Nicolas Becker has worked with sound on well-known films like Gravity, Arrival, and 28 Weeks Later. In the film Sound of Metal, the sound editor created the arc of heavy metal drummer Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) sudden hearing loss and his relationship with sound as the loss gets progressively worse throughout the film. This task brought sound front and center to the storytelling, which was a dream for Becker, “It’s the same thing of being a costume designer, and they say, ‘We need you to dress the Queen for the wedding.”
For Sound of Metal, he used his intuition from his more experimental work with installations to create a more immersive experience. By tracking Ruben’s hearing loss through various techniques, Becker and director Darius Marder sought to develop an intimate relationship with Riz Ahmed’s performance and the viewer.
Becker had a prominent role throughout the film, unlike what he had experienced in past projects. “When you’re a sound designer, people usually call you after the editing. In this film, Darius called me one year before we started to shoot. We spent one week together to try to understand how we can create this point of hearing. Then at the end of the week, the DoP came for three days, and we created a library of an abstract point of hearing and point of view. We tried to create a toolbox that Darius would use during the shoot, so I was there. It was a whole team where we tried to create a whole vocabulary that we could all agree on.”
Nicolas Becker spoke to Awards Radar about being involved in an essential part of one of this season’s buzziest films.
NC: I imagine creating the sound for a movie that features hearing loss is a dream.
NB: I had the benefit in that way because it’s a story about a musician that becomes deaf. The sound was essential for the film, so naturally, it focused on the work, which is usually quite obscure. Sometimes people think about sound, and they think of big explosions or a huge fight. It focused on the sound work, which isn’t very performative but much more delicate and more human. It’s a link to the physical aspect of hearing, so I think for me it’s not only a thing where the film is good, but I think it’s a film where people understand sound in a way they hadn’t before.
NC: How did you get involved in such a unique project?
NB: It was through a friend of the director Darius Marder. His name is Thomas Bartlett (a musician and composer). When I was working on sound exhibition and sound installations in New York, I met Thomas, and he told Darius to talk to me because of my experimental approach to sound. The work I’ve done on 127 hours was this idea of “inner sound,” which is significantly linked to how we as humans hear things. As humans, we are the main actor in our lives, and we are directing what we see and hear, so in a way, this film is linked to something very human and real.
NC: Were you immediately thinking where you would go sonically, or did it evolve in different stages?
NB: When you’re a sound designer, people usually call you after the editing, but on this film, Darius called me one year before we started to shoot. We spent one week together to try to understand how we can create this point of hearing. Then at the end of the week, the DoP came for three days and we created an abstract library of an abstract point of hearing and point of view. We tried to create a toolbox that Darius would be able to use during the shoot, so I was there doing the shoot. I did a lot of wild tracks with stethoscopic microphones to recall inner sound from Riz. I spent a lot of time recalling all the natural atmospheric sound around to make it accurate.
Darius is someone who [documented the process]. He sat down with many deaf people who were able to describe what it was to be deaf, and [he sat down with] people who had cochlear implants. We used the interviews to recreate two parts of the film — the first part is how the world changed for Ruben when he lost his hearing and how it feels to receive sounds from vibration and tissue. It was a very muffled sound very similar to being underwater because you hear with your bone and tissue when you’re underwater. The second part of the film was when he was using his cochlear implant. We had interviews of people describing how it felt to hear through a cochlear implant. Everybody has a more or less different experience because it’s subjective.
NC: You mention the cochlear implant. The sound, as a viewer, was very jarring and disorienting. Can you go more into how you created that sound?
NB: I didn’t want to create something that sounded synthetic, like a robot voice or something like that, because it’s not from that world. I didn’t want to work with distortion because it was from the analog world. We knew we had to find something that came from the digital world. I made a test with software that created something in the digital world that didn’t try to mimic the analog sound. They have their own way of transcribing sound — it’s more harmonics, transient noises. The way they’re able to codify a sound is different. This technology is new, so it’s not perfect.
NC: I loved how in the first twenty minutes, the movie very intentionally pulled the viewer towards the sounds of Ruben’s day. The sounds of Ruben making the coffee and moving around in his mobile home. It’s all those mundane sounds that you ultimately don’t think about missing.
NB: The first part of that was to be able to prepare the film with the DoP, with the composer, with the producer, to try to do something a bit different. We knew what was going to be important was controlling the arc of Ruben’s perception with sound. We had to collaborate very closely with the picture editor. We worked to understand how we can do something between the sound and the picture that would make sense. Normally, the picture editor is editing, and then after, you have to deal with it. We knew it wouldn’t be possible to work classically. We had to give sound perspective and picture perspective a nice balance.
NC: You mention the perception of sound, which goes hand in hand with Riz’s performance. How did you collaborate with him to bring that out?
NB: When we had the conversation one year before the shoot, we said it would be interesting to mimic Riz’s loss of hearing. During the shoot Phillip [Bladh], the production sound mixer created a device for Riz that would simulate the loss of hearing, like an earplug. Darius was controlling the earplug so that it would have an impact on the physical part. In the sequence at the pharmacy, you can feel that he’s really disoriented. It’s not about being an actor; it’s about being a human. The body doesn’t lie, you can see the way he’s looking and moving, and it’s amazing. It created a kind of body memory, and it had a huge impact on the way he was acting.
NC: All of that really played into the emotional experience. What’s the most important part of creating mood with sound?
NB: There is something specific with my work. I’ve never worked with sound libraries, so I start from scratch when I start a film. All the sound I’m using in a film has been recorded by myself [over time]. So the sound is attached to a moment of my life, to a place in my life.
NC: What was the most gratifying part of working on this film?
NB: For the first time in my life, I felt that the producer and director permitted me to do everything I had in mind. I tried to create a complete immersive process, and because of that, I went to special locations to work to create the right mood. The first part of the film is about Rock n Roll, and we edited it in a rock studio. I had a friend (Mario Caldato Jr), a former producer for the Beastie Boys, and we spent the first month immersed in this rock musician mood.
In the second part of the film, when Ruben’s going to the deaf community, it’s super silent, so I said to Darius, I had a friend who has this amazing place close to Mexico in the mountains. It’s super silent. I thought it would be so nice. He said, “Of course. It makes sense.” That, for me, was amazing. I do believe you need to have that gesture. The process needs to be linked to the topic and its meaning; otherwise, it makes no sense. Independent film is very appropriate to have that experience. I’d love to be able to be free and try to experiment and really go deep into each film.
Sound of Metal is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]