No./4 What it feels like to go deaf
How immersive new drama Sound Of Metal depicted a drummer’s descent into deafness
SOUND OF METAL depicts the unravelling of one man, as Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer and former addict, slowly loses his hearing. It’s a process that’s rarely shown on screen. But for debut director Darius Marder (a co-writer on The Place Beyond The Pines), it was important for the audience to feel that downward slide first-hand.
“We cut in and out of omniscience to a first-person experience — a point of hearing, rather than a point of view,” Marder explains. The film forces the viewer to hear what Ruben does, muffling noise as soon as the first rupture hits; ingenious use of sound design was a key storytelling tool. “We mic’d the inside of skulls underwater to capture how Ruben would hear himself swallowing or blinking.”
The ingenuity went beyond sound design, though. To play Ruben, Ahmed immersed himself in a realistically deaf world; rather than a total quiet, Marder explains, deafness manifests in low frequencies. “He wore two custom-made earpieces which emitted a white noise, a piercing whine he had to live with. Rather than just putting cotton in his ears, he actually couldn’t hear his own voice.”
The role had other demands. Ahmed also learned the drums from scratch, and transformed himself physically to match. “Drumming is a wonderful thing because there’s no way to cheat it,” Marder says. “And [Riz] was getting into a drummer’s body shape — really cut, really lanky.” Plus, there was the small matter of communicating via American Sign Language — which requires immense patience and emotion. “50 per cent of sign is in your eyes and face,” explains Marder, “which is why hearing people have such a hard time doing it. When Riz realised he wasn’t used to emoting with his face, he started crying. He realised it was such an emotional breakthrough.”
For all the obstacles of a new disability, the biggest challenge for Ruben is making peace with himself — what Marder calls “a silence of the soul”. It’s no easy feat. “If anybody thinks Ruben is good to go, he’s not,” Marder says. “But he’s just reached something profound. It’s the first time where he actually accepts something. Maybe that’s my Buddhist upbringing — the only way toward healing is acceptance.” A specific disability, then, but a universal story.
SOUND OF METAL IS DUE OUT AT A LATER DATE
Clockwise from main: Riz Ahmed learnt to drum for the film; Oh, and sign language as well; Drum roll, please.