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Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal is a Riz Ahmed-starring film about rage and healing

Darius Marder’s feature has picked up six Oscar nominations – here, the director talks making a film about deafness, working with Riz Ahmed, and the importance of looking inwards

While location scouting for Sound of Metal, Darius Marder received wisdom from an unlikely source. “I was writing with Baz Luhrmann on his Elvis film,” recalls Marder, a moviemaker and multitasker. “One of Baz’s words became a word we always used on set. He said he has a process which is musicalising. So on set, we would say, ‘Let’s musicalise!’”

Sound of Metal is certainly musicalised, just not in a Moulin Rouge way. The powerful, sonically adventurous drama, which Marder, 46, directed and wrote with his brother, Abraham, opens on guitar squeals and headache-inducing feedback. A two-piece drone outfit, Blackgammon, are mid-performance. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a sweating, topless percussionist with “PLEASE KILL ME” tattooed across his chest, bashes his drumkit with alarming aggression. Meanwhile, Lou (Olivia Cooke), the fearless frontwoman, screams demonically into a microphone, her words battling the cacophony reverberating around the venue.

A few scenes later, Ruben wakes up with hearing loss; overnight, his life has altered forever. To communicate Ruben’s disorientation, the soundscape dips in and out of what his ears can pick up and even accentuates his heartbeat. Marder’s own invented phrase is “point of hearing”, a term he uses so frequently in our conversation, he eventually abbreviates it to “POH”. “We understand ‘point of view’ when we see it in a film, but ‘point of hearing’ looks inward,” says Marder, possibly the calmest, most well-spoken person I’ve ever interviewed. “Much of the time, the camera isn’t looking where Ruben looks. Ruben’s looking at the world, but we’re hearing into him. We don’t follow his gaze. We don’t give into that point of view.”

When I talk to Marder over Zoom, it’s January 2021, and neither of us are aware yet that Sound of Metal will pick up six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. As the potential awards indicate, Marder’s fictional feature debut excels both in front of and behind the camera. The cast, many of whom are deaf actors, are all faultless, while the technical details of each scene reveal more and more nuances upon rewatching. I also notice that Marder is so invested in the story that he still speaks as if Ruben is a real person.

For instance, a simple question on why Ruben plays drums leads to Marder casually listing off biographical facts that aren’t part of the film. “Ruben’s mother, before she died, she gave them to him. Ruben was very ADHD as a kid. Drums were his survival. He found them early in life, and they helped him survive a harsh world. Ruben’s got a cockroach tattoo on his neck for a reason. He’s a survivor.” Marder continues with the reasons: hiding behind drums reflects Ruben’s low self-esteem; drums produce vibrations that can be sensed by deaf people; the instrument is a primal form of communication dating back to bygone eras; and so on.

Marder’s deep rationale behind every aspect of Sound of Metal reflects its long production history. In 2007, Derek Cianfrance, a former drummer who contracted tinnitus, started shooting a docu-style drama called Metalhead. Cianfrance followed the metal group Jucifer on tour and asked the two-piece band to play themselves – only with a fictionalised subplot involving deafness. When Cianfrance’s script for Blue Valentine was suddenly greenlit, the project was abandoned. “I don’t think Metalhead will ever be released,” Marder says. “I could talk to Derek about it. It’s beautiful.”

“Fiction is fiction because it’s a story, but actually every beat of it has to come from something authentic and real. My job as a director is to help usher that authenticity in” – Darius Marder

In 2009, Cianfrance showed Marder the footage and eventually asked him to complete the film. Instead, Marder reinvented Metalhead as Sound of Metal and started from a blank page. At that point, Marder had just directed his debut feature, Loot, a documentary about buried treasure. “Shooting fiction is very similar to shooting a doc,” Marder explains. “For any good documentary, it’s about your ability to watch, listen, and engage. It’s about your excitement about truth. Fiction is fiction because it’s a story, but actually every beat of it has to come from something authentic and real. My job as a director is to help usher that authenticity in.”

Marder’s background in non-fiction comes to the fore when Ruben, a former heroin user who’s frightened his condition could trigger a relapse, moves into a rural rehab for deaf addicts. For Ruben, it’s a daunting, new lifestyle: learning American Sign Language (ASL); no phones; no contact with outsiders, including Lou. The ranch’s other habits and philosophies are introduced bit by bit, often by osmosis, through Ruben’s POV – or POH, rather. In terms of authenticity, the actors surrounding Ahmed were deaf and would offer feedback during filming. “Really, ultimately, the main thing was that deaf culture represents itself in this movie,” Marder says. “What’s on the screen comes from them.”

As an example, Marder describes a moment in which Ruben gets his name sign on the farm. In the script, it was an elaborate sequence; on set, deaf members of the cast criticised it for not reflecting the “random” way it usually happens. The scene was rewritten on the spot. “I made mistakes – plenty of them – making this film, working with a culture that wasn’t mine. At my best, I listened when people told me I was making a mistake, and I changed. It’s not about standing on a pedestal and saying, ‘I did it right and you did it wrong’. It’s about learning and growing, and trying to be more inclusive in general.”

Marder, though, was able to draw from his youth spent in a spiritual community which followed the teachings of George Gurdjieff. Every weekend, it was pure silence. “We had 100 people in our house. Nobody talked. Everyone worked together. All meals were silent. It’s how I grew up.” Ruben’s arc also shares a parallel with Soul, a Pixar movie about a musician who, after an irreversible accident, must embrace peace and quiet. Marder agrees. “There’s even one scene in Soul that has this awareness of – not silence, but a moment of stillness. It’s interesting timing because I think people are in need of that right now.”

