The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sound of Metal.
The character of Ruben has such a distinct physicality. Can you both talk about the process developing the physical look of the character?
Darius Marder: Riz and I set kind of a high bar for what this drummer’s body was going to look like and what Riz wanted for that, which was one aspect of the physicality. We referenced this drummer Zach Hill. Zach Hill has a very specific body and you [Riz] where going after that… I remember where you put that bar and I thought “good luck, buddy,” and you just went at it with your trainer. The physicality of Ruben is super important not just so people can see Riz’s abs, but because Ruben is regimented. Ruben needs rhythm and walls around him to survive. So that’s an essential aspect of who he is as a character and his addictive nature. It’s part of how he’s trying to keep himself on the wagon. The tattoos were another aspect, and they were a very deep dive. There’s a lot of references in there to punk culture and its history, like “Please Kill Me.” A lot of those tattoos have to do with his relationship to Sean Powell, who is the drummer of a band called Surfbort. This kind of goes to the heart of how we approached everything in this movie, which was to try and draw from things that felt real and exciting and connected to the heart and spirit that we were after. Sean Powell is an incredibly generous soul and was a heroin addict. He has this wonderful sense of humor that I think he wears that as a survival mechanism. He really introduced that to us during the research process.
Riz Ahmed: Yeah, the dark humor within the punk music scene was so important. Ruben is someone, like Lou, who is trying to construct his identity, as many of us do. But he’s doing it very proactively—he’s dying his hair blonde, he’s defining himself with all these tattoos on his body, and this is who he is. This guy, his life is music, he lives in an RV with his girlfriend, tours America, that’s what he does. So he has a clear but almost brittle sense of who he is, a very clear attempt to define himself. It was important to have that as a starting point. He’s someone who very much has ownership and construction of his identity. That’s important because by the end of the film the journey he’s going on is one of realizing that you can’t control anything in life, least of all who you are or who you think you are. We thought it was really important for there to be a visual transformation of the journey of the character that is almost a stripping back of some of these masks and armor to get back to a place of simplicity and nakedness and to the core of who Ruben is outside of his labels.
DM: When you say almost naked, it’s funny because you are almost naked in the beginning of the movie, and at the end of the movie, you’re not. Literally. And yet it’s an inversion. I think that’s very well-spoken. Because this is very much a journey about shedding those trappings of identity.
Ruben is regimented. Ruben needs rhythm and walls around him to survive
The use of captions in the film is really innovative. At first the audience isn’t aware that you’re setting up a convention and getting us used to the captions so when Ruben starts to become fluent in ASL, the captions seamlessly merge into that and we understand. But in the scenes where he doesn’t understand, we don’t get the captions. Can you talk about including that element?
DM: It became clear to me when I was setting this movie up that we could not make a movie about deaf culture and not open caption it. First and foremost, above and beyond any intellectual and artistic aspects of the captions, which there are in the movie, that’s the most important thing. We all have to question why it is we don’t open caption every movie in a movie theater. That’s very different than closed captions. People mix up the two. Open captions mean they’re burned in and everyone sees them. Closed captions means it’s an option. You can turn them on or off, like we have on this talk. And like we will do on the platform when this is released on [Amazon] Prime. I’d love all versions of this movie to have burned in captions, but in fact it’s not really a good thing to do for the deaf community. That’s something I’ve learned in this process. It’s because they already have their built-in settings. So to have burned in captions means you’re actually taking that control away from that community. On Prime, you’ll have options. I would say that I encourage people to watch it with the captions, for the very reasons that you just said. Open captions is a whole discussion. Frankly I think that as long as we don’t open caption movies, we’re essentially closing the door to deaf culture. That’s a huge world, a lot of people we’re closing these movie theater doors to, even if we have closed captioning in some theaters. It’s not really fair. It became clear to me that the film should be open captioned and then that became this total dive itself. It’s very intentional. Even the title of the movie. Sound of Metal, not “The Sound of Metal.” That’s not a caption. The captions are very important to me and they took a lot of work to get even the descriptions of sound right.
I’m curious if Riz orchestrated anything physical to restrict his hearing. The way he reacts to not hearing what is being said around him is so authentic.
RA: Darius and I discussed this and we landed on the idea that the approach to Ruben’s hearing loss should be explored by us as filmmakers in an emotionally-led way. That would be our access point into this character and into this story. It’s not through our lived experience but being able to relate to him emotionally. What that meant was, when Ruben feels that his deafness is a loss or a lack or a disability, we use auditory blockers, which are customized hearing aids that are placed deep in the ear canal and placed on a white noise setting. When they do that, it blocks out everything. It blocks out the sound of your own voice. And once they were in, they were in for the day and they weren’t easy to take in and out. So we’d communicate on set with pen and paper. And that is when Ruben thinks the deafness is a disability. It’s disorienting to him and cutting him off from himself in the world. However, there are other sections of the film where Ruben starts to realize that deafness is not a disability, it’s a culture and a way of being and can be an invitation as a way to connect more with others and himself than ever before. In those situations, we didn’t use the auditory blockers and it was kind of irrelevant at that point because we were communicating on and off set with the deaf cast in sign language. It was an attempt to inhabit some of the disorientation that Ruben was feeling by losing his hearing.
DM: And to ground it in a version of reality. Obviously, there’s no way to perfectly simulate that, but take for instance that moment when you first hear his tinnitus in the movie. Riz didn’t make it up, there was actually something happening that he was responding to; there was a literal tinnitus in his ear that he then had to contend with, and it’s enough to make anyone go crazy. It was really a meta experience that way.