The Contenders: The Story of How ‘Sound of Metal’ Was Made

Sound of Metal is writer-director Darius Marder’s fictional feature debut, having previously worked primarily in the realm of documentary filmmaking. The film, now available through Prime Video and in select theaters, has been subject of awards buzz – most notably for Riz Ahmed’s electric lead performance which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

In the lead up to the 2021 Academy Awards, we here at DiscussingFilm are taking a deep dive into this season’s most recognized films, unraveling their complex histories and triumphs. Last week we examined a leading film in the Oscars race, this week we look at an underdog.

Origins in Collaboration

To understand and appreciate the roots of Sound of Metal, one must visit a celebratory lunch in 2006, held by the Independent Filmmakers Project to honor the success of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. It was there that Marder and Cianfrance met, taking the first steps to build a long-lasting partnership. In an interview with Observer, Marder said that “Literally within 30 seconds of meeting [Cianfrance], we were talking about [Sound of Metal], at least the seed of this project.”

Marder’s reflective, WWII Veteran study Loot released in 2008 to relative success and won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival, but the director had little interest in continuing his career as a documentarian – even shrugging off an opportunity at HBO.

Courtesy of Darius Marder

Instead, Marder worked to adapt Sound of Metal from Cianfrance’s unreleased documentary-narrative Metalhead – one that followed a heavy metal drummer afflicted with an ear injury. To IndieWire, Marder said “it was like having this wonderful research already done,” and helped to push his own project towards a truthful, respectful representation of the deaf community. 

Marder channeled many personal inspirations into the screenplay, referencing his deaf grandmother as an inspiration for including “the way that members of deaf culture looked out for one another in a profoundly different way from us in hearing culture.” The film’s appreciation of moments of silent stillness stem from his upbringing and experiences as a Buddhist “in this community that was based around silent weekends of work.”

Marder also invited his brother Abraham to collaborate on the film’s screenplay. Having suffered a back injury and stomach infection, many of the elements that involved alienation and loss stemmed from Abraham’s involvement; “I put a lot, personally, into Ruben, just the vulnerability of the guy. I just felt that so much.” The two writers had embedded themselves so deeply within this story that compromise was not an option. When it came to financing the film and signing on actors, Marder “said ‘no’ to a lot of versions of the movie that could have gotten financed.” The film was stuck in development for over a decade, tossed around from financier to financier, making it all the more compelling of a narrative and passion project.

A Distinct Vision

The film eventually secured funding with Caviar Films and cast Riz Ahmed as Ruben, who soon became one of the film’s most diligent collaborators. On top of the casting of Paul Raci, a life-long member of the deaf community with insight to the film’s exploration of addiction, Ahmed’s dedication to drumming and American Sign Language lessons brought an additional level of authenticity to the film. These skills, though essential in bringing the story to life, presented some obstacles for the actor: “Drumming and ASL are both non-verbal means of communication. They both share the same challenge for someone word-oriented like myself, to get past that crutch and communicate with my body.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

On set, Marder said he “challenged Riz to not be in his frontal lobe, to not question his instincts, to trust and move forward.” The actor later told Variety that his experience on the film shifted his entire worldview, challenging him as an actor and person. “I had to learn the same lesson my character did, which was that one can’t control certain things. It was only when I surrendered that I truly felt comfortable, and it all fell into place.”

Marder’s keen sense of realism in cinematic style, developed through his documentary work, was cited as a major strength for Sound of Metal, helping to imbue the film with convincing, captivating energy. Most notably, the film’s concert scenes were shot live, featuring performances from actors while on stage in front of hundreds of extras. Furthermore, Marder insisted on shooting 35mm film, “because it’s [his] goddamn movie,” which ultimately played to his spontaneous, naturalistic sensibilities.

An Auditory Identity

Pushing Sound of Metal to new sonic heights, Marder emphasized immersive storytelling in the film’s sound design from the beginning. Drawn to being a key player in telling such a meaningful story, Sound Editor Nicolas Becker (Gravity, Arrival) met with Marder and Cinematographer Daniel Bouquet (a rare circumstance in Hollywood) for an entire week in Paris before production began, “trying to understand how [they] could work with the idea of subjectivity, of inner sound.”

Experimentation in “storyboarding with sound” led them to an anechoic “echo-free” chamber at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music. Becker explained the advantage of this trip to Variety. “When you’re in [the chamber], you start hearing the sound of your tendons and the blood flowing through your body.” This experience helped motivate the inclusion of subtler sounds that often go unnoticed into the soundscape, further creating an atmosphere of unfamiliarity.

An essential part in realizing the subjective worldview of the protagonist, the team traveled down a winding path of sound editing and mixing to capture the “sense of inner sound.” In an interview with Deadline, Becker listed off countless oddball gadgets they eventually used, including hydrophones, a DIY stethoscope mic, contact mics, accelerometers, geophones, and even those designed to capture the sounds of bodily functions from within.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Additionally, it was up to Becker to design the sensation of hearing loss and the effects of cochlear implants. Using various technologies to “separate the harmonic contents from the noise content,” he told Deadline that he was able to “deconstruct the sound, and rebuild it after.” This sense of manipulation created “something really uncanny” and foreign “because it was like you could hear, but it was something so strange.”

Becker also worked alongside Abraham Marder to compose the film’s score. In searching for weirder, more abstract sounds to supplement the sonic landscape, they turned to Bachet structures, “crazy, metal instruments doing very weird, acoustic drones.” The instrument is described in Backer’s sit-down with Variety as “a rare organ made of glass shafts and played with wet fingers to produce a vibrating sound.” This came to play a pivotal role in musically embodying the protagonist’s inner conflict. “It is the sound of metal,” Becker told Variety. “That vibration helped represent Ruben’s inner thoughts as his [hearing] deteriorates.”

Editor Mikkel Nielsen’s final sound mix took 23 weeks to complete, and was described by Marder to have taken “much longer than the shoot or the picture edit” and be “as big as any action movie”.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Isolation and Inclusivity

As the film neared release, Marder pushed for universal open captions – a practice uncommon for most films that feature ASL. Defending this decision, he explained that “when you go into the theater, films that involve the deaf community or don’t involve the deaf community are never open captioned, and that essentially excludes that entire culture from watching the movie on an equal playing field… It’s not really respectful, in my opinion.” His grandmother’s life-long advocacy for open captions reassured him that the extra challenges of open-captioning was worthwhile for making a more accessible film. However, open captioning disappears during Ruben’s stay at the shelter for deaf recovering addicts. Mikkel Nielsen noted this as an intentional decision; “When he enters the deaf society, we won’t be able to understand the sign language and everyone else knowing sign language will.” 

Sound of Metal was bestowed with 6 total nominations in the 2021 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and of course, Best Sound. The repetitive emphasis on the theme of isolation – as recognized through its sound design, performance, and inclusivity – continually reaffirms Marder’s message in Sound of Metal: “The film is so much about acceptance and impermanence and letting go.”

Sound of Metal is available on Prime Video

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Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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