Darius Marder had spent the better part of two decades working on what would become his feature narrative debut “Sound of Metal,” and over time he had discovered that one of the driving forces behind it had been in his bones for even longer. After starting out with plans to make a documentary-narrative hybrid about the heavy metal band Jucifer with the longtime creative collaborator Derek Cianfrance, with whom he wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Marder was compelled to take the idea in a different direction with his brother Abraham, wondering what it would mean to someone whose dedication to music led to the loss of their hearing. Additionally, he was inspired to think of his grandmother, a devoted cinephile who sought to have captions added to films for the hard-of-hearing after she went deaf, a battle he took up himself in making sure the film was accessible to all.
“It was a scary fight, frankly,” Marder says, not only dedicating the drama to his grandmother, but successfully seeing her wishes through to the screen. “It was something that felt right, and I have brave and wonderful producers who really supported my vision, but I had a lot of pushback from others that would say, ‘I don’t know if you could sell the film. No one will like it,’ but there’s such a high degree of intentionality in that, even so far as the title itself is a caption.”
Nothing with “Sound of Metal” came easily, but then again, that would seem to be how Marder likes it, once giving up a career as a personal chef in New York on a hunch there might be a story worth following when he met a treasure hunter named Lance Larson and followed him out to Utah for the documentary “Loot.” Long before it had been in vogue, Marder brought a sense of epic grandeur to the nonfiction film that also established his interest in protagonists who end up taking the harder path when pursuing the one of least resistance, holding onto some ideal rather than ever accepting the reality of their situation.
While Larson was seduced by the notion of uncovering riches, no matter how deep he dug himself in to try and unearth them, “Sound of Metal” finds Ruben (an astounding Riz Ahmed) paralyzed by the sudden loss of his hearing while out on the road touring with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). A recovering addict for whom sobriety remains an every day struggle, Ruben isn’t interested in making any more adjustments to his life, even if it’ll preserve what’s left of his hearing, believing that if he can just raise enough money for a cochlear implant, all his troubles will go away. Yet after begrudgingly entering a group home for the deaf run by a war vet who’s seen it all (Paul Raci), the drummer starts to take things down a beat, picking up sign language and an entirely different perspective on the world.
However, it isn’t only Ruben who can take a new view of things as Marder presents the deaf community on screen with a depth that’s unfortunately all too rare and creates a sensory experience unlike any other, putting the audience inside Ruben’s head with intricate sound design to convey his experience of going deaf and leans on the raw power of his actors opening themselves up to truly bare their souls on screen to make “Sound of Metal” so intimately affecting. Following a celebrated on the festival circuit, “Sound of Metal” is rolling out to select theaters this week en route to premiering on Amazon Prime on December 4th and Marder spoke about the years’ long process to realize his vision on the screen without compromise, the way his work in documentaries contributed to the feeling of such a naturalistic drama and why the size and scope of a film shouldn’t be judged by its budget.
With your background in docs, did that inform how you wanted to set up the production?
It definitely did in the sense that I’m moved by things that grow from something that’s true rather than some kind of pretend world. So much of the way “Sound of Metal” was made and shot was ushering reality into what is essentially a fictional context, and I’ve found that shooting a doc and shooting and directing fiction are very similar. In the case of “Loot,” I shot about 500 hours over quite a few years to make that movie, taking a real construct, real people and a real situation and then adding this false construct of a camera and then ushering it back to a place of sincerity and reality. Shooting fiction and working with those actors is very similar, but you’re just taking what is essentially a false construct and doing the same thing, bringing this camera into it and bringing it into a state of reality and of truth. So in many ways, I did that in the shooting of “Sound of Metal” and dared actors to do it with me – and producers, to their credit.
When you create that kind of environment where it’s allow to come alive like that in front of the camera, were there things that you might not have been expecting that you got excited about?
This story is very authored in the sense that it knows what it is, so it wasn’t looking for that. But I am always interested in it being bigger than me — that lightning in a bottle and and I would communicate that very directly to people around me. I think of all of my keys as all extraordinary storytellers, whether it’s my production designer Jeremy [Woodward] or my cinematographer Daniel Bouquet or Nicolas Becker [the sound designer], or my editor [Mikkel E.G. Nielsen], even my producers Sacha [Ben Harroche] and Bert [Hamelinck]. I’m always looking to be made better by everything around me, so I did have these surprises and certainly the deaf community and deaf culture was that in spades because they wrote [the film] in a sense. All of the stuff you see on the screen is really from deaf culture. It’s not mine to write. It’s not mine to represent. It’s theirs and the games the kids are playing came from Lauren Ridloff, a teacher for 10 years, so I just had this wonderful experience of getting to witness this life on the screen just right in front of me and it was fabulous.
In Toronto, you referred to the deaf community as a culture rather than as a quality they had. Were there certain assumptions that you had that might’ve been upended?
