The cruellest of ironies lays at the centre of the acclaimed new drama Sound of Metal: A professional drummer, played by a transfixing Riz Ahmed, loses his hearing, robbing him not only of the basic sense he has long taken for granted but also his livelihood. Forced to abandon his cross-country tour with girlfriend and metal bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ahmed’s Ruben desperately seeks implants while taking residence in a rural community that caters to deaf recovering addicts and treats hearing loss as something to embraced, not cured.
And while Hollywood has a long history of portraying the hardships of physical disabilities onscreen, Sound of Metal could prove revolutionary in both its messaging and execution.
“From what I’m hearing from deaf audiences, someone described it as a ‘game-changer’ and ‘giant leap forward,’” Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Venom), who learned both drumming and American Sign Language and is drawing early Oscar buzz for the role, said with a smile during a recent remote interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “Because so often we have this ableist perspective of treating things like deafness as a disability rather than a culture. And that’s the big takeaway for me was that deafness isn’t for many people a disability, it’s a world. It’s a way of being.”
For hearing audiences, director Darius Marder — who co-wrote the script with Abraham Marder from a story by Derek Cianfrance — a utilized groundbreaking sound design that immerses viewers in the experience of Ruben’s hearing loss. We hear what he does and doesn’t as his hearing gradually fades. Onset, that meant the sound team going to extra lengths to record Ahmed doing things like breathing, swallowing, blinking or lipping his lips.
“The entire audio landscape of the film is almost entirely constructed from my body processes and the sound of being within my body,” the actor explains. “That kind of mirrors something quite authentic because when people often lose their external hearing, what they maintain is their kind of vibrational hearing. And so they hear more of their internal bodily processes and the kind of resonance that comes through their body rather than through their ears.”
The film is fully closed-captioned for deaf or hard of hearing audiences, while sections of the film in American Sign Language are not subtitled to cater specifically to those viewers. Much of the supporting cast, meanwhile, consists of deaf actors. “We’re not representing the deaf community, they’re representing themselves in this film,” Ahmed says.
Marder and Ahmed also took a two-tier approach to what the actor would hear while performing on set. “Ruben has a range of different attitudes towards deafness over the course of the story,” Ahmed says. “Early on, he sees deafness, as many hearing people do, as a loss of something, a lack of something. And for those sections of the film, we used auditory blockers. We took hearing aids and put them in a white noise setting and then placed them really deep into my ear canal and left them there for the day. So you can’t hear other people, but you also can’t hear the sound of your own voice, which is very disorienting. And I thought that that respected how derailing that experience is for people, for many people in real life, just to kind of gain a glimpse into how disorienting that is.
“But in other parts of the film Ruben starts to realize that deafness isn’t a loss of something, it’s an invitation to connect more to others than you might not have otherwise, and an invitation to connect more to himself, to face himself. And in those sections of the film, when he realizes that deafness isn’t a disability but a culture, and he’s living that interpretation of deafness, we didn’t use any auditory blockers. And to be honest, it wouldn’t have made a difference because, at that point, I was conversing with the deaf actors on set both on and off camera in American Sign Language. So it kind of became a moot point. It was kind of an emotionally led approach to hearing loss.”
Ahmed says his mind was blown by the finished product and how the sound was used in the film. “And I’d even been there to see [how they made it]. I had a bit of a clue they were trying something kind of crazy and innovative and unique,” recounts the actor, who recommends to hearing viewers watching alone that they use headphones for maximum effect.
The actor has also been touched by the “overwhelmingly positive” response to the film from the deaf and hard of hearing community since the film first premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
“It’s been really moving,” he says. “I saw some messages from people just saying that it felt like it was really telling their story. They really felt seen. To be honest I think that’s the best you can ever hope for, for a story that you tell, that it connects to people that are often overlooked. That it contributes a new point of view to our kind of collective culture.”