Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal went into 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival without a distributor. Now, a year-and-a-half on, it’s a six-time Oscar nominee and perhaps the most hard-fought of all of this year’s crop of Best Picture candidates. Joe Utichi meets Marder and stars Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci to take stock of a film that transformed its key players in ways they hadn’t expected.
They say Oscar loves a narrative, and they don’t come much more inspiring than Sound of Metal’s. Even before he got his debut feature to set, Darius Marder spent more than a decade honing his tale about a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict who loses his hearing, butting up against the many hard realities of filmmaking that told him a movie like this could not work. As he did it, he learned more and more about deaf culture, and heard moving stories about people pursuing recovery in dedicated deaf sober houses. In Riz Ahmed, he found an actor willing to immerse so fully into his lead role that he would learn to play the drums and become fluent in American Sign Language. And in Paul Raci, he found a man whose own life story reflected almost directly on the character he and his brother Abraham had written into this script.
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And so, as he kept facing reasons why it shouldn’t work, it became increasingly clear to him that it had to work. With the help of producers who saw the fire burning in Marder’s belly—Sacha Ben Harroche and Bert Hamelinck of Caviar, who had made a name producing ‘shouldn’t work’ films like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider—he got the film to set and presided over a production that would have a profound effect on everyone taking part.
That might have been the end of the story. Even with the film in the can, it went into its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 without a distributor. But the spirit and impact of Sound of Metal’s tale led to a bidding war that resulted in Amazon Studios taking US distribution rights. After the ‘odyssey’—Marder’s word—that got the film there, even the global pandemic that subsequently disrupted the film’s release plans might have felt like a trifling concern. After all, it hasn’t stopped the power of Sound of Metal working on audiences and awards voters the world over.
Now, as Marder and his cast and crew make plans for an Oscar night that will reunite them for the first time since TIFF in 2019, he sits down for a moment of reflection with Ahmed and Raci, and a deep dive into the transformative experience of making Sound of Metal.
DEADLINE: This film premiered in a whole other reality, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019. It has been on quite the journey since, but how long did it take even to get it to that point?
DARIUS MARDER: It was a real odyssey trying to get this made [laughs]. It’s been a lot of years, but I think if I went back six or seven years, to the point where I was actually taking a script and thinking about getting it financed and made, what I had to realize the hard way is that the Hollywood model is that some producers back-pocket projects. And as a director, you don’t really know that’s happening, or I didn’t realize it was happening because I hadn’t been through it before.
What I didn’t fully grasp before I began is how impossible it is to make a first movie. Not a lot of people realize that it’s easier to finance a $100 million blockbuster, because with a film like this, there are three actors in the world who can finance your movie. So, before you’ve even started, you’ve narrowed the conversation down to something that isn’t a very creative conversation. You hav e producers that are used to saying, “That’s an interesting project, I’ll put it in my back pocket,” and if you happen to get one of those three actors, they’re all in. In the meantime, though, they’ll just let the director fly all over the world meeting actors and pay for their meals and hope he lands something.
RIZ AHMED: Hey, that’s bullshit. I offered to pay for the meal.
MARDER: Wait, you’re getting ahead. Because by the time I got to you, I actually had producers that would help me out by paying for the meals. That’s true.
AHMED: By the time you got to me you were broke and I had to pay for the meal.
MARDER: I also talked to the restaurant ahead of time about getting you the limited menu.
AHMED: The kid’s menu. It was just chicken nuggets and broccoli.
MARDER: It was a move I honed over the years [laughs].
But there was a meal. This one meal where I had been trying to get this actor in the room, and we had a shoot date coming up. He wanted me to get a reservation at a restaurant that was impossible to get a reservation at. I couldn’t get a reservation—nobody could—so I drove over there and decided I’d meet him outside the restaurant and then take him to some shithole. I’d trap him, basically. So, I’m driving over there and my agent calls and says, “Are you all good for tonight?” I said, “Well, yeah, but I couldn’t get a reservation.” He’s like, “Hang on a sec.” And he gets me a reservation, because somehow, apparently, CAA can make anything happen.
