Darius Marder’s feature debut, “Sound of Metal,” is the riveting story of a heavy metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) who goes deaf and struggles to reassemble his life. Making it nearly consumed the 46-year-old Marder’s life. The film took more than a decade to produce, and those close to him speak about that process in almost spiritual terms. Call it fate, grit, or unfettered determination, but the real story of “Sound of Metal” begins with a $1 million check to a different filmmaker for another movie.
That was Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine.” IFP awarded the $1 million grant in 2006, eight years after he completed his acclaimed Sundance debut “Brother Tied.” Marder attended the IFP lunch celebrating Cianfrance’s prize, watching with keen interest; he’d recently quit a career in catering to direct his own debut, the documentary “Loot.” As he watched Cianfrance hold a giant check from the stage, Marder marveled at the patience and deliberation of the other man’s approach. Later, Marder introduced himself; the bond was immediate. “We were just like moths to a flame,” Marder said.
Cianfrance did have a zen-like approach to his career: After the grant, it would be four years before “Blue Valentine” was made and released by The Weinstein Company. “You have to push as hard as you can as a filmmaker to make something,” Cianfrance said, recalling his initial conversation with Marder. “I don’t want to sound like a hippie here, but if the universe doesn’t want you to make it, it’ll protect you.”
Marder and Cianfrance seem to hang out with the same metaphysical forces. Made a decade apart, “Sound of Metal” and “Blue Valentine” ran parallel paths of extended creative limbo. However, Marder had Cianfrance as a guide: “Sound of Metal” emerged from Cianfrance’s “Metalhead,” his unfinished documentary-narrative hybrid about a heavy-metal drummer with ruptured eardrums.
“It was like having this wonderful research already done,” Marder said. That did not speed up anything, however. “Finding the psychic space to write when you can’t pay the bills is hard,” he said. “It’s an absolute act of faith.”
That ethos radiates in “Sound of Metal” itself, as Ruben (Riz Ahmed) struggles through deafness and addiction as he resists pressure to become a part of the deaf community. That journey speaks directly to the challenges behind the scenes. “I committed in a very deep way with complete obsessive rigor on this movie,” Marder said. “Everyone will tell you that, because I looked crazy.”
Marder was never a surefire success. Raised in Conway, Mass., he had poor grades in high school, didn’t go to college, and felt like the black sheep in a family of scientists and artists. At 18, he lucked his way into a gig teaching literature to middle-school students. “That unlocked the writer in me,” he said.
He did love movies, an interest that coincided with the rise of Dogme ’95 movies like “The Celebration” and “The Idiots.” They inspired him with their stripped-down approach toward narrative authenticity. “I was fascinated with this concept of restrictions, taking everything away and leaving the story to lead the way,” he said. “This kind of merging of naturalism and narrative for me was just incredibly exciting.”
But it did nothing for his career. Marder had kids at a young age and experimented with low-level production work, but his uncompromising spirit led to a lot of self sabotage. “There was an ethos of protection around the work and I found myself in this construct of not knowing how to navigate that for myself,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to work for other people. I always was very purposefully kind of blowing all of those scenarios up because I knew I couldn’t last in them.”
Instead, Marder developed a sushi catering business in Vermont, then became a food stylist in New York. “I was making money for my kids,” he said. “I was hustling. At the same time, I was writing scripts, shooting a ton of docs, just tons of hours of stuff. And then this story kind of called to me.”
That was “Loot,” the weird-but-true saga of amateur treasure hunter Lance Larson, who works with a pair of WWII veterans to find the treasure they buried decades earlier. It landed a $50,000 prize from the Los Angeles Film Festival, strong reviews, and distribution with HBO — and, true to form, Marder shrugged off the opportunities that it created.
“I remember having a meeting at HBO after that and literally I told them, ‘I don’t want to do a doc,’” he said. “So I just burned all the bridges because I knew what I wanted to do. I’ve done that over and over again in my career.”
