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The Noise Inside: Writer/Director Darius Marder on Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed in The Sound of Metal

The following interview with Darius Marder about Sound of Metal, currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, was originally published in Filmmaker‘s Fall, 2020 print edition.

Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben, the drummer for a two-person heavy metal band who loses his hearing and, for much of the film, his perspective and sense of self as a result. His hearing falters and almost entirely disappears early in the film during the middle of a tour with his girlfriend/bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). Both are recovering addicts, and as their world is turned upside down, Lou fears Ruben may relapse or hurt himself. His sponsor finds Ruben a Deaf rehabilitation center run by a Vietnam War vet (Paul Raci) who lost his hearing during combat. It is the people in this particular Deaf community—the young kids in his class, his teachers (Lauren Ridloff and Jeremy Lee Stone) and the other Deaf addicts—who with their ease and comfort with themselves could be Ruben’s strongest teachers, if he would listen. As he struggles and fails to place his identity in this community, he must live with his life’s rapid change as well the repercussions of his decisions. 

When I learned about this film, I did a lot of research and watched a handful of interviews and post-festival screening Q&As. All of the interviews were conducted by hearing people, and I found it interesting how different my questions about the film were. I’m hard of hearing and currently working on a film that has some similar points of interest and even a few remarkable overlaps. My film, The Tuba Thieves, is about the loss of sound. Tubas are stolen from high schools across Los Angeles, and in a parallel story, a Deaf woman is given a drum kit by her hearing father. In my research about Sound of Metal, I learned that Marder’s grandmother was hard of hearing and spent years petitioning for captions in film and television. Her experiences informed his decisions to use open captions, as opposed to closed captions, which the viewer can choose to turn off. My film also has open captioning. This is a game changer and, to me, remarkable from a hearing filmmaker. Via sound design by Nicolas Becker that approximates Ruben’s experiences, the hearing viewer experiences Ruben’s point of view and loss. The Deaf viewer sees the familiar narrative of his fear but knows better. As Ruben fluctuates between communities, loss takes a different shape and becomes a potentiality.

Sound of Metal is released by Amazon Studios on November 20.

Filmmaker: Can we begin with Metalhead? I was reading some metal Reddit threads, and it seems many people were following the progress of that project and now wonder what happened to it. Why didn’t it come out? And also, I am curious about your work on that hybrid project evolving into Sound of Metal. I wondered if you felt it would exist better in a narrative fictional space? Could you talk about that?

Marder: I’m really glad you started there. This is the child of Metalhead, essentially, that I adopted from Derek Cianfrance and raised and reared into this new film. Metalhead is the first thing that Derek and I spoke about when we met maybe 11 years ago. We both came from documentary films, and we were really interested in this hybrid idea—where is the line where the real world meets fiction? That project began with this band, Jucifer, and it’s the same construct—Edgar is the drummer, Amber is the singer, they travel endlessly in a Winnebago that’s their home. They have a wall of amplifiers behind them, and their sound is so loud that Amber’s hair blows when she strums her guitar.

Filmmaker: But Edgar didn’t actually lose his hearing, right?

Marder: No, he didn’t lose his hearing. And, dare I say, that’s where the issues lie. That project literally inspired this project, and I loved that project, but I knew it needed to be scripted. I knew I needed to write this in order for it to be what it deserved to be. So, that was the handoff. Derek knew he was never going to finish that film, even though, man, it’s gorgeous. It’s shot on 16mm, and Derek is an amazing filmmaker. I was editing that film for a long time and, in a way, got to play with this concept of a sound perspective, which I’ve been calling “POH”—point of hearing. But to use that perspective, it had to be incredibly on purpose and specific. But, yeah, the DNA of this film is Metalhead.

Filmmaker: Sound of Metal is so distinctly broken into three acts, more noticeably so than most films. There’s the opening section about the trauma and the violence of Ruben going deaf. Then, there’s the second act about the process of acceptance—whether he does accept his deafness or not is up for debate. And then, there’s the third act—the aftermath and the act of “fixing” his deafness.

