“I Want to Make People Aware of Sound, and the Relationship We all Have to It”: Michael Tyburski on His Eerie Urban Drama, The Sound of Silence
At one point in my phone interview with The Sound of Silence director Michael Tyburski, I ask whether a film transforms and changes the filmmaker through the process of its production. His response is one that has an air of lightness even as he describes filmmaking as a grueling mental challenge as well as a physical one. “The film is with you for so long,” he says. “I lost something like 20 pounds during the course of making the movie, so I physically changed. But it’s a bit of a marathon, as I realised, and I was treating it like a sprint. It’s physically exhausting in the best way, though.”
The Sound of Silence is co-written with Tyburski’s collaborator Ben Nabors, both of whom appeared on Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces list of 2013. The feature expands on the duo’s 2013 short film, Palimpsest, about a “house tuner” who searches for a kind of sonic feng shui in the apartments he surveys. In The Sound of Silence, Peter Sarsgaard plays the eccentric New Yorker as he encounters his most challenging client yet, Ellen, played by Rashida Jones.
Around the film’s U.S theatrical and VOD release, I spoke with Tyburski about the links between himself and his protagonist, discovering that while his is not an autobiographical film, the author and character are connected by their obsessions. I also asked the director about the choice to leave certain plot strands undeveloped, a decision that challenges a mainstream audience’s expectations.
Filmmaker: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
Tyburski: From an early age I was always curious of how things worked — [that’s] the best way to describe it. I would take things apart and try to put them back together. I grew up in the woods, essentially in the country in a very rural area of Vermont, so I’d always have to find ways to keep myself busy. I started watching movies and understanding that someone made these. [I though], how do these work? How do you put these together? And I’m still constantly curious. I enjoy the sleight of hand, the illusion that goes into moviemaking.
Filmmaker: Can you see a link between your own and Peter’s curiosity?
Tyburski: Filmmaking is also the medium where you have a way to express ideas, but to me it starts with an emotion – how do I want to make an audience feel? Do I have a character, a strong protagonist that I can use as an atlas point to express those feelings that I want to put forward? With this character in this film, even though it’s obviously not autobiographical, I do have a lot of connections to him — the way he has these grandiose philosophies and [how] he’s trying to convince people of this thing that he believes in. That’s not so different from filmmaking when you are constantly trying to convince people why something needs to be made. It took us quite a few years to get the means in which to produce [The Sound of Silence]. This character has a very obsessive nature, and I certainly relate to that. I have been oself-diagnosed with having obsessive compulsive disorder since I was very young, and there’s a quality in that that’s very close to home to me. Whereas Peter is obsessed with music theory and these ideas about sound, I have many things in my life, including filmmaking, that I am equally obsessed with.
Filmmaker: What compelled you to believe in this film or character, and decide to tell this story at this particular point in time?
Tyburski: I never actually set out to make this story into a feature. I co-wrote it with my close collaborator Ben Nabors, who brought this character called a house tuner to me. It wasn’t in script form at that point, it was just a character — an outline for a short story. I liked that idea, and I think I’ve always been attracted to subcultures, or just odd eccentric characters who work within a place like New York City and operate on their own, who maybe have certain eccentricities. I just wanted to know what made this character tick, someone who says he can show up at your door and prescribe a sonic solution to your problems. It felt like a character who could also be stuck in a certain era. I like to think that he’s a character I can dress in that ‘70s New York aesthetic, and have him operate in a contemporary New York, and in a way that feels organic to who he is and what he stands for.
So there were a lot of things tonally and aesthetically that felt right to make this into a movie. We turned that character into a short film, and we premiered it at Sundance in 2013 and suddenly it connected with audiences. It resonated, if you will, and that inspired us to think there were more ideas we could do with this character. As I started going down the route of getting obsessed with sound phenomenon and doing research, I saw that this character could be a great conduit to discuss a lot of those things that were of interest to me at the time.
Filmmaker: Certain plot points and relationships are left undeveloped, or unresolved, such as the potential romantic connection with Rashida Jones’s character, and the theme of the individual versus corporate America. Instead you choose to remain focused on the character, creating a claustrophobic character piece, and while the external world affects him, this is a story about his internal journey and struggle, his internal transformation.
