Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, about a rock drummer who loses his hearing, has earned deserved praise this awards season for, among other things, the impressive sound techniques it uses to recreate for the audience the experience of being unable to hear. Starring Riz Ahmed as recovering addict Ruben, the Amazon Studios film has impressed viewers in part with scenes that toggle volume and sharpness to make it seem as if it’s the audience who is going deaf.
But this quite original trick required at least two, not just one, below-the-line talent to pull off. Because while the sound itself is critical, editing the order in which scenes with sound and scenes with no sound alternate or follow each other is just as important.
Last week, Below the Line spoke to Sound of Metal’s talented editor, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, from his Copenhagen editing studio, about precisely this technique. Nielsen, whose screen credits include Beasts of No Nation and 2021’s Land, explained in detail the processes editors use to construct a refreshing film such as this one. Read on to see what he had to say.
Below the Line: Mikkel, how did Sound of Metal come to you and at what point did you get involved?
Mikkel E.G. Nielsen: Darius invited me to an interview. He used to be an editor himself so he was particularly focused on this role. Two or three weeks before they finished shooting, I interviewed with him and they offered me the film. I connected with the script quickly, and they showed me some of the dailies at that point, too.
BTL: What ideas did you have about how you would approach editing this film at that point?
Nielsen: Well, it was clear to me that we would need to challenge the material, raise the bar, and see if you can talk to the audience in a different way than we normally communicate to the audience in film. We wanted the viewer in the perspective of someone who is becoming deaf. And for audiences to understand how it is to experience closed captions, by being unable to understand what is happening.
The idea that Darius had was that this should be about the experience of people who normally feel left out because of a hearing problem. Those people would be able to see and understand the entire film (through the use of sign language), just like normally hearing people do for all films, and we, the hearing people, would feel lost at times.
That was very inspiring and interesting and different from my perspective.
BTL: How did you collaborate with the sound crew to put these two pieces of the puzzle together?
Nielsen: We actually invited those sound techniques in the editing process. We had discussed it because we know how the sound can make you feel, like you are inside his head, but it is the editing that get you into his head. We selected the scenes to mold the structure of sending you into and outside of Ruben’s head. The question was “When do we want to see things as Ruben experiences them?” and that is the framework for the editing.
BTL: In what way can editing a film change the audience’s perspective or understanding of the world they are observing?
Nielsen: You can do a lot there. For Sound of Metal, the idea was to not know more than your main character knows, and so you edit the scenes to be cut from that perspective only. We never know more than Ruben, until that slide scene in the middle of movie where he knows and finds out more than we do.
So from an editorial perspective, the quality of the sound does not matter in some ways. The question is—when are we in his head and when are we not? That’s purely a film editing question.
What we wanted was to awaken your senses—to develop a contract between you and I as the audience to awaken our senses by looking at the details but also listening to the details. We show a smoothie but also show a smoothie without the sound. The pharmacist scene towards the beginning when he starts to lose his hearing, is the first one where you go in and out of dialogue. You become disoriented and do not know what is going out. Then you cut out and hear all the words about Ruben that other people are saying to him. And then you go into his head again—it almost becomes like a horror movie for us as an audience to experience what he is experiencing.
That is the contract we have from a story perspective and how we tried to develop that language into the film.
BTL: Was the process trial and error, or does it work immediately?
Nielsen: It does not work immediately—we know that it works, but this is a very different language and we had to try many different ways. In general it works to cut to something where you can’t hear but that is not enough. The question we had to answer was can you be made to feel like you are with your main character and can that carry you all the way through? That language that you create has to take you through the whole film so that when you get the cochlea you feel like you are getting it and you feel like you really want it, so that you can feel how devastating it is when it becomes so digital.
BTL: How did the editing work you do play into that difficult moment when it becomes clear that the implant is not going to make it better?
Nielsen: We had to select scenes very carefully leading up to the moment. We wanted organic things—organic sounds, organic moments, nature and wind. You get up to that scene then and it is so devastating, it is like, “Ugh. That is so unpleasant.” That does not work if you do not create the language through editing moments.
BTL: What was it like to edit the film of a first-time director?
Nielsen: Darius is very creative and inventive, and he had a lot of wishes for what he wanted to see the film do. What is interesting about that is that you really want to walk that extra mile for him—he spent so many years trying to raise this baby. I said, “If we can succeed 60-70% that would be amazing.” The way he worked with everyone, though, from the actors to all the crew, is that he got everyone to invest a little bit more because you saw how much he cared and because you start seeing how it does work and also how it feels raw and real given his documentary background.
He managed to stay away from the clichés that sometime first time directors fall into, and the editing helps out, to get those out of there. We tried to peel the layers to find everything slowly in the story. It helped that he was very open in the process.
BTL: How was your first pass at the film?
Nielsen: I edited it here in Copenhagen, and I had a three hours and forty-minute pass at the material, which I showed to Darius. After that we worked on the structure, then we worked on finding the characters. Every pass is to find new things little by little. What do we want to the people to know about these characters?
BTL: Did you find anything new in making these passes through? About the relationship between Ruben and his girlfriend?
Nielsen: Somewhat late in the process we found that the key to everything was going to be the opening scene. Do we want to see Lou [Ruben’s girlfriend, played by Olivia Cooke] just in bed and he is making a meal for her? It would have made her seem unimportant. We realized it was critical to portray them as equals, and so the opening scene where they are performing as a band is critical to put the audience in the mindset of ‘these are two equals.’ So now you know them instantly when you go into the film. You have two characters that are lovers, they are codependent, and they are band members. How do you tell these things? Starting with the concert, her as the lead, him as the drummer creating the beat, and then waking her up and being tender. Now you now the status of how they work as a couple, and then everything goes very fast because he quickly loses his hearing.
The other thing we discovered was that we could tie the film together very well by starting with him playing music with sound and then ending in the same place but without sound. That came to us very late in the editing process.
BTL: Tell us how you constructed the arc and character of Joe, the leader of the support group Ruben joins [and played by Paul Raci]?
Nielsen: He became, in the edit process, a voice for the audience. He was a bridge between the two worlds. I felt like he gave me the words I wanted to tell the audience. Telling his own story about being deaf, for example. He felt very real, like someone I might have met in my life, and I tried to preserve that — to feel like he was not even acting. And he does not do that much, he talks to Ruben and invites him in, but still he is extremely present.
The other thing I liked about him is that he can lip read but cannot hear, so that makes him interesting to figure out how that works. He is a very direct person, and he tells you what is going on. When you start the film, you do not know it is about addiction, and Joe conveys that. He presents the problem to Ruben and therefore to the audience. He is very tender with him too, so he helps comfort the audience.
BTL: How did you think about constructing the conclusion of the story, especially the relationship between Ruben and Lou? [Note: Spoiler for Sound of Metal in the following response.]
Nielsen: It had to be clear that they were never going to back to where things were before. We wanted it to be very emotional—it’s an arc between the scene where they are in bed together to the concert. Maybe they should not be like it was before — it is sad in some ways but in other ways it is not. They saved each other’s lives. This is a part of life, and it is real. That is how we wanted it to end.
Sound of Metal can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video. You can read more about the sound process for the film here as well as J. Don Birnam’s review. You can get a great idea how the sound and editing works together to display Ruben’s hearing loss in the clip below. All photos courtesy Amazon Prime Video, except where noted.