How ‘Sound of Metal’ captured the sounds of silence

Sonia Rao

THE WASHINGTON POST – It can be difficult to maintain a first-person narrative, according to director Darius Marder. Audiences might tire of the protagonist, eager for the story to cut away to another character’s point of view. Holding that narrative requires a compelling actor and filmmaking that keeps viewers on their toes.

Marder took a swing with his directorial debut, Sound of Metal (and, judging by the positive response from critics, hit a home run). Now streaming on Amazon, the film follows a punk-metal drummer named Ruben as he begins to lose his hearing. Riz Ahmed portrays Ruben through his time at a sober house for deaf people, where he learns to cope with diminished hearing, to the period after he gets cochlear implants.

Ahmed’s committed performance invites the audience into Ruben’s head, but the sound design goes a step further by allowing viewers to actually experience much of what the character does. During a concert scene, for instance, the sound of clashing cymbals fades into a quiet ringing noise layered over muffled music. Then, Ruben rushes out of the venue in a panic and we hear him gasping for air. Although the open-captioned film sticks with the character, the sonic perspective shifts back and forth.

Marder knew this innovative soundscape would be key to telling the story from Ruben’s point of view and therefore enlisted sound designer Nicolas Becker (who worked as a foley artist on Arrival, Gravity and 127 Hours) two years before filming so they could plan for their “audacious experiment”.

“There are many degrees of hearing loss, but there’s hardly any degree of hearing loss that is silence,” Marder said. “That’s unique to when you’d get an implant put in, when you’d literally cut off that connectivity to low vibration, to low frequency. I spoke to many deaf people about that experience, trying to determine how that would feel and maybe how things would sound. There’s such a wide spectrum of it.”

Sound of Metal is understated in almost every sense, as it even lacks a musical score (and credits the music that makes it in to Becker). Marder finds purpose in this quietness, allowing Ruben’s experiences to elicit emotion on their own. Becker, who is French, says this approach is common in European filmmaking, which tends to favour a naturalistic style. He points to his decision to forgo a commercial sound library.

As a foley artist, Becker spent a lot of time in near-silence and became intimately acquainted with the sounds of his own body. Sometimes he could hear his tendons moving, his heart beating. He previously worked on this intimate level with Gravity, in which an astronaut is stranded in space, and he played around with microphones for Sound of Metal. He built a small one that could be placed inside Ahmed’s mouth to record his breathing, and he captured the sound of the actor’s eyelids closing.

“The idea was to make it really, really naturalistic,” he said. “When the audience is listening and looking at the film, it’s not illustrative. It’s created a direct connection with their memories, you know?”

To capture the sound of Ruben’s hearing loss, Becker and Marder consulted with deaf people who were born with the ability to hear and could describe what the character might be going through. They also spoke to audiologists to mimic what Ruben might hear after getting the implants.

Ahmed himself was fitted with an earpiece that simulated the high-pitched ringing in Ruben’s ears during the concert scene. The actor, who learned how to play drums for the role, also spent months studying American Sign Language with a coach, Jeremy Lee Stone, who appears in the film.

“You want the actor to actually have this physical experience, to be able to play real music,” Becker said. “The way we were working together, very close, made it easy to create that intimate world.”

Becker and Marder met up in Paris before the shoot, where Becker took the director to an anechoic chamber so he could experience what remains in the absence of ambient sound. Once Daniel Bouquet was brought on as director of photography, he and Becker traded research materials to sync their visions and create a truly visceral viewing experience. He describes the creative freedom on set as a “utopian world”.

“We sometimes even removed sequences because it became too heavy sonic-wise, or it became too complex if we wanted to make the arc of the subjective world clear,” Becker said. “After creating this experience for the audience, we wanted to make the audience think about it, and give them room to think about it.”