‘Sound of Metal’: Riz Ahmed and Darius Marder on making this red-hot Oscar contender

How would you react if you lost your hearing? For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the recovering heroin addict/punk drummer in the new Amazon Prime film “Sound of Metal,”  it’s devastating. He feels like he’s lost his identity and his purpose in life. Ruben tries his best to hide the fact from his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), but his hearing gets worse he can no longer work. And when a doctor tells Ruben the condition will only get worse, Lou fears he will relapse. So, she has him check into a sober house for the deaf. As he is accepted into the community and discovers his identity is more than as a musician, Ruben must decide if he wants to continue embracing his new life or return to the chaotic, adrenaline-fueled world of a hard-rocking musician.

“Sound of Metal,” directed by Darius Marder (“Loot,” screenwriter of “The Place Beyond the Pines”) and written by Marder and Abraham Marder, premiered to strong reviews at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, especially for powerhouse and poignant performance of Ahmed (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”). But the pandemic held up its release until now.

The film, currently at 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, has a limited theatrical release on Nov. 20 and then begins streaming Dec 4. on Amazon. Ahmed, an Emmy winner for the 2017 HBO miniseries “The Night Before,” is nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award. Look for more nominations to follow, including perhaps at the Oscars.

Marder and Ahmed recently talked about the movie in a zoom chat with Variety’s Jazz Tangcay. Both the director and star noted that “Sound of Metal” is even more relevant in the time of Covid because like Ruben, like the rest of the country, is in lockdown. “We were all workaholic culture that was struck down and sent into lockdown, a purgatory, because of the health crisis,” said the British actor who is also a rapper with the Swet Shop Boys. “We’ve all been forced to reassess what really matters and funnily enough, it’s not the stuff that we thought did matter. We’ve been defining ourselves through all of these ideas of success and productivity, and actually there’s something more profound, more fundamental here, that gives us worth and value.”

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Marder, who makes his narrative feature directorial debut with “Sound of Metal,” added that “everyone is dealing with loss of identity and connection. It’s very interesting that it may really reach people in very deep way for these reasons and those themes in a way that it wouldn’t have a year ago. “

The role of Ruben really pushed Ahmed out of his comfort zone. But he wasn’t afraid to play the part because he found the script so beautifully and tenderly written. Though the director had never made a feature before, the actor thought he exuded “a confidence in his creative vision, but also a compassion and collaborative energy. That meant we  just connected straight away and I was just really eager to do something that challenged me and in a was scary to me.”

When they had their first meeting Marder told him that not only did he have to be learn to play the drums. “The music’s going to be real,” Ahmed recalled Marder telling him. “The gig’s going to be for real. We’re going to be doing it in a nightclub in Boston and you are going to be drumming.”

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Ahmed also had to become fluent in ASL.  “It would be weird if I was just cheating and knew just three or four sentences,” said Ahmed. “So that’s when we decided to go on that journey over the seven months of learning to play the drums and American sign language. It challenged me in many new ways.”

The sound design of “Metal” is a character onto itself. In fact, Marder and supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker (“Gravity,” “Arrival”) devised the sound design two years before filming began. “We would have mics around the set,” said Marder. “There were mics underwater. There were contact mics. You would wear mics on your body. The drums had different kind of mics on them. So, it wasn’t always about getting clean sound. It was about getting sound from very different vantages, so we could explore it later [in editing]. It was fun.”

The opening sequence is a full-title boogie of sound as Ruben is playing the drums like a whirling Tasmanian devil. “My drum process was terrifying, scaring, liberating, joyous and nightmarish,” said Ahmed. “My drum teacher basically became my therapist “ And on the day of the performance at a club in Boston, “you just have to jump in and do it,” said Ahmed. “There wasn’t a safety net for a lot of this film.”

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