What should deafness sound like on film? For his debut feature “Sound of Metal,” filmmaker Darius Marder wanted to create a sound experience that audiences had never heard before.
The idea was to simulate the journey of his lead character, Ruben, a punk metal drummer with sudden severe hearing loss and eventually deafness. It wouldn't be silence, but something more complex and nuanced. And it would take years of prep, experimental methods on set and 23 weeks of sound work to accomplish.
“Sound of Metal,” which debuts on Amazon Prime on Dec. 4, not only delivers on that lofty goal but also features one of the best performances of the year from actor Riz Ahmed.
Marder, who co-wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines” had spent years trying to scare actors with the prospect of playing Ruben. It was important, too, that the actor be hearing since, he said Ruben starts out that way. Then he met Ahmed, the 37-year-old British actor known for the HBO miniseries “The Night Of,” and he knew he found the right actor.
Ahmed would have to really play the drums, learn American Sign Language and push himself to the limits playing this ex-heroin addict who with his hearing loss fears he may lose everything: His livelihood, his girlfriend and bandmate and his identity.
On set, Ahmed wore custom implants in his ears that emitted white noise and a high ringing to approximate tinnitus. He couldn't even hear his own voice.
A lot of the sounds you hear in the movie are, as Marder puts it, “the inside of Riz.” They recorded in his mouth, his throat and even his eyelids.
Ahmed spent time with members of the deaf community in New York and got quite close with his sign instructor, who helped him navigate the new culture. He explained that as a late-deafened person, Ruben goes through stages where he thinks of his hearing loss as “a loss, a lack, a disability.” Later he starts to realize it is a culture and a way of being, Ahmed said.
The film is also open captioned in English to make it more accessible, except in scenes with ASL.
“We have to experience what Ruben experiences,” Marder said. “He has to contend with being a minority and not being comfortable in a culture that isn't his. And so do we as an audience.”