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In ‘Sound of Metal,’ a groundbreaking portrait of deafness

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

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, 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,” now playing in limited release before it 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 actor Riz 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.”

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 endeavor.”

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.

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 deaf 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 realize it is a culture and a way of being, Ahmed said.

Representation of disability in film is a complex topic and actors with disabilities continue to lobby for authentic portrayals. And just as Marder knew that he needed a hearing actor to embody Ruben’s journey, he also knew he wanted actors from deaf culture to populate the rehab facility, including the very significant part of Joe, the Vietnam veteran who runs the center.

Marder was encouraged to consider A-list actors, all of whom were hearing, for the meaty part, but he didn’t relent.

“That was something I fought very hard for,” Marder said. “And it was a much harder fight than it should have been.”

He ended up finding actor Paul Raci, a Vietnam veteran himself and a child of deaf adults. The film is also open captioned in English to make it more accessible for all audiences, except in scenes with ASL.

“We have to experience what Ruben experiences,” Marder said. “He has to contend with being a minority and not being comfortable in a culture that isn’t his. And so do we as an audience.”

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 realizing the things you think define us are not all we are.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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