In Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s debut feature, two extraordinary acts of human resolve align to create one of this year’s finest films. The first is the fictional story of its lead: Ruben, a drummer in a two-piece heavy metal band who struggles to piece his life back together after going deaf, delivered by Riz Ahmed in a performance entirely deserving of its Oscar-nomination.
The second, and very real story, is less visible but elevates the film with an emotional authenticity every bit as potent as Ahmed’s on-screen contribution. That is that its director spent 13 years trying to make this film, not merely pushing it to the backburner while he busied himself with other projects (with the exception of writing the screenplay for Derek Ciafrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines in 2012) but relentlessly moving it forward, overcoming countless obstacles in a Sisyphean struggle that’s ultimately ended in triumph.
The result is both a powerful exploration of addiction and deafness, told largely through sound – or a total lack of it – and representing the deaf community with a level of truth and dignity they are rarely afforded by Hollywood. Central to this was Marder’s insistence on using deaf actors to play deaf parts (or at least those with a close connection to the deaf world), a decision that led him to the outstanding Paul Raci (Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Role), who plays the leader of a rural deaf community centre tasked with convincing Ruben his new condition is not something to be fixed, but to be accepted and embraced.
Below we speak to Marder about those thirteen years of uncertainty, how the film channels his personal experience of deafness and what it’s like to direct Riz Ahmed in what promises to be a career-defining performance.
Finn Blythe: You showed a superhuman level of commitment in getting this film made, so I wanted to begin by asking what makes this story so important?
Darius Marder: There’s a number of reasons I was compelled to stick with this, I was actually never tempted not to. Number one, something deeply personal drew me to this movie and really echoed in my own life. Like so often happens, it paralleled a journey I was going through personally about letting go. I also felt something, going back twelve, thirteen years ago, in the cinematic potential of this film that was so exciting to me as a filmmaker that I couldn’t possibly not see it through.
This idea of a point of hearing and a kind of empathy machine was something that I hadn’t quite felt or seen in a movie, I could taste it. As I wrote this with my brother, as we built this thing, as I met many actors over the years, I just kept honing it and getting more and more excited by it. As I met various people, musicians, as we started to form concepts around shooting, around blocking the sound and around process, it just got more and more intoxicating.
FB: And of course the project has its origins in a story originally conceived by your friend Derek Cianfrance with Metalhead [though the film was never completed]. Did you take any lessons from his project or did you already have a preconceived idea of the direction you wanted to take when Derek offered it to you?
DM: I had some notions thematically of where I wanted to take it, but there’s such a connective tissue with [Metalhead]. Derek is not only a dear friend but just such a phenomenal filmmaker and his instincts are so strong and so aligned with my own. He and I obviously worked together in other realms and on a number of different scripts and we know each other really well. Derek is really moved by raw authenticity on the screen and process that provokes that or nurtures it. He’s moved by it in a way that a lot of filmmakers aren’t, and maybe both of our foundations in documentary have something to do with that, but I also think it’s about this lust for life.
The script [for Metalhead] had a lot of life in it, he was shooting a real band, Jucifer, he’d lost some hearing and gone through tinnitus himself so he had that really personal experience with it. I think it’s one of the things that excited me so much about taking the reigns of this, it had the foundation of such truth right from the beginning. Derek was shooting in a real deaf community even when he was shooting in Atlanta. So the film always had this truth, this well, this deep vein of authenticity to it that was so exciting to both of us and I absolutely drew from that inspiration in writing Sound of Metal.
“The film always had this truth, this well, this deep vein of authenticity to it that was so exciting.”
FB: You mentioned the long journey you took finding the right people for this movie. It sounds a bit like a vetting process, almost like you were feeling out whether these people could handle the weight of the film. Can you tell me a bit more about this process and what it was that convinced you that you were ready to start filming? I mean, I know budgeting is a part of that, too.
DM: The budget thing bears mentioning only because I met with wonderful actors who could never finance the movie, who I just simply could never make it with. Which is always a very tough place to be and I was always very direct with them. So I like to mention that because it’s not like I didn’t choose actors over the years, there were just some people I couldn’t choose despite having wonderful, rich, creative conversations with them. But then there’s also the actors that could have financed the movie that I didn’t make it with, and a lot of times there were many intangible things.
For instance, maybe you’re sitting across from someone and you’re talking about process and you’re like, “Are you up for this?” and someone goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” [nods nonchalantly]. It could just be something like that where you don’t see enough fear in them. If someone’s too gung-ho it’s not burning in the right way. There has to be a kind of life force issue there. There were other crazy processes I took with actors where I had to learn the hard way they weren’t going to commit in the way I wanted them to. You can lead a horse to water, you know?