So, I get this actor in the restaurant, but I hadn’t really thought it through because it turns out it’s really expensive. I’m looking at the wine list—he’s like, “What kind of bottle would you like?”—and the cheapest bottle is $400. I didn’t even know if I could cover it on my credit card. The meal ends up being close to $900, and I barely made it out of there; my credit card happened to go through.
But that was right when Burt and Sacha from Caviar came on board, and they wound up paying for that meal. It was when I knew I had the right producers, when they stepped up and said, “Hey, give us the receipt.” It was the first time, after years of trying to make this movie, that anybody helped me. No one had ever, ever stepped up and said, “You’re not alone in this.”
It was years just to get there, and years more of many false starts. I had to fire three different financiers because they just weren’t true to their word, and actually I had to do it 12 days before shooting. The whole thing, it’s a long, long story, but the thing I’ve come away with most is how it’s really all about the people you’re working with. You can’t think you’re going to get away with working with assholes. It doesn’t really work. And luckily I didn’t have any on this project, at the end of the day, because by process of elimination, they’d been weeded out.
DEADLINE: It’s all I can do not to ask you who that actor was.
MARDER: And it’s all I can do not to tell you [laughs].
DEADLINE: You ended up with Riz, who must have been a cheap date.
MARDER: Oh, Riz was costly in every way.
AHMED: I was more emotionally costly. I just looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t drink wine, and I don’t care about expensive restaurants. But I’m going to make you pay for this.” And he said, “No, I’m insane, and that’s the kind of thing I’m up for.” So, we found each other.
We tortured each other through this in the most joyous way. And we hit it off straight away, to be honest. I think we recognized that we both had this appetite to jump in at the deep end. We nicknamed each other ‘gobblers’ because we want to throw life in our mouths and taste and experience everything.
What Darius was offering was a unique experience. You have to learn to play the drums in seven months, you have to learn American Sign Language, you have to do something that’s emotionally going to ask you to dig deeper than anything you’ve done before. It was like, “Where do I sign?” That’s what I was looking for. I was looking for that intensity. I thrive on that intensity, but it’s not often that you work with people who allow you to bring all of yourself to something. That invitation was incredibly appealing to me.
DEADLINE: It’s funny how much this industry relies on something it can green light based on precedent. ‘It must be like this film that’s come before so we know how to market it.’ ‘It must star this actor because they open in Europe or China.’ None of the most beloved films in cinema history feel like carbon copies of movies that came before.
MARDER: It’s funny because I always try to tell people that. People would try to qualify, “Oh, but this is your first film…” I was like, “Yeah, first films are always the best! Are you kidding me? Don’t wait for my second film, it’s going to suck.” Like, why is that a reason not to invest?
But yeah, that’s the way Hollywood works, it’s a business in America, which means it’s predicated on security. There is no good work in a land of security, period, end of sentence. We all know that. You guys know that as actors. I mean, if you live in a place of security and not impulse as an actor, nothing good is going to come of that. It’s the same in all aspects of art, but it’s a particular paradox of this business.
DEADLINE: After all that struggle, I wonder if being on set with this cast and this crew felt like fate?
MARDER: Oh, I agree. Strangely, the process was right. As much as it was wrong, it did lead me in a very difficult, but important way to the absolute purest version of the movie. And I couldn’t have gotten there any other way, so it is important. And I think it’s really helpful to say that to other people trying to make films: trust the process. That’s the only thing you can do. It’s just so infuriating. It’s crazy-making when you’re in it. But it’s important.
DEADLINE: One of those aspects that feel like fate is the casting of Paul Raci as Joe. You’d essentially written a character that was Paul. He grew up as a Child of Deaf Adults, knew the world intimately, and had struggled with addiction. Paul, for you, what was the experience of seeing this all written down by a guy you didn’t know yet?
PAUL RACI: It just seemed so sincere, so authentic, and of course so real. When I read it originally, Joe was an Iraq war veteran. My experience was Vietnam, so that changed. But everything else, from all the experiences through the deaf sober house, which I have been so immersed in for most of my life as a sign language interpreter, through to the ending as it was written, which was just how we filmed it, it was moving. Deaf people have never seen themselves portrayed as deaf addicts, but actually, there’s a deaf sober house here in Los Angeles called Awakenings, and it’s deaf-owned and deaf-run. There were just so many things about the script that seemed so true to me.
