The writer/director of Sound of Metal discusses replicating the experience of deafness on screen.
Darius Marder’s grandmother Dorothy loved movies, and when she developed hearing loss and eventually became deaf she was devastated. Dorothy became a tireless campaigner for the inclusion of open captions, which would make a world of television and cinema accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing. Sound of Metal is dedicated to her, and stars Riz Ahmed as a former addict and heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and must adapt to a whole new way of life.
LWLies: I feel fortunate that I was at the premiere of Sound of Metal, because the cinema experience is so essential to the film’s sound design, and being immersed within it.
Marder: Y’know, I had a really interesting experience in Toronto. At that screening, we’d been cutting, cutting, cutting; we’d done 23 weeks on the sound mix. It was obscene. And I’d done plenty of screenings. But something happened to me in the premiere with 1,500 people. I felt the film could be a little braver, that it wasn’t really around committing to a very purposeful language that I wanted. And that resulted in the film being shorter which is interesting.
There are a number of deaf actors in the film who help Ruben acclimatise to his new life. How did you work with them to make sure their experiences were built into the DNA of the film?
I had been working with the deaf community for a long time, but that relationship intensified. It was an incredible learning process, which I just found so joyful. It felt like all my years shooting documentary where you’re in service of something that you’re invited into, you just feel so privileged to be able to witness it and learn from it. I had a creative kind of co-director within the deaf community, who is Jeremy Lee Stone, who taught Riz and me sign language. I asked him to talk to the actors himself, because it wasn’t just about the ASL [American Sign Language], it was about showing and capturing deaf culture.
I invited everyone to always tell me when something felt full of shit – there were so many moments like that, which was great because the film always got better, always got truer. Little things you wouldn’t expect, like a computer or TV would never have the sound on in a Deaf household. I had written a scene where Ruben gets his name sign, and I met various members of the deaf community who said, ‘That’s not really the way it works. It just happens.’ Having their involvement meant it was so much better than anything I wrote on my own.
We can’t talk about Sound of Metal without talking about the sound design. Could you walk me through the scene at the concert where Ruben starts to become aware he’s losing his hearing?
Nicolas Becker and I started on the sound design well over a year before we shot, but that scene is really cool because one of the things that happened in the edit – and this is the real genius of Mikkel Nielsen – is that this scene comes sooner in the movie than even I expected from the script. It undermines your rhythmic expectations. We expect to be in our normal world for a while. But one of the things about hearing loss is that it isn’t expected and it doesn’t come at a convenient time.
Riz had prepared for seven months, he’d learned ASL and has these gadgets in his ear canal that emit white noise, which is hooked up to my phone. At first, they’re just there and Riz doesn’t know what’s going to happen when. So I invited this band Surfboard to perform at this show, and they’re hanging out. I wanted it to feel just like everyday life, just so mundane. And rather sadistically I hit the button, and Riz hears this high-pitched ringing noise, which is mimicking tinnitus. There’s this real physical process happening in that scene.
Then with the sound mix, we had contact mics everywhere so we could get sound from different perspectives. We were creating this language of sound, and showing that it’s not just a ringing, it’s almost like a bubble of sound is created around you, with certain frequencies not coming through that bubble. It’s not the final destination of where he’s going, but we wanted the audience to be trapped with Ruben – even though we’ve actually been in his sound perspective since the first frame. We’ve actually been with him, we just don’t realise until that moment. It was amazing to be able to create that kind of sonic language for the film.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video from 12 April and in cinemas from 17 May.
Published 16 Mar 2021
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