Tyburski: What was important from the beginning was telling the story through Peter Lucian’s point of view — not only seeing the world the way he sees it, but because this is a film about sound and he’s able to interpret the world through his ears a certain way, to also hear the world the way he hears it. We’re certainly doing that for the first half of the film, and we’re rooting for him — we’re on his page. It was really important to be with him and at the same time there’s this skepticism that’s building around his scientific colleagues, and there’s also the quiet Rashida Jones character who starts to get at him in a way. I wanted to show a character who was having a crisis of faith with this thing that he has essentially believed in. That’s his whole career — he has worked up his entire existence to being this sole operator working alone on this thing. This is his quest; this is his obsession. But then at the same time to start to question himself a little bit, and what happens to a character when they are telling that lie was of interest to me.
Peter’s a romanticised version of a character that has this hearing ability, but it’s not so different from tinnitus, or certain [other] things individuals can suffer from. I wanted to incorporate that into his sonic perspective. So we have a moment in the film where he goes into an office environment that is very loud and there is a cacophony of sounds that are mundane. We tried to literally tune that sound mix to sound like it has been described to me by people who suffer from that hearing condition — everything gets funnelled into this high pitched ringing, rather than hearing all of those individual sounds.
So that would speak to me in terms of the entire way I wanted the film to play, even though we’d have some necessary plot devices and relationships with him. Those were never the focus, nor was the origin story of the house tuner a focus. This was a story I wanted to tell from Peter during the duration it takes place in that fictional storyline, and to not go before or beyond that.
Filmmaker: In this story the offsetting of the conversation scenes with silent moments is important. In these silent moments in which the character exists quietly by themselves, as we gaze upon them we are thinking about how they are feeling and how it relates to us. It’s in these scenes that we become aware of the emotional connection we have formed with the characters, but equally the performance and cinematography are as important in allowing them to resonate in such a way.
Tyburski: Well two things. Per the dialogue-driven scenes and people having conversations, when we were writing it what was important was people talking to each other, but are we actually listening? We have one scene particularly where we play with that idea – this question and answer, back and forth during a scene where Peter is interviewing a new client. Similar to when you talk to a therapist sometimes, you are getting questions that you have these answers ready to go, these patterns that we follow as we speak to one another. And when you maybe misanswer a question because you were expecting something else, what does that mean? Are we actually listening? So that was important to show these scenes for that reason, of what we’re really thinking and what our motives are behind the things that we’re saying.
But also at the same time you’re right, these moments of silence were as important. I’ve often said that at a minimum with this film, I just want to make people aware of sound and the relationship we all have with it. Whether we realise it or not, it affects us. Moments when we are just watching a character in a room by themselves, or are seeing a space with no character in it, leaving all of that negative space, those were intentional in the way we framed things — we [wanted] to leave room [for the audience] to think about and hear that invisible character, if you will. Negative space provided that a lot, and then we have this moment of Peter, who is cut off from the world in his basement. There are still things that literally keep you up at night, and for him too, even though he surrounds himself with these self-modified white noise conditioners.
There was an experience based off my own life. I also live in New York, and outside it can be loud at night. You can do things to cope with it, but I remember there was this tin can rolling on the rooftop of a neighbouring building, and I went searching for that one night to find it. You don’t know what it is until you find it, and it’s just a tin can. So when Peter has this moment in the movie where he quite literally climbs to the roof of this building, it’s that there’s a few things keeping him up, like a swinging door hinge. There are little sounds around us that we don’t think about that can affect us emotionally and psychologically.
Filmmaker: The journey of life is to understand oneself and one’s world and to become more comfortable with who we are. It’s essentially about discovering a harmony that allows us to better function day to day. The Sound of Silence is a human story about this inner communication, and how the most difficult thing to fix, as we often look outwards, is ourselves.
Tyburski: There’s an anecdote I hope touches on your question. I heard this story about this famous avant-garde composer who goes into something called an anechoic chamber, which is supposed to be a room that’s devoid of noise. Afterwards he still described hearing a sound, and the sound engineer explained that he was hearing his own blood flowing through his veins – essentially his nervous system. So I was thinking about that anecdote when I was thinking about this role and talking to Peter about doing this character. No matter how constructed you make the world around you, you still can’t escape yourself, and I think that’s Peter’s biggest issue as a character.