And yet, when the film ended, I really had the feeling that it could go on and be episodic, and we could live with him and his experiences.

Marder: I love that comment, and, you’re right, the end is a beginning….

Filmmaker: The end is a beginning, but it feels like there’s a “before,” too. 

Marder: Exactly. My brother Abraham, who wrote this with me, and I have thought a lot about that. Who is Ruben? What is he doing? Also, it bears mentioning that I wrote much of [Lou’s] story when she goes to Europe.

Filmmaker: Oh, interesting.

Marder: Even though it’s obviously Ruben’s story, I was as obsessed with her as [with] him. For the longest time, when I was writing, I crosscut [between those two stories]. But, obviously, there’s not enough time for that in this particular movie. But I did need to consider doing a whole other movie in which you take the whole thing from Lou’s perspective and go with her to Europe through the whole time with Mathieu Amalric’s character [her father], leading up to the same scene where Ruben shows back up again.

As far as the three-act structure goes, certain aspects of those three acts were present right from the beginning. The world of sound always felt like the first act, and metal is the last act. I almost considered chapter [titles] at one point—the three acts are so distinct, in color and palette as well as on a sensory level. The first act is urban, feeling this whole country and movement. The second is sedentary and green. And the third is a foreign landscape, not just in the literal sense of it being Europe but also in the landscape of sound.

Filmmaker: I love the idea that a whole act could come out of the word “of” and this idea of being immersed in a community. But also, it’s interesting that you wrote Lou’s whole story, but we don’t see that. This is a good segue: I would love to talk about toxic masculinity.

Marder: Oh, I’m so glad.

Filmmaker: Specifically, this perception that things are broken and his desire to fix them. I’m hard of hearing. I wear hearing aids. I’ve had the exact same hearing my whole life. I have real sympathy for people who lose their hearing and what that experience must be like. And yet, I cringe when films are about overcoming disability. Ruben’s character in this film, he’s thrown into Deafness, so he’s little-d deaf. And it’s so interesting how he goes into this big-D Deaf (culturally Deaf) place and is so resistant to it. Even as his mind begins to open, he can’t give up—he backtracks, determined to fix it. I can empathize on a human level that to lose something that you’re reliant on, that is your mode of creativity, how painful that must be. Yet, from my perspective, it’s personally challenging to watch how much he tries to fight and fix. It shows up when he fixes the roof, and Joe tells him that nothing there is broken. So, I would love to hear your perspective on Ruben’s toxic masculinity and how that relates to his deafness?

Marder: That’s such a great question. Toxic masculinity is really what the film is about, and it is something that motivates a lot of my writing. My understanding about toxic masculinity is that [the term is] misused a lot now. We think of toxic masculinity as men acting in ways that hurt others. But actually, toxic masculinity in its inception is the idea of men acting in ways that they think are how a man should act but that are actually toxic to themselves. It’s about how men poison themselves, acting the part of what a man is supposed to act—to not have feelings, to fix things, to provide. Ruben is all of those things. He’s an Army brat, someone who didn’t grow up with a father, then his mother dies. He’s someone who has a lot of love for women, but his toxicity arises when he feels “less than,” when he feels he isn’t in control, when he feels he can’t provide and literally can’t drive the Airstream.

Filmmaker: I’m really curious about the rehabilitation center. Is that based on a real place? 

Marder: It was a hybrid of a lot of different impulses. First of all, there’s the leftover DNA of Metalhead, where the idea [originated]—that Edgar went into the Deaf community. And I grew up in a spiritual community, a goat farm in western Massachusetts, and a lot of that ended up on the screen here. I didn’t even fully realize until well into the writing that I spent every weekend as a child working silently in a silent work community. There was no talking. And there’s a lot of addiction in the Deaf community, as you probably well know. I talked to a lot of people about [recovery] groups, and I found this rabbi in western Massachusetts who did very specific groups with the Deaf world. So, I kind of took an amalgam of these many things and created this fictional world that I think could well exist. It’s basically predicated on the idea that one eccentric hearing person gone deaf saves himself by [forming] this community. And that was a dangerous idea because if you didn’t find the right person to play that role, it could’ve landed really poorly. Paul Raci is not only a very gifted actor, and not only part of Deaf culture, but he also fought two tours in Vietnam and had [worked with] Deaf AA groups. He brought that veracity to it, which I’m very grateful for.