That included Joe’s spiritual philosophy about the Kingdom of God. That’s another shift that I had made in my own life from being a Roman Catholic altar boy in Chicago and realizing all these years later, that is exactly what my philosophy was. That it comes from the within to the without. Not from the without to the within. That’s what struck me most of all.
And then of course the ending, it made me think about my father. He’s no longer here, but I thought he was probably stand and cheer at the ending, because that was his philosophy: don’t try to fix me.
MARDER: I imagined Paul, that’s how it felt. It wasn’t quite Paul, because you don’t really work like that, but as soon as I saw him, it was like seeing the thing that was there all along. There’s only one Paul Raci in the world, and Joe was so specific. That relationship Paul’s talking about, to the Kingdom of God being inside, when I saw the tape of Paul, you could feel that relationship, and that’s no small thing.
I think it was to do, Paul, with the way you’ve lived your life. You know the difference; that maybe because you’ve been an addict and you fought in the war, and because of your experience growing up inside deaf culture, you’ve just lived a very full life, and not an easy life. I think you know what it is to have that understanding of trusting what’s within. I saw it in your eyes on that tape. In a way, it wasn’t even about any of the other coincidences as much as it was about that really deep, deep truth that you understood. It shows itself in the film in that final scene between you and Riz. You really couldn’t fake that moment.
RACI: Oh, that’s true. Thank you for that, but it was true, right? No acting allowed here.
MARDER: It’s funny we call it acting, because I think it’s access, right?
RACI: Yeah, I like what you said once: access to the garden that I’ve lived in. I’m so blessed that the garden I’m able to pull from, the actor’s garden, is as rich as it is. I’m so grateful for the life that I’ve had so far.
MARDER: What’s interesting is some people have a vast garden, but they’re unwilling to pull from it. They’re unwilling even to look at it. They won’t even stand in it. And that’s the difference. It’s the ability to be vulnerable, to pull from those places you’ve been in your life that have hurt you the most. And you do, Paul, you have a direct channel to that, which I don’t even know if you fully grasp because you’re in it. That’s who you are. But both of you guys have it: this direct channel to a well of riches, and it’s a dream, as a director, to work with people like that.
DEADLINE: Riz, you talked earlier about this project asking you to dig deeper. Did you feel the same intensity of connection as Paul did, even if your character Ruben is further removed from your own life experience?
AHMED: For sure. I once heard someone say that, in any relationship you can either have intimacy or you can have control; you can’t have both. And I think it’s true. You can either have vulnerability or control, you can’t have both.
I think I’d started to work in more controlled environments at the point at which I met Darius. I was doing bigger productions, which taught me a lot in their own way. I genuinely mean that. The longer period you have to shoot, and the stamina you have to sustain, the technicality of the action, all of those different kinds of things really grew me as an actor.
But what I was really seeking was a total loss of control. You were talking there, Paul, about the Kingdom of God, and that spiritual journey within my own spiritual tradition of Islam and Sufism, there’s this idea of Fana and transcendence. You see the whirling dervishes that a lot of people can relate to. They’re off-balance, off-kilter. That’s when you can be seized by something bigger than, and other than yourself. I was seeking that.
That’s why I knew, going in, that part of this process would be designed to break me down, really. To have my ass kicked every day. By the drums, feeling like I’m at the bottom of the mountain trying to learn to play. By the American Sign Language, feeling every day like I can’t fully articulate myself. By the end, you can look back and be like, “Wow, OK, I’ve come this distance. We got to where we needed to go.” But it really was a process, every day, of feeling like, I’m not in control and I don’t know what I’m doing. And that’s actually what this character feels.
