We’re going to have to come up with a better term than POV to describe “Sound of Metal,” the story of a drummer who loses his hearing. POV describes a subjective portrayal, where we see just what the character sees instead of what an outsider can see. But “see” is the operative word. Much of “Sound of Metal” is subjective, so that we hear only what Ruben (brilliantly played by Riz Ahmed) is hearing. Many of the sounds are muted or distorted. Some of the movie is in silence. Sometimes we get a brief chance to hear what he cannot.
Director/co-writer Darius Marder, co-writer/composer (and brother) Abraham Marder, sound designer Nicolas Becker, editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, costume designer Megan Stark Evans, and production designer Jeremy Woodward answered questions via Zoom about taking us inside not just inside Ruben’s world but inside his ears.
The Marder brothers dedicated the film to their grandmother, who became deaf through a side effect of medication and “felt completely alienated in her world,” Abraham told us. The team did “a lot of nerdy research” on Deaf experience and culture and included many from the Deaf community in the film. “We studied what happens to musicians who are losing their hearing, other ways people lose their hearing, taking antibiotics, depression, many strange ways based on mental health, music.” They looked at the emotional experience of frustration and isolation. Abraham himself had tinnitus while they were writing the screenplay, which influenced the writing as well. Communicating in sign, he said, “We can’t be our monotone selves. You have to animate and you have to express in a different way. It’s really about true community and communicating in a very genuine way.”
The brothers were drawn to the ideas of music as a connection between people and as a metaphor for all relationships. “We all have our own place within a relationship,” Darius said. “I play the drums and you play guitar and together we make this music. But what are we if we start pulling those sounds apart? If you leave, what is left? Abraham and I were both inspired by the concept of using this two-person band as a metaphor for a relationship. Even though it is steeped in a very specific music world, the intention was for it to be universal in feeling.”
Abraham added, “The idea was intoxicating because it was the ultimate alienation someone could go through. To be a musician, but really anyone who goes through a hearing loss. To build a story that begins in a place with such loss but have it full of some magic and some vague light that is consistently there.” He composed much more music than actually is heard in the film, and described the remaining score as “specific and sparse. The biggest thing in editing was slowly taking everything away, so you can see it’s a natural voyage you’re on.” Even the instruments helped to create the subjective experience of Ruben’s altered perception. “We worked with a Cristal Baschet, which feels like the inner ear to us, incredibly vibrational, a resophonic guitar, to create big, vibrational sounds … always the score coming from Deaf perspective and not trying to sweep you up in an emotional perspective outside of Ruben.”
Darius emphasized the team approach he wanted for his first film. He saw every member of the production as essential to creating character and story. “We were trying to do something new here. It was something none of us had seen, or, specifically, heard. So, it took a degree of really strong authorship on the part of so many people. What’s exciting to me is the way it came together with a merging of languages.” He described the subjective use of sound and silence to bring us into Ruben’s perspective as “almost like putting on a VR headset, because you’re thrust into the experience.”
Woodward likes to describe what he does as “design for storytelling.” He said the script was so expressive and beautifully crafted he could “immediately see the movie.” “The meaning was going to have to come out of plumbing these characters and bringing them to life and choices being made on that basis rather than an overt stylistic basis or a programmatic basis that grows from without.”
Ahmed worked for months to learn sign language. He also wore earpieces that Darius said, “emitted a white noise I could masochistically control on my iPhone to create white noise, tinnitus. Riz couldn’t hear his own voice.” Even without the earpieces, he “kept this memory in his body,” said Becker.
In editing the sound, between diegetic, subjective, and omniscient. Becker said, they wanted to create real, immersive sound, but not make it too tiring or disorienting for the audience. “At the start, all the shots are immersive sonically. Then it becomes lighter, subjective with normal sound, sometimes a normal frame but the sound is subjective, to give more and more room to the audience and not let it become claustrophobic. I try to exactly mimic the reality, speaking to people through their own memory. Not just illustrative, but linked to the audience’s own bits of memory.” In many significant ways, the experience of the filmmakers replicated some of what was happening to Ruben. Becker said in post-production the “very noisy first part of the film, with the sounds of music and the city was mixed in LA, so we were experiencing that. For the end of the movie, we moved to a remote facility in pure silence, the same trajectory that Ruben has.” He said the most important lesson he has learned from working with artists is, “The gesture is as important as the quest.”
The film was shot chronologically. Darius said, “We all felt the joy of that. We had this memory of going through it like we were living every scene as we went.” That was especially true for Lou, the character played by Olivia Cooke, who says a sad goodbye early on when Ruben checks into a rehab facility for Deaf people with addiction, and then sees him again near the end. “The chronology of the story was one of the most exciting aspects because it allowed for real experience. Olivia was gone. Goodbye was goodbye. That’s the beauty of chronology. What she came back with was really profound. It was like, ‘You guys lived something else and I was gone.’ She was different. Her energy was different. Some part of her had moved on. It was tough emotionally. even off-camera. You feel it and see it on the screen with her.”
Costume designer Evans said she told Darius about her “background being pretty deep into the hardcore punk metal scene in an earlier stage of my life, going to dirty basement shows. We spent a lot of time talking about how Ruben and Lou are living in an Airstream, so they probably share a wardrobe, clothes strewn all around, they’re so deep into their touring and their music and immersed by their relationship that there’s really nothing outside of that for them. Everything they do is intertwined. They would be doing their own clothing repairs, making their own shirts, stitching patches on everything.”
The costumes are an external indicator of what is happening inside Ruben. “When Riz and I talked about the arc of his character, he begins by wearing all of these shirts from obscure punk and metal ’80s and ’90s bands that deeply inspired and informed his music, punk bands, Voided, GISM, Einstürzende Neubauten, an industrial noise band from Germany. He would wear those shirts and his beat-up boots and his worn-in jeans. Then as he comes into the Deaf community, he starts to become more comfortable in this place. He wears shirts that are less in your face and a softer kind of pant and he wears sneakers.” She got help from Sean Powell, a drummer with Surfbort in Brooklyn and a former heroin addict. “I actually stole a bunch of Sean’s real articles of clothing for the film. He was super-generous in coming up with bands that would help give this movie its clout and helped us come up with ideas that would help make Ruben and Lou more well-rounded and more realistic to people in all walks of life but particularly in that scene. He also hand screen-printed some shirts for us.”
For Lou, she said, “Lou wore clothing as protection, whether she was wearing Ruben’s clothing to feel protected and connected, or all those big rings as a talisman, something she can mess with to feel and live into, her oversize clothing covering her body. When she goes into her performance scenes she wears a very different look, a slip. When Darius and I were talking about the painful experience of her mother committing suicide and all the pain she still holds onto from that, we said maybe she would pay tribute to her mother through her music when she performs by wearing her old slip. It’s a beyond the grave connection to her mother and a physical embodiment of the way she is laid bare only when she is performing.”
“So much of our design is about the awareness of sound itself,” Darius said. Becker used multi-directional mics, a hyper-naturalism as a mediation on what we ignore.” Darius described him as “outrageously audacious,” hanging mics on Ahmed’s body to get “body tone” as well as room tone.
Nielsen talked about the editing challenges of a film where some of the conversations are in sign language, requiring shots in medium close-up so we can see the gestures. And “When do we need to be inside of Ruben’s head and when do we need to be outside? How much do we need to understand? In the pharmacy scene, we just need to hear the word ‘doctor.’ I worked a lot with the film like a silent movie, and then I could tell what was missing. In some shots, Riz’s eyes tell you everything you need to know. But we have to ask, how do we get into his head? You go to the extremes all the time to awaken the senses in the audience.”