Filmmaker: Could you speak about your experience directing Deaf performers and community in that segment, whose lives and lived experiences are so different from yours? I think hearing people really have no idea if they haven’t been exposed to Deaf culture what Deaf lives and relationships are like. I wonder if anecdotally there were any moments where you were forced to switch—rather than directing, were you directed just by being immersed in that community? Do you know what I mean?

Marder: It’s a great question. I believe that if you’re too mired in your own notions of control and authority as a creator that you’re probably missing something. Do you know Jeremy [Lee] Stone?

Filmmaker: Yes! Jeremy was in one of my projects a few years ago.

Marder: Oh, no kidding? He’s wonderful—what an energetic, generous and creative soul! Leading up to the shoot, he taught me and Riz ASL [American Sign Language]. Jeremy was kind of the creative consultant on set, which is a hard thing because under other circumstances, you would never invite someone in to creatively consult a director—that’s anathema to our process in that way, you know? I first thought of [Jeremy’s consultation] as more interpretation—that I needed someone to help interpret the lines and transfer my vision to Deaf actors in a specific way. And that gave way to moments when I freely let Jeremy direct the Deaf actors, which was so surprising to my crew and camera people that they even told me I should stop. But I didn’t because I felt that there was no way that I could do this. I knew that [Jeremy’s work] was going to make this better, and I trusted him.

Filmmaker: That’s such a beautiful answer because also in the Deaf community the relationship to expressiveness is so different from hearing culture. Many Deaf people call hearing people “bland” because there’s this tamping down of expression.

Marder: When Riz first began this process with Jeremy, there was a really powerful moment when he had a shift of consciousness—when he realized that he had to express emotion through his face. He started crying because he realized as a hearing person how guarded and locked inside we are. We hide behind our words and our ability to hear. That’s for sure.

Filmmaker: I know that your film’s release got pushed because we’re in this bonkers moment. How has it been releasing a film during COVID and also during so much social and political unrest? I’m curious because it seems that the film industry is really being forced, I honestly hope, to think a lot about representation and who tells whose stories. I’m curious about this period of time after you finished the film and have been sitting with it, thinking maybe about some of the stuff that you experienced working with the Deaf community, and if your thoughts about representation have even expanded further.

Marder: Well, there’s a lot of different things in that question. I mean, first of all, releasing a movie right now is nuts.

Filmmaker: I’m sure, yeah.

Marder: It’s uncharted territory for everyone. I think that representation and our awareness of representation and how we approached this is complicated. I know the story we told, which isn’t a story of a deaf person. It’s the story of a hearing person who goes deaf, and that’s different. So much has happened during this pandemic that is about representation, about cultural identity and about who we are as a country, and I would just say that the ethos of our set was very much in tune with that. This is obviously an extraordinarily diverse movie. The wonderful thing about Riz in this role is that there’s never a mention of him being a Pakistani Brit. In a way, he’s a pure representation of America, which is ironic, because he’s not American. 

As far as representation goes, this is a very complicated question. I believe in our creative freedom to tell stories. More often than not, I find that I have to give myself permission to tell stories. And at some point, you have to really ask yourself as an artist, is this the most burning thing? Is this the story I should be telling? Does this have to come out into the world? If we are appropriating a culture as some get-rich-quick scheme or to “get woke” quickly, that’s probably not a great modality. But if there’s a story to tell…. In this case, it involves my Deaf grandmother. Her experience living between the hearing and the Deaf culture and what that does to a person was a huge inspiration in the story.

You have to make sure that you are asking those hard questions to people around you. I [constantly asked], how does this feel? All the games that the kids play, those came from the Deaf community. None of those came from me. I didn’t try to write things that I shouldn’t have written. Anytime anyone smelled bullshit or something that was inauthentic, they would tell me and it would be changed. And that’s right down to casting. Casting Paul was very, very tough. In a relatively small-budget movie, to turn away name actors is very difficult because it’s that much less funding. It feels so obvious now that, of course, you wouldn’t cast someone from outside the Deaf community, but that wasn’t obvious to anybody when I was setting this film up.