For me, the film coincided with a profound shift, and it catalyzed a profound shift in terms of how I see storytelling, and what it’s really about. It was a spiritual endeavor, to connect to something bigger than myself and to let go of control. It was about submitting. And Darius really created a process that enabled and encouraged that, which is so rare and it just takes such balls. It takes balls to go, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but this is how we’re going to try and get there. We’re going to make everything as difficult as possible in some ways so that everybody brings their A-game, but we’re going to make it as supportive as possible because the only failure now is not going all the way. So, let’s all join hands and jump.”
Something magical happened when we did that. I said to Darius, “Man, when we wrap this film, if no one sees this, I don’t care, because this already changed everything for me, and for all of us.”
MARDER: And then you said, “But seriously, when can I see a rough cut?”
AHMED: Yeah [laughs]. “When we get back to LA, I want my $900 meal.”
DEADLINE: To those points, it feels to me like it requires of a writer/director to leave their ego at the door when you gather on set. Darius, you’d spent such a long time working on this screenplay in isolation, and just getting the project into production. You’d be forgiven, I think, for getting to set and wanting to dictate the next steps of the journey, but to hear these guys describe it, you were much more interested in having your cast and the rest of your crew riff on the tune that you’d provided them.
MARDER: That’s exactly right. But the word ‘ego’ is an interesting one because it’s a fascinating push/pull impulse. Trust isn’t allowance, necessarily. It’s about knowing when to put the boundaries up. It’s about knowing when to pull back. And it’s just a very interesting dance that I think, in the absence of any ego, would be a disaster. Everybody does need to know you’re not a pushover, and that you know what you’re doing. There are times—and there were many times on this set—where I couldn’t allow certain things to happen, and where I had to act in a way that looked like I was shutting things down, and having that be OK is certainly a part of finding trust. Because you can’t trust something that isn’t solid enough or rigid enough. So, it is a really interesting dance.
But I think ultimately it was about just what you’re saying. That ultimately it was about trying to get the deepest parts of people to show up, rather than having me control everything because I never wanted it to be confined to me. I always talked to everybody about serving the god that was the movie—not the actors, not me, not the producers, not anybody else—but the movie. My job was making sure everything was in service of the movie, not of myself.
AHMED: There are ways in which you can lead that are generous, and ways you can lead that are not generous. And I think one of the most generous ways you can lead is to lead by example.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this vulnerable on screen before. It wasn’t something that was contrived or planned, but it was because I saw Darius making himself vulnerable, with everything he was putting on the line to make this movie, and the way in which he was making this movie. So, when you lead by example with that, everybody is prepared to put themselves in a vulnerable position to make this. That tone is set from the top and it trickles down.
MARDER: Yeah, that’s true, it was infectious in that way. I think there is a method to the madness, and it has to be a group activity. It can’t be one person over there in the corner being vulnerable.
DEADLINE: Was part of your vulnerability, Darius, about the world you were exploring here? We talk a lot about the importance of representation, and I think it can be very easy to criticize people who aren’t themselves part of a particular culture for trying to represent it, even if they’re well-meaning. But there’s power behind representation that makes a marginalized community feel seen in the way Sound of Metal does.
MARDER: Yes, and my feeling about it was always to be curious. That’s where I lived. I want to be curious and I want to listen. My edict with what I was trying to do with this movie was to set up the parameters within which the deaf community could represent itself, and we could learn and be a part of that representation. That’s what the whole thing was about.
Because of the construct of it—because it was made by a hearing person—I had to be curious, and that creates a wonderful dynamic, I think. What we all want to be with each other is curious and open, to allow us to see what is there. The deaf community was really generous with us—and Paul, you’re part of that community, and you were generous—because I think they saw that we were all listening and watching and we actually wanted to.
I’ve experienced this over and over, making documentary films. It’s like that science experiment where the molecules change when you look at them; people know when you’re really watching, and really listening, and you really care. That’s the situation I was trying to create. We didn’t succeed in every moment, but we also learn from those moments in which we don’t succeed, or where we don’t do everything perfectly. And we just try to do better next time. I think it’s certainly something I’d like to continue doing in filmmaking… to not be afraid to wander into parts of the world that are not my own, because what else are we here to do?
