What does it feel like when your relationship to the world around you unexpectedly and dramatically alters? It’s a question “Sound of Metal” writer/director Darius Marder had to think through at every step of the process of telling the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering addict and hardcore drummer who loses his hearing.
While on the Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, Marder and Ahmed discussed how the key to tuning the audience into Ruben’s experience was to first create an immersive and realistic experience for the actor on set. “It all boils down to the same thing, which is veracity,” explained Marder. “When we look upon truth and we feel truth. … I think we recognize something fundamentally human when that happens.”
To prepare for the role, Ahmed learned American Sign Language (ASL) and how to drum. He even wore a custom device in his ears that emitted white noise, so that he could experience what it would be like to not be able to even hear his own voice. “I remember the first time we met, Darius said, ‘I want it all to be for real,’” recalled Ahmed. “He described [the set] as this ‘playground of consequences.’”
This meant that, like Ruben, Ahmed’s ability to communicate with the deaf community of actors in the film’s second act was dictated by how well he knew ASL. According to Ahmed, learning new skills like drumming and ASL went beyond making his on-screen performance more realistic, it opened him up to the emotional and almost spiritual truth of his character.
“There’s a trope in the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed because they are hiding behind words, where as when you express yourself in sign you are forced to inhabit what you are saying and connect to it viscerally and physically in a different way,” said Ahmed. “And I found myself getting emotional discussing things in American Sign Language that I could very easily pass off with a string of several words if I was just speaking in English, and so I felt that learning ASL really opened me up emotionally.”
This immersive realism also applied to the film’s unique use of sound. Marder wanted to ground the film’s subjectivity in what he called “point of hearing,” rather than “point of view.” The use of the camera and editing would follow the sound design’s lead, a reverse of how most filmmakers think and work. It’s a subtle shift that Marder believes hits the audience on an emotional level.
“When we hear sound that’s rooted in something real and true, we all have a collective human memory of our sounds,” said Marder. “We talked a lot about this in really geeky ways, but a lot of the film is reminding us about our own memory of sound on a very subtle level.”
According to Marder and sound designer Nicolas Becker, those sound memories are held in our bodies and can be triggered by sound vibrations.
“A large part of the sound design of the film was built out of that inner subjective experience of Ruben’s auditory world,” said Ahmed. “Which is very authentic because sometimes when people lose their hearing what they maintain is a vibrational hearing, an auditory experience that comes from the body, and the body’s internal processes.”
How Becker accomplished this led to some unorthodox sound recording methods on set. “Nicolas would come up to me with some kind of hexagonal orb, that felt like it’d been 3-D printed in his steampunk workshop, and placed it against my chest,” recalled Ahmed. “And he’d say, ‘Okay, blink. Now breathe, inhale, exhale, now hold your breath so I can hear your heartbeat, now swallow, lick the inside of your teeth with your tongue.’”
When asked if it was true that, at one point, Becker experimented with putting a small microphone down the actor’s throat, Ahmed laughingly replied, “Yeah, they had microphones everywhere, man. You don’t even want to know.”
Marder joked, “That should be the selling point of the movie, we haven’t really explored that enough. … ‘Want to be inside Riz Ahmed’s body?’”
“Inside Riz” would have been a cheeky tagline, but the more we learn about how the unique subjective experience of “Sound of Metal” was crafted, it’s clear it would have also been a dead accurate one, too.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.