Filmmaker: Yeah, I mean, in Baby Driver, when they cast CJ Jones in that role, that was like, “OK, finally, good.” This is really an important moment, when Hollywood—such as Millicent Simmonds [being cast] in A Quiet Place—and American independent film casting is moving away from putting hearing people into Deaf roles. 

You could say that this film is about overcoming adversity—or maybe not overcoming but actually diving into one’s own demons and one’s own adversity. But I wonder what you would say it’s about beyond this blanket statement. What do you feel is its deepest core?

Marder: 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.

Filmmaker: Did you ever watch this film without any sound?

Marder: Oh, yeah. It was important because I knew many people would be. I have watched it from start to finish completely silently just to understand as best I could what that would feel like. I mean, I’m a real believer in storytelling, and I think this story tells itself without sound. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother open captioning it. It would be like a gesture rather than a true act. But I do think that this is a story, this discussion about sound, and it was a massive sound mix in this movie, and it’s a massive element in the movie. How about you, what do you think?

Filmmaker: Yeah, I watched it today without sound. And I have to say, I really loved the whole middle section at the rehabilitation farm without sound. I had some moments when I wondered what sound design was happening, and I would turn it on for a moment. I saw all these lovely details in [American] Sign Language that were really funny. The first time Ruben attends Diane’s class, a little boy makes a comment to the other little boy about one of his tattoos. And during Ruben’s first dinner, someone knocks over their drink and they all joke about how Deaf that was. When I watched it with sound, it got in the way. I never would’ve caught that if I hadn’t watched it again without the sound.

Marder: That’s so interesting because you’re the first person I’ve spoken to from the [hard of hearing] community, who gets to choose [how to watch it], in a way. I mean, anybody can turn the sound off in the movie, but nobody’s going to. Most people are not going to have that same curiosity and ability to understand ASL that you do. That’s fascinating that when you turned it off, your attention was that much more heightened. People like [actress] Lauren Ridloff talked to me about the experience of being deaf—where your focus goes and how that affects sensory activities and all this other stuff. And I think that’s what you’re talking about.

filmmaker: I was curious about the 10 years of prep for this film. Why did it take so long?

Marder: It’s not easy to make a movie. I don’t know how everyone else is making all these movies. It’s a miracle I made it at all, you know? I happened into a documentary as my first film, which was wonderful, but it wasn’t how I thought I saw things going. I had been writing scripts for years. But no one was going to pay me to write this script. So, fighting to get it written—a script I could stand behind—took me years and years and years. With two uninsured children in Brooklyn, New York, it was super hard. I got summarily rejected everywhere with this story. I’m saying this not because I’m bitter but because I don’t think people know what it takes to make this stuff, and because so many people are out there doing the same thing right now. Once I got the script written, casting took many, many years. I could write a whole tome on casting this project and how many people signed on and dropped off and financiers [who] were dishonest and came on board and then left. It was a litany of craziness that just went on and on and on, year after year after year. Everyone who knew me was like, “So, what are you up to?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m still trying to make that film.” “That same film? Oh, man.” You know?

Filmmaker: What is it about this particular project, Sound of Metal, that made it so hard? Or do you think that’s every independent film?

Marder: Well, I think independent film is hard. Two weeks before we were shooting, I had to pull a rabbit out of my hat as far as financing. We had all the crew on set, and our financiers got weird. We finally got these wonderful friends and great humans, Bill and Kathy Benz, involved. Thank God for them. It took a last-minute miracle to make this movie. I think the trap we as filmmakers get into is that we don’t want to just “make a movie.” It’s too hard for that. We want to make a movie the way we want to make a movie. We want to make a good movie. So, yeah, some of it’s the industry and some of it’s me. I said no to a lot of versions of this movie that could’ve gotten made but that I just didn’t think were right. You just have to be in that tunnel and believe and believe and believe. I guess that’s what faith is.

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