“Loss of Sound, Vibration of the Soul” Writer/Director Darius Marder on ‘Sound of Metal’ (Part 1)
- “Loss of Sound, Vibration of the Soul” Writer/Director Darius Marder on ‘Sound of Metal’ (Part 1)
- “Loss of Sound, Vibration of the Soul” Writer/Director Darius Marder on ‘Sound of Metal’ (Part 2)
“It’s kind of a cool thing, on a writing level,” said writer/director Darius Marder, “because there were some different stages to the writing of this movie. The first stage of writing wasn’t pen to paper, but in the form of the documentary [Metalhead]. Having cut a lot of documentaries as an editor way back, we all know that editing is writing essentially. It’s storytelling.”
Metalhead was originally a story from Derek Cianfrance, the writer/director of Blue Valentine and co-writer with Marder on The Place Beyond the Pines. “It was a highly cinematic documentary with a fictional element of hearing loss.”
The theme, where a metal drummer’s eardrums become ruptured and he becomes deaf, now made up the plot for Sound of Metal. “In the beginning, Derek and I connected in a lot of ways. This story really intrigued both of us for many reasons.”
In Sound Of Metal, co-written with his brother Abraham, Darius Marder was drawn to the co-dependent relationship between Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke). “You could feel the way sound kind of binds two people [especially in a band], and defines them, but that thing is removed and they have to search their soul about who they are.”
While Cianfrance was working on other projects, Marder toyed with the original footage and started to form his own ideas about the story that became Sound Of Metal. One idea involved sound perspective. “I began this long process of building the characters from the ground up. They don’t have much to do with the [original] characters, but that’s how it started,” Darius Marder continued.
This original obsession began twelve years ago.
Sound of Metal
Marder said the script never moved away from the metal rock environment. “The idea that there is this very visceral, intoxicating wall-of-sound, which is an expression of pain, and a bit of a purification. In fact, the song they sing in the beginning is even called ‘Purify.’”
The counterculture pain, expressed by Ruben and Lou, highlights what and who they are. “If they were playing chamber music, it’s not like they couldn’t have similar pain, but it’s not the same expression of pain. That’s really important.”
At the same time, logistically, it was also important that they play loudly since the story revolves around a loss of hearing. “Drummers, in particular, really do lose their hearing because they are so close to the crash cymbals.”
Marder added, “That crushing sound that they create is really essential to the central architecture of the movie. If you create something beautiful in the beginning that you long for, that would have a different feeling. This is a much more visceral, specific kind of expression that has everything to do with the characters on the screen.”
Sound As A Character
At the same time, the creative said that sound too is a character in the story. “Sound is a character because you don’t just hear a diegetic sound perspective in this movie. You do hear that, which is almost realism as you’re in Ruben’s head, but the world also merges with a score and sound design that crosses over in the realm of emotion.”
In the screenplay, this is presented in a disruption in Ruben’s morning routine. On page 2, we read “the SOUND OF COFFEE DRIPPING AND GURGLING…” and “the blender THRASHES LOUDLY.”
By page 7, after the loss begins, we read “The SOUND OF THE WATER is just barely audible” and “the MUFFLED SOUND OF COFFEE DRIPPING into a coffee pot.”
As we learn more about Ruben, we learn that these everyday noises block much of the pain that goes on within his mind. Forced to sit with the silence, these inner pains inevitably come out. And, since they’re codependent, the same is true for Lou in many ways.
“Even though [sound] plays into the story in a very subtle way, it becomes a very deep part of his character. We get to feel this, not just a loss of sound, but a vibration into a person’s soul.”
Warning: there are spoilers ahead…
As the layers of Ruben start to unravel, we learn that he’s not only obsessed with his routine because he’s apparently got a type-A personality, but actually because he’s working to beat his various addictions. Essentially, he needs to keep busy, find the noise, and distract himself. The silence forces him to change.
“In order to tell this story, there has to be just the right amount of bad stuff,” said Marder, about making the character both deaf and an addict. “This story doesn’t exist without Ruben’s addiction. It’s actually more about addiction than the loss of sound, in many ways.”
“The deafness is a red herring, a bit of a McGuffin. It’s something that works on a lot of different levels, because as hearing people, we identify that as the main problem, but in fact, much of the story is about identifying the real issue under this superficial problem, which is a hell of a lot more interesting than the nuts and bolts of deafness.”
Personally, Marder’s grandmother went deaf after taking an antibiotic, which is why he dedicated the movie to her. “What’s more interesting [than the deafness] is what it unearthed in her psyche. We all get hit with these issues, and we’re all defined by these deep parts of ourselves that react to those things, and that’s what defines us, not the problem itself.”
The writer relates this to war stories where bombs are going off, but it’s not so much about what’s happening as it is how the character is reacting to the situation.
Mentors and Antagonists
“The best mentors do appear to be villainous,” said Marder about the character Joe. Joe, played by Paul Raci, is the caretaker at an informal school for the late-in-life deaf, that operates somewhat like a halfway house.
“There’s a well-worn path right down to Yoda,” joked Marder. “I don’t think [Joe’s] villainous at all, in truth. I think Joe is a reflection. He’s written as another late-deaf person, [meaning] someone who lived in the hearing world and lived how much you can lose—not from a loss of hearing, but from substance abuse.”
As a reflection, Ruben is unable to run from Joe. He can physically leave, sure, but a version of Joe is essentially staring back at him in the mirror. This, of course, leads to a tearful scene when Ruben goes through with the pricey surgery and essentially abandons Joe’s teachings.
“What does it matter?” asks Ruben in the script. “All this shit, it just passes. Nobody cares if I vanish man. Seriously. Who cares? It’s all gonna just keep moving?” Joe brings up God in the conversation, often described as a “Higher Power” in AA, but Ruben made up his mind already.
Joe, through American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken language, replies, “Ruben, as you know everyone here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap. Not something to fix. That’s pretty important around here. All of these kids, all of us need to be reminded of it every day.”
Ruben understands, but then Joe essentially brings the velvet hammer down, telling Ruben he broke their trust and needs to leave (the moment is somewhat reminiscent of the Hal Holbrook scenes from Into the Wild).
Marder added, “Ruben has had a codependent relationship with Lou, but he won’t be able to have a codependent relationship with Joe. Joe is not going to go there. Joe is too livid for that. I think he’s absolutely a mentor [or sage], and Ruben ultimately does heed his words in this movie.”
Don’t miss the second half of this interview.
Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.
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