The key dilemma of Sound of Metal is whether Ruben should purchase cochlear implants. The hugely expensive operation – which installs a device that tricks the brain into deciphering a few muffled noises –  brings back a degree of hearing. However, on the ranch, cochlear implants are considered a taboo. Joe (Paul Raci, deservedly Oscar-nominated), the deaf organiser of the facility, challenges Ruben to accept his deafness, rather than view it as something to be fixed.

Then when Ruben guiltily proceeds with the operation, the distorted, unpleasant result reveals a double-meaning behind the film’s title. “When I premiered the movie, the mix was harsher,” Marder says. “I pulled back a little for the mix that it is now. I really wanted the audience to feel some physical discomfort. It’s a tough balance. It needed to hurt. You have to earn that last scene (of silence) in the movie. It’s a physical, emotional, and visceral earning. It’s really about pushing those boundaries.”

Before Marder made Loot, he made loot as a food stylist, a job that can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Yes, I double-check that figure is correct. “You can’t be a food stylist without being a phenomenal cook and having a strong aesthetic,” he explains. “It’s very sculptural and cinematic – it’s just within the world of food.” As for his period working in fashion, Marder remarks: “Fashion was very hierarchical. There was a caste system in general. I found the culture to be very tough. People were not nice!” He laughs. “The fashion industry needs to look deeply inside of itself and say, ‘What’s good about this? What’s not?’ Because it can be shifted. It’s a culture, and it needs to be shifted from the ground up.”

Outside of directing Loot and Sound of Metal, Marder’s only major IMDb credit is for cowriting Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. However, Marder has written other scripts, including one story he plans to direct next – he refuses to give me any hints – and an adaptation of Empire of the Summer Moon for Cianfrance to shoot in the near future. The decade-plus gap between Marder’s two features can also be explained by the difficulty in funding a movie about deaf culture. A very different Sound of Metal was nearly shot with Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson in 2016. Financing fell through at the last moment.

So in 2017, Ahmed took over as Ruben – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. The actor carries a nervous, pent-up energy that means Ruben could explode at any moment, while the character’s vulnerability is conveyed through body language, the way he breathes, and even the restless way he rhythmically taps his fingers on surfaces. During the year leading up to principle photography, Ahmed learned ASL and how to play drums; as the shoot was chronological, the actor went through a further evolution for the camera.

“I think the idea of us being able to hear and feel into deaf stories, deaf-directed stories, deaf actors – I can’t wait. I know it will happen. It has to happen” – Darius Marder

“Facial expressions come from an inner truth,” Marder says of Ahmed’s final scene. “The work that’s done is about a state of being, not about a state of expression. The moment you’re trying to express something, it’s a bad movie. And that scene is about what’s happening incredibly specifically within Riz. It was a whole process and emotional lead-up. The end of the movie is a surrender. That came with a whole host of emotions to do with an intense, ten-month journey. That moment was really filled with meaning, and that’s what’s transmitted – it’s not an expression.”

When Sound of Metal has its theatrical release in the UK, all screenings will play with open captions, without exception. Subtitles are provided for every sound effect and line of dialogue, whether it’s verbally spoken or signed. When it was a small indie premiering at TIFF in 2019, there were open captions; with the unexpected Oscar nominations, it will surely become the most high-profile film to be released in such a manner. “This film involves deaf culture,” Marder says. “To not open-caption is to essentially say to that group of people, ‘You’re not welcome’.”

Was open captions a tough discussion? “Almost everybody told me not to do it, saying we wouldn’t be able to sell the film. My producers were awesome. But everyone else was like, ‘Man, that’s a bad idea’. It’s shocking to think of not doing it. There have been movies that have come out, even recently, with deaf people in them that don’t have open captions. It’s straight-up crazy. Ugh. It’s really an insult. My grandmother went deaf, and she fought, for the rest of her life, for open captions. The movie’s dedicated to her. I had to do this on that level.”

Are the films he’s discretely criticising actually A Quiet Place and the upcoming A Quiet Place 2? “I love A Quiet Place and I love (John) Krasinski,” Marder immediately asserts, preventing any awkwardness. “I would love to see them open-caption A Quiet Place 2. We live in a time that looks to shame everybody, and I have no interest in that. I think we’re all doing our best. I think A Quiet Place was awesome. They cast a deaf person. They did a lot right. This is just an issue we all need to look at. And I had to look at it. I would suggest that A Quiet Place 2 will come with open captions. I would guess it will, and I applaud them for it.”

“So then you look at the Marvel movie that has Lauren Ridloff in it as a deaf superhero (Chloé Zhao’s Eternals). Is that going to be open-captioned? Come on, Marvel. But I think we have to ask that about a lot of movies. Deaf people don’t only go and watch movies with deaf people in it. They go and watch all movies.”

On a further note, Marder emphasises that Sound of Metal is only a stepping stone towards more diversity, and that deaf culture is so vast and rich it can’t be covered by a single film. “It doesn’t even touch deafness,” Marder says. “It’s not a film about deafness in many ways. It’s a film made from a hearing perspective. There’s literally ‘sound’ in the title of the movie.” He laughs. “I think the idea of us being able to hear and feel into deaf stories, deaf-directed stories, deaf actors – I can’t wait. I know it will happen. It has to happen. It’s way past time. If anything, I hope the film helps to usher that in, because we’re missing this pool of talent.”

Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video from April 12 and released in cinemas from May 17