RACI: That learning curve Darius had, he had been working at it for 10, 11, 12 years. And what was cool about it—and I said to him at the beginning—is that deaf people have a saying: “Nothing about us without us.” So, the set was full of deaf people and Darius’s learning curve never stopped. During the process, you learn, “Oh, we didn’t cover this base or that base,” and Darius was always open to adapting. And I think the deaf people on our set took notice of that, and they knew this was going to be authentic.
There was a point, after the film was shot, when Darius and I had a conversation on the phone. I don’t know if you remember this, Darius. I said, “You know what? If you really want to do something cool, you might want to think about open captioning this movie.” And there was a long pause. Darius said, “Oh, yeah.” Then he tells me his grandmother went deaf, and she was a cinephile, and she’d lost access to all of her movies from the 30s and 40s and… Well, it made perfect sense. I could hear Darius, from miles away, and his wheels were still spinning, and he was still learning. And so, then he ends up open captioning the movie, which is the only right thing to do.
DEADLINE: You can’t imagine this movie not being open captioned.
RACI: Well, except Hollywood would say, “What the hell are you doing?”
MARDER: Yeah, what’s really interesting is how fraught that conversation was. Because it’s like you’re saying Paul, of course it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not even just the right thing to do. It would be egregious not to do it. And interestingly, I was talking to a deaf actor who had been in a big movie with a bunch of deaf people in it, and they invited them to a screening of the movie, and that screening wasn’t even open captioned.
RACI: You see, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s just crazy.
MARDER: But that’s how far away we are from a that level of thinking and interest.
So, to go back to your question, absolutely, when you put yourself in a world that isn’t your own, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and that is what I did. In order to do that, you are going to make mistakes, but I think the point isn’t to obstinately believe you’re getting it right, but to be willing to make those mistakes and then learn from them. So, the moment I realized the movie had to be open captioned, when you get to that point and you don’t go there, then shame on you. Once you know it…
RACI: You can’t go back.
MARDER: Yeah, so you have a ton of conversations with people saying, “Don’t do it, you’ll have no movie, it’ll flop, it’ll fall, no one will buy it.” That’s what I heard, almost always. My producers supported it, but everyone else said, “Don’t do that.” That’s how hard it is.
I’m curious to see if other movies do it now. Because I think it’s interesting that we say, “This movie features a deaf person, it should be open captioned.” As if deaf people don’t watch every movie. That’s 50, 60 million deaf people that are routinely not invited to movies. I mean, it’s something we should all be thinking about.
Even the panels we’ve done during this season… some of them haven’t been captioned, and we’ve found out after the fact and we have to go back and make sure they get captioned. It’s a learning curve and we’re right at the edge of it. We’re barely touching this issue of accessibility and it’s so easy to miss.
But I think it’s just so important that we don’t shame each other. We encourage each other to try, and we’ll fuck it up, and then we’ll need to try harder next time.
Even in this process, I’ve learned the difference between a good interpreter and a bad interpreter. Best laid plans, you think, “Oh, I’m being a good director by hiring interpreters.” Well, it’s just not enough to hire interpreters. You have to hire good interpreters and be aware enough to know the difference. A bad interpreter is an incredible insult to a deaf person. It’s almost worse than having no interpreter at all.
DEADLINE: When it’s done right, it’s profoundly meaningful. Because you realize that representation isn’t just about giving voice to the voiceless—and that would be enough—but it’s about discovering what unites us in spite of our differences.
AHMED: That’s the thing about storytelling where it becomes a spiritual act, because it’s an empathy engine, right? It’s teleportation. Every movie is essentially a body swap movie, where you’re stepping into someone else’s skin and bones and soul, and then living their experience.That’s why there’s something spiritual to this technology, you know? And I guess it was something I always knew, but it was something that was really reaffirmed and crystalized for me on this project. As an actor, every time you look at a role, you think, “How the hell am I going to play this guy? How am I going to get into the skin of this person who’s totally different from me?” And I think on some level, that’s how an audience feels every time they meet a new character. Who is this person that is different from me? You start, as you do in life, with the illusion of difference. The illusion of separateness. And where you end up at the end of the journey is the realization of oneness.
That’s how this started for me. “How the hell am I going to play Ruben? I can’t do this.” And then, by the end of it, I’m like, “This is actually me. I’m not acting on screen anymore. I’m working through my own shit.”
