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How ‘Sound of Metal’ taught us how to live during lockdown

Riz Ahmed sits in silent surrender in "Sound of Metal."
(Amazon Studios)

“Sound of Metal” tells a story quite specific in its details. Punk-metal drummer Ruben, a recovering addict, suffers a sudden, severe hearing loss. He checks into a remote community for recovering deaf addicts and grapples, yes, with the idea of silence, but more than that — stillness. “That’s the kingdom of God,” the commune’s leader tells Ruben. “And that place will never abandon you.”

That act of surrendering control and dealing with the angels and demons inside of us has been the world’s collective journey for this last, pandemic year. Riz Ahmed, who plays Ruben, says making “Sound of Metal” provided a road map to navigate lockdown. Darius Marder, director and cowriter of the movie with his brother Abraham, believes the similarities between the movie’s themes and the COVID-19 world come across like an “inside joke.”

“We’re acting out the film in real time,” Ahmed says.

What does that look like? And what can we learn from watching “Sound of Metal” (available on Amazon Prime) and understanding the creative process behind it? Here are five lessons to take away.

Embrace the impostor syndrome as a gateway to connection. After spending seven months in an intense training regimen that had him practicing the drums, learning American Sign Language and working with a personal trainer, Ahmed found himself spiraling as the first day of shooting approached. He was consumed with paranoia, fear, mistrust (“I don’t know this guy [Marder] for s—") and self-loathing. “That was every day ... about lunchtime,” Ahmed says, laughing. He agreed to play Ruben because he wanted to turn his back on the world for a year and make a movie that would overwhelm and obsess him. Now he just felt beaten, his confidence shattered.

In other words, he felt like every other creative person on the brink of trying something new. He felt like an impostor.

“Which I think is actually very healthy,” Ahmed says. “When that impostor syndrome comes knocking, it’s an invitation to reconnect to the true nature of the creative process, which is, ‘Yeah, you might f— it up, you have limits, you are flawed. But it’s not about you. Give yourself to this other thing. Believe in this other thing. Give yourself up. Become part of a bigger, more beautiful thing.’ Respond to the impostor syndrome that way, and it can actually be helpful.”

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Meditation is hard. Do it anyway. When it comes to preparation, London-born Ahmed takes the classic British theater approach of analyzing and working with the text. He needs to do that to feel safe. Research is huge too. What he’d never done, until “Sound of Metal,” was meditate. But because he was freaking out, he thought he’d give it a try.

“And immediately I thought, ‘Well, that didn’t help. That’s the worst thing you could f—ing do,’” says Ahmed, a self-described “gobbler” of life who initially found the practice of quieting his mind and emptying himself to be a futile pursuit.

But he kept trying, ritualistically meditating before every scene and, in his perfectionist mind, failing every time — until that last shot in the movie, when you see Ahmed sitting on a park bench in Antwerp (Belgium subbing for Paris) and Marder rolling the camera for 10 minutes (he shot on 35 millimeter) to capture the final part of Ruben’s journey.

“That’s me meditating on camera that one time, and maybe you just kind of glimpse something,” Ahmed says. “It’s always that way with almost every shoot. You spend the whole time trying to do this thing, and it’s the last shot of the last day and you glimpse it. Meditation was the whip throughout the shoot. And at the end, yeah, for one, small moment, it came through.”

Darius Marder and Riz Ahmed, collaborators on "Sound of Metal."
“Sound of Metal” cowriter-director Darius Marder and Riz Ahmed, photographed at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, where the film premiered.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Give up on the gobbling. Ruben didn’t have any choice. Nor have we this past year. And in a lot of ways, it’s been brutal. Ahmed and Marder text each other practically every day, hoping to somehow turn lockdown into a competitive sport to make everything OK again. (“Competitive meditation!” Marder jokes.) It hasn’t worked. Like Ruben, both men have been forced to reckon with their consumption of life, a process that Ahmed had already started when, researching Ruben, he went to addiction circles and therapy groups.

“That was confronting. I’d go, oh s—, this isn’t me on safari! I’m an animal in this cage,” Ahmed says, noting that workaholism fuels his addiction engine. (Even during a pandemic year, he managed to shoot a new movie, the sci-fi thriller “Invasion,” release a critically acclaimed hip-hop concept album and an accompanying short film, and wed novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza.)

“But in truth, I think we’re all gobblers in the way our society is set up, in the way we’re taught to think about things, in the way we’re encouraged to live,” Ahmed continues. “We’re taught that we aren’t enough. That we don’t have enough, we don’t do enough. All those ideas of productivity and thinking of yourself as a cog in capitalism. We’re all reassessing that right now in the purgatory of lockdown. For me, it’s been nice to know that I’m not experiencing this alone. We’re all in it. There’s something comforting about that.”

Riz Ahmed stars in "Sound of Metal"
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Repeat: We are not experiencing this alone. Take comfort in that. Community and connection have been harder to come by — and more necessary than ever. Ruben is isolated in “Sound of Metal” but finds hope and possibility when he opens himself up to others at the commune. “On a fundamental level, we walk this earth alone,” Marder says, “and we’re not aware of each other’s pain, and we’re very aware that people aren’t aware of our pain. But it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what I was trying to say — dogmatically — with this movie. We don’t have to be alone.”

Leave home to return home. Ever since Ahmed heard Philip Seymour Hoffman talk about making a list of the differences between himself and the character he’s playing, Ahmed has been doing the same. “I ain’t that, I ain’t that, I ain’t that.” That’s scary, but it leads you on a process of discovery.

“When you learn things that take you away from yourself and your comfort zone — and I mean truly learn them — what it does is bring you home, back to yourself,” Ahmed says. “As an actor, you start off at this place of separation, and by the end, it’s crazy, but you want to grab someone and tell them, ‘This is me!’

“And you don’t need to be an actor to go on that journey. People and interests find you in life so you can work through certain issues. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. You just need to discover what that reason is. Ruben’s journey in ‘Sound of Metal’ became my journey too. And it absolutely changed my life.”


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