It’s a gruelling, heart-breaking but always creative process that always shows you something about yourself and about the role. In some bizarre way that I cannot explain, you end up making it the way you should make it, and all roads led me to Riz. Riz was the first actor I ever met with where everything collided for this to be exceptional. I had met with other exceptional actors but never did I have the collision of things that could create something magical and transcendent.
“Riz was the first actor I ever met with where everything collided for this to be exceptional.”
FB: What’s it like directing Riz Ahmed?
DM: An utter pleasure. Really hard at times, in the best way, but I would be very frightened by a process that was easy. He’s an artist. He’s the consummate artist. He pushes and he pushes where it’s appropriate to push. He’s a real collaborator but he questions and he prods and he pushes and he wants to know – and I fuckin love that.
FB: He forces you to be on your toes and retain some critical thought?
DM: Yeah. I mean if you’re not bringing it, don’t bother working with Riz. He’s a very open, wonderful presence to have around but he’s also a headcase – and I say that with a lot of love. He’s pushing for excellence and he’s pushing for something that’s beyond – at times that was very intense. At times it was argumentative and at times it was belligerent but it was beautifully so. And the wonderful thing about Riz, like you said, is when he pushes you to that place of being true. If and when you are true he will see that and he will respond to it.
A good example of that was when I told him that we weren’t going to watch dailies, and Riz had an absolute meltdown. This was right before shooting and he was going through a lot. He wasn’t sleeping and he was carrying a lot on his shoulders. When I told him he couldn’t watch dailies that was very hard for him, he wanted to devour it and analyse it and it just wasn’t the process I was interested in for this movie and I thought Riz would do better without that. Once I presented that to him, once I said the words, “I’m not going to be your enabler” – this is just classic Riz– he laughed. All of that energy fell away because he saw how true and real and meta that was. We hugged and we moved forward – he’s amazing.
“He’s a very open, wonderful presence to have around but he’s also a headcase – and I say that with a lot of love.”
FB: Another standout performance, aside from Olivia Cooke, was Paul Raci, who’s a new name for me. What did you observe in those initial meetings between Paul and Riz, because that dynamic is so strong and so central to the film.
DM: First of all we were shooting chronologically, and as you can imagine by the time we hit the set [the deaf community centre] Riz had already been in prep and had been deep in this character for nine or ten months straight. He knew he was going to meet someone but he didn’t know who that was, that’s the way that I set this up. So I had worked with Riz to that point and simultaneously I’d been working with Paul, but in a very different way. With Riz it was about searching this very specific garden of personal and emotional worlds, finding them and trusting them. Paul was so much in this character that it was about unearthing those parts of himself that he had lived through. There was an opportunity for Paul as a person to do some tremendous healing in this role, in his own life.
“Paul [Raci] was so much in this character that it was about unearthing those parts of himself that he had lived through.”
That has a lot to do with the emotion you see on the screen and it’s a testament to his process as an actor that he was willing to bring the most vulnerable aspects of himself to this role. I remember the first time I brought him to that set he wept, openly, because he knew he was holding these two worlds. He had a foot in the hearing world and a foot in the deaf world, which, in many ways is his real world. He didn’t speak English until he was six years old, he has a deaf heart, you know what I mean? That’s his culture. He grew up hating hearing people because his parents hated hearing people. So it was this fascinating exchange of energy for him but I didn’t let them meet until the day and they met as characters. That’s how I set up this shoot, I set it up to have high stakes, to be alive in a moment. We don’t do rehearsals so there’s no bullshitting this, it’s into the pan.
FB: Speaking of Paul’s connection to the deaf community I know you had one too, albeit not as a direct. I wanted to ask you about your deaf grandmother and how the experience of making this film, having these conversations with Paul, made you re-evaluate or reflect on the time you spent with your grandmother. Did it help you rationalise it in a way you hadn’t before?
DM: You know it did, because in a way that place I set up [the deaf community centre] is something my grandmother could have used. When you say grandmother people go, “Yeah everybody’s grandmother goes deaf,” but no, she went deaf early – antibiotics saved her life but it left her deaf. She was a Jewish woman who’d had a lot of troubles including alcoholism and she retained an incredible intellect but she could have used that. How do you hit that moment in life where you no longer have any community? Where you no longer have the hearing world and you no longer have the deaf world because you can’t access that without the language? So it did inform a lot for me and there’s a lot of her in Ruben.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video from April 12th and released in cinemas from May 17th.