And that’s the profound truth of all spiritual traditions. If you want proof of that profound truth, watch a movie. What we’re putting forth into the world is proof of the universal spirit.
I mean, I’m going to sound like I’ve signed up to a cult now. But that is the reality of it. And so, to ground it in something that feels less abstract in this moment in time, when we all feel so isolated from each other, it’s really important to remember that there’s a common well of humanity that connects us all.
MARDER: We really experienced that with you in this role, Riz. It was very, very real in that microcosm. I like the way you described it, “How am I going to access this, that is so many worlds apart from me?” Only to find out that it’s almost on a molecular level, just utterly you. When do you ever enter into that if you just walk past Ruben on the street? You would just see someone completely different. And I think, isn’t that what we do all the time? It’s like with road rage: “That car over there is an asshole, and I’m not.” But the guy in that car is thinking the exact same thing about us.
AHMED: It almost seems like such an obvious thing, but that is the thing. The only reason acting is even possible is because inside each of us is all of us. That’s what it is.
MARDER: Well, I would say one thing about you Riz, from my experience of actors and of acting myself, is that I think it’s a rare breed of actor that can pull from an almost infinite realm of experience in the way you can. I don’t think everybody has that. Even some wonderful actors don’t necessarily have that, rather, they have limited lanes where they can be wonderful within. But I do think you’re one of those rare actors that can really find core resonance in things that seem incredibly far from your own experience. And it just has something to do with your artistry, and that garden we were talking about that you can pull from. I don’t even know how to explain it, but I know it’s true.
DEADLINE: Paul, the way Riz talks about feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of the role and needing to yield control, it strikes me that it’s really echoed in Ruben, who is completely overwhelmed by feeling like he’s lost control of his hearing and he tries to regain control through the film. Ultimately, Joe tells him, “Deafness isn’t something to fix.” How much did life imitate art in the relationship you had on set?
RACI: We shot the film chronologically, and that helped the whole process, for me at least, but I think for all of us. When I got there, Darius and Riz had already been working for a couple of weeks, I guess. There was no, “Hey, how are you doing? I’m this guy, you’re that guy.” I just met Riz and a few minutes later we’re walking to shoot our first scene together, so we don’t know each other. And the way that first scene unfolds is perfect, because Joe was doing an intake on Ruben, so they didn’t know each other.
So, we’re walking over to do this scene, and then Darius and Riz start attacking each other, physically. They were wrestling around right next to me. I’m the new guy on the block and I’m thinking, what the fuck? They’re wrestling like two MMA guys.
We start there, with me wondering what the hell is going on, and as we shot the scenes, Ruben and Joe were getting to know each other, and Riz and Paul were getting to know each other. It was a beautiful unfolding, all the way to that final scene where we’re saying goodbye to one another, as actors and as characters. I don’t think it could have been more perfect as a way of shooting this movie.
AHMED: Likewise. Joe’s like a father figure of this community in the film, and a bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds. And I think Paul served that role on set. He was the father figure to that family of deaf actors, and to me, in that house somewhere in rural Massachusetts. It’s like you say, life does imitate art and lines blur in that way.
So, there was a sense of effortlessness to that dynamic. Having said that, seeing Paul’s work, and the truth and heart that he injects into it, the soul that he puts into it, it just pulls that out of you, too. It was a gift, on so many levels, working with Paul, not just as an actor, but with the vibe he brings to the set. You can see his vibe in this conversation, and that was very much Joe’s vibe in the story. It all fits together like a jigsaw.
MARDER: It was about that unfolding. But what I also fixated on, when you weren’t a part of it Paul, was creating a dynamic where you could just meet each other. You both had very different processes leading you to that day on set. Yours, Riz, obviously started with many, many months of learning to play the drums, learning American Sign Language, and getting your body into the shape that led you to drive that Airstream literally up to Joe’s doorstep. That was your journey, which took a lot of focus. And then Paul, you had yours and we worked together and spent time together, and you’d lived an entire life leading you to this place. But the really interesting thing was getting the two to collide in a way that was simple and without pretense. We didn’t rehearse, and what we were really looking for was that little electric spark of a moment of these worlds colliding, and then what would happen. That’s a very simple concept, yet on a film set, it’s incredibly hard to achieve.