Enter Cianfrance. A year after the IFP lunch, they ran into each other at a kid’s birthday party in Brooklyn and realized their children attended the same school. Cianfrance was about to shoot “Blue Valentine” and felt a kinship with Marder’s struggle to get something done his way. “We felt like brothers immediately,” Cianfrance said. “I’d say, ‘Hey, you want to take a walk, talk movies, talk about ideas?’”
Cianfrance had been fiddling around with “Metalhead” for some time, directing the musicians of the band Jucifer in a story based around their real lives. “Shooting ‘Metalhead’ taught me about situational scene-making, where you put actors in situations and kind of just roll the cameras, instigating things to find the revelations and the discoveries within real-life moments,” he said. He put that ethos to work with the tender “Blue Valentine” chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who scored an Oscar nomination for the part.
When Cianfrance circled back to “Metalhead,” his career was moving too fast to deal with the complexities of an experimental project with non-actors. “It became a negotiation on set of trying to convince the actor who would say, ‘I would never do that,’” Cianfrance said. “So I chose to go make ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ instead.”
Ten weeks out from production, with Gosling and Bradley Cooper in the leading roles, Cianfrance shared the script with Marder and found his notes substantial enough to revise the entire story. In four weeks, they rewrote the script twice. “I really loved his notes, and I had always known how talented the guy was,” Cianfrance said. The final version was so different from the original shooting script that Cooper almost quit in protest. “I had to tell him I wouldn’t make the film if he wasn’t the guy in it,” Cianfrance said.
“Pines” gave Marder his first major screenwriting credit, but when it premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Cianfrance tried — and failed — to get Marder meetings with an agent. “I was telling people there’s a diamond in the rough here,” Cianfrance said. “This guy was a force to be reckoned with. And no one would do it, because he didn’t have a project.”
After the festival, Cianfrance recalled telling Marder, “‘Man, you’ve got to do something. And I have this thing, ‘Metalhead,’ and you’ve always loved that,'” he said. “Part of the responsibility of being a filmmaker is to renegotiate your relationships to different projects, and figure out how to make that story succeed in the most pure way. I was just like, ‘Take the story.’”
Marder, whose grandmother was deaf, saw that the story could dig deeper. “One constant that I observed was the way that members of deaf culture looked out for one another in a profoundly different way from us in hearing culture,” he said.
He wrote and rewrote, pitched the project, and rewrote some more. In the meantime, Cianfrance asked Marder to serve as co-writer on “Empire of the Summer Moon,” a Warner Bros.-produced adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller. Immersed in “Sound of Metal,” Marder initially rejected the offer, but Cianfrance talked him into it. “I had committed in a very deep way, with complete obsessive rigor, on this movie,” Marder said.
Just as Cianfrance helped Marder stabilize himself with a writing opportunity, Marder applied that same ethos to a member of his own family. His younger brother Abraham, a musician not altogether unlike the “Sound of Metal” protagonist, hit his own rough patch: Suffering from a back injury and a stomach infection, he felt alienated from the world.
“I had lost all my friends and my work,” Abraham Marder said. “It was a very dark time.”
Darius called him, and “said he had this crazy deadline and asked me to go upstate with him to play music, just so I could just focus,” Abraham said. “We talked about his script, and he said, ‘Hey, if you want to write anything down, do it.’” Darius introduced his brother to Final Draft; Abraham remembers asking, “’It doesn’t cost money, does it?”
The siblings went into a writing frenzy, with Darius focused on the story’s big-picture aspects and Abraham digging deep. “This screenplay quite honestly saved me,” Abraham said. “I put a lot, personally, into Ruben, just the vulnerability of the guy. I just felt that so much.” They flew through multiple drafts: Some played up the dynamic of Ruben’s girlfriend and her father more than the drummer; others had much bleaker endings. “It was so enticing to us to build a story that’s also a hopeful journey,” Abraham said. “We wrote a lot of versions of that script where it might’ve hurt more. We didn’t want that.”
They also dug into the sound element of the movie. “The sound design exists on the page,” Darius said. “It was a character in the film.”
