How Sound of Metal director Darius Marder explores deafness through sound design
'The monster in this case and in this film isn't deafness,' said Marder in an interview with q's Tom Power
In writer-director Darius Marder's new film, Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band who struggles to rebuild his life after he starts to go deaf.
The film explores the consequences of a musician losing his hearing, while shedding a light on the experiences of the Deaf community — by making the audience become the minority as they watch. Sound of Metal has been praised for its innovative use of sound design, which puts the audience in Ruben's head as it drifts back and forth between loud clarity and a hushed or distorted quiet.
Marder recently joined q's Tom Power to talk about his feature directorial debut, sharing what he learned about Deaf culture and the Deaf community while making this film.
A full transcript of their conversation is available below.
Picture this for a minute: you're a drummer in a metal band, you criss-cross the country in an RV with your bandmate, who is also the love of your life. You drive during the day, you play extremely, extremely loud music at night. It's the life you've always wanted. But then one day it all starts to slip away.
First, there's a ringing in your ears, then there's difficult hearing, and then it's just gone. Your hearing is gone. You fear that your passion and your purpose in life and your connection to the love of your life, that they will all disappear too. That is the starting point for the remarkable new film Sound of Metal.
Riz Ahmed stars as the drummer Ruben struggling to rebuild his life in a sober house for deaf addicts. You might know Riz from Star Wars: Rogue One or The Night Of.
Sound of Metal has been praised for its innovative, immersive use of sound design. Darius Marder is the writer and director of Sound of Metal. It's his first feature length film and he learned a lot about Deaf culture and Deaf community in making this film. He joined me from Massachusetts.
Darius, how are you?
I'm great. That was a fantastic intro. I really enjoyed listening to that.
Let's talk about the beginning of the film. There's so much I don't want to give away here, you're not just watching someone losing their hearing who hits drums really hard in the nighttime, you actually are experiencing it along with them. There are moments that, if you watch the film without the captions, you have very little idea what the other characters are saying because you're hearing it through Ruben's ears. So, that's something you do through sound design and particularly through silence. Now, I should point out, just given that we're talking right now, that you're a hearing person yourself. How did you learn what that experience is really like?
It's really an interesting conversation around that because, you know, for people who are born deaf, they don't obviously know what it's like to lose their hearing. That's an experience that only a hearing person can go through, the actual process of losing it, which unfortunately many people go through. There's many, you know, under the umbrella of the hard of hearing and Deaf community, there's such a spectrum of experience.
And so we had many, many deep, kind of, explorations of this. Some of it was conversations with late-deafened people. Many conversations with deaf people, deaf people with capital D, people that were born deaf. The entire spectrum of hearing loss and how you can hear — and we really tried to represent that in a movie from a sonic perspective.
It's not just like your normal tinnitus. We really have a range of hearing but interestingly, we had a very meta experience on the set where we, Riz Ahmed who plays Ruben actually — and this was something I was so excited to do from years back as I was trying to make this impossible film made — we had a set of custom earpieces that were made for Riz that actually simulate the experience of not necessarily the experience of deafness but the experience of losing your relationship to sound. So they actually omit a white noise, so that Ruben or Riz couldn't even hear his own voice, when he was acting.
I mean, why use an actor with hearing in this role and not someone who's lost hearing?
Well, actually, for every reason. Because, first of all, the role is as a hearing person so you would be inverting that truth, if you were to do it the other way around. And obviously, in this film, and maybe it's not obvious, but everybody is from Deaf culture and from the deaf world that's cast in this movie, apart from Riz. And the reason for that is that — and this is what just fired me, fired my brother up for years, as we were creating the story — the creative potential and possibility in this role was that you could take, a hearing actor would literally go through this experience of losing that comfort, losing that ability, and all of the things that come with that, and actually have to grapple with being a minority amongst and in Deaf culture.
That's something we really experienced in the making of this movie. And that experience is so much a part of the actual energy of the film itself. And if you were to take an already deafened person, they would be comfortable within Deaf culture, they wouldn't be actually a minority, they wouldn't be able to access that creative energy that only a hearing person can access because they are a minority, because it's not a place that they're used to. It's not a place that they're comfortable. And that's very much where the viewer is put in this movie.
As you probably notice, and alluded to in your intro, that's really what's so exciting to me about the film is that the audience actually becomes a minority with Ruben.
Yeah, I know. And I guess at the beginning, I wanted to say how scary it was. But I sort of held back, if you know what I mean, from saying it's scary, just given that's a lived experience for so many people, you know what I mean?
No, I like that. Here's what's interesting about the word scary for me, it's really meant and it's cut to feel scary. But that's a little bit of a red herring. Because, you know, like, every horror movie where you don't see the monster is the scariest part of the horror movie. But the monster in this case, and in this film, isn't deafness. And that's really what was interesting to me about it is that you, we as an audience are indoctrinated into this kind of knee jerk feeling of, 'Oh, of course, the horror is this disability.' But that, in fact, is not the horror at all. And, as a matter of fact, the monster exists from the very first frame of the movie.
WATCH | Official trailer for Sound of Metal:
You may have already answered this, but I'm gonna ask it anyway, just in case there's a different answer. In the research you did making this film, what was the biggest lesson you learned from or maybe perhaps the most surprising lesson you learned from the deaf people you met and consulted?