So, that particular day, me and Riz wrestling in the yard was part of getting it right. There are times when you need to show everyone that it isn’t just business as usual. And that’s what that day called for. It was about the collision of these two men, and what came out crystalized really quickly and organically between the two of them.
By the time we hit that last scene, there was a life lived between them. They’d started with this collision, but by virtue of starting with the collision, it was a relationship that meant so much more to them. And then all of a sudden, they’re having that last moment together. It had stakes, it had teeth. So, that was the methodology of the whole shoot, and when you have artists like these guys, that can really bear fruit. It’s a high-wire act, but it’s very exciting to witness.
RACI: Imagine going into that first scene with no rehearsal. In my head, I’m thinking, OK, this feels uncomfortable. But what a brilliant thing to force me into, because we’re getting all those real reactions. I’m so grateful that was the way it was done, because then we were allowed to improv within there with just little bits here and there. It was just perfect.
DEADLINE: Darius, did that approach come from the documentary background you spoke of earlier? If you’re in an environment where you’re capturing life rather than constructing it, do you have more affinity with the truth that can emerge from preventing too much artifice?
MARDER: I think it actually went more to my acting background. I mean, my background is more in fiction than it is in documentary. But there was something really fascinating I learned in documentary filmmaking, which is that it’s really the same construct. You often see documentarians entering a real-life situation and go, “OK, we’re just going get the sound guy over here, and could we get a bit of light on that back wall? And guys, if you could just enter from over there and then do what you’d normally do…” I’ve edited a lot of docs, and I can tell you, that’s what I see more often than not. When I was shooting docs, it was all about, “OK, how can you possibly bring the false construct of a camera to a situation without killing the life?”
The idea of a fly on the wall is preposterous. And in documentary, I really learned that, and I practiced the art of how to bring a false construct to something while still actually experiencing life. And narrative filmmaking is no different. Fiction is the same thing. How do you do this without killing it? So much of filmmaking is about killing the life and taking the scraps.
DEADLINE: Is that part of what makes it interesting for all of you; pushing past the false construct and finding truth? We’ve all seen theatre that leans heavily on abstract constructions. Riz, you’ve shot big movies against green screens. Can it be interesting to play within those limitations?
AHMED: Yeah, I guess that can be part of it. I mean, it’s certainly a challenge, especially on those big films. I actually heard Ethan Hawke say once, in an interview, that it’s harder to be good when you’re working within those conditions, and so I think that can be its own skill, fighting for your creative space within that. So, look, that’s one way of looking at it. There are more obstacles to truth, perhaps. However, with a project like this, and a filmmaker like Darius, I think what was demanded of all of us was a level of truth and depth of engagement that perhaps none of us had plumbed before.
And also, I think frankly there can be other obstacles as well, like not having four months to shoot, and having four weeks instead. Glass is half-full and it’s half-empty. I think it’s personally not so much about the project as it’s about where you’re at in your life and what you’ll bring to it. What kind of perspective can you bring to your work?
You mentioned theatre, right? I think the British approach to acting—the way it’s taught—is often steeped in theatre and about the technical mastery of repetition, and analysis of the text. And that’s great. Those muscles are important to have and to train. But I think actually there’s something beyond that, which is the leap of faith, and the loss of control that this film demanded of us. That was scary, and it was new for me.
I started working with acting coaches for the first time, to push and pull me in a new direction. I tried to find a new process. You were talking before, Darius, about pulling from the garden. Actually, for most of my career, I have not allowed myself to draw from my own life experience at all. I somehow thought that was cheating, or that it wasn’t right. It was based on the idea, I think, of not believing that inside each of us is all of us. That actually, I’m the wrong shape, size, and color to be universally relatable. I thought I didn’t have the right senses to smell those flowers, so I was going to go and just cultivate other gardens out there. But this came along at a moment in my life where I was thinking, “Fuck that, I want to see what’s in my own fucking garden, and do some digging there.”
MARDER: I saw that too, and it was incredible to watch in you. Almost magical.
But it’s an interesting question because my experience in theatre—and Paul, maybe you can talk to this because you’ve had vast experience in theatre—was that it was always about impulse. That what you were always looking to do was to listen and react. And that incredible routine of theatre, where you do one show night after night, was fascinating to me, because it was never the same from one night to the next. Every night there was something organic happening if you were listening and responding. The art of acting is listening and reacting, not actually acting. And you can do that on a green screen if you’re opposite another actor, and it’s just a bit harder because it’s artificial. But the idea of creating reality from nothing is almost anathema to the art itself. It gets into this hyper echo chamber, which doesn’t tend to be transcendent. So, it isn’t that there aren’t many ways to do it. But I think, at the end of the day, that there is one final thing we’re after really, and that’s impulse.
AHMED: The preparation you do so that you can then let go of it all when you’re in the moment, they’re two sides of the same coin. When you’re a boxer, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on the punchbags, but once you’re in the ring, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you’ve got muscle memory and you’ve built those pathways. You’ve been to the gym; and so you have the stamina.
So, you need the scaffolding of the technical training and the preparation and the research. You absorb that all through osmosis so that when you finally get there, you can just surrender to that flow state. Flow isn’t the way you do something, or something you become a part of, it’s something you surrender to. You can only jump in the river, though, if you’ve learned how to swim.
RACI: That’s almost a spiritual tenet. You have to go to the gym; you have to learn how to swim. The craft of acting is learning the lines and everything, however, if you jump into the river and you drown, whose fault is that? It’s not the river’s fault.
You’ve got to learn your craft before you jump in that river. And I don’t think you can teach it because you’re trying to articulate it over and over again. You’ve got to learn your craft; you’ve got to do it every day. Find a partner. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to write every day. If you’re an actor, you’ve got to act every day. So that when you finally jump into that river—when the director says, “We’re not going to rehearse this,”—you’re just going to go at it. You’re so ready that you can go at it. Because you’ve done your work already, and now’s the time to let it go and be real.
DEADLINE: All the effort that went into this film was rewarded the morning you each received Oscar nominations for the movie. After this long, winding road, how did that feel?
RACI: Oh, for me, you keep wanting to say, “This is too good to be true.” But I think this is something everybody should take to heart, which is that nothing is ever too good to be true. I know it’s been years and I’ve been working, doing all these things, but I can’t think of a more perfect scenario for myself. If it had to happen this way to be rewarded with all this lavish praise—which, for me, is truly, truly lavish—then I just couldn’t be more grateful for it. I’ve got a grateful heart and I’m excited as hell for the future. It’s a beautiful thing for me.
AHMED: Yeah, it’s crazy, and yet, in a weird way, I knew that this was a special film. I knew that we were doing something special. You never know how it’ll land or how it might connect, or what the landscape of the world will be to receive it. But I knew it was a special film.
It started from that place of, “I don’t care if nobody sees this,” which is a selfish perspective in terms of the experience we gained from doing this, and how it transformed us personally and allowed us to grow creatively. But what’s exciting to me now is that more and more people might see this film now it’s had a Best Picture nomination, and what it might mean for them. For a long time, the idea of whether anybody would see it wasn’t a given.
MARDER: That’s true. That’s the greatest gift of it for me. It is a dream state right now that we’re all inhabiting because we’re still in this COVID land where we’re not really connecting in the normal ways. But the piece of it that feels really present is my connection to you guys and the other people that worked on this movie.
We shared the Oscar announcement on Zoom. We just decided that if it was going to be a disappointing day, we’d be in it together. And if it was something else, and maybe one person would get nominated, then we’d celebrate together. And it just turned out to be so ridiculous because we could all celebrate with one another. We could all share in it.
After going through this process that I’ve been through on this movie, and feeling it, living it, and dealing with all the hurt it put me through along the way, these guys are the people that put their faith in me—real faith—and put their everything into this movie without any proof of concept. To see these guys recognized, it just fills my heart. They really walked the walk, and that was amazing to me.