Yes, certainly the recognition of culture, but what does that really mean? It’s one thing to say it, and another thing to actually experience, so I could go deaf tomorrow. That doesn’t make me culturally deaf. Cultural deafness is something you’re born into. And one of the amazing surprises of working with the deaf community is that when deaf people communicate with each other, you can’t be looking at a phone and talking at the same time. You can’t even look away. You have to be engaged because that’s how you listen. You listen with your eyes and so there’s an engagement that’s much more present than in hearing culture and there’s a sickness in hearing culture, which is the sickness of distraction. We have the hubris to think we can do all these things at the same time and in fact, we can’t. We’re really not present in any of them. So you really experience that when working with the deaf community. They’re very, very present and very engaged.
Then there’s another piece of it which is that 50 percent of ASL is in the face. It’s the communication of emotion and that was the great surprise. That for hearing people are extremely uncomfortable communicating emotion and that becomes a theme in this movie because really, this movie in many ways is a meditation on how I look at toxic masculinity, which is not how we often talk about it. We often talk about toxic masculinity within the context of men acting in a way that is this or that to others, but I think of toxic masculinity as toxicity is something you are to yourself. It’s a poison that men have when they suck in their emotions, they cannot express their emotions – those things become toxic to them. That’s what Ruben is. He never hurts anyone else. He just hurts himself and so the actual act of having to communicate with sign language is literally a healing act unto itself.
Was the idea of Ruben being an addict there from the start? It seems like such a brilliant parallel when he just wants something back, whether it is the feeling of when he was on drugs or getting his hearing back.
Right, and that’s tricky to navigate. That took years to find, but the concept you’re referring to is the fix. Here’s a heroin addict looking for a fix. And it’s really asking us societally in what way are we addicts even if we’re not using. This idea that we can just fix it, just throw some technology at it, we’re good. It’s really not a commentary on whether cochlear implants are good or bad, but really rather a commentary on what is it in us if we need that and we aren’t able to really sit in our current present state of being.
This is a bad segueway considering I understand it was pretty modern tech that gave you had a large amount of control over what Riz would hear on set…
No, no, no bring it on. [laughs]
Would what you were hearing influence the shot selection? It really is this holistic experience you’re able to capture.
That was a very complicated process and there’s a couple different questions in that. One is yes, we had custom hearing aids made for Riz that very specifically emitted various noises into his ear. Part of being deaf is not hearing the sound of your own voice, so it isn’t enough to block sound out. [We had] white noise that wouldn’t allow him to hear his own voice. That was a tremendously rewarding and difficult experience for Riz, but on a method level extraordinary.
Then marrying picture and sound was really complicated [because] we had to storyboard sound and picture for the film. It quickly could easily be a gimmick and the thing I most abhor in watching films is when we see the ego of anyone on screen other than the actors. In other words, I don’t want to feel the writer. I don’t want to be thinking “That’s great writing, that’s great cinematography.” I just want to be in the feeling of the movie, so in order to do that we had to be very, very intentional with how you cut in and out of sound perspective because it’s a cut in general – a couple times, it’s a dissolve. But we had very specific things we worked on to keep it feeling natural and without artifice, and everything was very on purpose. We had camps before we even shot that was just all about that.
I’ve heard crazy things about your work with Nicolas Becker like mic’ing the inside of skulls and all sorts of tests – was there a breakthrough in getting the right auditory sensation?
Yes, it really was a very involved process of finding the sound and the sonic scope of the movie. One of the very first things I did with Nicolas when I first met him in Paris was to go to a soundless chamber [where] there’s no sound whatsoever. It literally sucks away all sound. As soon as you speak, it’s just gone and you almost have this feeling of being sucked within when we were in that. So we talked a lot about the resonance of the internal body and the way that as you lose your body, you almost get pulled into yourself, so we explored that a lot. That’s where the mic’ing down throats and the eyelids and licking the lips [to get those subtle bodily sounds], but also [using] condenser mics and microphones simultaneously underwater and really experiencing sound from very, very different vantages that weren’t just relying on “oh, we’ll just do it in post.” This was really about creating an organic and natural sound on set, much of which is actually the sound of Riz himself being within.
[Nicolas] and I went on such a journey on this movie that started way before the movie and went right through shooting. It’s very rare you have a sound designer on set and I insisted on that, and after that, there was a 23-week sound mix. And now it’s very funny to me when people refer to this as a small film [because] I think what’s your version of a small film? Because I could show you any number of studio movies that have a much smaller sound mix than this. And I could show you any number of studio movies that didn’t [involve] research and writing a film over the course of 15 years, so what’s small about this? It’s funny what we think of when we think of big and small.
“Sound of Metal” opens in select theaters on November 20th and will start streaming on Amazon Prime on December 4th.