“Sound is unlike anything else,” says director Darius Marder. “You can’t take a picture of sound. When we remember it, we can hear it in our heads. Sound is time. This film has changed the way I listen, the way I write. It’s changed the way I think. This film has changed everything…”
For Marder, who co-wrote 2012’s Place Beyond The Pines with his best friend Derek Cianfrance, Sound Of Metal has always been much more than a passion project. Starting out as a way of connecting with his own family’s history of deafness, the acclaimed music drama has taken him on a journey from page to screen that’s lasted more than 12 years.
Now nominated for six Oscars, four BAFTAs, and almost every other award going, Sound Of Metal has leapt out of the indie circuit to become one of 2021’s most celebrated films – the kind of once-in-a-decade classic that captures a moment; an unplanned COVID-era parable about coming to terms with change.
“This film has changed everything for me”
– Darius Marder, director
At its centre is Riz Ahmed, who gives the performance of his career as Ruben, a noise rock drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing in the middle of a gig. His girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) tries to help, but Ruben’s real redemption comes from checking into a rural shelter for deaf addicts run by Joe (Paul Raci). Painfully authentic, and using landmark sound design to put you right between Rubin’s ears, Sound Of Metal feels honest for a reason – starting life as a hybrid documentary about real sludge band Jucifer.
Eventually evolving into a fictional drama, Marder stuck with the film for 12 years before it ever got close to being made. “Fighting to make a first feature is really hard,” he laughs, talking to NME from his home in Massachusetts. “It’s like an impossible thing. I was actually told by someone once that the only reason projects die is because the director gives up. Financiers and producers will back-pocket a project, just waiting to see if Ryan Gosling gets attached – waiting for that big ka-ching moment. Meanwhile, directors like me are flying ourselves around, trying to pay the rent, doing whatever we can with a family to take care of. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralising. But to tell you the truth, I’m really glad for it. Because in all that time, I honed and re-honed this thing until I had the film I wanted.”
Just as important as getting the script right, though, was finding the right person to front it – with Marder spending a big chunk of those years searching for Ruben before he finally found Ahmed.
“When I met Riz, I offered him the role halfway through lunch,” laughs Marder. “And that was literally after years of casting. I just knew. And when he started, I just got lit up, I thought, ‘Shit! this is that thing that I live for as a lover of film.’ I think it happens very infrequently. I’ve personally only seen it a handful of times in my life, where I see an actor hit a movie at just the right time. Things collide.”
“I gave this film more than I’ve ever given before”
– Riz Ahmed
For Ahmed, who signed on after small roles in big films like Venom, Rogue One and Jason Bourne, it was the challenge he’d spent his whole career waiting for. “I just was really hungry for something that would overwhelm me,” he says, fresh from hearing the news about his Oscar nomination. “I was kind of hitting a bit of a wall. I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I knew that whether this worked or not I needed to give it more than I’ve ever given anything else before. And that’s what I did, you know, I gave this everything for most of a year. I ended up in a place where I felt like I was able to give some of the most emotionally personal parts of myself, and I didn’t really have anything left in the tank at the end of it.”
Launching himself into a dozen different training disciplines at once, Ahmed spent a full eight months learning a whole new set of skills to play Ruben. “The daily routine was that I got up early and did ASL [American Sign Language] for two hours,” he remembers. “Then over lunch I would go and work with my acting coach and spend two or three hours on the script every day. And then I would go to Brooklyn and learn the drums for two hours. At night I would either go to a gig or I would go to an event within the deaf community, like a deaf poetry slam, or a couple of times a week I would go to an Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meeting to learn about addiction recovery. Oh shit, and I left out the gym training… that would usually be after the drumming!”
Feeling a deep sense of responsibility to the deaf community and the addiction recovery circles that welcomed him, as well as to the punk metal scene that he got to know so well, authenticity was everything for Ahmed – committing to wearing noise-cancelling ear plugs on set to fully experience sensory disorientation. Losing himself in the character completely, an early scene of rising panic captures Ruben/Riz at his most frantic, facing down the fear of silence by smashing up everything in his trailer.
“Darius started rolling and all of that just kind of came tumbling out,” says Ahmed, remembering how high his emotions were running that day. “Health and safety actually had to shut down the set after that – there was just too much broken glass and sharp plastic edges around, and we didn’t give anyone any warning. We got into a bit of trouble to be honest, but we both said we’d probably do the same thing all over again if we had the chance.”
Almost as important as finding the right Ruben was finding the right Joe – a casting call that proved even more difficult for Marder as he looked for someone who could act like a mentor and serve as an inspiration; someone with a real past, an honest outlook and a genuine mastery of ASL.
“Joe was really hard,” says Marder. “All those years, I would get people trying to talk me into casting someone famous who might help get financing for the movie. I just had to keep saying no, because I knew the role had to have a level of authenticity to it. We ended up casting into veteran homes, looking for people that might have lost their hearing in the war. But it wasn’t until the deaf community told me about CODA [Children Of Deaf Adults, of which Raci is one] that I opened it up and found Paul. He’s a two-time Vietnam veteran, he’s dealt with addiction, he’s taught deaf AA groups and he’s this amazing actor. It was like finding Picasso in the middle of the woods.”
“I got to show people what being deaf is really like”
– Paul Raci
Chatting to NME from his living room in front of a wall of vintage guitars, Raci couldn’t be happier to be found. Now turning down scripts for the first time in his career, he’s already written his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for this month’s Oscars. “Listen, when you move to Hollywood everybody from the gas station guy to the 7/11 guy is writing a script starring themselves,” he grins, sounding like a happier, hippy-ish version of Joe. “So that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years. My whole life people have been saying, ‘Paul, your life is so fascinating, you should write a movie about it’. Okay, so I’m writing, and at the same time, this guy named Darius is writing another script. When I read Sound Of Metal I took the final draft of my own life story and threw it away.”
