Awards Daily chats with Sound of Metal production designer Jeremy Woodward on what the band’s detailed tour bus and farmhouse settings say about Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) journey.
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is a practice in pulling back to the bare essentials, as it follows the story of a heavy metal drummer’s assimilation into a new life in the deaf community after he experiences hearing loss. Much of the production design in the film mirrors Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) progress, from the taped-up magazine pieces on the walls of the Airstream bus to the small room in the farmhouse where Ruben discovers peace.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sound of Metal production designer Jeremy Woodward about what it was like to work on this project, what you may have noticed about the concert scenes, and why sometimes minimalist production design can be most challenging of all.
Awards Daily: One of the first things I noticed about the movie was the production design for the shows Ruben and Lou were in. You don’t really see much around them at these shows. Was that on purpose to keep the focus on Ruben and his loss of hearing? What was the idea there?
Jeremy Woodward: That was an interesting situation because those shows were all shot in the same space.
AD: Okay, yeah! (Laughs)
JW: They were literally all in the same space. It was The Middle East, a really famous rock club in Boston. It has a couple of different spaces. When designing this film, I’m always looking at the rhythm of what you’re seeing as it progresses through time. I made this matrix. What was interesting is that there was this same little progression, but then each show, ultimately I represented as this black hole. That was really a time when I wanted the film to go really dark and drop into this blackness. I was a little freaked out because I was a little nervous we weren’t going to be able to pull off doing so much in such close proximity and have it read differently. And as soon as I saw the dailies, I was like, of course. [Cinematographer Daniel Bouquet] can see the way he’s exposing.
AD: That was really effective. It does make you feel like you’re sucked into a black hole.
JW: Right at the beginning, when you’re first seeing them play, having less detail in there really gives us a chance to feel and listen and learn about them. In a weird way, just feel their bodies, what Ruben is putting out, what Lou is putting out. That’s the time to really take that on. You catch up with them really quickly. I think if it had been more lit or more stuff to look at, it might have been them in the context of the performance, whereas you take out detail and take out additional distractions and we’re just able to fall into who they are, get up close and next to them.
AD: Yeah, that’s great. I love the way their bus looks. Tell me about what it was like to furnish that bus. All of those things taped up on the walls—it really looked like a bus that had been on the road a long time. I’m sure that was a lot of work.
JW: That’s great to know it felt like that. Obviously reading the script, you know that this bus is going to be a tasty sandwich that I cannot wait to start eating.
JW: All of that stuff that you saw which was detailed was either stuff that we collected from actual bands or sticker designers and poster designers and had them sign off and use. A tremendous amount generated from our graphic designer Megan Blake working with me. Magazine articles that you saw pinned up, we would reach out to rock magazines and they would give us their assets, so we would use their actual layouts. They’d give us their fonts so we could create really credible covers that totally nailed their look. The bus was a combination of a bunch of things. There was a huge amount of research and diving in. I have a background playing music and I’ve been in bands, so I had a pretty good head start in terms of gear that they would need. I’ve worked in recording studios, so I didn’t have to start from zero on that. For me, it was always going to be about erasing as much Airstream and your notions about Airstream (Elvis, ’50s diners) and get that out of your mind and just go into it with the space of what are they doing, what do they need?
As a production designer, I’m always trying to distinguish between settings that are reflective and created by character and settings where it’s the outside world. You consider those very differently. When you’re doing settings they don’t have physical control over, it’s an opportunity to describe the world and their relationship to it. The setting in the bus is a perfect example of something where they’ve had personal, long-term direct control over every aspect that’s going on inside. It’s really a portraiture of them as particulars and as a portraiture of them across time. So that was really fun.
One of the moves I’m really most excited about is the way the passenger seat, the shotgun seat, was missing. It had this banquette built into that side where Lou would lounge. I had a little bit of ambition not to have it look like a road movie. Whatever that was going to be, that front end of the bus, I wanted it to not be every road movie you’ve ever seen. I just found that [pose] literally driving around in the bus with Darius. This is how you’d spend a long time with your buddy driving and just spending all of this time in the bus.
