'Sound Of Metal' Director Darius Marder Shot On 35mm Because It's "My Goddamn Movie" [Interview]

Sound of Metal is a movie pulsating with life. It's such a gut-churning drama, the kind you feel instinctually in every passing moment. It's a pure debut film from director Darius Marder. Prior to his Toronto Film Festival hit (now available on Amazon Prime), Marder co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines, made his directorial debut with Loot (2008), and edited a variety of documentaries.

Marder's experience in documentaries shows in Sound of Metal, which is about a two-person punk band drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing. It's also a story about addiction, community, love and time, and the search for stillness. Sound of Metal is an emotionally stirring debut that Marder recently told us about crafting.

Congratulations on your movie. It made me feel a lot.

I think it's literally the best thing anyone could say is, "It made me feel a lot." I think it's the greatest compliment. Thank you so much. It's very, very kind.

It's great. I know this started for you when you were working on a hybrid doc about a band, a man and a woman. Which band was it? How'd that research and experience influence you?

It was Jucifer and it was just a great creative experience I had way back with Derek Cianfrance, even before we wrote Place Beyond the Pines. He's such an awesome filmmaker and a great guy. I was so excited by the things that excite me, which is kind of a raw unbridled lightning strike in front of a camera. I really am so grateful to Derek for starting the seed of what this became. I was cutting the doc and working on it with him, and then I saw it on a writing level. It was so awesome because I got to start, literally start writing with footage and like you say, research.

I didn't even know it at the time that it was going to turn into a script, but it became clear to me at one moment. As a matter of fact, even before we were thinking about Place Beyond the Pines a lot, I was like, we got to do this. This is going to be amazing, and it just needs to be written. I built it from the ground up over many, many years and at an embarrassingly long period of time.

When was the big eureka moment where the story and everything came together?

That happened. I think one of the hardest things is for a long time, I was cross-cutting and telling both stories, Lou (Olivia Cooke) and Ruben. We were really interested in Lou's journey, it was hard to let go of, but that the real eureka moment was the commitment to that first-person perspective. It is a grueling language in a good way, but it requires refinement. I think that our minds go, can we just cutaway? Can we just go with that thing over there?

It's part of the immersive aspect of this that challenges us in a very distinct way in this movie, which is that we can't leave, we are with him and not only are with him, but we're with him in the years. We're very much in this highly sensory, highly visceral landscape of being with Rubin. It's a special language. That was really the eureka moment, that was the real big turning point with the script.

Obviously, you do with sound, but what were some of the subtle ways you wanted to express Ruben's point-of-view?

I call it a point of hearing, and I distinctly do that because that's what it is. Of course, it's non-view, but that's because not just to be semantical and obnoxious and pretentious. It is, actually, because I needed to think of it that way, and because I was actually being very distinct in the choice to not show his point-of-view. It's a first-person perspective but not until the last scene do you see a point-of-view, literal point-of-view. And that's very much on purpose, the movie is pro-dogmatic. At the beginning of the movie, he'll look out the window but you don't see what he's looking at, but you do hear what he's hearing. So, the actual perspective of hearing starts from the first frame of the movie up until the last, but I really wanted to create that arc.

In the beginning, what kind of conversations did you have with your sound team?

First of all, [sound editor] Nicolas [Becker] is just such a wonderful man to be around he and I, we'd shift to such a deep existential, philosophical, artful dive into this starting years before we shot it. And really, storyboarding with sound. We were thinking about the memory of sound. Just think about that, the memory of sound. How is it that we can remember a sound? But we can, I can feel a song in my head. How? How is that, what is that? So we thought so much about all of these things and we really played with it in the movie. I was pounding on this idea of hearing perspective, because as obvious as it seems now, communicating that vision is quite difficult.

And that took just a lot of talking and not just around the nitty-gritty of sound design, which there was a lot of, and it involved all these experiments, underwater condenser mics, and multi-directional mics and all these different mics. It was an exploration of the way we hear sound itself. If it works, it brings our attention to sound, to sound in a way that maybe we didn't have attention to before. They're very purposefully, almost creating hyper-realistic sounds.