Well, first of all, the very first and most surprising aspect is that deafness is a culture and that's something that, I think, we really as hearing people don't fully understand, at least, you know, we don't commonly understand and when you step into Deaf culture, you really feel that and it really shines a light back at us as hearing people and what and who we are. Because Deaf culture by the very nature of the language requires a level of attention and sensitivity and physicality that we do not do as hearing people. And so one aspect of that, and it really is truly surprising because I began this process with Riz learning ASL and, of course, Riz is like a superhuman and has a photographic memory and worked a lot harder than I did at it, but I did get a very good taste of it throughout the process of making this film.
And what's amazing about ASL is that 50 per cent of the language is in your face and you have to get comfortable with expression, with actually externalizing emotion, which is really the opposite of what we do as hearing people, I would say — especially in Western culture. And so for instance, if someone says, 'How're you doing?', you might say, 'Oh, I'm doing great,' and your face will look like a statue. And you know, whereas with ASL, you can't say you're doing great without your face actually representing that specific greatness. That's part of the language.
Right? One of the interesting things as the leader of the Deaf community and film says he doesn't feel like it's something that needs to be fixed in a deaf person. And that's something I've known from knowing deaf and hard of hearing people in my own life. But it was interesting to see that in the film.
Yeah, it's so important to the film. And, you know, there's this play on the word "fix" in the movie. And obviously, you're dealing with an addict, but you're also dealing with this concept of a fix. And the fix isn't necessarily, you know, it's a kind of a societal sickness, this idea that everything just needs to be fixed. And sometimes when you look deeper, you'll understand a hell of a lot more. And that's certainly the case. And, you know, stepping into Deaf culture — of course, Deaf culture is a huge word and under the umbrella of Deaf culture — there's pretty much everything and all manner of suffering. It's human beings, it's everything. But there is a distinct culture there and to remove the deafness is to remove the culture. And so you definitely palpably experience that. It's very real. So it's extremely important, not only metaphor in the movie, but also an important specific message.
I got to talk to Brian Johnson from AC/DC, which would just be, it would just normally be a brag, by the way, I would tell people at bars. [Laughs]
Nice name drop.
If bars were open, I'd just be dropping that one. [Laughs] But, I don't know if you know this about Brian, but he almost left AC/DC. He had to be replaced halfway through the tour by Axl Rose, after he experienced profound hearing loss. And it's only through, you know, pretty revolutionary technology that someone posted on YouTube saying, "Brian Johnson, I want to help you with your hearing," that he's managed to get back with the band and make a pretty great record.
WATCH | Brian Johnson's full interview with q host Tom Power:
But I wonder if you've heard from musicians, I mean, you said it's very common there, have you ever heard from musicians since the screening of the film about, you know, their feeling about hearing loss through the occupational hazard of playing loud music?
Yeah, so many. I mean, really, every single time I screen it — and I get messages on the socials all the time and it's really pervasive, you know. I think with musicians, it's every musician's worst nightmare. And it's also something most musicians experience, especially touring musicians, you know. My brother was actually going through tinnitus while we were writing. And that was just horrifying. So yeah, I've talked to a lot of musicians who just desperately don't want to watch the film.
I had trepidation. I have to admit, like, when I sat down to watch it, I went, 'Okay, this is about something that I worry about,' you know what I mean? And I'll be honest with you, that's how I felt. I'm very glad that I watched it. But I understand that impulse, you know.
I do too. And even my brother and I, when we were writing it, we found it excruciating to just engage in the whole idea. You know, it's just so, like, tantalizing on a narrative level, because it's, you know, that whole idea of losing something that's that precious to you is just at the heart of the whole story, but it's also just at the heart of the human experience. It's utterly universal. And in this case, it's hearing and it's music, but it's also at the heart of every relationship. It's at the heart of the, you know, everything we do is often motivated by a fear of loss.
Before we go, watching this film in the middle of the pandemic is really interesting. Just going back to what you were saying that the idea of any kind of loss can be so debilitating, can be so earth shattering. So it was interesting to watch this during a pandemic, when we all have lost so much, I mean, of course, musicians who have lost pretty much their entire way of living. Have you reflected on how people might be seeing the film — through that context while watching it during this pandemic?
Yeah, a lot, I have a lot. I find it remarkable, to tell you the truth. It's challenging me. It's challenging everyone globally. Everybody is contending with a loss of their identity as they knew it. And like you say, especially musicians and performers and all of those, but everyone, everyone's doing it. I mean, we have a lot of happy introverts, but other than that [laughs]. But yeah, it's absolutely incredible. Because it's really at the heart of what this film is. And I think on a strange level, even though I am simultaneously releasing a movie at the worst time in cinematic history, I also feel like there's something poetic in that crossover, and I experienced it myself. I find myself doing push ups on my kitchen floor like Ruben, you know, like trying to deal with this selfness.
It's a really lovely film. It is, as I mentioned, very, very scary, but also very illuminating. And thanks for your time.
Thanks so much, a pleasure.
Sound of Metal is out in theatres now, Darius Marder is the writer and director of Sound of Metal. That film will be out on demand and digitally across Canada on Friday, December the 4th, 2020.
This interview has been edited for clarity and context. Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.