? To fully grasp that understanding sometimes takes a brutal process. That’s the simple answer to that question. For me, the guiding principle in this movie was through feeling. Sound, vibration—there’s a quality of this movie that’s so present in every moment. It never goes back or slips forward in time. There is not a visual or audio dissolve in the movie. Everything is a hard cut, and that’s because every moment is rooted entirely in itself, never looking for another moment to forecast. It’s always begging us to feel this particular moment, even though that moment might be hard to feel. The idea is of earning through that visceral process the feeling of sitting in selfhood—not the thought of it but literally the feeling of it. And I think of that as the feeling of presence in a movie, when you’re within the presence of what’s on screen and nothing else. So, it was kind of our spiritual guide, in a way. Spiritual, not religious.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
About Writer and Director Darius Marder
Darius Marder is a Brooklyn-based director, editor and screenwriter. He co-wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines” (12), starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his first documentary feature film, “Loot” (08). “Sound of Metal” is his narrative feature directorial debut. (miamifilmfestival.com)