Writer/director Darius Marder of Amazon’s Sound of Metal discusses the journey to get this film made and how he stuck to his very un-Hollywood-like guns in the process.
Darius Marder is very careful with his words.
“The deaf community is such a big word,” he says in our phone interview. “It’s almost like if you said, ‘How does the hearing community feel about the movie?’ It’s a massive community that’s not a monolith. It’s filled with every single type of human with every type of taste and everything in between.”
Marder’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail is not only discernible in our conversation about his first narrative film Sound of Metal, about a heavy metal drummer learning to adapt to hearing loss, but it’s also what held the project together throughout its decade-long journey to the screen, when so many people had written off Marder’s dedication to telling this story in an un-Hollywood way. He was often looked at as crazy for wanting to cast an actor connected to the deaf community in Paul Raci’s role, turning down a meeting with the likes of Robert Duvall.
“This is a real fact,” he says. “Nobody at the end of the day in Hollywood would finance this movie, not one financier came through. I had to find it privately at the last minute, 12 days before shooting, and that’s precisely because of the kind of movie I was making and what I wanted to make and who I wanted to make it with, and how I wanted to make it.”
The Making of Sound of Metal, Ableism in Filmmaking
The process of getting a film made can be a long and arduous process to begin with, but one of Marder’s sticking points to cast actors from deaf culture in the roles made it even harder to get this film off the ground.
“There’s no support for doing things that are outside of the realm of monetizable. That’s a very tricky place to be. I do think the business of Hollywood is business and that’s what it is. It’s a very interesting game that we play as filmmaking because filmmaking is expensive. How do you make film that is about the art when the world is about the business?”
Ableism in the film industry shows its face in myriad ways, something that Marder acknowledges even in the content itself.
“The film itself is very overtly written from an able-bodied perspective. It’s really designed to put able-bodied people in a perspective that we’re not used to being in, without accessibility at times, in a place of being a minority, in a place of discomfort and confusion. We can maybe start to empathize, not just with the construct of physical deafness, but the construct of being invisible, ignored.”
On set, Marder and his team also experienced this kind of neglect first-hand.
“Not having enough interpreters, when you think you do. Or even more specifically, and this is something you learn the hard way, interpreters that aren’t good enough. That’s a tremendous insult to the deaf community when interpreters aren’t good enough, because—and I can’t stress it enough—it’s something that hearing people really would take for granted.”
Marder found himself on a Skype with an actor where an interpreter was found for him through a local casting agency, and he started to realize that this interpreter couldn’t begin to approximate the subtlety in this person’s face. He knew the actor was saying things far more sophisticated than what he was hearing and asked the interpreter to leave so he could type an exchange with the actor instead.
“It’s a real insult, because deaf language, ASL, is not an interpretation of English. This is what’s such a learning curve. It’s a different language.”
“We Loved the Shit Out of These Characters”
One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes toward the final act, when Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a former addict having adapted to deaf culture by living in a halfway house for months, makes a decision that hurts Joe (Paul Raci). Raci remarked that when they filmed the scene, Marder was weeping in the corner.
“The bar, the highest kind of calling in the writing of this script with my brother [Abraham Marder], is that we loved the shit out of these characters. We loved them so much, really. We probably wrote 1,500 to 2,000 characters developing these characters. We wrote the songs, poems. We wrote Ruben’s journals. We really understood and lived into and loved these characters, and that goes for Joe.”
Shooting chronologically with a lot at stake in the narrative, they had finally gotten to a specific turning point in the story. Marder believes that reaching for emotion needs to come from an authentic place, having set up a set that was entirely devoted to performance and truthfulness. Riz had spent nine months at this point immersed in this character, going personally very deep into the world. Paul was practically his character, a Vietnam vet and former addict himself, who had wept when he first saw the farmhouse. Born to deaf parents, Paul is what is known as a CODA, or a child of a deaf adult.
“Paul had come to the set with a very specific and surprising to him—way of bridging this divide and healing some of the incredible pain and wounds and joy he had in his culture. And this was a place for him to do that. So when we hit that final scene, we had said goodbye to all of the wonderful deaf souls that populated the farmhouse, and here these two actors sat down across from each other, and it was all of this experience just fell into this scene. It was amazing, cause you saw the navy come into it with Paul; you saw the lost child in Ruben. You saw it all. And I could barely take it emotionally.”
Ruben, the Outsider
While we don’t get a lot of backstory about his character, Ruben’s body language when driving the airstream tells you more than any Netflix origin story series could.
“Ruben only faces forward. He doesn’t go back. He doesn’t go back because he’ll sink.” Marder is quick to remark that such exposition is unnecessary for this character. “All of it is there and all of it comes.”
Ruben’s identity, or identities, collide in the final act of the film, when he’s at Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) father’s party, adapting to the artsy crowd while also dealing with his own insecurity. Which begs the question: Does Ruben, ever the outsider, feel more like one in this scene or when he first meets the deaf community?
“It’s very much meant to echo that, it’s meant as a parallel, a reminder of how we are divided in so many ways. There’s an irony to the fact that he ends up in another culture, in another language, and he’s unable to hear it, even if he could understand it. He ends up isolated. It’s certainly a commentary, and a reminder, that we can be cut off from each other in so many ways. Ruben needs to go through that ring of fire to understand where the real connection has to stem from. I would say that being in that house at the end is more isolating than being in the deaf community.”
This scene makes the final scene, with Ruben outside amidst the ringing of church bells, all the more reflective as a commentary that Ruben’s journey is not one toward silence, but stillness, with Joe’s words from earlier in the film ringing (metaphorically) through our ears.
“There’s a reason that the last sound you hear is the sound of metal, that it’s coming from this image that’s the kingdom of god apparently, but that is outside and that thing we think is saving us is actually hurting us. It’s a complete reflection of what Joe said.”
Reactions to the film, from all communities, hearing and non-hearing, have been overwhelmingly positive, something that Marder considers nothing less than profound for a lot of reasons.
“The film obviously took a very long time, so it marks half of my adult life. The film has seen my children grow from toddlers to college students. It’s a remarkable span of life. We have a short little walk on this earth, and this film has marked a lot of that for me.”
He’s especially warmed by the responses he and Riz have received from the deaf community.
“If it were anything else, it would be so heartbreaking for me. I really worked hard not to represent them but to have the deaf community represent themselves.”
And with the film coming out during a time when everyone is forced to stay indoors and industry parties and campaigns aren’t influencing reactions, Marder finds that also especially powerful.
“It’s very profound to feel it resonating with people and there’s something particularly meditative about this time, as it relates to the movie. It’s a time of trauma for everyone in a certain way and this time is not filled with parties or meeting people or travel. It’s really about the work itself. And while that is difficult at times, it’s also actually meaningful. It’s really about what it’s about and people are feeling it because of that.”
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon.