Filmmaker Darius Marder talks about the renewed attention his ‘Sound of Metal’ has been getting on social media, thanks to the pandemic, and the film’s underlying message on human condition
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal tells the beautifully-layered story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer in a heavy metal band whose loss of hearing takes him on a journey of self-actualisation. Anchored by a bravura performance by Riz, which is getting early Oscar buzz, Marder’s debut feature is an understated exploration of the sound of silence. Speaking from Massachusetts over a video call, the 46-year old filmmaker talks of his 13-year journey to make the film, Riz’s incredible performance, the lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and more. Excerpts.
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How did Sound of Metal come to be?
Derek Cianfrance was making a documentary and we connected over it 13 years ago. There was a lot going on at that time. Derek was making Blue Valentine, I was finishing a different documentary. I took the footage he had shot. The concept of sound perspective got me fired up. At some point, I realised, I have to write this. I have to make this completely from ground up. So eventually, I adopted this little child from him and raised it into a different movie.
Could you talk of the casting?
Oh, man, what an odyssey it was to cast this movie! It took many, many years. Finding Ruben was hard. I could make a dramatic movie called Finding Ruben! Making a first film is near impossible anyway, no matter who you are and what film you are making. I had to find an actor who could help finance the movie. The actor had to be willing to go on a journey that is not about money or fame, but about the integrity of the artistic process. To find someone who is willing to not engage in other movies, and do what Riz did, move to Brooklyn with me for months on end and engage in this project was tricky.
What was your brief to Riz?
I told Riz, you are going to do something you have never done before—give up control. It doesn’t mean you don’t try to work really hard to learn all these different things, but you are just going to learn it and you cannot control the rest.
How much input did you have in Riz’s tattoos?
In general, I try not to control those things because I think they are more powerful if the actor makes the choice. Much of that came from Riz but it also came from this relationship we had formed with Sean Powell who is a drummer in a band called Surfbort in Brooklyn. An incredible human being, Sean is a former heroin addict and covered in tattoos. He has a wonderful way of expressing his pain through humour and disregard.
The tattoos are also important subliminally. In the beginning of the movie Riz is half naked and while you can see all his tattoos, he is guarded. You come to realise that he is wearing his identity on the outside, without understanding his identity on the inside. At the end of the film while Ruben is completely covered up, he is maybe more naked than he has ever been.
While the movie is about a musician losing his hearing, it is also about identity…
Yes, absolutely. I would say it is more about identity. The film deals with identity on different levels. It is also asking us, the audience, how we deal with identity. That is one of the reasons I love the title, Sound of Metal, because I think you come in with pre-conceived notions about losing identity and what Deaf identity is. The film is ultimately about a much more human condition rather than the more superficial identities that we wear.
Could you comment on the use of silence in the movie?
Silence is a little bit like white in a painting. If you are painting a watercolour, whiteness is where you don’t paint, but the only way you can see the whiteness is by surrounding it with colour. Similarly, silence is only interesting if it is surrounded by sound. Bringing you through the gauntlet of sound is at times difficult or challenging. It can ultimately give way to silence, which is a lot more than just silence.
There are two words in this movie—stillness and silence. One doesn’t necessarily have both. Deaf people don’t hear but that does not mean they are still. Stillness is a state of being. You can have the sound of metal inside you, you can have a rage. You can have a monster inside in silence, or you can have stillness.
Lars Ulrich from Metallica had nice things to say about Sound of Metal…
Lars is all over this movie and he didn’t even know it. For instance, the drums that Ruben plays, is an homage to Lars’ kit. Ruben’s character is built on a love for Metallica. Lars is so important for this film, and to have him come around and graciously, generously give to this movie was incredibly moving. He called me to say he loved the film and that he wanted to help if he could.
Streaming or theatres—which gets your vote?
Theatres—no question. I am grateful to Amazon for putting the film out into the world right now, believe me, I feel lucky. But this film was meant to be seen in the theatre and specifically, heard in a theatre. It is a cinematic experience. I am a film lover and that is how this film was meant to be seen. And hopefully someday it will be.
What are the lessons gleaned from the pandemic?
It is a trauma in certain ways, but it is also asking of us to be in stillness (laughs). It is asking us to be okay without human contact, and all of the trappings there in. It is an especially interesting time to be putting a movie out. Usually when you put a movie out, there would be a lot of human contact—travelling and stuff. Now you cannot do any of that. One of the most interesting things about the pandemic is it brings out who you are. If you can accept it, it can be quite powerful. If you are focussed on getting back to normal, there can be tremendous suffering. In the movie, we see that there may not be a getting back to normal for Ruben.
People are responding to the movie in a certain way. You asked about theatres. Yes, I would love for it to be in theatres. But if everybody is seeing this film and recognising their own place in this movie in a very human way, because of the pandemic, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Documentary or feature, which do you prefer?
I have always wanted to make features right from the time I was a teenager. I have found that documentary and fiction are related, they both celebrate the human condition.
Sound of Metal is presently streaming on Amazon Prime Video