What should deafness sound like on film? For his debut feature Sound of Metal, filmmaker Darius Marder wanted to create a sound experience that audiences had never heard before.

The idea was to simulate the journey of his lead character, Ruben played by actor Riz Ahmed, a punk metal drummer with sudden severe hearing loss and eventually deafness. It wouldn’t be silence, but something more complex and nuanced. And it would take years of prep, experimental methods on set and 23 weeks of sound work to accomplish.

Sound of Metal, which debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Dec 4, not only delivers on that lofty goal but also features one of the best performances of the year from Ahmed who was tasked with the challenge of bringing Ruben to life.

Marder, who co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines, had spent years trying to “scare the crap out of” actors with the prospect of playing Ruben. It was important, too, that the actor be hearing since, he said Ruben starts out that way. Then he met Ahmed, the 37-year-old British actor of Pakistani decent known for the HBO miniseries The Night Of, for which he got an Emmy nomination, and films like Nightcrawler, Rogue One and Venom — and he knew he found the right actor for what he was asking.

“He is a great talent and a great intellect, but I didn’t know what was behind that,” Marder said. “What I found was someone who was appropriately frightened, which is always a good sign, but also just intoxicatingly interested in being frightened and taking on that challenge.”

Learning the drums and sign language

Ahmed would have to really play the drums, learn American Sign Language (ASL) and essentially push himself to the limits playing this ex-heroin addict who with his hearing loss fears that he may lose everything: his livelihood, his girlfriend and bandmate (Olivia Cooke), and his identity.

“We wanted to do something that was all in,” Ahmed said. “We just wanted to really connect to how overwhelming and invigorating and terrifying it can be to kind of throw yourself into the deep end of a creative endeavour.”

To make matters even more complicated, Marder decided to shoot on 35mm film, which meant that takes would be limited. But even that was exciting for Ahmed.

“I liked the idea of spending seven months learning the drums and sign language and then doing a four week shoot where you only get two takes of anything because we’re shooting on film,” Ahmed said.

This image released by Amazon Studios shows Riz Ahmed in a scene from Sound of Metal. — via AP
This image released by Amazon Studios shows Riz Ahmed in a scene from Sound of Metal. — via AP

On set, Ahmed wore custom implants in his ears that emitted white noise and a high ringing to approximate tinnitus. He couldn’t even hear his own voice. On those days communicated with Marder on little bits of paper. In the final mix, a lot of the sounds you hear in the movie are, as Marder puts it, “the inside of Riz”. They recorded in his mouth, his throat and even his eyelids.

For his part, Ahmed spent time with members of the hearing impaired community in New York and got quite close with his sign instructor, who helped him navigate the new culture. He explained that as a late-deafened person, Ruben goes through stages where he thinks of his hearing loss as “a loss, a lack, a disability”. Later, during his stay in a sober, deaf community, he starts to realise it is a culture and a way of being, Ahmed said.

Ahmed found it to be a transformative experience.

“I really hope that when people watch the film, it kind of stays with them and maybe changes them a little bit as well,” he said. “It’s a film about reevaluating who you think you really are and realising the things you think define us are not all we are.”