Something else unconventional about the movie is you got to shoot on 35mm.

Well, you don't get to.

How did you make that happen?

Because it's my goddamn movie, that's why.

[Laughs] I like that answer.

Because I fought for this movie and no one was going to tell me no. I basically hijacked the whole goddamn set, and that's the deal because no one lets you do anything in this business and it's made up of absolutely cowardly people. And if you don't know what you want and aren't willing to fight with it, you're not going to get it. That's all there is to it.

Now shooting on film, I love it. People have very, very compartmentalize ways of thinking. Like, "film is more expensive in the end," you know? Well, it's not true at all. Shooting digital is expensive. When you're shooting digital, you can just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. What does that mean? Overtime. There's nothing more expensive on a film set than overtime. When you shoot on film, you have to know the law, you have to know what you're going for and you have to be willing to swing for it and not think you can just shoot forever and that's the ethical gift unto itself. I think if you're looking to find your film on the site, don't shoot on film.

There's another interesting aspect, too. Something that I really protected and really believe in is fuck video village. I really involve all people around me, and everyone will tell you that. I love to hear the perspectives of people I'm working with, and they make me better. However, the idea that everybody is huddled around watching the video, watching the film while you're making it, and then going back and watching the playback, I eliminated all of that shooting on film. I didn't have to play that. I didn't even really watch the performances at all. I don't want it to be a self-conscious process and everyone starts analyzing, not happening.

And the movie is very immediate as a result. There's such a tangible intimacy between Lou and Ruben. How else did you achieve that effect with the actors? 

What I'm interested in is building a foundation that's so sturdy, such a sturdy foundation that you can really play and make mistakes on it. I think about it like raising children. We raise children in such a way that we want them to be able to make mistakes and learn and grow from them. And if we don't do that, they're literally dealt a blow. They need to know that there's a safe place to be that.

How do you establish that foundation? I think that starts with the writing, making sure that you're coming with a script that actually works and has integrity. And then, that foundation that the actors build, and really encouraging them to build that foundation. So it's so sturdy, it's such a place that they know and inhabit, that they can really then let go of it and start trusting their instincts and lose control. I mean, it is by me trusting in my process. Sometimes that process seems irrationally brave, which is like the way we shot everything, the way we shot the concert as a real concert. You're not able to cheat it. You're not able to fix it in post. I literally shot it so you couldn't.

And the reason for that is so that it would raise the bar. It would raise the energy. Dare everyone to step up. But no one had more at stake than me, so I had to walk that walk as well, and I did, and I really enjoyed it as a matter of fact, because it was just alive. It was an alive process and a live feeling. And that was all throughout this whole movie, just daring that world in front of you to be volatile and real and unexpected, knowing you had this strong foundation.

[Spoiler Warning]I was so moved by that final scene. That's just what a lot of us are chasing, that sense of stillness. Personally, what does that ending mean for you? How do you relate to Ruben's final moment?

It's deeply personal to me. I think it comes from so many places within me. I grew up in a spiritual community, and I was raised Buddhist eventually, but I grew up in this community that was based around silent weekends of work. I didn't realize it until later in my writing, but I spent every weekend as a child in silence, with all the grownups doing this work.

I've dealt with times of real darkness in my life, and I think what's amazing about darkness and these monsters that live inside of us, is that in a life of movement and constant placating and distraction and all these many things that we fill our lives with, we can keep those monsters at bay, but they're still there. The only way we know that we have dealt with them is when we sit. I think remarkably, that's what this time right now is doing with all of us, and for all of us. It's really asking us, how are you with your monsters? And can you sit, can you be in stillness? And I'm challenged right now. It's challenging.

It's deeply personal to me, and I think really what I'm after mostly in this movie, is the viewer having a parallel experience, literally the experience of having to sit and be in that space, along with Ruben.