None of that helped when “Sound of Metal” made the rounds with financiers, where Darius remained an unknown quantity. “This is the strange, paradoxical way that this industry works,” he said. “I need the cream-of-the-crop actor because they’re the only ones that can finance the movie but who am I, right? So that means the script has to do the speaking.”
Marder showed little interest in actors who didn’t fit the parts, especially those with no connections to deaf culture. “The very first actor I met could have financed this movie immediately, but it wasn’t right for the movie,” Marder said, declining to mention the name. “I said ‘no’ to a lot of versions of the movie that could have gotten financed. I was kind of daring the universe to work for me.”
At one point, Robert Duvall’s agent expressed interest in the role of Joe, the hardline overseer of the deaf rehab. Marder passed, eventually casting newcomer Paul Raci, who grew up in deaf culture. By now, Marder had interest from Caviar Film Prods., which shepherded Marielle Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” as well as Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” and Harmony Korine’s “Mr. Nobody.”
“We saw the writing and the passion he was putting into it — and the patience,” said Caviar CEO Bert Hamelinck. “We never pick the easiest projects, and this one was so intriguing. Darius had been to every studio, every financier, and everybody loved the script, but nobody wanted to take the risk.”
Nobody, that is, until Riz Ahmed. The Emmy-winning star of HBO’s “The Night Of” was on the cusp of breakout, and Marder embraced Ahmed’s commitment to the part, which included a desire to learn ASL. In a moment of extreme serendipity, Marder was in Los Angeles meeting Ahmed for the first time when he bumped into Cianfrance on the street. “I was like, ‘Dude, what are you guys doing?’” Cianfrance said. They went back to the Sunset Marquis to catch up. “I would compare it to the experience of an adoptive parent, when their child was now full grown and healthy and thriving,” Cianfrance said. “It was just thrilling.”
Even so, financiers pulled out of “Sound of Metal” several times. Budgeted in the low seven figures, Marder insisted on shooting 35mm and filming concerts in front of real crowds. Ahmed spent seven months training for the part when the latest financiers pulled out; Marder refused to give them final cut. One day before production was set to begin, Marder called his friends Bill and Kathy Benz in a last-ditch attempt to save the project.
“Bill says, ‘Look this is nuts,” Marder said. “‘We love you, Darius, but this is crazy. It doesn’t sound like a good idea. I’ll talk to my financial people tonight and I’ll give you an answer in the morning.’ So I wake up. We’re on location. We have 50 people there. It’s a big deal and I also knew if we didn’t shoot that film right then, that I’d never shoot it. They wired the money with no contract.”
From there, production was smooth. “Next to Lars Von Trier, Darius was the most efficient filmmaker I’ve ever worked with,” Hamelinck said. “He always on set working on time.” The end result reflects that precision; as with Cianfrance’s movies, “Sound of Metal” moves with an emotional tenor that’s sensitive but not sanitized. “One of the reasons I knew I could trust this story with him was I knew he would stop at nothing for it to be its fullest version of itself,” said Cianfrance, who’s now working with Marder to turn “Empire of the Summer Moon” into a miniseries. “I think that’ll only continue to happen with whatever it is he wants to do.”
Marder has another script in the works and seems poised to continue his authorial approach. “I guess he won’t do Marvel, but they probably will call him,” Hamelinck said. “This guy could handle anything after this.”
Cianfrance put Marder’s long-term journey in historical terms. “Look at Kubrick. Look at Malick. Sometimes, things just take some time to age,” he said. “I think we all, as audiences of films, have a lot to look forward to with what Darius can make in his time left on earth.”
Marder insists it won’t take as long. “It will not be another 10 years,” he said, but didn’t offer an alternative. “I don’t ever want to make a movie just to make a movie,” he said. “I have no interest in that. You’re looking at a guy who fought his entire adult life to do this work in the way that I want to do it. If I get the chance to make another movie, that’s all I want.”
An earlier version of this article reported that Bill and Kathy Benz were related to the Mercedes-Benz family. This was inaccurate.