The first thing you experience as Sound of Metal begins is, well, sound. Even before we see tattooed, bare-chested protagonist Ruben (Riz Ahmed), sweat pooling at his temples, we hear swaths of ominous feedback ringing from the stage at a punk-metal concert, anticipating his thunderous drumming. “Instead of us spending the movie flashing back to the time where he used to be able to play or even reengaging with it, Ruben is always trying to get back to that sound of metal,” says director and cowriter Darius Marder.
Amazon’s release of Sound of Metal culminated a 13-year research journey for Marder, who makes his feature directorial debut with the film. The story is loosely based on an unreleased film by Derek Cianfrance about a drummer who goes deaf. Marder, who previously cowrote the screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines, shot Sound of Metal on film—and in chronological order—within a tight four-week window. That meant meticulously planning how sound would be recorded, and how it would be handled during the editing of the film.
Marder worked with Copenhagen-based film editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen and Paris-based sound designer Nicolas Becker to allow viewers to flit in and out of Ruben’s head, using both diegetic sound and omniscient sound as the character loses his hearing and frantically searches for ways to restore it. “The interesting thing was to make this emotional journey with Ruben and see everything with him,” says Nielsen. “Basically, we’re never ahead of him. He’s experiencing the exact same things as we are, which is probably why you relate to him as a character.”
The director and his team took a naturalistic approach, preferring a minimal score and imbuing the film with an almost documentary feel. Every ambient sound in the movie had to be isolated and re-created to convey Ruben’s muffled moments of hearing. Microphones were placed underwater to capture sonic vibrations, while other noises—Ruben walking on grass, drumming on a steel slide, or hearing the tolling of church bells—were warped and manipulated. Ahmed was given a pair of custom-made earpieces that not only blocked all sound, but could also produce white noise Marder controlled with his phone. “Riz entered into a sonic world of hell in real time,” says Marder, adding that it allowed the actor to deliver “a purely visceral performance and never cerebral.” The film is divided into acts, each of which feels like its own film, from Ruben’s trauma at suddenly losing his hearing, to his entering an idyllic deaf community where he is encouraged to embrace the quiet, to his desperate quest to repair his hearing and return to his old life and love—only to discover that what he’s lost is gone forever.
Marder says that the third act, in which Ruben pins all his hopes on cochlear implants, was the most heartbreaking to write, because the reality of those implants is that sound only returns in a jarringly discordant and distorted way. In a sense, Ruben does get the sound of metal back, but not in the way he expects. He gets it with the soft tapping on a metal slide; he gets it with his implants; he gets it with the bells tolling at the end. “Sonically, I see those sounds of metal throughout the movie as ghosts almost talking to you, and telling you it’s gone,” Marder says. “This is what it is—it’s the stages of grief.”
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