AD: I love the idea that the Airstream is something they control, and then thinking of the farmhouse, which is something they don’t have control over. What did you do in contrast with the farmhouse?
JW: The thing I immediately knew, I wanted to go from a setting of intense detail and intense texture to something that was just completely stripped of detail and texture. And this paralleled the hearing loss Ruben was experiencing and it went from this very loud world to a world of no sound and an absence of sound. Everything that had been stripped away from him had been reflected in this halfway house. The great thing about it, the reason it was written so well, is that he ends up in precisely the sort of space where I can make that move with a really broad brush and it makes sense. If you’ve seen the inside of a halfway house or communal living or dormitory living, that’s the sort of space where personal touches are missing. It was really just seeing this really great opening for how you could create this maximal contrast between the two settings and play that forward.
AD: One of the most important set pieces in the house I think is the room where Ruben goes to write. It’s very bare minimum. Was it challenging to try to say so much with so little in this film?
JW: It’s like really one of those funny things. That was a room where we took everything out, and then you spend a lot of time wondering, we have a table, a chair—should we have another chair? Is there a dropped penny on the window sill? You start looking for the very smallest little gestures to try to feel how they get that room one way or another. It becomes a real study in minimalism, especially after the explosion of the Airstream where you have 800,000 ideas about Ruben and Lou and you get them all in there. You pull everything back and you think, “Am I gutsy enough to play this little in there?” And then eventually you say, yeah, yeah, I am. This is where it is. It’s nice when a room or setting can be almost so comically extreme in what it calls for that it’s almost like an imaginary thing, like that game where “You find yourself where you wake up in a white room with no windows or doors. What do you do?” It’s great to be able to do that with actual real detail and not have it seem contrived.
AD: It’s something you remember within that house, too, which just goes to show how important it becomes. He learns to be able to sit in the silence.
JW: It changes as it goes on. It’s easier for Riz as an actor to play that room like an instrument, going from a place where he’s pacing around or pounding the walls. You see it as a prison or a cage, becoming a thing that’s oppressing. Then it’s easy for him to sit down, look at his book, look out the window, and open himself up to fill that room with his calm. It’s like a little musical instrument he gets to play.
JW: The room has its own arc. How much consideration in the set design had to be around the deaf community? And if so, was that new for you?
JW: That’s interesting. I think the setting that is most clearly organized and reflective of the deaf community is the school. And I would say I don’t have interaction with the deaf community, so that was a big learning curve for me to dive into that. But one of the things I learned was that the shape of the circle is really important in deaf culture, how you physically organize people in a room. They’re sitting in a circle all the time, in classes, around a table, where everybody can see everybody so that everybody can communicate with everyone else. That started to help me organize how I laid out the classroom. That was a nice little thing to discover and know that I could translate directly into how that classroom was laid out and know you’re doing something true in the way that people occupy space.
AD: Probably the most jarring moment in the film for me is when Ruben travels to Lou’s house. I was shocked to learn about her background. How did you try to make the house so different compared to Lou’s previous dwellings (the bus)? Was Lou’s background a surprise to you?
JW: There were hints that whatever fairly tough situation Ruben came from, Lou was not that at all. The things that she was running away from were not depravation and misery. I wasn’t actually present in that part of the shooting, because they actually went to Europe and picked up a local crew there to handle the art direction and stuff like that. But I did get to see the location and the location was fantastic and completely in line with all of the imagery I had pulled together. I had pulled a lot of images from Leonard Bernstein’s house actually, his life with his children. It was an interesting thing to explore, this father who’s this musical personage of great importance and you got the sense of an overwhelming personality and not a little bit of money. I had many, many images going in. That was for me in terms of the arc of our story, we’d just come through Ruben going through this halfway house in this completely stripped environment, all that time he’d spent in the motel, which was another stripped environment, and we’re back in dense color and texture again, the sense of a completely rounded-out life. He was at a life that was restarting itself. You can see how much it hurts Ruben to see someone at the end of a very successful version of what he’s been trying to do for himself. That helps him push to the place where he has to completely start again and find something new.
Sound of Metal arrives on Amazon December 4.