Admitting that he based the character on several people (“I’ve known so many Joes”) as well as on his own life, Raci’s experience in the CODA community helped feed the script with extra layers of authenticity at every turn. “There’s a line where I go, ‘I still remember the song that was playing when I lost my hearing’. That’s something my deaf mother used to say,” he says. “I also got to show Darius what it’s really like to be at a deaf table, where you’re pounding on the top and the silverware is jumping up and down, just to get someone’s attention. He was 12 years researching this movie but there was still a learning curve on set.”
Shooting chronologically to help carry the actors through the same journey as their characters, Marder also wanted to capture the relationship between Ahmed and Raci as it really happened – with both actors getting emotional by the time they left their last scene together.
“Riz did a very cool thing in one scene,” remembers Raci. “His line was, ‘Who cares, life just passes’. This is the sign for ‘passes’ [rotating his hands around each other]. But instead he did something else, he goes, ‘It just fucking passes’ [doing the same sign, but with his middle fingers extended]. That blew my mind. I was so proud of him. I just sat there, as Joe, thinking, ‘You’re part of us now. I gotta let you go’. Watch that moment… Watch that Oscar-winning moment and just look at his eyes. Oh my God. He’s brilliant. I’m so grateful to Riz Ahmed for breaking my heart.”
Shot on a tight budget over just twenty four days in spring 2018, Marder kept things moving by limiting his cast to just two takes per scene. Joining Ahmed and Raci, Cooke (Ready Player One, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) went through her own tough preparation to play Lou, Ruben’s girlfriend and bandmate. Spending months rehearsing her screamed vocal performance for an early gig scene, and another few weeks crammed inside a boiling RV dealing with some of the film’s toughest emotional scenes, Cooke still described the experience as “an actor’s dream.”
As much credit as Ahmed, Raci and Cooke deserve, the other big star of Sound Of Metal is someone you won’t even see – sound designer, Nicolas Becker. Knowing how important the audible world was going to be to the whole film, Marder met Becker before the script was even finished to start riffing ideas for Ruben’s “point of sound.”
“I had to create a sonic language”
Nicolas Becker, sound designer
Introduced to Marder through a friend who had worked with him on a Patti Smith album [‘The Peyote Dance’, with Soundwalk Collective], Becker came with a long list of blockbuster credits (Gravity, Arrival) and a whole lot of mad ideas for driving the film’s experimental approach to audio.
“This film is about strategy of attention,” muses Becker through a thick French accent, sitting somewhere in the darkness of his Paris studio. “It’s about creating a sonic language. It’s about silence.” Accordingly, the very first thing he did when he met Marder was to take him inside an anechoic chamber at a Paris research centre to experience a place so silent “you can feel and hear your own joints and tendons moving.”
Wanting to do so much more than just dip the volume whenever we step inside Ruben’s head, Becker designed a complex, silent soundscape that used organic recordings to simulate the real disorientation of deafness. “I wanted to create something sensitive, something physical,” he explains. “It had to be naturalistic. I did a lot of recordings through very specific ‘solidian’ microphones which are designed to get recordings from the body itself. I first used them on [2013 sci-fi] Gravity – when the astronauts are using a drill in space. I didn’t just record the sound of a drill and process it, I used a tiny solidian microphone on my own arm to record the conduction of the sound of the drill through my bones. It was the same for this – I didn’t want to use any highly processed sounds, I wanted to get the closest I could to what’s actually happening inside the ear.”
Recording speech via his tiny bone mics, and later taking apart and reconstructing some of the film’s background acoustic frequencies “like Frankenstein”, Becker also worked on the film’s score to turn the sound of Ruben’s opening gig into a distorted running theme that repeatedly references the last clear thing he heard.
“We knew that after the opening music everything should have less form and less tonal structure,” he says, pausing to email over a link to “Baschet structures” – giant freeform metal sound cones originally created to help disabled people express themselves through percussive vibrations. “We did loads of improvisations with these weird instruments, and we mixed that with beautiful feedback sounds from an electric guitar to get this sound that was almost like a metallic echo of Rubin’s first gig”.
Referencing John Cage’s infamous ‘4’33”’ silent composition, Becker sees Sound Of Metal as speaking to something far deeper than than he ever expected, which is a feeling everyone involved shares now that they’re on the other side of their own personal journeys with the film.
“This character is me”
– Riz Ahmed
“My first thought was, ‘How am I going to play this character?’” says Ahmed. “He’s different to me in every way. He’s an expert in all these things I don’t know how to do. And by the end of the journey, I’m like, ‘Wow, this character is me.’ And hopefully that’s how an audience feels when they’re watching the film – you start off with this illusion of separateness and you end up realising that you find yourself… There’s a core of humanity that we all share.”
For Marder, it’s the end of a long 12-year road – coming out now unexpectedly in the middle of a pandemic that has forced so many of us to rethink our life plans, dragging us through revolving doors of shock, fear, anger and acceptance that oddly mirrors Ruben’s own journey. “I was enmeshed in this world for so long,” says Marder. “I mean, even the sound mix and edit took 23 weeks. If you can imagine, that’s every single day dealing within the minutiae of sound, and thinking about what sound is. Ultimately, I think the film speaks to that very universally felt reality, which is that things shift… nothing is guaranteed, and we sometimes have to deal with letting go. As saddened as I am to not have this film play on big screens [due to coronavirus restrictions], the way I intended it, in a way it might be a bit of a lifeline to people [in lockdown]. It’s really been an unexpected and wonderful kind of gift.”